Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Composting for Dummies (and chickens!)

Compost is the stuff great gardens are made of.  For this reason, composting is the first step in organic gardening.  Compost is simply organic material that has been broken down by microbial creatures and earthworms into a stable form that provides nutrients accessible for plants.  Fortunately, composting is a completely natural process that happens on every forest floor, every pile of leaves, and anywhere there is a concentration of organic material.  I'd like to show you two simple ways we compost here at Little Farm in the Hood.  If you have organic material, you can copy the first technique; if you have chickens and a source of brown leaves, I encourage you to let your chickens in on the fun.

This is our compost "system."  Beautiful, isn't it?  It's just 7 wooden pallets connected to one another with wire to form three bays to store compost materials in different stages of maturity.  The pallet in the front of the center bay is there to keep the material from falling out into the pathway, as that pile is nearly 4 feet tall now.  Of course, you could start with just three pallets and one bay and add to it as needed.

This center bay contains our "raw" composting materials.  We attempt to layer our compost materials in a "lasagna" fashion: a 3-4 inch layer of "brown" materials like dry leaves and hay, then a 3-4 inch layer of "green" materials like grass clippings, fruit peels, garden leftovers, and other household materials (onion skins, apple cores, egg shells, coffee grounds, tomatoes, etc.).  We are lucky enough to get 4 5-gallon buckets of used coffee grounds and filters from the Wake Forest Coffee Company each week.  Anecdotally speaking, my compost has really heated up and composted more quickly since I added the coffee grounds.  If you can make an agreement with a local coffee shop, restaurant, or grocery store to pick up their old or rotting organic material, it will allow you to increase the amount of compost you can make, along with saving hundreds of pounds of organic material from wasting away in a landfill.  But don't wait until you have such an agreement; start composting with your leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps today, and in 3-4 months you'll have great garden-ready compost!
Our bay on the right holds the hay that our wasteful goats drop while eating.  We are blessed, again, to have urban livestock that give us this wonderful, urine-soaked "brown" material that really heats up our compost.  But again, if you don't have livestock, you can still begin composting today with what you have in your kitchen and in your yard.
The bay on the right has seasoned compost that has been "cooking" for about 5 months.  It could stand to process a little longer, but since my center bay is full, I am currently applying this material to the garden and when I'm done we'll start again with fresh materials in this bay.

As a bay is filling with fresh materials, I'll periodically turn it with a garden fork.  When the bay is full I pour a couple of 5-gallon buckets of water on the pile and then cover it with black plastic (weighed down with bricks) to keep it from drying out or getting too wet.

But here's an easier way....let the chickens do it!
Every year in autumn I get a huge pile of leaves from the Town of Wake Forest.  I scoop as many as I can into the chicken coop and...walla!  My unpaid compost force starts foraging, scratching, pooping, and beating up those leaves, working it into a rich organic compost.  I don't do anything except watch the show.
Here's the final product...ready to go on the garden.  Thanks, birds!

In addition to these, there are other, even simpler ways to start composting.  We began with a black plastic garbage can with holes drilled into the sides and bottom.  Then we moved into vermicomposting in bins with worms.  Maybe someday I'll let you see how those worked.  But the moral of today's story is: start composting now!  There's no reason for perfectly good organic material to rot in a landfill when it could be fertilizing your garden, flower bed, or landscaped area. 

Happy composting!  Feel free to let us know your great compost stories or questions.

1 comment:

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