"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority ... the Constitution was made to guard against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." - Noah Webster

"There is no worse tyranny than forcing a man to pay for what he does not want just because you think it would be good for him."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Not For The Squeamish

You would think with a blog called The ComPost Files, I would have already done a post devoted to just that thing. But comments by a beloved reader made me realize I hadn't done so.  Therefore, to rectify my oversight, I submit the following:
One Culvert compost bin

Composting is definitely not for the squeamish, or for those who don't like to get their hands dirty. But if you are going to try to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, you are going to have to get over those impediments.  Composting is vital.  It is a microcosm of the cycle of life.  Besides that, I've only seen a few instances where commercially made fertilizers ever outperformed homemade compost.

If you are a greenhorn to the gardening world, compost is simply the decomposed remains of organic material.  And you may need to think carefully about that, and not be quick to disregard many things as not being truly organic. Maybe a better way of putting it would be "carbon-based" [cue the sci-fi music].  There is also more to composting than just creating a pile or three, or only having a central location to do it.  Since we are doing the weedless/strawbale gardening thing, there are actually two types of composting going on.  More on that later.  If I forget, remind me in the comments section.

Once any living thing dies, decomposition begins.  Microorganisms, mostly bacteria and fungi immediately move in and begin eating.  Truly understanding this process makes me sit in awe at how G-d designed living things.  There are millions of what would otherwise be deadly germs and viral organisms surrounding us on a daily basis. Anthrax, staphylococcus, etcetera are hanging around waiting for just the right conditions to make a meal out of you, but your marvelously designed immune system is constantly fighting them.  The same goes for other animals and even plants.  I mentioned this before, but it's worth emphasizing; fruits can be stored even at moderate temperatures (50° - 70° F) for relatively long periods of time as long as the skin remains intact.

The beautiful thing is that nothing need be wasted, because all of the parts of the plant, and even some animals that we can't or won't eat can be recycled into the very food that helps new life grow.  Before I go on writing on this subject from my perspective, those of you who want much more basic information can go to this link, and then come back here and read more.  I hope that here I will tell you more things that you won't find there.  Such as: "Why do I really need to chop up the stuff that goes into compost?"

Yes, it's a hassle that even I wish I could avoid.  I would much rather just toss the old tomato vines and squash vines and large hunks of watermelon rind in the bin and just let it go.  I could do that and it would still decay, but oh soooooo much s-l-o-w-e-r.  This is because of the physics of geometry, specifically the ratio of  surface area to volume.  As any object gets bigger, the mass of stuff inside gets exponentially larger compared to how much "skin" is surrounding it. The opposite is true as stuff gets smaller, right down to the microscopic level.  So the more you break stuff into smaller and smaller pieces the more surface area is exposed which then can be worked on by the microbes.  So, how fast you go from raw, fresh vegetable waste to rich, ready to use fertilizer depends on how much effort you put into that part of the process.  It's up to you.  For me, at the end of the composting process, I just want to handle stuff that looks, feels, and smells like that stuff you pay $12 for a 25 pound bag potting soil.

Right now, I only have two large compost "bins".  One is a culvert that was left on the property. When and why is a mystery.  The other is a chicken wire cage that used to be a nursery for the chickens before I built Arks I and II.  Fresh compost goes into the culvert first.  Fresh compost can include but is not limited to the following:  any uneaten food, even chicken and fish bones; egg shells; coffee grounds and the filter paper, any and all weeds that I pull, with one exception: plants with thorns.

Plants with thorns either get burned when it is convenient and safe to do so, or they go across the street to an empty lot to naturally compost around the wild blackberries and such.  I want compost that I can handle with my bare hands.

The other composting that I do is more direct and in place. Card board and thick paper, even corrugated, is saved or even scavenged (dumpster diving, anyone?) laid out flat among the straw bales or in places where I might want to plant in the future and prevent weed and grass growth.  It will very slowly decay, retain much more moisture in the ground around the plants and straw bales, and beats the snot out of paying for fancy weed barrier cloth.  In an area where I plant directly in the ground, the mulch/compost is a blend of about one third fresh compost in the decay process, and about two thirds of finished or "dead" compost.  You don't want to "burn" your precious plants.  It's the high nitrogen compounds in fresh fertilizer or commercial fertilizer that burns the roots.  If you are concerned about aesthetics, you either need to just pray that the grocery stores remain open, or you need to learn patience.  The look will soften and improve over time, and with the help of complementary gardening, planting the right kind of flowering herbs and decorative flowers among your edibles will bring great satisfaction in the looks of your garden.  If you don't like the way your garden looks right now, just wait a month.  And whether you do anything or not, it IS guaranteed to change.

Another trick is to find some ready made compost from our wonderful garden friends; the earthworms.  I know of a nearby boat landing on Lake Chatuge which is surrounded by shade trees and lots of undisturbed ground.  Years and years of deadfall, small ground cover vines and such, full of earthworms.  This deep humus soil is nothing but decayed plant matter that is so full of earthworms and so soft that I can just rake my fingers through a square foot of it and have anywhere from six to ten earthworms to catch bluegill with just twenty feet away.  When I'm done fishing, I can fill up four or five buckets of this stuff and take it back to the house.  It's rich, ready-to-use potting soil.

If you cover your fresh compost material with a layer of dead stuff, you can keep the odor down and keep the insects to a minimum, but when you have chickens, the insects can be a benefit.  I don't know the species of flying insect that laid it's larvae in my bin, but the resulting worms were much appreciated. Such maggots or worms are chicken candy.  It's like giving M&Ms to a kid or chocolate truffles to my wife.

Sure, it's very gross to us.  But when I saw those squirmy little things there, I scooped out about two cups and gave them to the chickens and they were in ecstasy. Boy, the things we do for our animals!

1 comment:

  1. comparing maggots to chocolate truffles... Oh, you romantic devil, you!


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