December 13, 2011

Of Compost & Kitchen Scraps

I know others have been saying this, but it's hard to believe it's December already. That means the year's end is right around the corner, and that means it's time to evaluate how well we achieved this year's goals. I've been reflecting on those, and doing so has me thinking about almost everything we do around here, even compost.

I reckon that over the years, we've tried almost every method of composting ever invented. We've tried piles, trenches, single bins, double bins, triple bins, bins with no doors, bins with removable doors, rings of wire fencing, and a homemade compost tumbler. We've turned daily, we've incorporated perforated pipe to provide oxygen, and we've tried the same with corn stalks too (both so-called no turn methods). We've covered our piles and left them open to air. It doesn't matter how you slice it, dice it, or julienne fry it, making compost is work. As in labor. There's no easy way to get it done.

Beginnings of a new compost pile.
Our first compost piles were mostly kitchen scraps and leaves, because that was all we had. That was in the days when the formula was complicated and recipes called for specific amounts of leaves, manure, straw, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, hair clippings, sawdust, legumes, etc. Even though we turned faithfully, our compost was slow to make. Very slow. Eventually I got three angora rabbits and we discovered the wonder of manure. What an amazing difference that made.

I have to say that in the end we didn't like the bins, hoops, or tumbler. We found that a simple pile on the ground suited us best. Of all the methods we did try, we discovered that trench composting was the best way to go with kitchen scraps. Simply dig a trench in a unplanted place in the garden, dump in kitchen scraps as you have then, and cover each addition with dirt. Most things decomposed very quickly right in the garden, with the exception of egg shells and hair.

Covered to keep chickens out,
and so the rain  won't wash it away
Covered or uncovered? We've tried both ways. Uncovered, we found that the compost dried out too quickly and when it rained, too many of the nutrients washed downhill. When we left it uncovered, we had the biggest, greenest, healthiest, most potent poison ivy our side of the Mississippi. More recently, we've learned that having it covered keeps the chickens from spreading it all over the yard. Some folks say it won't get enough oxygen if it's covered, but we've never found that to be a problem. The key always boils down to frequent turning. The more frequently it's turned, the faster it makes.

Rows are easier to turn than piles
Having livestock makes composting all the more productive. Every time I clean out the chicken coop or goat stalls I think, GARDEN GOLD. We like to make long rows of the straw/leaf/manure mixture, wetting each wheel barrow load well. Any kitchen or garden scraps are layered in (no seedy weeds though) and the whole thing is covered with black plastic. For me, a long row is easier to turn than a big 4x4 foot pile.

Nowadays the recipe for compost is simpler, a ratio actually, of carbon to nitrogen. The ideal is considered around 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Since these aren't distinctly measurable in various compostable items, it is often recommended to use 2 parts "green," nitrogen rich ingredients (i.e. manure, kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings), to 1 part "brown," carbonaceous ingredients, (i.e. dried leaves, straw, hay, sawdust). Of course, you can get as complicated as you want with this. A good detailed explanation can be found here.

My compost sifter
For me, even that's too complicated and I think making compost is something most folks can figure out simply by doing and observing. No need to measure or weigh anything, nor take it's temperature. If it's radiating heat, it's working. If it isn't, it's not. If it's stinky, it's too wet and needs air; add dried leaves or straw and turn. If it's too slow, it needs water if it's dry, otherwise manure (or grass clippings, etc) to speed it up. When it's black and crumbly, it's done. For the impatient, like me, it can be sifted, and the big chunks tossed into a new compost pile.

Ideally, I'd like to make my compost just from barn cleanings: straw, leaves, and manure. I'd rather feed kitchen and garden scraps to the animals, who can utilize the nutrition as they convert them into that garden gold. Right now we feed a lot of our scraps to the chickens and goats, but there's a lot they won't eat. In thinking about future goals, we'd like to add pigs to help with that, and earthworms for what none of them will eat, things like tea bags, coffee grounds, soggy cardboard, etc. Not sure if we'll add both of these to our goals list for next year, worms for sure. Pigs, we still need to talk about but it's something we definitely need to consider.

How about you? Care to share your experiences and best tips?


Trixi said...

Your composting system is great. We have got to start that. Right now we just dump chicken, cow, and rabbit litter on the garden for a little while. We stop a couple of months before planting season to give it all time to break down but we need more of a system like yours.

Jody said...

You said it! And boy are you right about the manure. The little bit of chicken manure we get now and then really speeds things up.

My best tip for composting is to find a horse boarding farm and get in good with the caretaker. They probably have mounds and mounds of composted manure. All you need is a pick-up truck, a shovel and a couple of hours to pick it up and spread it! If your lucky they'll load it for you with a tractor.

Florida Farm Girl said...

Why don't you use the tea bags and coffee grounds in your compost? We haven't had a compost pile in a long time. My gardening umph got up and went!!

Leigh said...

Mrs. Trixi, I believe your method is called sheet composting! See, that's one we haven't tried and I didn't mention! Actually, simple, to me is best. So whatever routine works, that's the one to use!

Jody, great tip. A truckload of horse manure would be a blessing to any gardener. And chicken manure is one of the best, isn't it?

