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.

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Humanure Q&A

Humanure is a part of our farm.  It’s part of our land stewardship plan.  Humanure is also a part of your life, it just may not be part of your own stewardship plan.  We work to manage our resources carefully.  That means it belongs on the blog…just maybe with less frequency than you have seen lately.

I got an email from a reader with a few questions and comments about humanure.  I thought I would share my responses.  Keep in mind, we’re doing our best here but I’m far from an expert.  If you have a comment on any of my responses or any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to share in the comment section.  Also, as I have said before, this is more “how-we” than “how-to”.

With Humanure Handbook I do have a few questions that I keep hoping he’ll answer before I get to the end…aren’t there issues with compost piles leaching? That seems to be one of his objections to septic fields yet, surely compost will leach to some extent as well.

If the compost pile is built correctly, I’m not too worried about leachate.  Within hours of adding to the compost pile, the pile heats up to several hundred degrees.  Use big amounts of carbon at the bottom, always add to the top.  You’ll end up with a carbon barrier at the bottom, a healthy layer of compost above that and all your hot stuff further up.  I also maintain a buffer of sawdust around my compost piles when heavy rains hit because I have seen chicken…stuff…ooze out of the pile when it gets saturated.  I have to believe that happens underground too. I should also cover the pile during periods of heavy rain.  Finally, the compost pile, unlike a septic tank, moves from year to year.  This year’s is out in the pasture.  Last year’s is next to the machine shed.  The year before that was by the garage.  I don’t believe I can overload the soil with leachate in one year with 312 buckets and 1000 chicken’s guts…especially since I work so hard to put a heavy layer of carbon under the pile and work to control saturation.  The wife adds that she thinks by the time the cooked compost filters through the carbon base it’s going to be OK.

What do you do when someone in the family is sick – upchucking sick?  Currently I flush the bucket contents down the toilet.  Do you compost that?

Nobody has been sick like that for years.  I guess we’ll compost it.

He talks about hospitals having to have their own composting facilities carefully ensuring the temp in the compost is right for killing pathogens.  What if someone goes on antibiotics ([Husband’s] recent bout with his face infection comes to mind)?  Does that affect how you do things?

Antibiotics?  I dunno.  We really try not to use them.  I guess we’ll compost it.

We did have a very amusing family discussion about humanure, the upshot of which is that the kids begged me not to start that particular project till they were living away from home.  I have to get better at composting before I can do much with the idea anyway, so they’re safe for now.

For Pete’s sake.  Just build one. Composting skill?  How are you going to develop skill unless you’re motivated by 6 buckets of magical nastiness waiting by the back door and a husband and children who don’t think you’ll actually go through with it?  Go for it.  Quit fooling around.  Go show ’em!  The pretty girl with the braids wants to wear “Friends of the Environment Foundation” shirts so then give her a chance to make a positive contribution!  What can you use for carbon on the island?  We love having a big sawdust pile.  I use sawdust for everything now.

Again, let me know if you have any additional questions or comments.  The humanure toilet is really no big deal.  There is no sloshing, yucky mess. The carbon soaks up all the sloshing.  When you dump the bucket it just looks like wet sawdust…plus orange peels or whatever else you compost.

How Do You Recycle….You Know…That Stuff?

I’m going to use a dirty word.  It’s a word that will stop all conversation in the room.  People find it shocking…appalling.  Use this word and others will question your sanity.  In short, hilarity ensues.

Ready?

Humanure.

You are, quite literally, full of crap.  It’s a fact.  You produce it at intervals throughout the day.  What do you do with it?  Do you pollute drinking water to make it magically go away?  Where does it go?  Do you have a septic tank?  How often do you have to get that pumped out?  Where does it go from there?  Do you live in town?  Where does that go?  Sewage treatment plant.

Sewage treatment, under ideal circumstances, separates liquids from solids in several stages after removing odd bits of trash.  The trash and a large portion of solids head to the landfill.  That’s nice but what happens when it rains?  From a Wisconsin newspaper from October of 2010:

In all, about 9.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage-contaminated water — enough to fill 457,000 backyard swimming pools — were released into the environment by 276 villages, cities, counties and sewage districts on 1,198 occurrences statewide since Jan. 1, 2006, according to data collected by the DNR and analyzed by The Post-Crescent. The wastewater overflows happened in 58 of the state’s 72 counties, including throughout the Fox Valley.

Rain was listed as the cause of nearly 80 percent of the overflows since 2006.

The article linked above lists some truly horrifying stats on sewage overflows.  Nearer to home, I remember an event causing the sewage treatment plant in Jacksonville, IL to overflow, putting the city on a boil water order.  Let me say that differently.  Because of rain, everybody’s doody mixed with the drinking water.  The solution was to boil the doody-water so it would be safe to drink.

Ew.

Tell you what.  You can boil your doody-water all you want.  I’ll make you a promise.  It won’t be my doody in the water.  OK?  I have a better solution all of us can embrace.  Ready?  Compost.

I found Joseph Jenkins’ Lovable Loo some time ago.  We needed a solution for the barn as we were potty-training our daughter.  Plus our septic tank had failed and we were pretty desperate for an inexpensive solution.  Enter the eco-potty.

Jenkins’ excellent book describes a method of collecting our various biological deposits (wastes is the wrong word) in a bucket.  Everything goes in the bucket.  Everything.  Each deposit is covered with sawdust.  There is no smell.  Let me repeat that.  There is no smell.  We go through a bucket for each person in the house each week and use nearly a bucket of sawdust for each bucket we fill.  This is not a composting toilet, just a receptacle.

