My Mountain of Gold

OK. Not so much a mountain. And certainly not gold. I hope the scale works in this picture. The pile is as tall as me.

Sawdust

We order a load for our place and a load for the horses every year. This entire load will be spread this winter in the greenhouse under the pigs, rabbits and chickens. We also take any wood chips we can get from the power company and local tree services. And I am overdue to rent a chipper for some brush I have piled up. It all comes in handy, soaking up odors, making animals comfortable and increasing pasture fertility. That represents the entirety of our annual fertilizer bill.

Three cheers for Sawdust!

New Cast of Characters

I built a large compost pile in the garden with two truckloads of horse manure and most of the garden waste from tomatoes and peppers.  I needed a little help getting it composted well so I enlisted the help of my sister’s turkeys.  This is just a 2-day assignment before they ship off to the freezer.

But mere turkeys are no match for a manure pile of such magnitude.  It was time to bring out the big guns.  I needed a pigerator.  I brought another chicken tractor home from the pasture, made it reasonably pig-proof and bought some new shoats!  WOOHOO!

I love pigs.  Little pigs.  Cute little oinkers that can’t knock you over and eat your arm.  Little pigs are just the best.  My sister is visiting and pushed me into it because she wanted to cuddle a spotted pig.  We got a spotted pig.

And just in time too because we have some milk that soured when we went to Florida, we’re still trying to put up apples, pears and jalapenos and we generate more kitchen waste than our poor worms can handle.

I may have to go back to Mike’s and get 7 more.

My last few batches of pigs have come from our friend Mike.  I posted about him some time ago.  He was vaccinating newborn pigs yesterday when we visited and we got to hold a tiny, tiny pig.

Thanks Mike for farrowing on pasture and raising such high-quality stock.

There’s Only One Way Outta Here

Under normal conditions you could exit my house by driving West or by driving East.  Starting Friday you could only go East.  Though it hasn’t made the international news, somebody turned over an anhydrous ammonia tank on the road to Rockbridge and dad described it as the scene from E.T.  Plastic, flashing lights, evacuations, teams of “scientists” in suits.

OK.  Well.

Let’s lay a foundation here.  First I want to say that I don’t believe anyone was injured as a direct result of this accident.  From what I have put together, the driver of the truck lost the tank somehow (hitch came loose?) and it started chasing him down a hill.  He tried to stop but ended up in the ditch next to a pond with the anhydrous tank crashing through the back window of his truck.  He escaped before ammonia flooded the cab of the vehicle.  Had he been in there…

Now, I’m not a big fan of anhydrous ammonia.  We (as a planet) use 1% of the power we generate manufacturing it.  Depending on who you read it kills a lot of earthworms when used in a field.  It falls deeply under the umbrella of chemical agriculture.  It is used to store cheap nitrogen in the soil to boost corn yields the following summer.  It is dang-near ubiquitous in modern agriculture.  We have bulldozed out the fence rows (where rabbits and quail lived) in favor of flat, tiled fields farmed all the way to the ditch.  We have to farm every square inch and need every advantage we can get.  Farming is a business after all.  It’s a business, requires efficiency and 100% resource utilization.  Tomorrow we’ll invent solutions to the problems we are creating today.  Today we need anhydrous.

So.  We have a compound of Nitrogen and Hydrogen.  A naturally occurring compound in unnatural concentration.  This compound is being sprayed on all the fields in the midwest where corn will be planted next Spring but you spill 1000 pounds on the side of the road and the hazmat team has to show up and deal with it?  Where is the hazmat team when it is being injected into the field outside of my home?  I mean, even if it got dumped into the pond at the bottom of the hill you’re going to end up with ammonium hydroxide…a household cleaner.  Is this a big deal?  YES?!?  Is it a big deal because of the scale or should I not have ammonium hydroxide in my home?  We can at least be consistent!

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am no fan of chemical fertilizers of any flavor but I am also not a fan of state and federal bureaucracies infesting neighboring hillsides.  Why are they here?  Get the neighbors evacuated and let things run their course.  I mean, it’s not like the hazmat team is going to clean up the lawyers too!  If anhydrous ammonia is a problem why do we spray tons and tons of it on the soil surrounding my farm?…on the soil that washes into my pond?!?!

