Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Friendly Greeting from Annelids

Over the last few weeks, this blog has sketched out the basic outline of a green wizardry rooted in the appropriate tech movement of the Seventies but reshaped to meet the needs of the deindustrial future now taking shape around us. So far that outline has been drawn on a relatively abstract level; that’s useful as a starting point, but the practical dimension has to be addressed if a project like this is to have any impact at all on the profoundly concrete predicament facing the industrial world.

Hardly anything is so common nowadays as abstract enthusiasms that never quite find their way down to the messy realm of action in the world. The peak oil blogosphere is a particularly good place to spot them; just look for the people who insist that fourth-generation fission reactors, or fusion power, or algal biodiesel, or ethanol, or – well, you can fill in the blanks yourself – is going to save us all and permit some version of business as usual to continue indefinitely. I’ve already discussed at some length the many reasons why that isn’t going to happen, but set that aside for a moment; even if one or more of these technologies did happen to be a viable response, what actual contribution to that response is made by posting enthusiastic comments about it on internet sites?

As the old proverb has it, talk is cheap, and talk on the internet seems to be cheaper than most. One of the reasons behind this blog’s recent shift from analysis to action is precisely that we have plenty of the former and not enough of the latter. Thus it’s time to roll up our sleeves, break out the tools, and get grubby. In this post, and over the weeks and months to come, I’ll be examining specific pieces of the appropriate tech toolkit, sharing my experiences with them, and offering tips on at least some of the available resources. Not all my readers will be in a position to use all of the things that will be covered; some of my readers may have been doing one or another of them longer than I have. If you’re in either group, please be patient; many other readers won’t know this stuff, and each of the techniques I’ll be covering casts useful light on green wizardry as a whole, so you may just learn something anyway.

That latter point is especially true of the subject of this week’s post. Ask a hundred people who don’t practice organic gardening what the heart and soul of a successful organic garden is, and you’ll more than likely get a hundred different answers. Ask a hundred people who do practice organic gardening the same question, and my guess is that a majority of them will give you one answer: the compost bin. What some of them will go on to tell you, and most of the others know intuitively, is that the humble and lovable compost bin is the template on which the entire structure of any future sustainable society will pretty much have to be modeled.

Step out back with me, at least in some imaginary sense, and you can see how this works. My current compost bin is a roughly cubic object four feet on a side, made of recycled lumber and chicken wire, snugged up to the fence that surrounds my backyard garden. Every day, kitchen scraps and garden waste goes into it; every spring, a wheelbarrow load or two of rich brown dirt comes out of it and gets worked into the garden beds. There’s lesson number one for a sustainable society: the word “garbage” simply means a resource we aren’t clever enough to use yet.

Lesson number two requires taking a shovel and turning the compost. Once you’ve done that, let me introduce you to a few million of my closest friends: the living things that make compost happen. What organisms you get in a compost bin will be determined by how hot and fast you like to do your compost, and this in turn will be determined by what ingredients you use and how you tend the pile. “Hot,” by the way, is not a metaphor; a compost bin with the right mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon materials can produce so much heat in the process of decay that you’ll need to hose it down daily in the summer to keep it from catching on fire. In that kind of heat, very little thrives except the thermophilic bacteria that drive the decay process, but they do thrive; a friend of mine still glows with pride when he recalls the compost pile he built in his 4-H days, which hit a peak temperature of 190°F and finished turning its carefully chosen layers of garden and kitchen waste into ripe compost in only fourteen days.

If you prefer a slower and lazier process, as I do, you can expect to get most of the major animal phyla in your compost bin, along with a bumper crop of fungus and an even larger population of microbes. Most of the critters you can see without magnification will be annelids and arthropods – that is, worms and bugs – and you’ll see a lot of them; a good magnifying glass will show you an even more diverse ecosystem; if you have a microscope handy, put a little of the compost in some distilled water, shake thoroughly, pipette a bit of the water into a well slide, and make the acquaintance of a giddy assortment of single-celled organisms who play their part in turning waste into a resource.

You also have the option of having a more limited fauna in your compost. People who live in apartments, condominiums, or houses subject to idiotic regulation by homeowner’s associations usually find it more functional to use a specialized form of composter called a worm bin. This is exactly what it sounds like, a bin full of dirt that’s also full of worms. You feed your vegetable scraps to the worms; they devour them, and excrete some of the best fertilizer you’ll find anywhere. Unlike compost bins, worm bins are easy to run indoors, are completely odorless, and can work well on a very small scale; I’ve known single people living alone who kept worm bins, and used the very modest output to keep their potted plants green and growing

One way or another, the livestock in your compost bin is essential to the composting process; without it, what you get isn’t compost but stinking goo. There’s a reason for this. What happens in a compost bin is exactly what happens in ordinary soil to the vegetable matter that falls onto it in the normal course of nature: decomposers – living things that feed on dead matter – eat it, cycle the nutrients in it through their own life processes, and then excrete those nutrients in forms that plants can use. What makes a compost bin different is that you, the green wizard, tinker with the conditions so that this natural process can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that you can put the results in your garden where you want it. This is where lesson number two for a sustainable society comes in: instead of wasting your time trying to fight nature, figure out what she wants to do anyway, and arrange things so that her actions work to your advantage.

Lesson number three requires a little more attention to the details of composting. To keep your livestock happy and healthy, the compost needs to be damp but not soggy, and it needs to get plenty of oxygen. You need to be careful not to overdo the nitrogen – for example, too much freshly cut grass from your lawn will turn your bin into a soggy mess that smells of ammonia, because grass that’s still moist and green has too much nitrogen in it. (Leave it lying for a couple of days before raking it up, so that it wilts and starts to turn brown, and then you can add it to your compost bin with good results.) Different styles of composting, fast or slow, have their own detailed requirements, and worm bins have slightly different requirements of their own.

All these requirements have some wiggle room built into them, but not all that much, and if you stray too far beyond the wiggle room, things won’t work right until you fix the problem. Nothing else will do the job. You can’t bully or wheedle a compost bin; if you give it what it needs, it will give you what you want, and if you don’t, it won’t. It really is as simple as that. This can be generalized into lesson number three for a sustainable society: nature doesn’t negotiate. If you want her to work with you, you have to give her whatever she wants in return. Oh, and by the way, she won’t tell you. You have to figure that part out for yourself, or learn from someone who’s already figured it out.

At this point those of my readers who don’t already have compost bins full of a couple of million good friends will have divided into two groups. The first group consists of those people who are eager to get to work making compost; the second consists of those people who are backing nervously away from the computer monitor, hoping that annelids, arthropods and thermophilic bacteria don’t crawl through the internet and follow them home. If you’re a member of the latter group, you’ve probably already come up with a hundred plausible explanations why you can’t possibly compost your kitchen scraps, or even tuck a worm bin in the utility closet where it will be odorless, harmless, and comfortably out of the way. Still, you know as well as I do that the hundred plausible explanations aren’t the real reason you don’t want to take up composting. The real reason you don’t want to take up composting is the Squick Factor.

The Squick Factor is the ingrained and unreasoning terror of biological existence that’s hardwired into the psyches of so many people nowadays. Composting, remember, is about decay. Things put into a compost pile rot, and they get eaten by worms and bugs. Even when you’ve got your compost in a nice expensive bin made of textured recycled black plastic that nobody but a homeowner’s association could find objectionable, and the only scent that comes off it reminds you of summer meadows from childhood and can’t be smelled at all more than six inches away from the bin, composting triggers the Squick Factor in many people.

There’s another name for the Squick Factor: biophobia. Compost is life – damp, oozing, crawling, slithering, breeding, dying and being reborn – and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days. It’s an old, old phobia, and weaves its way through the history of ideas from ancient times, showing up with particular clarity in apocalyptic fantasies; still, ours is the first civilization in history that has had, however temporarily, enough energy and resources to let its more privileged classes pursue the fantasy of an existence free from biological realities.

The squicky feeling many people get when they contemplate putting their overaged bean sprouts into a compost bin is one reflection of our culture’s traditional biophobia. If you’re going to become a green wizard, though, that attitude is one you’re going to have to learn to do without sooner rather than later, because most of what we’ll be doing involves getting elbow deep in life. If the thought of having a compost bin or a worm bin sets off your Squick Factor, it’s important to recognize that fact and accept it, but it’s also important to go ahead anyway, take the plunge, and discover that the worms in your worm bin are the cleanest, quietest, and least demanding pets you’ve ever owned.

Next week we’ll begin the process of weaving composting into the wider realm of intensive organic gardening, one of the core systems of green wizardry, and make a first pass through some of the ways that the different elements of appropriate tech integrate with one another. In the meantime, if you aren’t composting yet, seriously consider giving it a try; if you are, tell your annelids and arthropods that mine said hi.


Most books on organic gardening have a chapter on composting, and for most purposes the information in those chapters is as much as you need. If you want a book specifically on composting, the classic practical book is Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell, which includes a half dozen different designs for homebuilt compost bins. Green wizards who want to get into the fine details should look for J. Minnich’s The Rodale Guide to Composting and Daniel L. Dindal’s Ecology of Compost. For worm bins, the book to get is another classic, Mary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage, which covers everything you need to know about this apartment-sized form of composting.

Better than any number of books is a Master Composter program. These exist in some communities, and are worth their weight in fertile topsoil; if you can arrange to take the classes, do the volunteer work, and earn the certificate, you’ll finish the process knowing a heck of a lot more about the fine art of composting than I’ve had space to cover here, and you’ll be prepared to teach it to others, which is an important part of a green wizard’s work.

If you don’t have a lot of construction skills yet, or your spouse is willing to tolerate a nice textured recycled plastic composting bin in a quiet corner of the backyard but draws the line at chicken wire and recycled lumber, check with your local garden supply or go to any of the dozens of online garden stores. A good but not overpriced compost bin will set you back somewhere between $100 and $150. Don’t get the tumbler kind – those are for batch composting, which only makes sense if you generate large amounts of vegetable matter at a go. The kind you want has a hatch on the top to put in kitchen scraps and yard waste, and a hatch down below to take out finished compost.


Glenn said...

We use the method suggested in the humanure book; kitchen scraps, garden trimmings and humanure all go in one 5 foot square, 5 foot deep bin for a year, and left for another year to make sure the thermophiles do the job on any unwanted organisms.

Certain kitchen and garden scraps go to the poultry first. Their used bedding straw becomes either mulch or compost. Periodically we rake out the poultry run and add it to the compost, or next year's garden beds.

Waste not...


ken said...

Thanks JMG,

Another excellent source for composting is the Humanure Handbook, chapter three. Mr. Jenkins does a fine job explaining the entire process of composting.

mageprof said...

When we bought our house in 1974, I just dug a pit in one corner of our backyard. It somewhat resembled a wide grave, about 6' x 4', only not much deeper that 4' or so.

Into it my wife has put all the uncooked vegetable matter from our kitchen and most kinds of yard and garden debris. (Some of the tougher woody debris seems to decay too slowly for our uses.) It's still going strong, with only occasional turning by shovel. One early spring we found a frog in it that had spent the winter under the compost, where it was nice and warm.

The oak tree that overshadows the compost pit sprouted from its acorn around 1900 or 1910. Thanks to the compost pit, it has almost doubled its bulk in the last 30 years. The wood from its windfalls and snowfalls each winter, and from an occasional pruning, goes in to a wood stove. By now our neighbors, none of whom have wood stoves, know that we will happily take their windfalls also.

To be sure, every two years or so we also buy a cord from someone and pay some young person -- whose joints aren't giving out like ours -- to spend a number of hours carrying and stacking it for us. (We can't get any sort of truck or car very near where the woodpile is, so it's all done with a wheelbarrow and by hand.). Also, we're lazy and have natural gas laid on; but we could cope pretty well if it ever becomes too expensive for us in our lifetime. (We only have about 30 years left at the very, very most, so maybe we won't need to rely wholly on wood by the end of our lives.

It's not a lot, but every little bit helps.

MisterMoose said...

Our compost bin consists of wooden pallets tied together in roughly a square, all sitting on a concrete pad. I can untie the pallet in front so that it can tilt down, or be removed completely, and then shovel the contents. Currently, we have a lovely zuchinni plant growing in the bin, that evidently took root when we threw out its predecessor from the front garden.

And worms? Oh, my, do we have worms! The compost bin is full of them. The garden plots are full of them. The worm bin is full of them. We are trying to train them to sit up and beg for kitchen scraps, just like our dogs...

