Saturday, January 12, 2013

Adventures in compost

5 years ago our disposal broke, so I learned to compost.

 I'd like to say I always espoused this waste not want not  mentality- that it's just part of my nature loving nature to turn orange peels into black gold , but...not so much. I'm actually just a master procrastinor who hates spending money on boring stuff like disposals. But After a disastrous first attempt I  traded procrastination for backyard science determined to create the darkest, tilthiest, squishiest, most moisture retaining, smelling of the stuff of life-ish, soil possible. (And I eventually did just that).

Following is my soil saga- my dirt diatribe- my humus history. From this- you'll learn that the best compost is the one you leave alone.

My first attempt failed despite going googlematic first, reading everything, digesting blogs, tutorials and ezines about vermicompost, thermacompost, biocompost, sheetmulch compost. I learned about everything you supposedly can and can't compost and the persnikety ratio's of carbon to nitrogen. I absorbed microbiology 101 regarding the difference between aerobic and anaerobic bacteria  and at the end felt overwhelmed with how precise it seemed one had to be, to achieve soil success. I'd either need a PHD or a 300 dollar compost turner doohicky thingy.  

But I often suspect people complicate things in order to sound like experts or to sell something that fixes an imaginary problem so I chucked it all and struck out my own way.

Compost attempt #1, late summer-2008
  1. I drilled holes in a 10 gallon rubbermaid storage bin top botton and sides. 
  2. Added table scraps each day
  3. Wondered three weeks later why the patio stunk like sewage.
Hmmm. Maybe the experts I casually dismissed had something after all. I returned to the google and figured the bins were nitrogen rich and carbon poor, in addition my bin lacked air pockets creating a great environment for anaerobic bacteria to flourish. To fix this I needed leaves and lots of them. That and shredded junk mail.

Compost attempt #2 Fall 2008
  1. Waited for yard maintenance day at our apt complex
  2. Stole gardeners leaf piles 
  3. shredded junk mail
  4. Made holes in my mucky bin stuffing them with leaves and credit card applications.
  5. Fixed the yuck smell in 3 days.
It seemed I did it! yay! But the bin filled too fast for our families scraps and I had to create another bin. This would be a problem if stuff didn't break down sooner with our limited apartment patio space. The word vermicompost (using worms) popped in my head from original research and I reopened that book. They called for complicated specialized "wormhouses" with "three teirs to facilitate optimal vertical worm travel", also costing 99$. Remember that I don't like to spend money right? so I just added a lb. of internet worms to my bins.  

Three tiered systems allow different stages of compost- from scraps to the mature and fully worm pooped castings. But it's completely unnecessary if you select deliberately which side you add scraps to. Add scraps to the left till it fills, then add them to the right. As worms finish eating the goodies on one side they'll move over to the new stuff leaving harvest-able goodies for your plants. 

Compost Attempt #3 Winter 2009-May 2009
  1. Bought 1b. red worms off amazon.
  2. Added them to bins
  3. Kept bin moist
  4. Became a worm fan
  5. Then FAILED

Vermicompost was FUN! I got to know the worms- how often they seemed to double-their most active times and temperatures. I loved how they'd huddle up like spaghetti during the cold and how breaking them in half only creates a NEW worm. Such resilience! I loved them so much I always covered them with the bin lid as some vermicomposters warned of escaping problems. 

Bad idea.

May came and brought 100F heat. On errands my squirmy friends entered a thoughtcloud- I imagined them in a rubber bin, hot sun beating down upon their plastic lid, frying to death. I rushed home, opened the lid and saw NOTHING. Not a single worm. They could not have escaped as the holes were too small. I learned that when worms die they disintegrate becoming dirt almost immediately  I cried! I kept them prisoner when they needed to run. The lid amplified the heat of the sun. Is it weird to cry over vermi-genocide? 

This experience affected my personal philosophy regarding relationships and nature. Worrying about worms escaping is absurd. As long as conditions are correct; good temperature, good food, and water- they want to be there! It's their favorite place ever- but if those conditions fail, they SHOULD escape. It's the only way they'll live. Just think about that for a second and relate it to love. (Perhaps that's for another blog).