So anyway, there’s one way outta here.  Practice crop rotation, diversify our farms again and fertilize with composted animal manure or (gasp!) composted human manure.  But what do I know?  I don’t have a job with the department of ag, I don’t clean up spills, I’m not a firefighter, I don’t work for the EPA, I’m not a legislator, lobbyist or lawyer.  I’m just a computer geek with a biology degree pretending to be a farmer…certainly not an expert.  I do know my road has never been blocked for a week because horse manure got spilled on it.

A Beautiful March Day in October

It’s March.  Well, it’s not but it feels like March…but different.  The weather is right.  We got an inch of rain last night.  The wind is blowing endlessly and I’m in the garden.  March.  But instead of planting potatoes, I’m harvesting the remaining tomatoes and peppers.  I’m cutting up the plants to allow them to compost in a windrow in the garden under (you guessed it!) horse manure.  I’ll haul the horse manure once the row is out.

We’re getting an incredible harvest of green tomatoes but the summer garden is at an end.

The fall garden is getting a good head of steam.  Carrots are doing well.

Spinach is finally starting to come out.  I have the hardest time with spinach.  No idea why.

Radishes are coming out.

Lots of things happening in the garden.  Out of the garden too.  Our last chicken butcher date is this weekend.  I think we’re all ready for it.  Place your order soon.

 

Vermicomposting

My third child is a bit outgoing.  He didn’t really talk until he was 5.  Now it’s the opposite…lol.  He tells everyone he meets that he has worms.

That’s a bit awkward.

I made stacking boxes to keep worms in similar to my stacking supers on my beehives.  Here’s how.  Start with a 1×12.  You will need to cut two lengths off of the board: 24 inches and 16.5 inches.  Really, you should cut one 24.5″ and the other 17″, then trim them down and square them up.

Then rip the two boards to 5.5″ wide.  Now you have two pairs of boards.

Screw the longer boards to the shorter boards.  The result will be a box measuring 24×18.  That’s big enough to hold some compost and generate a little heat but small enough that you can pick it up and carry it around.

Then tack on some 1/4″ hardware cloth.  This lets the worms through but keeps the compost from falling out when you carry it.

Here are three boxes.  I have a plywood board at the bottom and a burlap sack over the top.  The burlap shades it and holds in moisture.  Just use what you have laying around.

Pull back the bedding, add in some kitchen scraps…whatever.

We use rabbit manure.  You don’t need to compost this, they are like slow-release fertilizer pellets but the worms seem to like it and it’s what I have.

To keep the worms from being burned I drilled a couple of holes in the bottom of a bucket, filled the bucket with rabbit manure then poured a bucket of water into it.  That should start the heating process pretty quickly.  Once it cools I add it to a new tray or fill in spaces in older trays.

The worms crawl up the stack, eating as they go, leaving their castings behind.  We try to fill a box each month and harvest a box each month but it varies…like all biological things.

We ordered our worms from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.  5000 of them.  They seem to do what they are supposed to do.

Too Much Vacation

I’m on vacation right now.  I’m not in Florida with my toes in the sand.  I’m neck-deep in work.  No time to read.  No time to write.  I just work.  It’s awesome.

I spent the last 3 days running my sawmill.  We cut and stacked 2,000 board feet of oak and walnut for a customer.

 

This morning I built fence, milked, fed, mucked, cleaned the kitchen, gardened and trimmed goat hooves.  It’s now 10:30.

Here’s a summary of other stuff happening around the place.  Our rabbits are multiplying.

The catfish are…well, catfishing it up.  The bell siphons were a bit tricky at first.  More on that some other time.

And I hauled another load of horse manure to the garden.  My garden is on a slight North-facing slope.  I may have to bury the Georgia wall to get it levelish.

Well, that’s all I can do for now.  We’re out of feed for the broilers and a bit low on groceries.  Gotta do something about that.  Come see us.  Stuff is changing.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Manure Pile

Look at it.  Just sitting there.  All that fertility.