Roll over! Good boy...

BTW, there are web sites that offer worm starter kits for any of you budding worm ranchers out there. Do a search on "vermiculture" and get started!

Wendy said...

Ah Yes - enough of the long winded abstract and onwards to the practical. I have a compost heap. I am not doing so well at it and I will seriously look at making it successful. I have a worm farm that failed the first time I used it and I killed all the precious little critters. Out it has come from under the back stairs and I will start again. I just got a book from the library the other day on composting and work farms and it is in very simple plain English that I can follow. So I was obviously on the right track. Cheers Wendy

void_genesis said...

Excellent post on a call to action, but it had me of two minds.

On its own recycling of nutrients in food scraps can hide the bigger issue. Remember that you peel off maybe 5% of the carrot as vegetable waste, then eat the 95%. Those nutrients end up flushed out to sea. So the danger is that we become overly self congratulatory for reclaiming such a tiny amount.

But on the other hand once someone is practiced in recycling 5% of their nutrient waste, it is a relatively small step to scale up and do all of it (with slightly enhanced techniques for using humanure). So just like growing a few veggies doesn't make you "self sufficient" it does put you in a much better position to do so if you really had to.

One other point- in hot climates the whole notion of composting is a bit irrelevant. Organic matter breaks down so fast without any encouragement, the aim of the game is to manage continuous nutrient flows as crops grow (liquid feeding).

For soil carbon humus is useless in warm climates. Biochar is the alternative process, but my trials show it has to be done in place. Digging in charcoal made elsewhere doesnt work. Biochar is another lost art that is only just being rediscovered.

Joel said...

There are some who would say the soul is cover crops. Some of these make as little compost as they can get away with, preferring that as many calories as possible go into the soil food web in place rather than being burned up within the pile.

I realize, though, that that is an advanced topic. I'm a long way from nurturing a soil ecosystem vibrant enough to gracefully digest all my organic waste where plants are also growing, and maybe I'll never get there, but it is the ideal.

Unrelated to that, I was pleasantly surprised this winter to see slender salamanders in my compost pile. I had been happy about the healthy population of centipedes, just knowing that there must be a healthy variety of prey for them, but I have no idea how salamanders found their way through the streets of Oakland to become my neighbors. I really felt blessed.

Alice Y. said...

Awesome. I have tried a bit of composting in the past but have been reading up & planning for a new venture into serious thermophilic composting. I have the posts and chicken wire up.

I am planning to bring in bales of straw for a 70 cm "biological sponge" layer at the bottom. The scraps go onto that layer, with some earth and manure, covered over with 25 cm of loose straw as a blanket to help keep heat in as the thermophilic process begins.

I have heard that a volume of > 1 metre cubed is helpful for starting thermophilic reaction in compost, so I have built my heap container nice and big in the yard outside my kitchen. It's a fairly shady space which is not ideal but the veggies and fruits are getting first choice of the sunnier sites, unless this heap refuses to work in that place.

Possibly of interest for you green wizard types: did y'all hear that a possible etymology for alchemy is from "al khemy" which is the Egyptian hieroglyphs KHMY via arabic - hieroglyphs mean "black earth"! Either the magic of composting or a kind of terra preta springs to mind. A discovery from my undergraduate days, though I offer my apologies that my study habits were then poor enough that I've not kept in mind who suggested the etymology and where the relevant sources can be found.

Paul said...

I have a worm bin. It's probably the worst-ever worm bin because I neglect it for weeks at a time and put only spoiled vegetable scraps in it and take out the "worm tea" occasionally. It is wet and has very little grit for worms to digest with, and like I said, I may leave things alone in there for weeks at a time. But somehow its annelid (red worm) denizens have survived for almost 3 years now. Worm bins are really simple and low maintenance. Really.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Love these Green Wizardry post JM. Great stuff!

One thing that I love particularly about no-till, deep-mulch, raised-bed food-growing -- which is how I've been doing it for some years now -- is the way the bulk of the composting process actually happens in situ, on the upper layers of the beds, above the soil/mulch interface. No need to make bins and transport stuff to an fro with this approach. I do still have a bin too, but that's because I keep a small-scale composting loo aboard my boat/home, and dump its contents regularly into the bin on the bank.

Otherwise, 'lasagne' mulching, or just the plain Ruth Stout style, with lots of mixed plant material going onto the surface of the beds all round the year as and when it comes available is the easy, and very satisfying, way to do it.

I'd say that though it's not the no-work form of food growing which some enthusiasts have claimed, it sure as hell beats the digging, forking, raking, hoeing, weeding, etc., of bare-soil growing techniques, and it's a lot less destructive -- not destructive at all, in fact -- to the all-important undisturbed communal life-storm of the living soil community of creatures. In fact, I'd make a case that tillage should be avoided like the plague mainly for that reason.

Not to spin this comment out too far, I'll just link to a more detailed comment that I posted recently on a 'The Oil Drum' Campfire discussion, which was headlined 'What advice do you have for new gardeners?' That comment also contains a number of highly useful links to websites and You Tube videos that are very pertinent to this practical green wizardry initiative of TAR.

My detailed comment is fourth down from the top, under my name, as always. But as usual with TOD, pretty well all the comments in that long collection are well worth reading.

BTW, I recommend most strongly the lightweight supertools that are appearing in increasing numbers as the new enthusiasm for scything spreads in the over-developed hitech countries. I use myself a home-made version of the East-European style of scythe, and I've just had a try with a bought scythe of this style which a friend purchased from a maker here in Britain: beautifully light, with a high-quality Austrian blade; a real turbo-charged grass and mulch harvesting tool. As you get into scything, you find that Peter Vido's assertion that their is something Tai Chi-like about the action is really so. (I paraphrase him from memory; something close to that idea anyway) The old scytheman's aphorism that doing scything properly can actually REST you as you work (sic!) really does seem to have something in it.

Thanks as ever JM for your inspired -- yet highly practical -- wayfinding work. Power to our mucky-up-to-the-elbows arms. Respect!

M. Simon said...

You are late to the game. I have been doing something as soon as I figured out something had to be done:

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

Besides being a fanboy I can do the math.

Now have you done your math on composting? Assuming we don't all go back to farming, exactly how big a compost pile will be required for a 160 acre farm? Who will manage it? How much will it cost? What are the yields vs oil/fertilizer based farming?

Suppose my hobby is electronics and not gardening? Will there be enough for me to eat?

If you haven't run the numbers you are as bad as the rest.

From what I have read we will have to starve to death quite a few people to make organic work due to low yields vs industrial farming. A consultation with Mao may be in order depending on how your numbers work out.

Kevin said...

I am so glad you're covering the nitty gritty of this. I've been quietly hoping that someone would explain to me the operational rudiments and basic design requirements of a composting bin without my having to wade into whole books on the topic. And YouTube vids just haven't proven satisfactory in this regard.

I confess to having a good deal of the Squick Factor active in my makeup (I once threw a fit over a worm I found in my salad). However once a bin is acquired - probably a worm bin in my case - the main biophobia to deal with will be not my own, but that of family members who are not in on this with me. So I'll probably have to stick the thing outside. Happily my flat has a back yard.

I hope this isn't too weird a question, but - I've heard of people piping their water through an outdoor compost heap to produce hot water; has anyone successfully used a worm bin to warm things up inside their house? On purpose, I mean.

Getting back to the squick factor - don't our little crawly friends occasionally get out of the bin and wriggle around the house? Some people (like me) might find that unsettling.

Oh yeah - and when you buy a worm bin, does it, er... come with worms? Supposing you build one instead, where do you get them? I've never bought a can of worms for fishing or other purposes, so it's all a mystery to me.

Cherokee Organics said...


The multitude of compost worms at Cherokee give you a big word up!

I've mentioned it before but sometimes when I think about it honestly, the worm farm that I'm now running, is one of the major reasons behind my whole sustainable adventure.

Composting worms punch well above their weight and in our household, they eat everything from fruit & vegie scraps to raw sewage to weeds. Best of all they provide us (and with no other energy input as it's run on gravity) outstanding vermicast (worm poo) and minerals and trace elements, plus returning all used and cleaned water to the soil. It couldn't get any better or simpler. It has no strong odour either as it is a very well drained and ventilated system.

Now I understand how it is put together and works, I could reproduce it using timber and fly wire if I had to.

There is the yuk factor for most people though. Just because something flushes out your house plumbing doesn't mean that it has disappeared. It's simply another case of "away" that you mentioned a few posts ago, albeit in a slightly different format.

Sometime ago I started thinking about soil fertility as a dynamic system.

Most people tend to think of soil fertility as a static function, but this may because as a society we tend to rely on chemical fertilisers, herbicides, monocultures. As you see the same crops growing in the same spot year after year, it may look as though it is possible to produce these mono crops year in year out when in fact it is a major systemic weakness and will require more inputs from the farmers every year.

If I drink a coffee with beans that have been sourced from say Byron Bay or Indonesia, I know that if those coffee grounds and my outputs end up in the worm farm then I have in effect transported some of the soil fertility from those areas to mine. Some of the fertility may be lost through the water table via leaching in heavy rains, but most just hangs around getting used by the plants and animals around here.

If you compost and don't distribute too much of your home grown produce, then you soon become a net importer of soil fertility this way. It doesn't take that much effort either, but it is real wealth because the healthier that your soil is, the more nutrients will be delivered to you and your animals in your own home grown produce.

Good luck!

phil harris said...

I particularly like your recommendation for indoor composting with worms. Better in all ways than putting with other garbage for collection and land-fill.
We still have ours outside though. I was given a 'seed lot' of suitable worms as (part of) my retirement present more than a dozen years ago. Conditions are not always ideal for them, but they keep coming. (That reminds me, I need to make our lid aerated. And, they do not like animal remains - I put half a dead rabbit in the large bin once and nearly killed the lot - I suspect H2S poisoning.)
We have a very large garden and 3 compost heaps. One for substantial garden materials that can include farmyard manure and be moistened by urine. The second is a large bale of spoiled straw donated by the local farm, covered with a tarp, and receives human urine. The 3rd is the wormery. It has to be rodent proof in our situation otherwise the poor dears will get eaten on occasion. (Seemed to be happening for a while until I fixed it.) Rats in our situation can be significant issue for any heaps that are not caged securely.
Separating worms from the excellent compost is not always easy - but laying on a large sheet of black plastic on a hot day seems to do the trick and the worms get repatriated to the large bin.
Good luck to all you bio-recyclers.

tubaplayer said...

How strange that in this issue you choose to talk about compost JMG. After all the deep analysis somewhat down to earth with a bump.

It is strange because just this very morning the goat shed has been mucked out and is half way to going on the compost heap even as I write.

I'm looking forward to some wonderful compost as much greenery has been pre-processed by passing through the digestive system of the goats.

As ever I look forward to the next installment.

Andy Brown said...

Because we haven't been doing a kitchen garden, we have been able to be pretty generous with our scraps. Yes we get a wheelbarrow of good dirt out of the compost heap now and then, but it accumulates slowly. That's mostly because the annelids and microbes only seem to get what the neighbors don't swipe. That is, the stuff we discard gets taken by (or as I like to think, "transformed into") crows, jays, raccoons, deer, coyotes, vultures, wasps, flies, and I suspect, fishers, mice and salamanders. Dragonflies, phoebes, red-shouldered hawks, garter snakes and so on hang around -- as though it were some sort of little Serengeti waterhole -- to snap up the visitors.
Earlier, when I thought about becoming more dependent on the garden, and protecting my compost a bit from the their depredations, I kind of regretted the unneighborly attitude that goes along with gardening -- kill the bugs, harass the woodchuck, fence out the deer -- but now I'm thinking that if I gardened more, I would just have more compost to share!

DIYer said...

I just have a heap in my suburban back yard. Though I've heard tales of them catching fire, that shouldn't happen unless you put a significant amount of grease or oil into the mix. Bacon grease, rotten meat, etc. are a big no-no.

I water my heap every couple of days, but don't usually put in the effort to get that thermophilic action going. Yesterday a couple of little toads hopped out when I was adding some grass clippings, which gives me a sense of satisfaction.

Jason said...

On this particular item I'm lucky -- my local council is very compost-friendly. We are just starting to get kitchen waste collected for compost, and the council even produces this compost news leaflet organizing compost days, with master composter courses.