Compost attempt #4, May 2009
  1. Ordered new worms from a farm in Galt CA. 
  2. Stopped covering bins
  3. Watered daily and kept top covered in leaves
  4. Watched as my worms thrived my compost aged to perfection.
  5. Met a bizarre compost visitor
Somewhere around June the strangest thing "infected" my bin. Inside under a shallow layer were monstrous looking maggots! First I thought Crap. Flies. That's why I'm supposed to keep it covered cause flies will get in but then I learned how this was actually the coolest thing that could have infected my compost. They were Black Soldier Flies and they have many benefits. 

First, the grownups are harmless. They look like black wasps and fly like they are drunk so the're fun to watch. They do not barf on human food and they do not carry diseases. What they do is this. They eat like CRAZY. If I throw in a bucket of scraps after dinner, the scraps disappear by morning! What they poop out is just right for the worms to eat so the compost gets double digested-first by BSF larvae and then by worms who coat the particles in a moisture retaining mucus creating soil tilth. If you don't know what tilth is- its pretty much soil that you can mold. It's moist and dark and will hold the shape you squeeze it into. Tilthy soil acts like a water sponge making watering necessary only a fraction of the time. And it smells like happiness.

THIS is titlh. If you take a handful and make a fist this soil will keep the shape.
Things were going well! My compost pile acted like a digestive system churning black gold from bread mold, and amazingly enough all this was happening on a tiny apartment porch so you folks out there who think you can't compost because of a small space- It's just not so. Anyone can compost!

But then we moved. Growing tired of an abysmal suburban color monotony, (taupe, beige, terra cotta, burnt unber, white, grey), we decided to pick up and move to the character infused town of Grass Valley. We finally had a small yard rather than a concrete patio. One thing I made sure to move with us was our two compost bins. It took 2 years to get that great and I couldn't bear to lose my buddies (flies and worms).

We've been here for two and a half years and we no longer use bins. We have a section of the sideyard that is a perpetual sheetmulch composting system.

We feed it EVERTHING!
  1. citrus
  2. vegggies
  3. MEAT
  4. BONES
  5. Dog hair
  6. fingernail clippings
  7. Pizza boxes
  8. Junk mail
Yes you CAN feed it meat and bones as long as you have things to eat it like our Black Soldier Flies. They LOVE meat and eat the fat too. A far as the complaint of attracting critters, SO? We attracted a ringtail with our pile and that was the coolest thing ever. Critters are cool visitors and plus if you keep a leaf layer over your pile it will be ok, and double plus- the BSF larvae will get it before a critter even knows it's there.

So I'd like to bring this tale to a close by clarifying the moral of the story. ANYONE can compost. Rumors spread that you just have to have a 3' x 3' pile so it can get hot enough to break down, but nature has many ways of returning spent life to earth to feed new life. In fact a debris pile large enough to be hot is rarely found in nature. From a bio-mimicry perspective, insects and microbes are the true allies.

Not only can anyone compost regardless of space- but it costs NOTHING. Chances are if your pile touches ground and has tasty worm noms- they'll find their way in so you need not even bother buying a lb. You don't need a fancy barrel turner thing- nor a worm mansion. Nor do you need this

for your Black Soldier Flies. All you need is green stuff and brown stuff going into a pile together open to the air allowing nifty bugs to join the party.

After a bit you'll have the planting material that works wonderfully for minimalist (lazy) gardners who use water sparingly (forget to water), like me.


  1. I don't have a compost pile where I currently live (although I ought to). But we had a great big one when I was growing up. We didn't have anything too fancy. Certainly none of those expensive bins or trays or gadgets that they'll try to sell you.

    We never had any problems with smells or anything. There was a skunk that visited every night around 2 AM to dig for grubs and stir everything up. The neighbors' dog occasionally scared the skunk, resulting in the only smell that could be associated with the compost, albeit indirectly.

  2. No, I don't think we ever did. We had various other sorts of insects, but I don't remember soldier flies.