My neighbor cleaned his feed lot and put together a big-ole manure pile.  The stuff that dreams are made of.  I’m sure he’ll spread it on his fields this fall without really letting it compost but that’s just how most people do it.

My other neighbor, my dad, keeps horses.  There is a fair manure pile at the barn made from the manure of one of the horses.  I …erm…liberated…some portion of that manure for my garden and hope that dad doesn’t mind.  I mean, it’s his manure.  He needs it for his hay fields and his own garden.  Maybe if I put in some extra effort to keep all three horses bedded and keep the manure composting he won’t mind…

I have a few cows.  We rotationally graze them so there is no cow manure pile.  I have a lot of chickens…same thing.  No manure except in the old hen house.  Pigs?  No manure pile.  I keep rabbits and the breeders stay put.  Well, that’s what I’ve got.  Rabbit manure.  Well, rabbit manure and what I clean out of the hen house each spring and fall.  Well, that and what I clean out of the greenhouses in the spring.  But I need compost now.  Like…NOW!  Ugh.  What to do?

I guess I could head to St. Louis Composting to just buy compost.  For $25 I can buy a pickup truck load but why would I do that when I could spend a month shoveling, raking, sifting and hauling to end up with a lesser quality (though herbicide-free) compost for free?

And even if I had my neighbor’s manure piles and even if I had the energy to turn them all by hand or a heaven-sent front-end loader to turn the piles for me would it be enough?  How much finished compost could I haul home at $25/yard?  When would that be enough?  If I had 50 yards of compost sitting in a pile on the farm ready to be used would I still look over the fence wishing that manure pile was my own?  Is there such a thing as enough?  Am I a compost miser?  Do I hoard manure?  Are my eyes bigger than my stomach?

How much is enough?  I don’t know.  I just know I need more and I need it right now.  And again in the spring.  And again in the summer.  And again next fall.  Does anybody else have these problems?

Fast Compost

In a recent post on compost I mentioned a fast compost method of turning the compost every day for two weeks.  I put it to the test.  I brought home a truckload of horse manure, built two bins and filled one bin.  I wanted to give it plenty of air so I also mixed in two well-rotted bales of straw that sat in my garden all summer.  As I built the pile I sprayed it down with the hose.  This pile measures 4x4x4 and is made of an old roll of fence a friend gave us and some boards my father in law gave us.

For two weeks I turned this compost pile.  Sometimes before work, sometimes after work.  But almost every day it got turned.  There were a few days when hot steam was rising out of the compost pile as I turned it at 5:30 in the morning.  A light breeze carried the steam right in my face.  I guess it could have been worse but it wasn’t great.

Two weeks.

Two long weeks.

Two long, miserable, tiring weeks.

Ugh.

Each day the compost pile heated up.  Each day I turned it.  The pile stayed pretty hot the whole time.

We’re at the end of two weeks.  Now I’m sifting the compost out, mixing it with a few other ingredients and starting a new pile.  The finished compost is being mined out of the right.  Anything that is not finished (doesn’t pass through the screen) gets placed on the new pile on the left.  The pile on the left is mostly another truckload of horse manure I hauled from the barn on Sunday.  I would guess about 60% of the bulk doesn’t fit through the screen and needs to compost further.  This could have been improved if I hadn’t put the straw bales in or if I had chopped the material to start with.

 

 

I mix the compost in the wheelbarrow with a bit of crushed char from the fire pit and either a coco coir brick or well-rotted sawdust.  This gives me a good bedding medium but it still needs to cure before planting.  It’s just too hot.  Please ignore the grass growing in my greenhouse.

 

So I guess that’s that.  Fast compost.  I’m not sure I’ll do that again.  I’m a little sore.  I think it’s far better to just plan ahead.  Or buy a tractor with a loader on it.