I've given thought to the latter... it seems silly as I don't have a garden and need to rely on the worm approach. But I may be sorting out a garden swap soon that will allow a more comprehensive method, and as JMG says, to be able and licensed to teach is always so useful.

John Michael Greer said...

Excellent -- it's good to hear from so many people who are already working at this. Just a few comments on specific questions:

Void, thanks for the info about hot climates -- I've spent my life in the temperate zone, and of course any form of agriculture that works with rather than against nature has to vary to take local conditions into account.

Joel, we'll be talking about cover crops and green manures in the not too distant future.

Rhisiart, same thing for mulching -- no shortage of useful techniques to discuss!

Simon, I was in this game in the 1970s and never got out of it, and I've been running the numbers for decades. That's why we won't be talking about composting for 160 acre farms; you use other methods for that kind of agriculture. Composting, using the techniques we're discussing here, is for intensive gardening rather than field agriculture. Your assumptions about yields for organics are also decades out of date; do some research, and you'll find that the yields are comparable to those of chemical methods.

By the way, Bussard's "polywell fusion" is simply a rehash of the old Farnsworth fusor from the 1960s, a neat laboratory curiosity but not an energy source. Seife's Sun In A Bottle does a good job of cutting through the hype.

Kevin, you don't have to worry about worms crawling all over the house! They stay where it's nice and damp, in the bin. If you Google "vermicomposting" you can access sites that will sell you worms, bin and all.

Cherokee, excellent. As it happens, we'll be discussing soil as an ecosystem shortly.

Andy, that's fascinating. We certainly get birds hanging around the compost bin to snap up unwary insects, but that's about it.

DIYer, we'll be talking about toads in the not too distant future. If you've got toads in your garden, rejoice -- they're among the best natural pesticides you can have.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I'd like to encourage anybody who has a favorite book on composting, or any of the topics we'll be covering in upcoming posts, to post a comment with the author, title, and why it's good. All these Green Wizard posts will eventually become a book, and anything that looks good will go into the resource lists for each section!

sofistek said...

I've had a few goes at composting, without a lot of success, though I keep trying, and have another heap on the go right now. However, some permaculturists shy away from composting. Linda Woodrow, says she avoids composting whenever she can, though she still does some. Instead, her scraps go into the chickens, who then release manure. The chickens are in a moveable coop (a "chook dome") and service a new patch of garden every two weeks. I'm trying that approach also, though with a larger interval between moves, at the moment.

Of course, the chickens don't eat everything but "waste" also rots down naturally in the soil.

There's a guy who practices "whole systems agriculture" and throws all the waste into the paths between beds, until it rots down enough to throw on the beds themselves.

Robert C. Guy said...

"The Squick Factor is the ingrained and unreasoning terror of biological existence that's hardwired into the psyches of so many people nowadays...biophobia. Compost is life – damp, oozing, crawling, slithering, breeding, dying and being reborn – and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days." Astounding John! I've often expressed to my fiancĂ©e variations of my frustration with the way people behave in the modern American home where the ultimate goal appears to be to drive all living organisms and evidence of the cycles of nature from the home "Something living has entered into my presence and I must destroy it or drive it away from me!" so that, without expressing or accepting it, what people appear to have surrounded themselves with is an absence of life, an interesting attempt to live in pathways and pockets of death. Perhaps not directly related but it reminds me of something I heard in a talk or video (the source is gone from my mind though I could mistakenly associate it with anyone's voice in my thoughts whether Alan Watts, Wade Davis or E. F. Schumacher and Google gives me only the First Earth interview with Tim Ream though I don't think was where I first heard it) "Extinction is not death, it is the end of birth."

Jim Brewster said...

Ah, biophobia! It surely has a functional adaptive basis, like avoiding disease, but has become so very dysfunctional in modern Western society. And it makes us dependent on "professionals" and complex infrastructure for the most basic necessities, life's basic input and output.

From birth to health to death, and from food and water to sewage and garbage, we're told we're better off "leaving it to the professionals." And in the name of convenience and avoiding all that icky stuff along with personal responsibility, we tend to comply.

Not that professional services are a bad thing, but we need to enter the transactions as full participants and mindful of the fact that we can't avoid the cycles. In working with them we can use them to our benefit. In trying to avoid them, we often as not turn them against us.

njh said...

We use a thermocompost pile to keep our greenhouse warm. Jean Pain (nothing to do with tight pants, rather, bread) heated all his house's hot water that way.

DIYer said...

Discussion of that "Squick factor" just triggered another memory for me -- we were eating out one evening about 5 years ago, at a nice Austin restaurant which shall be unnamed.

I was working on the salad and saw something move. It was a caterpillar of those little yellow butterflies that always get into your brassicaceous crops. I just laughed and pointed it out to Mary, saying it was proof that the produce was indeed garden-fresh. You know, I could have eaten the thing, sort of a countryfolks' sashimi. But the waiter noticed us, almost swallowed his tongue, came over and whisked the salad away. They comped our whole meal, it was great fun!

ChristineStone said...

In our compost bin we grow squashes and melons, in the South of the UK. Start them off in pots in the greenhouse, then when they are about 8-12 inches tall, sprinkle a few inches of soil onto the top of the bin and plant the plants. It doesn't seem to matter how fresh and un-decomposed the top layer of compost is. The squash love the nutrients as they grow and trail all over the place, so it is difficult to carry on adding more scraps and garden waste. You need to have a second bin to use in the meantime, or carefully feed new waste in under the squash leaves.

gaias daughter said...

A few comments on worm bins. I bought one thinking it could be used inside or out, as the promo suggested, but it came with the admonishments to keep it where temps were below 85, above 40, no direct sun and no rain. Having no such place out of doors, it ended up in my kitchen. There is, as others pointed out, no odor and the worms stay put -- they do not like light and will not stray from home. I did have problems with fruit flies until I stopped adding fruit and vegetable scraps -- I now add only egg shells (dried and crushed), coffee grounds, tea bags and paper. Other scraps go out in the tumbling compost bin -- which, as JMG warned, was an expensive mistake. Once a tumbling bin gets a load going it would take Superman to turn it. But I have it and use it. As for worm bins, you can easily make your own -- lots of advice if you Google 'worm bin.' Just make sure to get red wiggler worms not night crawlers.

On another note, Will Allen at uses the hot composting method to keep his greenhouses warm all winter. Works even in cold places like Chicago, Denver and Milwaukee.

Yupped said...

Great place to start. I've been working for a while with two compost piles side be side, so that I can add newer bits of stuff to one, while the other is closer to giving up the gold. I found this tip in John Seymour's Sustainable Life book.

How about rats? I've shied away from putting meat and protein scraps into the compost, because of rat worries. Having said that, I still have to trap a few rats regularly that congregate around the garbage anyway.

What things would you recommend not putting into the compost (besides plastic and other packaging)?


Jim Brewster said...

Since a lot of people are sharing their composting methods, I'll add to the heap. I've been composting steadily since we bought our house 5 years ago, sporadically much longer than that. My parents have been composting for about 35 years.

My bin was provided by the county extension service. It is a 3'x 10' sheet of stiff black plastic with 2" holes distributed throughout. It is joined by 2 bolts at the short ends to form a cylinder about 3' high by 3' in diameter. I plan to construct bins out of straw or hay bales, which will eventually become part of the compost, but this simple bin and some chicken wire hoops of similar dimension have served me well so far.

I've gone through different methods ranging from frequent turning to no turning. Besides vegetable scraps I add all kinds of stuff that you're not supposed to add: fish and shellfish scraps, bones (after boiling them for stock), dairy, grease (absorbed into paper or dry leaves). I too have recently been influenced and encouraged by Jenkins' approach. I don't turn the compost, but scrape a "basin" in the top, until I start to see yesterday's additions, add my kitchen scraps, then bury well with wet straw.

Turning is hard work and seems disruptive to the creatures in the pile; I'd rather let them do the heavy lifting.

I think the biggest piece of advice I could give, at least for humid temperate to subtropical climes like mine, is that it's hard to go wrong with straw. Straw is enough of a "brown" material (i.e. high carbon/low nitrogen) to balance out most other inputs, but not so low in N as to seriously stifle the process if you use too much (straw will eventually compost all by itself). It provides excellent aeration and refuge for worms and other critters, especially if the center of the heap gets too hot for them.

This year I'm also experimenting with straw bale gardening, which will provide more compost and mulch as the bales break down. Overall I've been moving toward less mowing and digging. I've been figuring out ways to work with the weeds and trees that sprout in the garden rather than digging them out by the roots, something akin to the coppicing and hedge-witchery practices of old England. Some of the weeds are good eating, or at least more good mulch and compost material.

darius said...

Ahh, compost!

It is my desire to become compost myself once what we call 'life' has left this body, returning my nutrients to the earth. Alas, it is not to be; laws now require us to add preservatives and then sequester our forms into leak-proof containers...

On garden composting: there are some balances that need to be addressed (and I assume you will), such as phosphorus sources. I just posted a little about that aspect here:

You could spend a full year writing about composting and not cover it all. Sigh.

clay said...

In cleaning my attic I have come across the mother load of green wizardry. Long ago I organized, boxed, and stashed away the complete issues of Rain magazine only to have forgotten about them until your columns on gleaning the wisdom from the ancient tomes of the 70's. Please let me know if there is interest in figuring out how to make this availible to all.

Mercury said...

Great post and topic.

In his book The Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman wrote an interesting chapter on compost. He has run a small organic farm for 30 years and seems like he really knows his stuff.

Also, I have a couple questions and am wondering if someone might address them. 1) Is it ok to put weeds in a small compost pile? Or what weeds should one not put in a compost pile?
2)I am a member of a community garden with about 60 12x12 foot plots. We are thinking of making a compost system of some sort for the garden. Would making a larger system be any different from the home-scale techniques? Thanks.

Bill Pulliam said...

void --

"For soil carbon humus is useless in warm climates."

Forgive my bluntness, but this is absolutely untrue. Soil organic matter is the foundation of natural soil fertility in virtually all soils worldwide, including in the warm, wet tropics. The turnover rate is higher, of course, but everything happens faster in the tropics. SOM decomposition in Brazil is only about twice as fast as it is in Tennessee, which does not change the nature of the game at all. It's true that you can deplete natural SOM and natural soil fertility more rapidly in warmer and wetter climates IF you are using unsustainable agricultural practices. It's also true that if you have just clearcut a rain forest there is a larger fraction of the natural SOM in the surface layers and forest floor which can burn away pretty quickly if not managed well. That is also true on some northern soils. You can ruin any soil if you mistreat it, and then have to spend decades coaxing it back to life.

The problems between soils are often more related to physical substrate differences than broad climate zones -- sand is hard to get anything retained in, for instance, no matter what climate zone you are in. Still, when we lived in a sandbox in subtropical rainy coastal South Carolina we managed to eventually build up nice fertile nutrient-retaining soil (in spite of hardly knowing what we were doing) with just plain old-fashioned compost and manure additions over the years. Oxisols (a.k.a. "latterite"), which are common in the tropics, can also go bad really fast if poorly treated -- this is a function of the nature of their clay minerals. not the behavior of their SOM.

The natural cycles of carbon and nitrogen in soil follow the same general patterns worldwide. You don't have to invoke high-tech bioengineering principles or synthetic materials like biochar even if you are in the middle of a rain forest.

But you do need to learn something about where you live and what the problems and advantages of your own local geography and pedology are.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cover crops, sheet-mulching, in-situ composting, etc. -- all this has an underlying theme. The name of the game is to get partly decomposed organic matter in the root zone of your plants that has a good ratio of carbon to nitrogen, and have this in an environment that has enough air in it that it'll continue to break down slowly and release good stuff for the plants. Keep the big picture in mind (those basic ecology texts oughta cover it) and all the particular variants make more sense.

Critters and compost working together are good at accomplishing this; other things work that way too. Sometimes digging the soil lets in too much air and speeds the decomposition too much, so too many nutrients come out too fast and get washed away. Other times the soil is too packed down and dense, and it needs to be loosened up somehow. Digging can to this; over a longer time scale so can worms, ants (even the despised fire ant), plant roots, etc. There's not a one-size-fits-all, not even within one single plot. If your garden plot is located where the previous owner used to park his old truck on one side and where he used to pile the raked leaves on the other side, you'll have to take completely different approaches to the two halves of your one small garden!

Wendy said...

My annelids and arthropods say hi ;).