Florida Farm Girl, right now tea bags and coffee grounds do go into the compost. I just wish I had something to feed them too!

Mama Pea said...

We've got three or four different compost "bins" (we do keep our contained) in different areas of the yard. All of them are uncovered. The one that seems to work the fastest is a two foot deep 4' x 8' box in which we layer old straw, dirt, chicken poop, stuff from the floor of the chicken house and some kitchen garbage (veggie peelings, coffee grounds, etc.). This is within the chickens fenced in area, close by their house and in semi-shade. The chickens hop up into it to find bugs, worms, other stuff to eat and in the process turn and stir it up remarkably well.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

I have had great luck with my two compost tumblers. We make a batch every two weeks per bin once temperatures are over 60 degrees outside. I also found that since I have been getting large amounts of coffee grinds from the coffee shop that the mixture cooks even quicker and is a much nicer texture. We just give it a crank of the tumbler a day. I have found that the worm bin does not use up as much organic matter as I would like. And I am one of the few people who does not use manure in the garden or compost. I find that no matter how aged the manure is, it still spreads weed seeds (weed seeds can survive high temps and years dormant) and since we eat so much fresh from the garden, there is always the treat of e coli even with composted manure.

Cat Eye Cottage said...

I use tall trash cans with holes drilled into the sides. I layer green and brown and turn each layer with a pitchfork as I add it. The trash cans sit at my retaining wall so I can stand above them with the pitchfork and reach in. If I think it's too dry I leave the lid open for the next rainstorm, and then close it. As I turn the older compost and find worms, I put them in the newer can I'm currently filling. I always find worms in my compost so they must be surviving. The chickens used to get in the trash cans and scratch away, but now they don't have access to them. I like the idea of the 4x8 box above. I may try that in the animal yard to give the ladies access again. They did a good job with my trash cans.

Gingerbreadshouse7 said...

I'm new at the composting and hubby is impatient with it ..we are still in the trying stage..wish I had some chickens, that would be ideal..

Unknown said...

We have pallet made compost bins and used our chicken coop to fill. Now no chickens and I just haven't turned the mulch much BUT it amazingly broke down all by itself. I did stir it after a few months of not and it seemed to deflate and was very composty under. I dump scraps from home in there and coffee grounds too. I really miss having chickens.

Ngo Family Farm said...

I really like that trenching idea! And I have the same philosophy about watching and adjusting based on my observations, rather than trying to micromanage all those microorganisms ;)

I started out using a tumbler compost bin years ago when I had a small-ish garden and no animals. I still use it, but we quickly outgrew it when we moved and acquired goats and chickens! My most successful compost piles are the ones that get sun throughout winter and that don't have too high a ratio of "green matter."

I'd like to try using red wiggler worms for kitchen scraps that don't go to the chickens. I've heard they are fast at turning scraps to compost. The snow came too early this year, but I was also going to experiment with the permaculture method, similar to the sheet composting mentioned above--that's on the list for next year!

I love talking about compost; thanks for sharing all your ideas.


Leigh said...

Mama Pea, that 4x8 does seem to be a good size, doesn't it? There are times when I don't mind the chickens in the compost, and you're right about how well they can turn the stuff! With our piles on the ground though, we always have to rake them up after the chickens have had their way. :)

Jane, yes, weed seeds can be a tenacious nuisance, that's for sure. I'm curious as to what you use as a source of nitrogen. Turning out a batch every two weeks is excellent production.

Candace, that's a good idea, actually. I may have to try at least one compost pile in the chicken yard as well.

Ginny, we found it took awhile to get good production. That meant a lot of experimentation. You should check with Jane about what she uses to get such good quick results, since she doesn't use manure either.

Nancy, that sounds like a good way to use a pallet. And I have to say that chicken manure does an amazingly good job of breaking stuff down into compost! It's too bad you were allergic to your chickens. :(

Jaime, I think that's why we eventually abandoned the tumbler too, too small. Sun in winter helps too! I'll be interested in your permaculture experiments. That's an area we're learning about and expanding up on here as well.

icebear said...

i have found that a worm bin (vermicomposting) has suited our family well. I have also considered "phoenixworms" as another option worth looking into

Renee Nefe said...

We use a modified trench composting started out just as a pile of grass clippings that eventually became a hole in the ground. We add in stuff from the garden that we didn't pick soon enough or the critters didn't finish eating, leaves and a bit of bunny manure with the sawdust pellet litter. We don't cover it though and I only turn it when I'm ready to use it. I take the top layer off and dig the finished compost out, then stir up the top level and put it back in the hole to wait for next year. now that I have to move my garden, I'm gonna need to use the wheel barrel as before I just tossed the compost from the pile into the garden right next to it.
We have plenty of earthworms that like our garden and the compost pile too. and I've finally convinced Darly that touching the worms isn't so bad.

Sue said...

I am incredibly lazy with my compost pile. Just pile it up and let it work on it's own. My back won't hold up to turning it. I just drag some out of the bottom of the pile when I need it. It's got horse, alpaca, sheep, goat and chicken manure in it, plus yard & debris that the animals wouldn't eat.