 

Composting 101: How to do it

I was in Worm’s Way last spring and overheard a customer asking about making compost.  I thought the employee was skirting the issue and since I can’t keep my mouth shut I offered a summary: “If it stinks, add carbon.  If it isn’t hot add nitrogen.”  That may be an oversimplification so I’ll try to lay it out in more detail.

We have composted for years.  Initially I took it very seriously.  I sunk posts and made a perfectly square pair of 3x3x3 bins for composting.  I turned my piles regularly and religiously.

Now I am much more relaxed about it.  Stuff rots.  It just happens.  I don’t even have to be involved, let alone break my back stirring it, unless I need to speed things along.  That said, I think there is a happy medium between rapid, intensive compost management and slow, smelly, neglected piles.

Just a few things to keep in mind as you conceptualize your compost pile.

1. You can’t screw this up.
2. The hot, working compost pile is a living organism, or rather, a community of trillions of individuals but should bee seen as one.
3. Living things don’t smell rotten.  Compost should not smell rotten.  Add carbon.
4. The compost monster likes to be moist, not wet.  Add carbon.
5. The compost monster shouldn’t be compressed.  It needs to be able to breathe.  Add carbon.
6. If your pile is moist and has plenty of air space but is not hot, add some nitrogen.
7. This is not a science…or a competition.

Most people tell you about ratios required for making compost.  “You need C/N ratio of 30:1.”  Really?  What does that mean?  Usually I just have a bucket of carrot peelings and newspaper.  Ratios?  I have to do math?  …AND CHEMISTRY!  Really?!?!  As Tyler Durden said, “…stop being perfect…let the chips fall where they may”.  He’s right.  Again, if your compost pile is wet or stinky, add some carbon (straw, sawdust, shredded newspaper, fallen tree leaves).  The added brown material will also help the pile breathe.  If it’s not hot and cooking, add nitrogen (grass clippings, fresh horse manure, urine).  I also find it is helpful to keep a thick layer of straw, grass or other course brown material on top of the pile to retain moisture and filter odors.  Whatever you do, stop worrying about your compost.  There is room for error here.  Stop making excuses and just get started.

Where to start?  Make a pile.  Any pile.  Put four pallets together in a square or get a length of fence and put it in a ring.  Done.  That said, I can’t seem to make a compost pile large enough.  As I said above, I began above with 3x3x3.  That is almost enough mass to keep it hot and working in the winter in zone 5 and is a good size for someone with a small yard in town.  I, however, no longer live in town so I made a 4x4x4.  That wasn’t big enough so I had to double it.  Here is our two-year old pile, composted, compressed, and ready to use:

Last year we increased our pile to 5x5x4 when we began composting humanure and about 1,000 pounds of chicken guts hoping it would be big enough.

It wasn’t.

Now I’m using pallets to make a 6x6x4 compost pile that could easily become 9x6x4 or even 12x6x4.  I just have to add more pallets.

But I’m on a different timeline than many gardeners.  I make so much compost and have so much space that I don’t mind if it takes 2 years to make compost.  But you may need the fertility immediatly.  If so, there are options.

One option is a composter.  Though not my style, I like the look of the Lifetime 80-gallon composter.

Click the image for more detail including a video.  That composter appears to be a way to compost without ticking off your suburban neighbors.  It also creates the compost fairly quickly.  John Kohler suggests you keep two of these, one you add to regularly, one that is finishing up.  Please notice how hard John has to work in his video.

If you’re doing a larger amount and your back is strong you can make two piles and just switch between them every day for two weeks to end with finished compost.  That sounds good…until about day 4.

What about compost activator?  What about wood ashes?  What about lime?  Meh.  John Kohler above says to add rock powder.  Again, meh.  If you need lime in your garden add it directly to your garden.  Same with ashes and rock powder.  I think compost activator is something they sell to suckers.  The organisms that break down scraps already live in your yard.  They’ll start working quickly.  That said, I usually add a bit of finished compost to a new compost pile.