It's quite possible that, at least on the periphery of my compost pile, things are not quite hot enough, because those little buggers have a nice potato crop growing, and I believe the compost added to my garden is responsible for the amazing crop of hubbard squash I have this year (I didn't plant the seeds, but I'm definitely going to have a bumper crop - enough for a couple squash per month through the whole winter. If the worst case scenario occurs this winter, we'll have squash to sustain us ;).

I would like to offer a comment here about those fancy (read: expensive) rotating drum composters and say, unless one wishes to spend a great deal of time tending one's compost and adding special ingredients to help with the break down process, the compost pile works much better - at least in my experience. We've always had a (fairly unsightly) compost pile, usually made of three pallets lashed together with an open front, but a few years ago we were trying to improve the aesthetics of our suburban nanofarm, and so we bought a composter. It never worked nearly as well as the pile, and we ended up giving it away to some friends, who also say that it doesn't work very well for them. My mother-in-law has a smaller version of ours, and hers doesn't work very well, either. I suppose it probably would work well for someone who had the interest in taking the time to make it work, or perhaps it was that it's just too cold here in Maine for it to really do a good job - regardless of the reason, for us, tossing everything in a pile works so much better.

And gives us a bonus potato crop and squash crop, to boot *grin*.

Cathy McGuire said...

Good topic; very appropriate to sunny summer days – perfect time to get the compost heap started or reworked. I just turned mine over as I dumped in the chicken bedding.

Aside from compactness, is there a reason a bin is preferred? I took down an old one when I moved here, and shifted everything to along a fence (with a steel door backing, otherwise the wood fence rots)… but it’s a 10ftW by 4ftH by 4ftD heap. I had removed a lot of turf for the garden and turned it upside down in the pile, and it’s slowly composting… it was an ultra slow pile until the chickens arrived. I’m seeing faster results now. I just switched to straw bedding (from pine shavings) and I hope that also helps (I’d heard wood in the compost really slows things down). I did have a smaller pile that did not include any weeds, but the only place for that was too shaded and it didn’t do well… now I just hope I can get enough oomph, or leave it long enough, that the weed/grass is completely dead and absorbed before it goes back on the garden!

My favorite book about soil is “Life in the Soil” James B. Nardi (U. of Chicago Press) – if you really want to get to know your soil neighbors!

Leave [grass clippigs] lying for a couple of days before raking it up, so that it wilts and starts to turn brown, and then you can add it to your compost bin with good results.)
since I have a large compost pile, I spread it across the top to dry, then dig it under.

lesson number three for a sustainable society: nature doesn’t negotiate
this is certainly true for organic gardens! Without the sledgehammer of pesticides you have to keep Nature in balance! And it’s tricky!!

and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days. And yet some of those same people go to see horror movies – what gives??

@sofistek There's a guy who practices "whole systems agriculture" and throws all the waste into the paths between beds, until it rots down enough to throw on the beds themselves. And how does he keep out slugs and other bugs that hatch in the waste then come snack on the garden??

Jason said...

BTW on another topic, the internet price hiking about which JMG has been warning for a while looks set to begin on Monday.

Jonathan Blake said...

For those with a case of the squicks, an alternative is bokashi composting. It uses anaerobic organisms like lactobacillus, a microbe which lives symbiotically in our own digestive tract and is used to make yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, etc.

The process involves airtight containers and no arthropods. The only issue is that the compost will smell like pickles, especially when you get to the step where you bury the compost to let the wild microbial culture finish the composting process.

You could create your bokashi culture and bin from scratch, but there are people willing to sell you the necessary kit.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Hmmm. Posted a pretty long entry last night about my worm box and it hasn't shown up. Darn. Hate when that happens.

So, the short version... Have had a worm box for over a year, works well, plants happy.

An Eaarthly Planner said...

There’s lesson number one for a sustainable society: the word “garbage” simply means a resource we aren’t clever enough to use yet.

I think it's actually proof that we're far too clever by half. Or at least we think we are. How civilized to throw "away" all our "garbage"! I'm taking a lesson from Jenkins (author of the Humanure Handbook) and trying to strike the word "waste" from my vocabulary, insofar as is possible (how else to refer to industrial effluent?).

Don Plummer said...

I had never had any success with composting, even though I attended seminars and such. In addition, when we moved to our present house, my wife didn't want an "ugly" compost bin in our yard.

Then some students of mine found this little set of instructions from Cornell University Extension for making a composter from a 32- and a 20-gallon garbage container. In essence, you drill drainage holes in the smaller one and nest it inside the larger one. Last summer we tried it and it works very well. I just created a second one so I can have one curing while the other one is receiving more material.

We have put vegetable scraps, garden and yard waste, leaves, and other material in it. It heats up quite well, though I don't know quite how warm it gets. We keep them in the garage for most of the year. Every month or so we pull the smaller unit out and drain the "compost tea" that collects in the bottom.

Don Plummer said...

Kevin, if you want your worms to stay alive, they can't go into a thermophilic compost bin. It gets too hot for them there. The worm bin stays cool and damp, so running your pipes through it won't work. Aside from that, I hadn't heard about heating water that way.

frijolitofarmer said...

Ha! I love it! "Biophobia" is just the word I've been needing. For the past few years, as I've tangled with neighbors, health inspectors, and a zoning official in the course of my new career as an urban farmer, I've run headlong into the brick wall of other people's squick factors time and time again. Inspired by farmer and author Gene Logsdon's use of his term "Acorn Tree Syndrome," used to describe the biophobes' ignorance of the natural world, I've written a good many blog posts on the theme of what I've termed "urban sensibilities."

"Biophobia," however, is much more precise, and, I think, a little harder hitting, as people are far more apt to be embarrassed about being afraid of life than they are about being urban and sensible. Kudos, sir and wordsmith.

I was a little surprised not to see The Humanure Handbook on your list. Perhaps that's too much squick factor for an introduction to composting?

Houyhnhnm said...

An leaky galvanized 100 gallon water tank serves as our household compost bin. It's served us well for many years now.

However, our other "compost bin" is now a major source of joy. When we moved to our 20 acres almost 31 years ago, the SE corner was some three feet below the level of the entry road. Not even weeds would grow in the heavy, damp clay of this quarter acre or so. Before we got the fireplace insert, I buried newspapers (local one uses soy ink), tree scraps, and anything large that would eventually rot there, but it was the 31 years of horse manure --800, maybe a 100 tons or so-- that did the trick.

For years, I didn't see a worm ANYWHERE on our property. Now red worms wriggle when I turn over a shovel full of soil in this formerly barren area. Also, what was a dank eyesore is now attractively level with our entry road. This spring it was also waist high with grass until I cut it, dodging wildflowers to the best of my ability.


Albus said...

Another wonderful posting, JMG!

During your first couple entries on your “Green Wizard” series, I was concerned that you might be dealing only with the nuts-and-bolts aspect of appropriate technology (which, granted, is extremely important) without addressing the issue of how we perceive the environment and ourselves, and the tools/machines that we develop and use to interact between the two. I see the wrong perceptual “fork in the road” that Western society took post-Renaissance as being crucial to our present predicament – and unless or until that is corrected (I know that’s a tall order!), we ourselves as Green Wizards-to-be will ourselves unintentionally perpetuate this perceptual dysfunction. I had been hoping that with the title of “wizard” for the course, we would be delving into the issue of perception, for a wizard without wisdom is merely a mechanic or a walking encyclopedia!

Now I see that I was simply being impatient: your July 28 posting (re: intentionality) cleared my misconceptions. And now, with your weaving of “lessons for a sustainable society” into a description of a key practice of green wizardry (composting), it is clear that you are integrating the “philosophy” with the “practical”. Well done!

I am also delighted with the calibre of my fellow-readers and their helpfulness in pointing out relevant documents/projects. Definitely some good synergies are developing here!

Rest assured that a couple of copies of the Master Conserver course materials are in safe hands in Toronto. As for your assignments, I am progressing as fast as I can under the circumstances.

(an aside – FYI only, JMG)
This is my first entry on your blog, John.

I did not know of your existence until January of this year, when your most recent book on geomancy practically threw itself at me from the shelf of my local public library. At the time I had not even heard of geomancy (somehow my undergrad humanities courses on the Renaissance conveniently neglected it), but since then I have been devoting nearly all of my free time to it, and have been poring over your book numerous times in the old-fashioned style of study you described in your July 7 post, besides practicing it on a daily basis. It has been an extremely rewarding experience! In gratitude, I am using a geomantic moniker for communication on the blog – the one that best seems to describe my character (for all the strengths and weaknesses it entails). Now I am being torn between my passion for geomancy and my latest passion – Green Wizardry!

Our lives have many parallels, including lifelong interests in the mystical/esoteric, ancient and foreign cultures, great admiration for both Schumaker and Gandhi, and careers as writers. Not to mention a great love of appropriate technology. One of my great passions while earning a degree in Environmental Studies was biogas (easy in tropical climes; challenging in Canada). We are also the same age. I am happy that my reintroduction to many of the topics that had previously interested me, following an 18-year hiatus, have occurred under your tutelage (so to speak) and with the prompting and guidance of Anima Mundi.

Hal said...

I use a system for composting inspired by Eliot Coleman. His book, The New Organic Gardner is a very good source on commercial vegetable production, and I hope would answer some of M Simon's comments about scale. Yes, it's doable, and it doesn't take a great big heap. Coleman gives a basic conceptual outline for growing your own compost crop. It works, but obviously, you have to substitute land for artificial inputs. That means a lower yield per acre if you were to compare it with growing crops on those acres with artificial inputs. In many cases, that's not a practical alternative, anyway for reasons of soil suitability, slope, water availability, etc.

So I'm going to have to come down in agreement with the one tiny nugget of truth in M Simon's last paragraph. I don't think real sustainable (as opposed to "organic") agriculture can support the current human population. Well, I think anyone would have to agree that, in the absence of some technological fix that doesn't presently exist, that's just the way it is. You can wish and hope for a different reality, and, heck, maybe it'll happen, but it hasn't happened yet, and time is getting short. I don't care what the numbers tell you, I'll take it seriously when I see the kilowatts.

The numbers tell me that humans lived on this planet pretty sustainably for millions of years, but the scale of energy use and human population pencil out a little different than if you start with what you want them to be.

It's a bit cart-before-horse to say "something had to be done," and then jump to a solution necessary to give you the desired output. Necessity won't conjure up fusion any faster than it'll hasten the arrival of JMG's flatulent unicorns.

I started a longer comment on how and what I compost, but won't hog the space here with it. I'll reactivate my blog and put it in there if anyone is interested.

Terry said...

My involvement with "the microbe-American community" began even before I started gardening.

When I finally did, I had several cubic yards of luscious dirt, and my crops have shown much appreciation by growing big and healthy.

I'm still a newbie, but I'm convinced that it all starts with the dirt!

sgage said...


Eliot Coleman is an excellent source of information and ideas, especially if you live in New England as I do. His tips on season extension are right on.

When looking for good resources re: organic gardening and such, it pays to find an "authority" who lives in your general neck of the woods, and has been there for a while.

The real knowledge is local knowledge.

Hal said...

Oh, yeah, one more thought about scale. The way I look at sustainable growing, it's more fractal than linear. You don't expand in scale by choosing one part of the operation, e.g., a commodity row crop, and adding more of the same. It's more like to have a 160-acre farm, you build four 40-acre farms, and a 40-acre farm is just eight 5-acre farms (the average farm size in Europe, BTW.)

Of course, that requires more farmers. We will need to move past the model of the "farmer" as manager of 3000 acres, 4 tractor drivers and a couple million dollars worth of equipment.

Kevin said...

Don, thanks for pointing that out. It should have occurred to me that worms wouldn't enjoy 190 F temperatures.

A composting bin using thermophilic bacteria might still generate some indoor heat though, couldn't it? Obviously it would have to be made of steel or other non-flammables. Just a thought.

Paul said...

Darius said:

It is my desire to become compost myself once what we call 'life' has left this body, returning my nutrients to the earth. Alas, it is not to be; laws now require us to add preservatives and then sequester our forms into leak-proof containers...

Not quite true. I am Jewish, and I can tell you that traditional Orthodox Jewish practice has been and is to bury the dead within 1 day of their death. Without any preservatives. In a plain pine box, with a mesh bottom so that your bodily fluids will escape into the ground. Eventually the box will also decay, and so will your bones.

