Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Gentle Art of Composting, Part 1: Active and Hot.

Finished compost, sifted and a bit wet. Gardeners call it "black gold" for a reason.

Composting methods and instructions are found easily online. There are plenty of definitive guides. This isn't one. This is how we do it.

(Part 2, which is how we mostly do it, is now done and here: Composting Part 2: Passive & Easy

Like all our entries here, our goals are not to show you the all inclusive method or technique, but to share our successful methods. They may not be the best, and they may not work for you at all, but they did for us.

Many composting guides explain two methods. Hot and Passive are common names. Our method is primarily the much easier and basic Passive Method. It is the one we use almost exclusively and it is the most straight forward technique for the average gardener and homesteader to learn and implement. However, I will cover that in Part 2.

The most important thing to remember is that composting is easy. Nature does it all the time, and will do it without any help from you.

Compost is the action of organic matter breaking down into humus. The rich fertile loam of the forest floor is nature's compost. It renders the nutrients and minerals in the organic matter into a more available form for the plants to use. It alone, can be used for potting soil or garden amendment. This isn't entirely practical for several reasons. One is that to gather it from the forest floor would strip it from around root areas there, disturbing the ecology. The second one is that the forest humus is often composed of single tree leaf species. This can cause an imbalance, such as Oak leaves are acidic, the ratio would be too high in carbon, etc.

So all this might seem like a bit too much chemistry for some, which puts many off composting. Don't let it. Just assume that if you took a bunch of humus from the forest floor and put it on your garden, your plants won't do so well. That doesn't mean humus isn't useful in you compost, and I will explain that more as we go on.

The basic ratio of compost is 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. 30:1. I often explain this as 30 parts brown and crunchy to 1 part green and squishy. However, most of the vegetable and green matter you use already has a lot carbon in it. For example, grass clippings tend to be 20:1, so add a bit of leaves and you're good. The simple way is to remember to add lots of carbon. That will become clear as you read along.

So, about Hot Composting. I explain by laying out my most successful attempt I have had so far. This was many years ago and our goal was to create finished usable compost, for side dressing plants, very quickly. This method of hot composting is entirely akin to cooking. That is, we assembled all our ingredients, mixed them correctly and maintained it until it was done.

Here are the ingredients.
  • Llama manure. About a cubic yard. This is the manure, mixed with rotted bedding, a mix of sawdust and straw. Any pelleted manure, little round droppings, are heaviest in nitrogen and very useful for compost. We used this because we had access to it via a local farm. 
  • Several buckets of forest humus. This was my "inoculate". Like a sourdough bread starter or the yeast for brewing. I knew it would be packed with the micro-organisms useful to breaking down the compost. It would have worked without it, but perhaps not so well. 
  • Rotted vegetables. A dozen cases of tomatoes, watermelon, lettuces and other greens, etc. A local grocery store gave them to us. 
  • Rotted corn stalks. A base layer of 3-4 bushels, plus interspersed layers. 
  • Pond scum and duck weed. Yep. We threw buckets on ropes out into a pond covered in algae and duck weed and hauled them in. This was, in fact, like a secret ingredient. VERY hot with nitrogen.
We created a base layer of corn stalks, approximately 5x5 ft and about 8 inches thick. Next we layered it with 10-12 inches of manure followed by a thinner layer of rotted vegetables, wetting it down with a bucket of pond scum, then a thin layer of corn stalks, and repeated. Then shook a healthy portion of the forest humus over each layer. We reached a level of about five foot. Then kept it wet the whole way with the nitrogen rich pond scum. Used corn stalks vertically as well, building up around them. These let air down into the cooking pile. We set up a piece of scrap ply and old chopping knife to dice corn stalks and veggies as we went along.

Once our pile was built, we waited for the cooking to start. We measured the heat with a compost thermometer. Like a big meat style one with a 1 foot spike on it. The heat started the morning of the first day after building it. By the third day it was well over a 130F! That was exciting. The pile was built in an open stack, just behind a barn, so I turned it with a pitch fork by simply tossing the pile over a few feet. This cools it initially, but it quickly reheats. I took the piles temp every day, just because I was getting such a kick out of the experience. Every three days or so I turned it. By the 7-8 day it was cooling some. By the 14 day, it was mostly finished compost. Black, earthy, broken down to components and full of earth worms. After a sifting out, we had over a cubic yard of compost.

So this was great, exciting, and a massive bit of work, but the experience was well worth it. If you have access to the ingredients all at once, and have the time and inclination, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think anyone who is seriously interested in the composting process should try it once. It was very educational. By doing it that way first, I came to understand the whole process better, and it means that I have continued to have composting success.

In my next entry, I will detail how we passive compost, our pallet wood bins, and the joys of growing good dirt with little work.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Clutch of Eggs for the Future...

In honor of the first day of the new Spring, we burst forth, sprouting our long coming Hobby Homestead Blog. A chance to share tutorials, experiments, successes and failures on our little holding of Flora Vale. Nestled in the mountains of far Western Maryland, we raise chickens, gardens, compost, and wildcraft from the nature around us. Come join us on a journey of discovery and learning, as we find the balance on the land, the ability to raise our own food, and to act in harmony with the seasons of the Earth. Together, one little garden at a time, inch by inch, and row by row, we can all make a difference. The seed of hope is planted, and the promise of spring is born.