Now, if you don’t want to bother with a compost pile I have good news.  You can just do sheet mulching.  Just make several layers of compostable materials over your garden bed and bury your compost in the mulch.  The worms are already there, the nutrients will be used in place.  You can’t screw this up.  Though I don’t entirely agree with this, here’s what Bill Mollison has to say about it in Introduction to Permaculture:

So what have you done by composting? You have worked hard to decrease the nutrients badly. Most of them go into the air. Composting consumes them. We want to get right out of composting. We want to get back into sheet mulching. In composting, you are taking a lot of material, putting it into a small place, and letting the whole of the decomposition activity happen under hot conditions which can be appropriate for some things. When you mulch, you are spreading those materials and letting the process occur much more slowly on the surface of the soil. Any leach loss goes into the soil, and the general level of activity spreads across the whole of it. By the time the mulch has reduced to compost, most of the action has finished. If you want to get maximum value out of what you have, sheet mulch it. If you want to increase your nutrient base, do it efficiently.

In this picture, I have a 4″ layer of manure and hay covered by a 4-6″ layer of composted wood chips.  This is covered by a thin layer of bedding out of the chicken house (manure and sawdust).

This is my attempt at a Back to Eden garden.  I’ll leave these layers as they are until spring when I’ll plant directly into them.  As Bill suggests above, I could scratch a hole deep into the layers and deposit compost here.  We produce an enormous volume of compost, much of which is meat scrap.  I have enough trouble with animals digging in my garden already.  We work to efficiently compost meat scrap and manures in a heap though, yes, I have to haul it there then haul it out.  I honestly don’t know how to measure the nutrient loss Bill describes.  I assume my compost pile is not 100% efficient but that’s part of the reason I’m always building it in different places.  But, hey, wear what you dig.

Any way you do it, it’s well within your ability to compost.  Build a pile, use a turning machine or bury it in the garden.  Your choice.  Just do your best to minimize the waste coming out of your house.  Do your best to maximize the nutrients returning to your garden.

For additional reading I highly recommend the Humanure Handbook.  Even if you are not interested in humanure, the book is an excellent reference on composting.

For your final exam, choose a method of composting to begin using then report in the comments on its progress and your experience.

Composting 100: Why bother?

Why bother composting?  I can’t believe you asked that question!

To abuse Renault’s line, “I’m shocked.  Shocked! to find that composting is not going on here!”

I have to admit composting is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  Don’t get me wrong, everything rots in time but if you want quality compost, in a reasonable amount of time without creating a buffet for varments and without an odor, you have to work at it.  It’s not simply a matter of throwing banana peels and grass clippings in a pile by the garden and 2 weeks later…voila…compost.

Further, you have to gather the stuff in your kitchen and/or yard.  That can be unpleasant.  That what’s-it that went bad in the jar in the fridge?  You know, that stuff that has grown hair since you forgot about it at least a month ago?  That’s compost.  That sour milk?  Compost.  Paper plates from the birthday party?  Compost.  But instead of dropping all those things in the trash, tying the top of the bag and setting it out for the trash man, taking precautions to keep masked bandits out of it you are going to drop all those things in a bucket, put a lid on and dump it in your compost pile, taking precautions to keep masked bandits out of it.

What happens when you do this?  You remove 40-50% of the waste, possibly more if you normally set out yard waste.  You’re putting out half the trash you normally do (less if you recycle diligently).  Your trash doesn’t stink or attract animals.  The trash company either stops by less frequently or hauls less weight.  Either way, you are cutting fuel usage.  All that stuff you keep gives you nicer flowers, healthier grass and happier worms.  This is the heart of stewardship.  Not sorting compost is the same as putting a $5 bill in every bag of trash.  Compost has value.  If you send it to the landfill you have wasted a valuable resource…not to mention the money we, as a nation, literally flush down the toilet.

As a real world example, our family now produces two large trash bags each month.  We produce about one bag worth of recycling.  We produce at least three bags worth of compost and we burn a fair portion of our paper goods and use the ashes on the garden.

So, class, your assignment is to start paying attention to your waste.  What are you throwing away that would rot?  Begin paying attention.  Kleenex?  Coffee Grounds?  Banana peels?  Lawn clippings?  Keep your eyes open.  Next time we’ll get into the mechanics.