There is no restriction against burying someone like this that I have ever heard of in the US. Yes, you'll want to use a licensed funeral home and bury the person in a licensed cemetery (backyard burial is something of a curiosity-raiser for the folks that wear blue and decorate it with shiny pieces of metal), but no chemicals are needed, nor are leakproof containers.

Zach said...

Well. It's comforting, at least, to know that it's not just me that finds the barrel tumbler to be ... suboptimal. The darn thing still hasn't cooked down what we put in this spring.

On the positive side, for once I'm ahead in the assignments and already have Worms Eat My Garbage home from the library. Onward to actually making a bin and populating it -- one advantage of homeschooling; you can make the kids do it and count it as science homework. :)


Lamb said...

I live in an area that is best described as "the sweaty, swampy, smelly armpit of Texas". EVERYTHING is liable to compost here, if it sits in one place for longer than a few hours!
I have a small compost heap behind my apartment building (I am on the 3ed floor). Worms love it, squirrels, frogs and various other critters hang out there looking for a snack on occasion. I don't even turn it, as the local fauna does a fine job at it.
Since this is not intended to be my permanent home---I will be moving within a few months---the heap will either stay there to continue to feed the healthy weed patch behind the building, or one of my neighbors may decide to grab a shovel full or two to help out their potted plants.

FernWise said...

Rats are a problem for friends who would compost in DC, which has a HUGE rat problem. They went for a plastic rotating composter because of that.

Here in the suburbs I've had bunnies playing in the compost heap, but not seen 'vermin' type rodents in it. Which is not to say that I've not seen mice and rats both in and out of my house - just that I don't see them in by the compost heap. The possom LOVES it there, tho'.

I've not had problems when I add freshly cut grass to my heap. That might be beause our grass never goes into 'growth overdrive' since we don't fertilize the lawn.

Our heap is over 70% grass clippings, about 20% starbuck's coffee grounds (we leave a bucket there, they fill it, we exchange buckets about once a week), and 10% food scraps.

david k said...

Great Post! And great topic, JMG.

My compost pile has reached 150 F this summer. Nothing fancy, just a wooden bin, 4 ft sq. I add a bucket of kitchen scraps whenever the bucket is full. When I mow the lawn, if there is a lot of clippings I mix them into the compost in layers. In the fall I mow over the fallen leaves and add them to the pile, again rotating things around.

I really like this poem by Walt Whitman, it touches on "biophobia." I think you composters will like it:

Melissa M. said...

Hello, long time lurker here.

Regarding worms, I've been composting with worms for around two years now and these are the notable things that I discovered. If the bin is home made, it will have to be designed to drain well, and worms need a moderate temperature, neither freezing, nor cooking. They can't handle vegetables with harsh oils such as onions and hot peppers. While there's no notable smell, there's an occasional crop of fruit flies that that can be decimated with a glass bottle holding some sweet wine. My worms enjoy non-glossy newsprint as a substrate, and it's fun to peek in occasionally to watch for baby worms and figure out what the most popular scraps are. You will occasionally have to touch one to shoo one away from the lid, but doing so is far less gross than accidentally killing one and ending up with dried worm near the top of the bin. If you don't mind the squirminess and slime, they're some of the most charming and inoffensive pets around.

Mr. Greer, I'm glad you're getting into the hands-on stuff, but I have a slight concern. It's probably too late to keep things light, but I hope you can keep them approachable for the average layman (or woman).

Long story short, I'm 28, can make or repair many things made of wood, metal or cloth, handle docile animals and know a tiny bit of scratch cooking. But my Lemon Balm and zucchini are kicking the bucket, the cool summer is wreaking havoc with the tomatoes, and my Chamomile tincture looks vaguely terrifying. More terrifying is the realization that I am actually ahead of the curve. So when I see sites or blogs about growing and canning umpteen things from scratch weekly, cooking very complicated things, doing without cars and refrigerators and living in such a sparse way that most Europeans would wince, my eyes glaze over, my brain locks up, and I conclude that we're all going to starve/bake/freeze/die of minor infection or be devoured by coyotes. And so I click several sites over to look at what those cute little LOLcats are doing.

I'm sure you're aware of the risk of brain-freeze, but I had to mention it. Anyway, thank you for your blog.

Lavanah said...

We have rabbits and deer poking through whichever is the newest compost pile for goodies (we usually have 2 or 3 going), they don't disturb the piles much and help a bit with the stirring. Also, any of their droppings can be scooped onto the piles to help heat them up.

Houyhnhnm said...

One of the lead stories in today's Your Guide to Equine Health Care is "On Farm Mortality: Consider Composting."

The article gives directions on how to compost a dead horse (or whatever).


SophieGale said...

The Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew has a ton on composting and worm culture. They have charts on how much green stuff (nitrogen providers)to add to how much brown stuff (table scraps, cardboard, etc.), and yes, a section on heating water by running a hose through the compost pile. For a complete list of topics covered:

Composting in a hot climate: Cuba went thru its Peak Oil crisis in 1990 when the Soviet cut their oil shipments by 50% and food shipments by 80% The average Cuban lost 20 lb before they got the organic farming under control. Check out the CD The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil They did worm culture in long trenches.

Under Appropriate Technology: Mageprof's wheelbarrow of firewood made me think of Eric Sloane's farm sledges... The link is too long to post, but go to Google Books, A Museum of Early American Tools by Eric Sloane, pp 86-87.

Linda T. said...

I love worms! In the soil, in a pile, o in a box. I had a worm box for over 3 years and also had two different compost piles (I was living in So CA at the time), while one was finishing, I stated adding things to the other one. When I located to another state, it was too big, so I had to sell it. I now have another one.Yippee... And there are several compost piles in various stages at my community garden where I have two plots.
I have several books about composting and vericomposting, but my favorite one about composting is "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide: Banner batches, grow heaps, comforter compost, and other amazing techniques for saving time and money, and producing ... most flavorful, nutritous vegetables ever" by Barbara Pleasant and Deborah L. Martin. I found it especially user friendly,easy to understand,and liked how it went more into the 30:1 ratio necessary for the pile. In 2009, I took a master Composting class, and during the class we spent one day at the local community garden. They showed us several tumblers, and said for various reasons they don't work anywhere near as well as they were hoping. (I relocated again after taking that class..)
Since Biochar has been mentioned again, I've tried before to comment that there are 3 Yahoo listservs that I know of for info. BioChar, Biochar Soils, and BioChar Production. I also went to a Biochar conference last year that was very exciting. It could help us address several problems besides soil fertility and nutrient depletion.
Also, Eliot Coleman has a new book called "Winter Harvest Handbook" which is very exciting.

Linda T. said...

I forgot to mention I want to join the League of Doomer Librarians.

Arabella said...

The weekend after the assignment to 'go forth to the used bookstore, Green-Wizards-in-training, and partake of the wealth therein,' we did so and found perhaps the forerunner of the Rodale book you mentioned. It is from 1960, "The complete book of composting," by J.I. Rodale, et. al. (I just noticed that one of the et-al-ers is Jerry Minnich.)
Over 1000 pages, including the index.

I had heard of Master Composter programs previously and had gotten the impression that costs were in the $200 range. After reading this post, I checked again, and either the price has come way down in the last few years, or I was mistaken. A mere $40 through the University of Vermont. Can't beat that with a stick.

Many thanks, JMG, for your ongoing inspiration, wisdom, and tuition.

Mark said...

You can also compost in place in your veg garden. Sheet-mulching or Lasagna Gardening your waste right onto the soil in your garden will create a beautiful, slow nutrient releasing form of compost that you only move once. Just pile everything you would compost (kitchen scraps, paper, cardboard, leaves, straw, grass clippings, etc.) onto of the beds in your vegetable garden. You can even bury the raw material under mulch in your garden, adding yet another layer of drought protection, thereby limiting your need to water as well.

LewisLucanBooks said...

I've had a worm box going for well over a year now. By way of explanation, I live (camp out) in the back of my store. I have one big window that faces east. I keep the books back out of the sun and have put a large plant stand in the front window.

I bought one of those big 11 x 17 x 22 inch plastic storage containers on sale with lid. I drilled three drain holes at one end. I nailed together an oblong of 2 x 4s and slipped it under the bin with a piece of 2 x 4 under the end away from the drain holes to give it a pitch so the "worm juice" will drain into a container.

I had to travel a distance to get the right red worms and they were a bit pricey, I thought. $25 a pound. But, I figure I can sell off some or swap for produce. Or the pleasure of just gifting them. I have named every one of them. I started out with some shredded newspaper the the dirt from a couple of pot of failed houseplants.

I drink a lot of coffee and tea and eat a banana and apple a day. I keep the scraps in a plastic bread wrapper and once a week, dig out a hole and put the scraps in. I rotate around the outside of the box. Corner, halfway down the long side, corner, corner, etc. So, one go around is about 7 weeks which seems long enough to have everything break down.

I take a good stiff piece of cardboard, bent in the middle. I scoop out 3 or so big servings of dirt and pick through for the worms and return the to the box. Bend cardboard and slide all into a gallon storage bag. I have 4 bags reserve.

Problems and observations: Coffee filters (the brown ones) and tea bags seem to lump into hard little dry nuggets. Maybe more shredding. But with my CSA box, I've got more then enough scraps. Sometimes I skip a week, just to let everything REALLY break down.

Squick factor. The worm juice really looks nasty, but doesn't smell at all. And, it saved some miniature roses I had that had almost been overcome by fungus. They tripled in size, overcame the fungus and bloomed! Had fruit flies. Used some little plastic apple things that worked, but I didn't feel good about. More on organic fruit fly control please! Sweet wine (or sugar water?) and what kind of a bottle. Anyone have an organic control for wool moths?

Before the worm box, I had problems with mice and once, rats. I was running a regular trap line every 6 seeks. Then I got semi-feral kitty. Not a problem since.

That window and plant stand. I have a few miniature roses and christmas cactus (to feed my soul), mint and sweet basil. I'm looking into two tea plants (Raintree Nursery) and am thinking of ginger and a small edible bamboo. I'm thinking, not only things I eat, but slightly offbeat things I might be able to trade other things for. Things that everyone isn't growing. Kind of off topic, but I also just picked up two mushroom growing kits from Fungi Perfecti. Shitaki and Hen of the Woods.

sofistek said...

Here's a link to the whole systems agriculture method, I mentioned. The site is arranged as frames, so I've included a link is to a particular frame about mulching versus composting. It's a few years since I read anything on it.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Years ago, I read a book about the restoration of a huge English stately garden that had been abandoned about 1914. I remembered being really impressed by some photos of a greenhouse heated with compost ie: horse manure.

Well, I tracked it down. "The Lost Gardens of Heligan." In Cornwall. What I was remembering was that they grew pineapples. If you do a search "Heligan Pineapple Pits" you'll get an explanation.

What's really interesting is that a few years ago, I went to an estate sale, here in western Washington state. There was a small greenhouse. Brick foundation and walls about 3' high and the rest in glass. The south facing long side had a brick box, also about 3' high. At first I thought it was an odd plant bed, the inspection of the residue in the bottom proved it to be a heating box for manure to keep the greenhouse warm in the winter.

Good ideas never die ... they just disseminate.

SHTFblog said...

Druid dude, your posts always take a bit to digest, but they're worth the read.

- Ranger Man

ken said...

I have six compost bins. Two are commercially made and the other four are homemade. Three are active, two are being used and one is empty.

I compost everything and have had no problems with critters or rats. I do keep a cover of straw over the tops of those not in use and wire mesh over the active ones.

We pick up used coffee grounds from the local coffee shops, Starbucks too. We have for the past month or so, been picking up pulp and left over fruits and veggies from a local juice and salad bar restaurant where we live. We also go down to the beach and collect seaweed and add this as well. In addition, I add in char, as this is a good way to inoculate it.

For some reason my compost is an attraction to visitors to our place. Some have called it “gourmet compost” and one said’ she would have to bring a dessert plate over next time she visits. It seems to work for us and we have the beds and food growing to show its results.

I have given away worms to family and friends all over the northwest. It’s amazing how many are in my bins… millions I would guess. They and all the other microbes do wonders.

About the only good use for the tumbler type of composters I’ve heard of is, for mixing soils and organic fertilizer. I’ve tried one before and had no luck at all!

Here is my favorite chapter on composting from “The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins. I’ve learned more about composting from this than just about any other information.

Another good book on organic farming is “ Farmers of Forty Centuries” by F.H. King.

greatblue said...