We had pigs for several years when the kids were in 4-H, in a moveable pen. They rototilled the garden areas wonderfully. I'm thinking about getting a couple of piglets next spring to help do that again (plus homegrown pork is fantastic)

Leigh said...

Icebear, I've not heard of phoenixworms! Sounds intriguing and like something I need to investigate. Thanks!

Renee, maybe you should move your compost hole as well! Your system sounds like how we eventually did. I admit that as faithful as I try to be, I don't get my compost turned often enough. But it still makes!

Sue, I got your comment via email but it doesn't seem to have shown up here yet. Anyway, your point about pigs as rototillers is one of the reasons we're so interested in getting them! (Plus the pork). We've got a permanent spot picked out for them, but I really should consider a portable pen as well. (I hear you about your back too).

Tami said...

Composting is still a hit and miss thing here. I toss most things in a pile during the active gardening season and in the winter toss it in the beds directly for now. We're still "building" our beds so I'll be tossing a few inches of purchased composted soil on top of the garden again next year.

Interesting to see what works and what doesn't for everybody

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of using rows, like you mentioned. Especially if I am doing the turning, with my funky arm, it has to be manageable. Thanks for the insights into what has/hasn't worked for you and hubby.

Theresa said...

No tips here but I have often pined away for a pet pig....which no doubt requires a second pig.:)

Woody said...

If it will break down we will compost it. The uncovered pile uphill from our garden seems to work well for us. The chicken coop clean outs I use for a secondary compost pile on a fallow patch in our garden. All the seasons weeds and the occasional bag of grass from my parental units, along with the chicken deposits go on this hot pile. It will get spread out in the spring before planting. The big pile I feed anything I can haul up the hill. Last year I had a friend bring me twenty-something round bales that had been on his river bottom during a flood. They have almost completely decomposed now.

Ellen said...

I used straw bales and made a three stage compost bins. It really works, the straw bales are shrinking and have been there for 16 months. So this spring will empty them and start over. I also have one big compost area for Buford's Golden Nuggets he is my donkey and we have chickens and rabbits and two goats. But Buford makes the biggest contribution, to the compost pile have so many leaves they are used to cover the Golden Nuggets. This helps keep the odor and flies away, also keep it far away from the house as possible I did. Ellen

Anonymous said...

I was not real happy with the rate of composting with just brown and green and kitchen scraps... but once we got the sheep and chickens to contribute... it was really amazing how beautifully and quick we had compost. Now the winter garden is an amazing site to see... compared to our efforts before adding the animals offerings.

Grace said...

We were blessed to be able to buy one of those insanely expensive compost tumblers, brand new for practically nothing from a friend.

I love the stupid thing. It is not as easy to use as I expected but it does actually make perfect, crumbled-chocolate-cake textured compost very, very quickly.

I can't wait until I have manure to compost. I expect that will make some really potent stuff.

Leigh said...

Tami, that actually sounds like a very good way to do it, tossing directly into the beds that is. Mainly I think a system ought to be as easy to do as possible!

Stephanie, yes, I find the rows help. It's been fun to learn how others do this. Always something to learn.

Theresa, from what they tell me about pigs, you're probably right. :) I did have some friends though who had a pot belly pig for a pet. It was a loner, but ended up hanging out with the dogs. I think it thought it was a dog! If you've got a spare doggy bed .....

Woody, sounds like you currently have a gold mine of compost, I'd love to have a friend like that. I haven't figured out yet what to do with my weeds and seedy grass heads. Right now they're just in a pile behind the compost. I should try your method next time I clean out the chicken coop.

Ellen, that's a good idea. Compostable compost bins! I use leaves for the same purpose, and find they work very well.

Sgtempleton, my experience echos yours! We found the exact same thing.

Grace, likely once you get animals. you'll have more than one compost pile going anyway, so your tumbler will continue to be put to good use. :)

Tom Stewart said...

As you know I have the worms to make most of the compost for me! But for the things I do not want to feed them, I have a compost pile and a double barrel compost tumbler.
Not as nice as what the worms produce, but it still works!

Jocelyn said...

We are still working on a "system", but we compost in three different ways now. One, I put manure/food scraps/dry leaves or hay on the garden in the fall and let it age over the winter. Two, I have bins that we add our food scraps/coffee grinds/dry leaves/some manure to--this gets turned (when I remember). I also have a second, very large pile that is strictly manure and hay/bedding--this gets turned when I remember to, as well. :) Third, I compost under the rabbits. I enclosed a small box around the bottom of all the hutches, where I drop all the cleanings from the cages. I let the manure age and the worms LOVE it. I am thinking about adding more worms to it next year to speed things up. These boxes seem to break down the fastest of all, without turning. Worms seem to love rabbit poop!

Leigh said...

Tom, you're the reason we're going with worms next spring, LOL. My husband is very anxious to get started on building our worm bed, in fact.

Jocylyn, you can count me in the "when I remember" camp, LOL. In fact your comment made me realize it's been awhile since I have indeed remembered. My experience echos yours, except we don't have rabbits at present. So glad to hear the worms are doing so well for you.