Ah, the joys of composting! How empowering it is to render unnecessary things like garbage services and sewage systems! We actually haven’t got to the point of using a composting toilet yet, but that is in our future; if not 2018 then 2019. You can bet this page will be updated when we do!
While one of the principles of natural farming is “no prepared compost” – that principle was the elimination of an unnecessary, eco-inefficient chore. The principle was not an indictment against composting in general. When a domicile is truly living sustainably it will generate three outputs that need to be dealt with: kitchen scraps, human excrement, and wood ashes. None of these have a place in the garden “raw.” Many folk do apply wood ash directly in the garden; it’s very high in “mineralized” or bio-available potassium as well as having a decent amount of phosphorus as well as several micronutrients. However it’s very highly-alkaline nature is deadly to countless micro- and macro-organisms. The plant nutrients in wood ash are not readily leached from a well-maintained compost pile. I’d rather the damaging aspects of wood ash be worked out in a compost pile rather than in the fragile and vibrant biome that generates our food.
We do not (yet) have wood heat, but that is something we are aspiring to! So currently the only three inputs into the compost bin are: kitchen scraps, plant debris from yard work, and the cleanings from the chicken coop. To this I hope to add humanure and wood ashes within two years.
The composting method we have chosen is a thermophilic, no-turn, continuous composting as advocated by Joseph Jenkins in his (in)famous The Humanure Handbook. I have, to date, failed in both the thermophilic activity and the no-turn aspiration. The lack of thermophilic activity has been due to inadequate nitrogen content and lack of moisture.
In 2016 I was ignorant of how to compost. In 2017 I was spread too thin to attend to it as needed. Additionally for most of 2017 the compost bin featured and solid lid (to keep out raccoons and skunks), which worked, but also kept much-needed rain from infiltrating the pile. Rats invaded our house’s crawlspace in November 2017 and definitely could find food in the compost bin (which is all of 10 feet from the house for “convenience”). The ensuing Great Rat Battle of 2017 entailed rebuilding the compost bin to make it rodent proof. This mean a permanent lid (as opposed to the slabs of scrap OSB and rocks I used to pile on top of it). The permanent lid was made out of a pallet with a skin of 1/4 inch hardware cloth.
The bin setup I have is very primitive and none-too-pretty. It’s a double bin setup originally meant to have active compost on one side and carbonaceous cover material on the other. During the Great Rat Battle of 2017 the cover bin was emptied of it’s rotted wood fiber to eliminate potential nesting sites. It remains abandoned-in-place still.
The double bin configuration was built out of reclaimed pallets buried shallowly on-edge. Five pallets comprise the backbone of the bins. The first three were attached together and buried forming three sides of the first bin. Next another two were attached in an L-shape, then buried and attached to the first bin so that one pallet became a shared wall of the two bins.
An additional two pallets were propped up against each bin “bay” to provide the fourth (and front) wall of each bin. These were merely propped in place, not attached, so that the front walls could easily be removed to aid in turning or emptying each bin.
The active compost bin is lined with 1/4 inch hardware cloth including skirts that travel out along the ground to prevent animals from digging under the shallowly-buried pallets. A fifth pallet (with hardware cloth liner) was laid upon the initial three walls of the first bin as a lid, then and attached with hinges.
2018 marks a new season, with a new supply of nitrogen (five full-grown chickens) and hopefully a work schedule that allows me to better monitor the pile and its performance. Additionally the new lid on the compost bit can easily be penetrated by rain and snow. This will go a long ways to maintaining adequate moisture content at all times. I have a 24″ compost thermometer that I intend to used to monitor thermophillic activity, which will inform my decisions about when to turn the pile.
The pile’s performance was so poor in the prior seasons that the exterior of the pile never decomposed. This necessitated turning. I know Jenkins solved the riddle of no-turn, but I have forgotten the details on how he accomplished that. There are much higher priorities on the farmlet than the compost pile so it will continue to be a work-in-progress. I will simply continue to turn the pile by hand until I figure out how to manage it in such a way that turning isn’t required.
NEXT STEP: HUMANURE?
As long as humanure is not used in the compost pile, the finished compost will be periodically applied to the vegetable raised beds. If humanure is added to the compost pile, the finished compost will not be applied to the raised beds used for market gardening. I have no qualms about applying humanure-derived compost where I grow my food, though! If the market gardening takes off, any humanure-derived compost will wind up on the kitchen garden and/or the orchard and fields.
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