Having previously had trouble with dogs getting into an unprotected compost pile into which I had put bread, I looked for a composter that would keep animals out and found the Homemade Food Scrap Digester (plans available from Seattle Tilth at )

The digester is essentially a galvanized garbage can with holes drilled in it sunk mostly in the ground. I use a bungee cord to keep the lid on. I put only fruit and vegetable scraps and eggshells in it and after two years I have some decent compost (though there are still bits of egg shell in it). So it's been extremely slow.

I have a number of theories about why it's been so slow: 1) this is Northern Michigan and it's often quite cool at night even in the hottest days of our short summer; 2) I used only greens and should have added more browns; 3) it's buried in soil that is mostly sand so maybe the environment is not conducive to worms as a less sandy soil would be (the worms are supposed to be able to get in through the holes drilled in the garbage can); 4) it's close to the house but in an area that is shady at least half the day; 5) I never stirred it up; 6) it may not be big enough in volume to produce a hot compost.

I have a second digester to which I'm adding more browns (maple leaves) and stirring it a bit. I'm also thinking of moving the digesters to a warmer spot. We'll see how it goes.

But even though it's slow, it's very easy, and I've had no troubles with any kind of animals. The product from the first is black and smells very good as you would expect earth to smell. So I would recommend this to anyone who wants something simple. You are bound to have faster results than I have, no matter what you do!

P.S. I'm glad to hear that the rotating ones don't work. I seriously thought about getting one (they look so great in the catalogs), but opted for this cheaper alternative. Now I'm glad I made the choice I did!

Melissa M. said...


Just any wine with a slightly fruity taste works. You only need enough to cover the bottom of the bottle and compensate for evaporation so there's no island of glass in the middle for the fruit flies to crawl on. Sugar water might work, as might other beverages, but I haven't experimented much.

For the bottle, any beer or wine bottle with a smooth lip will work. An amber or darker bottle will avoid the squick factor of watching fruit flies drown.

If the bottle with sweet wine at the bottom is placed near where they fly around and their food sources are minimized, they become lured by the sweet scent, land on the lip of the bottle, where the alcohol fumes, slick glass edge and their natural talent at drowning in beverages does them in. It's not super-potent, and the liquid needs to be replaced and the bottle washed now and then, but it's simple and safe.

If the flies are actually in the worm bin, placing strips of newspaper over the food makes it difficult for them to access it. Hope this helps.

Joel said...

My favorite book on composting is The Natural Way of Farming, by Masanobu Fukuoka. Currently out of print, but available free (only one copy of the .pdf per email account) from Steve Solomon's Soil and Health Library.

It mentions that, even in postwar Japan, wood is the cheapest source of organic matter for use as a soil amendment.

Like Ruth Stout, he was much more fond of sheet composting than thermophyllic composting, but he did quite a bit of trench composting as well.

In general, he seems to have spent a lot of time figuring out how to cooperate with nature in ways more radical than most authors I've encountered, and his approach to composting is no exception.

@Glenn: You say:

>left for another year to make sure the thermophiles do the job on any unwanted organisms.

I hate to nitpick, but thermophiles usually dominate for no more than a few months. I think the second year is to let predation, competition, and old age do their thing.

Jax Hilton said...

Hi JMG, a sincere thank you for all your work for the benefit of the earth, humanity and Creation in general.

Long term reader, first time poster. I am currently living on an island in the South Pacific on an organic farm, although its not labelled as such. We supply about 100 people with food everyday (really everyday) without chemicals or fertilisers, mainly due to constant monitoring, testing and natural soil remediation. Due to our remoteness there is a high order of self reliant, multi-skilled people here. I can't say where it is, because everyone would come here straight away!

I would like to just comment briefly on this post, in relation to starting composting but also about my attitude toward the Green Wizard toolkit.

- Having-A-Go-aPhobia!
Getting in there and having a go is the absolute key to any sustainable lifestyle. And this is the main factor in developing a relationship with your land, or your balcony or wherever you live.

Your compost pile will be different from someone else's, in so many ways. Mimicry can only take you so far, and knowledge will only take you so far too, after that you are on your own. Its here that you must establish a connection with your soil and your microbes, and your balcony. Then cool stuff happens. I've seen it, and done it.

The old saying, what can go wrong will go wrong, and it is still true today. In fact, today i almost got mauled by my neighbor's pig, but whatever, a job had to be done and it was funny during and well after.

Things will go wrong. But Its fun to do stuff that you've never done and the rewards are: great stories, lessons and a connection with your land, its animals or microbes and the people around you.

I see each new aspect of the Green Wizardry tool kit as another new door way to greater intimacy with reality, as it really is.

Let's rock Wizards!

x2fer said...

As a Master Composter with a specialization in Laziness, I'd like to put in a word for compost piles, as in, plain old heaps on the ground. I've been on the verge of constructing a compost bin out of reclaimed this and that for over a dozen years now, but every time I think about doing it, I feel like napping, so it never quite gets done. And even having the compost pile carefully tucked away in a corner of the yard ended up being too much work, so I moved it closer, into the garden.

Here's what we do: Each year, we pick out a section of the veggie garden to be the recipient of the new pile. This has the dual benefits of forcing us to leave a section of the garden fallow for a while, as well as giving that plot a boost from the compost the next year. We start it with the undigested leftovers from the previous pile, and toss in garden debris, food scraps, and possibly some supplementary leaves as the spring & summer go along. A stir with a pitchfork every now & then is about all the maintenance I do — with the exception of adding some water when it's particularly dry. When we clean up the garden in the fall, we put the chopped up remnants into the pile, which makes it big enough to hold some heat as the outside temperature cools and to have enough space to dump kitchen scraps over the winter. Next spring, I rake out the undigested bits, start the next pile somewhere else, and fight over whose veggies get the best bed for that year.

Some other helpful hints:

Save your leaves — you'll be glad next Spring & Summer when you want something that's not green & growing. Never, ever rake up your leaves and throw them away! If you can't absorb them all for some reason, give them to someone else who's composting.

Control your moisture (& temperature) with plastic. In the rainy season, it keeps the pile from getting soggy. In the dry season, it keeps moisture from escaping too fast. This isn't a deindustrially sustainable practice, but for now, we're drowning in scrap plastic. I think our current cover is the plastic wrap from some insulation I installed a while ago. I've also used mattress bags, garbage bags, various packing materials, and many other large pieces of plastic that have too many holes for their intended use, but are too good to just throw away. I've found that if I use translucent plastic, it works as a nice greenhouse as Spring shows up, helping all the volunteers from the compost get a head start. The one thing to watch out for, is that UV light degrades plastic and turns it into a brittle sheet that will eventually crumble into pieces. Replace it before you have to pick out hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic from your garden bed…

Be careful with weeds. Weed seeds can survive many adverse conditions — that's why they're ever-present! A lazy compost pile doesn't faze them a bit. Since I'm so lazy, I rarely get to the weeds before they go to seed, so we've ended up with a separate weed compost pile in the corner of the yard. I still don't know what I'm going to do with all the weedy compost we've generated. Maybe if we get chickens, I'll let them take care of it.

Mind the gaps. Adding larger, slower composting pieces (straw, plant stalks, even small sticks) to the pile helps keep open spaces that allow air to circulate. They also tend to form a self-supporting structure that can keep the pile from collapsing.

The Rodale Book of Composting (the "current" 1992 update edited by Gershuny & Martin) was my starter guide before I dug into the Master Composting world. It's easy to get into, with some nice lists of what kinds of items work well, but also has more technical information for those who are interested.

Happy decomposing!

x2fer said...

Mercury, answers to a couple of questions:

- Regarding weeds, the general rule is to avoid whatever weeds are considered noxious or invasive in your area, as they tend to have multiple means of reproduction and wouldn't be completely inactivated by your compost pile unless you were very careful. Garden variety weeds like dandelions, etc. are fine as long as you make sure you incorporate the plants before they go to seed!

- Regarding a community garden compost system, one that we used at a local garden relied on a three-bin system. Someone constructed (local Boy Scouts, I think) a fairly large structure that was three 4 ft x 4 ft. x 4 ft. cubes linked together. They had removable panels on the front of each bin, and hinged tops with plastic roofing to control moisture. The bottoms were open to the ground, but we used ground cloth to keep out any weeds.

Our system involved gathering enough material each week to fill the left-most bin. The material consisted of any garden debris we could convince the gardeners to give us, plus spoiled produce from a local grocery store, plus leaves from a huge pile dropped off by city collection trucks the previous fall. Everything was chopped and thoroughly mixed and put in the bin. (The prep part was always the most laborious and fun — we never knew if we would be smooshing up boxes of rotten tomatoes, or chopping up moldy melons — and 4x4x4 is a lot of organic matter!)

The second week, we would turn the first pile into the middle bin and build a new pile in the left-hand bin.

The third week, we would turn the first pile from the middle bin into the right-hand bin, turn the second pile from the left into the middle, and build a new pile in the left-hand bin.

The fourth week, we would "harvest" the compost from the right-hand bin and keep the piles moving.

It was a fairly labor-intensive but quick way to compost. There's no need to do it as fast as we did, other than the ease of saying, "Let's meet every Saturday at 10a to do the compost." And there's some benefit to doing it more slowly, as the "finished" compost needed another couple of weeks to age before using it on the garden.

Wordek said...

Just on the topic of humanure, composting horses, fertiliser etc, are there any serial killers out there making their own “blood and bone”?

Just asking cause my cabbages are looking a bit yellowish... and I'm sure hollywood needs another blockbuster horror for the season..


Cherokee Organics said...


A truly awesome book for Australian's is "Soil Food - 1372 ways to add fertility to your soil" by Jackie French. It is available on the Earthgarden website under the section Good Life Book club.

Why is it a special book? It covers issues such as: soil; what plant needs what?; How to use fertilisers; green manures; animal manures; composting; mulching; and finishes with examples of 10 different gardens in various situations and what would suit each. Hope I'm not sounding like an advertisement?

Why is it important? Well, I've met Jackie and seen her mixed food forest and she has an observational approach to nature and can explain complex issues in very simple English. In addition to this she does not get bogged down by traditions and is prepared to take a fresh look at what actually works and gives everything a go.

For those of you in other countries, there may be much to learn as well, because in Australia we have the poorest soils and harshest growing conditions of any continent save Antarctica. On Jackie's land she endured 90 consecutive days of temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (that's over 104 degrees for you non metric people) and from what I've seen it's an absolute oasis which she shares with the local native animals. Much respect!

If we achieve that with organic methods in these conditions then there really is no excuse in other more fertile and temperate parts of the world for others not to give it a go.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...


An excellent book for broadacre farmers (which the previous recommendation wasn't as it related more to gardeners and small holders) would be Peter Andrews "Back from the Brink - How Australia's landscape can be saved". Strangely enough the principles behind the two methods are not all that different.

Why is it good? Peter takes an unorthodox look at the Australian environment and it's natural systems and applies (also) an observational approach to broad acre farm practices. He has a lot to say and it is explained in simple English.

Again, whilst this is for the Australian environment, thanks to global wierding you may soon all get to experience the fun we are having over here with agriculture. Think high temperature, extreme weather events, irregular rainfall and you might just be on the money.

You can look up this guy on Youtube too - remember to add in "Australian Story" as well because he was featured in this TV program at some point in the past.

Good luck!

SaraBeth said...

Just as an FYI - I picked up a used blender and I puree all of my kitchen waste with a tiny ammount of water and then pour it over the top of my compost pile along with my saved coffee grounds...I then mix it well into the pile...

I have no smell at all...and no critters like mice or squirrels messing with things...


blue sun said...

I’ll second JMG's suggestion of a Master Composter program, but even a two-hour workshop is great! Seeing in real life is worth hundreds of books!! And it’s important to attend and make these connections before funding gets cut. I had the good fortune of attending a free two-hour workshop two summers ago, prompted by this very blog, no less, and I can't stress how valuable it was. Now it's no longer offered since funding was cut soon after. They also stopped selling discount bins, but some communities might still do this.

What I think poses the greatest risk of turning people off to composting (more than just being biophobic) are those who try it, do something wrong, get some horrendous smell, and never try it again. ("But you promised me it wouldn't smell !!!........ Now my neighbors/spouse/parents/children despise me, and despise composting to!!" )

A lot of beginners who try composting are going to make some kind of mistake, and I'd hate to see anyone give up once they’ve got that far. That's why it’s so important to actually interact with someone who's done it before, and is still doing it. An “expert” can correct your mistakes in time, before you get served divorce papers or an eviction notice.