We compost our wastes on site.  Nobody hauls, pumps, aerates, filters or chops our waste.  It doesn’t have a chance to pollute fresh water.  More importantly, no Persians were shot to make the transportation of my doody cheaper.  We just carry the bucket to this year’s compost pile, open the pile and dump the bucket.  It really is just a bucket of wet sawdust when we dump it out.  Then we rinse (using rainwater when it rains (remember rain?)), wash with a biodegradable soap and rinse again.  The clean buckets sit in the full, sterilizing sun until we’re ready for them again.

We continue adding humanure to the compost pile for a full year.  At the end of the year we begin a new pile.  I don’t turn the compost because
A. that’s gross
B. that’s too much like work.

We just open the top, pour new stuff in and cover it all up again.  Then the pile sits unattended, unloved and untouched for another year.  By that time the material has cooked itself thoroughly, cooled and has been sifted, sorted and sterilized by earthworms.  Any bits of plastic or whatever are sterile and can be sifted out easily.  We also compost roadkill animals, chicken offal, pig heads and whatever else we can come up with but I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.

Jenkens uses his humanure compost on his garden after 2 years.  I have enough other sources for compost and enough need for compost other places that I choose not to.  It is uncomfortable enough asking guests to use a bucket.  It’s more uncomfortable to say, “Hey, remember when you were here 2 years ago and used the bucket?  I used that to grow tonight’s dinner!”  Nah.  Our pastures will benefit from the compost and we’ll use the composted winter animal manures on the garden…mostly chicken manure.  Somehow that’s less icky from a guest’s perspective.  Now, the EPA disagrees and says it’s no big deal.  It is unusual for me to quote a government alphabet soup agency in a positive way but let me state clearly that I am in favor of using biosolids in agriculture.  That’s kind of the point.  I think the municipal collection is wasteful, inefficient and unsustainable but since we have it let’s put it to good use.  But far better is to gather your own waste and deal with it yourself.  That may not be easy for appartment dwellers but I’m sure we can find a workable solution.  In a normal world, companies would pay you to collect and process your biological wastes…but we don’t live in a normal world (IMHO, largely due to alphabet soup agencies).  All that said, I promise you, when you’re at my house eating food from my garden you aren’t eating people doody.  Just composted chicken, cow, pig, goat, worm, duck, toad, snake, mouse doody mixed with a dead baby bird or two that fell out of a nest in a windstorm.

“OK.  Fine.” you say.  “I’m willing to try it if you can prove to me it really saves any water.  I mean, I have a low-flow eco toilet that I sometimes have to flush twice if I want to “deliver the mail”…but it says it’s eco!”  Did your water bill go down by 30% when you started using your double-flush low-flow toilet?  Our water bill went down by 30% immediately.

It deserves more excitement than that. We have saved at least $500 on water since we began using the toilet 14 months ago.  I think that’s pretty cool.  On top of that, I have an enormous pile of…compost I can spread on my fields.

This post is more “how-we” than “how-to”.  In fact, it really just introduces the concept.  For the real how-to I have to suggest Jenkins’ book and his series of Youtube videos.  Outside of those two resources, let me know if you need more detail or if you have any questions.  The best thing you can do is just get a couple of buckets and take it for a test drive.

Not-So-Awful Chicken Offal

In the last 4 days I have butchered near enough to 300 birds as makes no difference.  The last three days have all been above 100 degrees.  One might think there would be a smell.  Well, there is a slight odor when you’re next to the compost pile.  Otherwise, not so much.  Here’s how we build the compost pile.

I build my piles with pallets since pallets are free.  The pile needs to be a minimum of 3’x3’x3′ so it has enough mass to heat up.  It is important that your compost pile “cook” itself when you’re adding in manures or animal wastes.  They will digest more quickly keeping the scavengers away.  Normally I use 8 pallets wired together with baling wire in a big 2 pallet by 2 pallet square.  We dig  a slight depression in the ground in the center of the pile.  Then we add a foot or so of straw, old hay or, better yet, bedding along with a shovel or two of finished compost.  From then on, we add layer after layer of compost and carbon.  These pictures reflect the maturity of the pile.  We’re nearing the top.  I should also point out that I don’t stir my compost.  That’s too much like work.  I just let it sit for 12-18 months and feed it keep it hot most of that time.  Biology does the rest.

First I scrape away the covering material from the top.  This is 6 or 8 inches of used bedding and hay the goats rejected.  I pull the material to the edges of the pile leaving about a foot-thick wall around the perimeter.

Then I dump the buckets and level them out across the pile.  Same goes if you’re composting humanure.  If there is any roadkill in the area I toss that in too.  When we have kitchen scraps we can’t feed to livestock we put them here.  We don’t feed pork to pigs or chicken to chickens so if she makes a potato soup with chicken broth and sausage…

Next I cover the offal with an equal volume of sawdust.  I’m shooting for 2-3″ of sawdust here.  The carbon absorbs the nutrients, sponges up moisture and keeps the smell down.

Then I pull the covering material in from the edges and cover as well as I can.  We’ll need more material but it’s a start.

The goal is at least 6 inches of covering material.  That allows moisture in if it will ever rain and filters odors.

So, there you go.  Our current pile is 6×6.  It should last us until we start a new pile on April 1st.  If not, I’ll get two more pallets and make it a bit longer.

Good luck with your composting.  Don’t overthink it.  If it stinks, add carbon.  If it’s not hot, add nitrogen.  Stacey has some good ideas on that topic.