More Resources

I would like to recommend a couple of inexpensive booklets for those who are too busy or too impatient to read a whole book:

- Home Composting Made Easy by C. Forrest McDowell ("Professor Rot" ..........this booklet is only $4 on Amazon!!!!)

Ironically, New York City has a Composting Guide that I think is even better for complete beginners (probably because, authored in the rat-infested mecca of biophobia, it is aimed at biophobes and has a troubleshooting section in case your bin causes odors or attracts rats).

- New York City Outdoor Composting Guide ( it's 100% free!!!!....... )

They also have some other free resources on this page: ( )

Kalki said...

Is growing oyster mushrooms or such like on the compost a sensible idea?

An Eaarthly Planner said...

Speaking of farming, I live in Lancaster County. I'm doing some ag research as a matter of personal curiosity, and I recently learned from the US Dept. of Ag's 2007 Ag Census that, out of ~300,000 harvested acres that year, only about 6,000 were used to grow "vegetables" (which include everything humans eat, from potatoes to sweet corn). All the rest (or 98%) were used, more or less, to grow fodder for animals. Then most of those animals were shipped out on a plume (where have I heard that word recently...?) of diesel smoke to Philly, NYC, etc.

Further, LancCo has about 6,250 "farmers hunters miners loggers", which is the BLS's catch-all for people who work in primary production, which means less than 1.25% (out of 500,000 people) of Lancaster's population are farmers. This compares to around 67% of the nation's population as farmers in 1840, the year of the first Ag Census. There are actually fewer farmers now than there were 170 years ago, if you can believe that.

So, anyway, it's fair to say our farming is highly unsustainable and highly petro-dependent. And more than fair to say that the future for most of us holds a transition from whatever-we're-doing-now to farming, in one fashion or other.

darius said...

In the early 1830's, the early Settlers like my great-grandfather' family (in what is now Iowa) banked the perimeter of their house foundations heavily with horse manure to provide both heat, and insulation.

Manure/Compost "hot-boxes" taken outside the box!

pgrass101 said...

Compost bins are my home, well not really but since I studied microbial ecology in grad school and currently work as a public health microbiologist I love microbes that work for us! My wife is currently designing a bigger compost bin for us and I have asked her to photo document her building of the said compost bin.

My current project is cataloging the “bugs” in our small garden to try to find the habitats that increase the good predators and pollinators and decrease the number of bad bugs that eat my plants. This is the main way I get to exercise my ecological training these days.

FernWise said...

LewisLucanBooks - the little apple things for fruit flies work really well, but you can make your own easily. One jar or glass, one funnel (bought or made yourself out of paper), a bit of water, a few tablespoons of vinegar and a bit of soap. Vinegar attracts them, the soap probably breaks the surface tension on the water/vinegar mix so flies drown instead of float, the funnel keeps the most of the flies that get in and live in the trap instead of flying out.

RangerMan - good to see you both here and back on your blog.

Hecate said...

Arlington County, VA will give you a recycled plastic compost bin, or will only charge you like $10. Before I bought one from a commercial place, I'd check the local gov't and see if I couldn't get one much cheaper.

John Powers said...

Nature doesn't negotiate is such an important rule to absorb, but as a lazy gardener who does it wrong and I'll report that it all rots eventually. Of course I don't want to do it wrong and really love when my compost pile is working.

I'm happy to see strip composting in the comments. That approach has got me thinking more about gardening grains for food and mulch. Gardening requires more mental effort than fools like me expect, but the mental effort keeps gardening always interesting.

On grains I found an old copy of Gene Logsdon's "Small-Scale Grain Raising." Pleased to discover that book has been released as a second edition. Looks like the effort here to rediscover appropriate technology is a trend visible elsewhere too.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

As to worm farms:

Make sure that they are well drained - this will solve most smell and worm drowning problems

Make sure they are well ventilated - this will speed up the break down of the materials and avoid a build up of anaerobic bacteria (ie. the nasty sort that doesn't require oxygen and leaves nasty waste products - if your compost or worm farm smells bad - aerate it)

The flies that you find in worm farms (at least in Australia) are not fruit flies, they are vinegar flies and won't cause any hassles or leave the worm farm - don't worry about them - if you see them outside the worm farm they may not be vinegar flies so try to identify them and take appropriate action for your area.

If you are in a hot area, make sure the worms can leave the farm and come back when it cools off. You can do this by putting the worm farm on the ground - this will assist drainage too. They will always come back as the worm farm is an easy feed for them.

Make sure rodents can't get into the worm farm by using fly wire (preferably metal - stainless steel is best - aluminium is good too - don't use fibreglass as the rodents can get through this easily).

Some people say that you can't put this or that into a worm farm. This is not true. You simply need to provide a varied diet with not too much of any one variety. They'll even get through paper and cardboard, but they need a lot of other fruit and vegie scraps as well and remember to get some air into it if you're doing this! Even citrus and onion skins are OK too.

To Jim Brewster:

The reason that we have centralised facilities for processing our waste is because of historic and human reasons and not because we live in a nanny state.

1890 in Melbourne was a bad time not only because of the depression, but because Melbourne had a very high incidence of typhoid and cholera. This occurred because it was common practice at the time to collect human waste by horse and cart (the so called night cart) from the back of peoples properties (hence all the lanes in inner Melbourne) and then dump it in the local creeks and rivers. Not good from a disease point of view. The government at the time established a huge grass filtration and wetland treatment system in the south west of the city and connected everyone in metropolitan Melbourne up to this system. It reduced the incidence of cholera and typhoid to negligible amounts.

You might notice that when there are disasters such major flooding in the world it is always accompanied by typhoid and cholera outbreaks (or fears of them). This is something you don't have to think about in the West.

The other thing to note, is that it doesn't take too many people bypassing this system (ie. raw sewage in storm water) before this becomes a problem again.

I am not referring to people who compost their own wastes either. Much respect to them.

You don't have to imagine what would quickly happen if the pumps that now move the raw sewage to treatment facilities stopped working.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

Oh yeah. Worms are top feeders too. They'll move upwards past rotting material to get to the material at the top of the worm farm.

This is why if it gets stinky, you have to get more air into the pile so that bacteria rather than the worms can break down the material below the top layer in which the worms feed. They just won't eat it.

They don't like light either so you need to shade the top of the worm farm too.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all again!

What's the obsession with biochar that I keep reading about? To me, it is simply nature supercharged.

When you are either taking the biochar from somewhere else or creating it from your own resources, you are taking fertility from that area for your own benefit and using up a lot of other resources in the process. There are simply no easy alternatives (or free rides) for agriculture.

It's far better to use mulch, slash in green crops, use animals (wild or otherwise) and generally look after you soil and it's flora and fauna.

Good luck!

Petro said...

JMG - Thank you, sir. Your work is appreciated, and I certainly don't have to tell you how important it is...

LewisLucanBooks said...

Thanks you Melissa M. and FernWise for the tips on taking care of the flies. Being in a "Program" for 21 years, I don't have a lot of sweet wine around. LOL. So, thank you both for the more "organic" tips. Any ideas on how to get rid of clothes moths?

Yup, I thought the little apple things were cute, too. But a.) expensive and b.) I really wondered what was in that liquid you pour in them?

It was a real "squick" moment when I noticed the flies. A moving, undulating carpet of the little buggers. They were tiny and just about the color of the dirt. It's a bit dark where the box is. It was S-T-A-R-T-L-I-N-G!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Wordek,

This may be useful for your serial killer endeavours, although I am not encouraging you in this in any way!

Animal bones are easy to get rid of. Simply put them in the oven for at least four roasts and they become brittle. Then after this they will powder up nicely with a mallot or hammer. Add to the garden or orchard and they disappear. Much more effective than what they did at Snowtown with the barrells... Very nasty people. If you don't wish to put them in the oven then try a repeated fire or burn off. The powdered bones are very good for the soil.

Good luck!

Apple Jack Creek said...

Most of the comments here are directed at urban dwellers, but I’ll toss in a ‘small farm’ perspective just for variety.

Our compost pile is primarily barnyard waste – all summer a few sheep & cows roam around and fertilize the pastures directly, but in winter they are in one spot. The piles of manure, hay and straw that accumulate in the winter pen are allowed to settle in place until midsummer (if you try to move them in spring, you just haul a lot of unnecessary weight and moisture) and then shoveled into a pile encased by a few widely spaced boards to provide a bit of a cosmetic boundary. There are actually two piles: everything from one year cooks for a winter and a summer (in the fall you can see it steaming, in winter it freezes solid, but that helps the breakdown too). The next summer, the older pile is done and the dirt it made is moved to the garden (or wherever it is needed - we’re also leveling some ground around the house) and the cycle starts again.

The straw is indeed a key ingredient – one year when I had mostly hay (equivalent of grass clippings), the pile took much longer to cook down and was still full of chunks long after I’d expected it to be finished. We are inconsistent with our kitchen waste – sometimes we add it to the ongoing winter pile, sometimes we make a new pile in a more convenient and then just bury it with finished compost when we get around to it.

One trick I’ve discovered that is probably useful for city and farm dwellers alike is to screen the finished compost. I found a chunk of metal grating (it’s got diamond shaped holes about a centimeter in size) which fits over a bucket or wheelbarrow, then I shovel a handful of compost onto the grate, and smush it around a bit with my gloved hand or my little hand shovel. Small fine bits go through and into the bucket, bigger unfinished bits are just shoved to the side for further composting. I put the bigger, maybe-not-quite-finished compost at the bottom of my containers or grow potatoes in it (potatoes will grow in ANYTHING I think), but for seed starting and growing things that like a more tightly packed soil, this really helps. There are fancier screening devices you can build (Solomons has a nice picture in Gardening when it Counts) or buy (Lee Valley sells an oversided ‘food mill’ for screening compost) but the grate works.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG,

Now composting, that's something I really understand. Even wrote about it on my blog. I'm so lazy I just have a pile, not even a bin--yet my results are like yours.

I like your use of the process as metaphor and the discussion of biophobia--something I even occasionally encounter at gardening clubs to which I sometimes give presentations.

I'm reading and printing out your posts, and am very busy putting last week's project list into action, which at our house has been given the title "Getting Ready for Winter." Insulation I understand less well than gardening. My husband has volunteered to hang the new basement door as soon as we get it.

Looking forward to your organic gardening posts.

Don Plummer said...

To Houyhnhnm and the other horse people here:

This is off topic (that is, it isn't about composting), but it relates to many of the things we have been discussing here.

Last Tuesday evening, we visited the Ohio State Fair. It just happened that a show of draught horses was on the schedule on this particular evening, so we attended. The horses were chiefly Belgians and Percherons. Many of them were arrayed in teams and were pulling vehicles of various sizes and shapes from two-wheeled carriages to large wagons. We got a close look at some of these vehicles and they were very beautiful. It was obvious that much care, as well as expert woodworking, went into making them.

I had no idea that anyone even makes horse-drawn vehicles anymore, other than the Amish. But I was pleased to know that this art is still practiced today, even if it's currently only for show, given that we may have more need for horse-drawn transport in the future as petroleum becomes more scarce and expensive.

The manufacturing of these vehicles surely counts as a green wizard skill, wouldn't you say?

Are any of you familiar with this topic?

LewisLucanBooks said...

Somewhere, sometime, I saw a brief mention of smashing up old dry wall to add to the soil. Might be some use in those soon to be abandoned suburban structures. Anybody know anything about this? Thanks, Lew

sgage said...


Plenty of outfits are making horse-drawn equipment these days. And plenty of folks are using them for more than show. Pick up a copy of the Small Farmers' Journal (or google up their website) and you'll see that working with draft animals is a very going concern.


Drywall is gypsum - calcium sulfate. If your soils tend towards the acidic, be careful...

darius said...

Lew asked about adding drywall to gardens.

Chemically, gypsum is calcium sulfate; garden lime is calcium carbonate. When gypsum is spread on the soil surface, rain will dissolve it and carry it to the roots faster than lime will be transported. If you have an acid clay subsoil, gypsum may have an effect on the roots of plants within three years.

Even though drywall is basically gypsum, it also has fillers and binders added... like fiberglass for strength, adhesives to hold it moreorless together. Stuff that I would not want in my food crop soil.

Additionally, the tainted drywall imported from China (and not marked as such) has been causing toxic problems for several years.

Don Plummer said...

Drywall is chiefly made of gypsum, which is useful as a soil amendment, especially if the soil in question is heavy, fine clay that's hard to work when wet and that creates an almost impenetrable concrete-like form when weather conditions dry out. The gypsum particles bind clay particles to it, thus opening up the soil and allowing penetration by plant roots, worms, etc. As a supplement to amending the soil with organic material (e.g., compost), gypsum can be very useful.

Aside from that, I haven't heard of people breaking up drywall and using it to amend soil. But it makes sense, and it might make a lot of sense in a salvage economy.

DIYer said...

Drywall is gypsum, CaSO4(+2H2O) with some fiber on either surface. A trace of TiO2 dust to make the fiber on the interior side white. The fiber is recycled newspaper or equivalent. Probably some other ingredients, not sure what they might be. Note that the stuff that makes plaster harden is the hemihydrate, a slightly dried-out version of it.

Depending on your soil chemistry, the benefit may vary -- gardening manuals usually advise you to add gypsum to a clay soil if it is too dense and sticky. It might also be good for overly sandy soil, to retain moisture. On the other hand, almost nothing will grow in pure gypsum, so use it in moderation. I'm not sure what its effect is on soil pH.

DIYer said...

My understanding is that the Chinese gypsum was produced as a byproduct of some industrial activity. Its problem was a slight imbalance -- not quite enough Ca to neutralize the SO4, which takes the form of sulfuric acid. The acidic sheetrock simply rusted away the nails that held it up and it fell off the walls of tract houses built with it. I believe the lawsuits from that little boo-boo are still ongoing.

A little extra sulfate would be OK here in central Texas where we have alkaline limestone soil. Of course there's no telling what _else_ is in it, since China has no environmental regulations.

Now that I think about it, I wouldn't use sheetrock in a food garden unless it really needs the soil amendment. The ground up bones mentioned above are a great source of phosphate, but gypsum doesn't contribute much that's essential, and garden-quality mineral gypsum is really cheap.

greatblue said...

Apropos drywall, people say you can add all kinds of paper products (newspaper, paper towels, the tubes in paper towels, etc.) into your compost. But I'm leery of adding anything I wouldn't eat. You never know what kind of poisons might be in those products or the packaging they come in and whether they would break down. Plasticizers and heavy metals from China come to mind.

I don't use compost from a municipal source either. The input is uncontrolled and you never know what's in the road dust (we have a lot of salt in ours here in the north country, no doubt).

TG said...

A note about tea bags and coffee filters:

Many commercially produced tea bags and coffee filters are reinforced with epichlorohydrin. It's a compound which helps prevent the paper in the bag from disintegrating as it steeps in hot water. It also inhibits proper composting. Oh, and it's carcinogenic.

I no longer buy tea in bags. Loose tea decomposes nicely in our compost heaps. We normally keep two small, lazy ones going--one is fresh and one is more mature. There were some nifty fungi in the younger batch a couple of weeks ago.

--Tracy Glomski

Houyhnhnm said...

Don Plummer said, "Are any of you familiar with [horse-drawn vehicles]?"

For anyone who isn't and wants to be, I can recommend an old book as a start: _American Horse-Drawn Vehicles_ by Jack D. Rittenhouse. Amazon has several used copies. It's a picture book, but the illustrations are detailed.

As Don Plummer noted, carriage building is definitely alive outside Amish country. Right now, some breed shows, for example Morgans, feature vintage carriage classes, and the sport of combined driving--three day eventing sans fences--can require a fancy presentation vehicle, a tank solid cross-country vehicle, and a nimble vehicle for the obstacle phase.

For driving basics, I also recommend Heike Bean and Sarah Blanchard's _Carriage Driving_. While the focus is training the horse not manufacturing the carriage, it's a good starting point since it explains the basics of safe design. Furthermore, reading this book would be of value to those interested in carriage building because I doubt that someone unfamiliar with the conformation and mentality of the horse and/or how it's schooled could become a topnotch builder.

As with riding, this is an area where apprenticeship is usually the best way to learn. Finding driver/builders is actually pretty easy. Where there's a driving club, there's usually someone who restores or builds carts and carriages. Finding these clubs usually isn't hard because the names are usually straightforward, e.g. I recently hung out at a practice day with members of the Colorado Driving Society.

By the way, driving horses is DANGEROUS. Riding is, according to some surveys at least, the most dangerous sport, but that's only because I've never seen a study that included driving, which is a quantum leap past riding as far as potential dangers. The recent lethal runaway carriage in the Iowa parade is a good example.

That said, I'm considering learning to drive. Two friends, former professional drivers who can also lecture for hours on carriage undercuts and spoke angles, have offered to teach me. Hearing that, my vet commented that driving was too dangerous for him--and he's an active three-day eventer.


Houyhnhnm said...

Off topic response to Don Plummer on carriage driving.

As a quick introduction to carriages, I can recommend an old book: _American Horse-Drawn Vehicles_ by Jack D. Rittenhouse.

I also recommend Heike Bean and Sarah Blanchard's _Carriage Driving: A Logical Approach through Dressage Training_. While its focus is training the horse, it details the features of a safe vehicle.

Finding an expert carriage builder is often fairly easy. Where there's a driving club, there's usually someone who restores or builds carts and carriages. Finding these clubs usually isn't hard because the names are usually straightforward, e.g. I recently hung out at a practice day with members of the Colorado Driving Society.

By the way, I'm continually astonished that most people don't realize driving horses is DANGEROUS. Riding is, according to some surveys at least, the most dangerous sport, but that's only because I've never seen a study that included driving, which is a quantum leap past riding as far as potential dangers. The recent lethal runaway carriage in the Iowa parade is a good example.

That said, I'm considering learning to drive. Two friends, former professional drivers who can lecture for hours on undercuts and spoke angles, have offered to teach me. Hearing that, my vet commented that driving was too dangerous for him--and he's an active three-day eventer.


p-roc's mom said...

david k: i love that whitman poem! my husband actually painted a little sign with a quote from it: "Behold this compost! behold it well... It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions" - Walt Whitman, Brooklynite.

it's currently hanging over the composting system (three 4x4 stalls) in our community garden in - where else? - Brooklyn.


Mark said...

Here a few useful books I have read that relate to or cover composting methods, along with other aspects of the green wizard skill flexes.

-Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Wonderful, short and concise text on home-scale permaculture design. Covers basics of ecology, whole systems design principles, sheet-mulching, passive water harvesting and useful perennial plants, to name a few. Very highly recommended for mixed veg. gardens that do away with rows and exposed soil.

-Edible Forest Gardens Vol.1 & 2 by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
Extremely in-depth theory and application of temperate climate forest gardening. Lots of reading, but amazing reference manual for anyone wanting to grow perennial polyculture of multi-purpose plants!

-One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoaka
A practical and spiritual journey into "no work" farming methods, practiced and perfected by Fukuoka-sensei over his entire life. Very applicable for larger scale food production.

-Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford
Cutting-edge application of temperate forest gardening -- a much more novice friendly alternative to Edible Forest Gardens. Filled with Martin's experience in his 5 acres of forest garden in Devonshire, England. Beautiful species matricies, design theory and principles, and a run down of all the species Martin has experience growing, something like 3-400 species?!

-Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier
A nice look into the forgotten world of perennial veg. Extensive info on growing and eating common and unusual perennial vegetables -- From Artichoke to Zuki.

-Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth
Incredible encyclopedia for vegetable seed saving. Has every vegetable you can think of and many you probably didn't know about -- how to grow them and save their seed.

-Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russel Smith
First published in 1929! Classic permaculture text, with field experience working with a myriad of staple tree crops; Acorns, Chestnuts, Hazelnuts, Persimmons, and more. Has caloric yields, weight yields, and info on growing and breeding suitable varieties. A True diamond of a book.

Those are some of the most pertinent books that come to mind. I could deliver a really long list if left to my own devises, haha.

Mary said...

You left out one group of binless composters -- those with livestock so large the bin would be filled multiple times per day, lol! We are the "lazy" composters -- I have a 2 year old pile in one back corner, a 1 year old and still growing pile in another back corner, and a 6 month old pile by the pasture entry that I set up for a friend who never showed up. The 2 year old pile is likely ready for use, and large enough to cover a good sized garden for a couple years. The advantage is no turning, no hosing, no nothing. Just let it be for a few years. Slow and steady. The disadvantage is that that kind of pile is best kept as far from civilization as possible, so transporting it is some work. BTW, my annelids and arthropods say, "back atcha!"

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all,

Got back last night from a conference to find well over a hundred comments waiting here; I'd made arrangements to have the queue moderated and put through, but haven't even had time to read the comments yet, much less to respond to any of them! (There's also a bit of home repair waiting for me, courtesy of a plumbing leak that brought down a part of the kitchen ceiling just before I left for the conference -- ah, the joys of homeownership.) Thank you all for your enthusiasm and good info, and I'll try to make time to respond as soon as possible.

Bill Pulliam said...

Plumbing, I hate plumbing (even though I am perfectly competent at it). It strikes me as so odd that we spend so much effort and time making sure water cannot get in to our houses, then we go and PIPE the dang stuff right inside, under pressure no less!

Houyhnhnm said...

My apologies for the double post above. The overlength problem showed up and I reconstructed my post thinking it hadn't gone through.

Back on topic, here's a link to a primer on manure for composting:

What they say about horse manure is true as far as it goes, but manure mixed with pine wood shavings can be a benefit if your land is alkaline as ours is. Also, the inefficient digestive system of horses produces a "cool" manure. I've known gardeners who mulched with fresh horse manure. As to weed seeds, that depends on the quality of the facility and/or pasture. In Colorado, for example, high end horse facilities may feed hay that's certified weed free. Pedigreed manure: Find it if you can.


LewisLucanBooks said...

Off Topic: I'll be glad when the Forums are open...

This is a paragraph from our local newspaper, the Daily Chronicle (Comical). We're a mostly rural county in Western Washington almost exactly halfway between Portland and Seattle. The author is Russ Mohney who writes on hunting, fishing and so much more. I'd call him a life-long naturalist and conservationist. He's lible to riff about swimming holes, or birding, or berry picking. This from one of his columns, 8/3/2010

"Missing Honeybees. The lack of honeybees in our gardens and woodlots has been a subject of consternation to every kind of naturalist observer - and this summer has been frightening. ...(a) writer searched her chemical-free acreage thoroughly and found almost none, quite properly raising her level of anxiety.

On Sunday, Shorts and I made the rounds of wildflower masses along Riffe and Mayfield lakes and in the Swofford Valley, especially on the lookout for bees. Even in the remaining fire-weed patches and among other beckoning wild blossoms we saw none. There were a couple of bumblebees around the softening fruits of thimbleberry, but no honeybees. It begs the question of what future generations of migrant herbivores might find to eat when they come up from South America. That same question might be asked of our own nutritional outlook."

So, how are the bees in your neck of the woods?

Don Plummer said...

What about composting poisonous plants? Our yard is infested with bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). We've tried getting rid of it, but it keeps coming back. The red berries are considered the most poisonous part. When my wife tried to put it in our compost bin, I said we probably shouldn't until we know it is safe. So is it?

I'm assuming that poison ivy isn't a good idea to compost, especially since I'm quite sensitive to it. We have a bit of that around, too. The birds bring in the seeds. :-)

Jb said...

I FINALLY made it over to my favorite used bookstore where I found some of the old FoxFire publications, a hardcover book on Root Cellaring and several on organic gardening. They'll have to wait; I'm busy with the EcoTechnic Future at the moment...many thanks.

Hal said...

With drywall, if you're talking about actually salvaging it from some sort of demolition, I'd worry more about the mud that's used at every joint and the texturizers than the actual drywall. Those things are usually some form of vinyl or acrylic polymer... not something you want to introduce to the ecosystem of your garden. One thing I've learned over many years of trying to find uses for waste products is that modern industrial humans muck up just about every thing they get their hands on. For instance, I use a lot of cardboard for sheet mulch, but it can come with tape, sticky labels, inks, staples, wax, styrofoam panels... you name it. You have to be very careful.

FernWise said...

Lew - in the past 3 years I've seen more honeybees than I've seen in my life. Which is odd, since before that I lived one block away and never saw any! I'm in the eastern suburbs outside of Washington DC.

I assume there is a hive that I moved closer to, but I also have changed what flowers in the yard. Honey bees (and bumble bees, and humming birds, and flickers) seem to LOVE LOVE LOVE the Scotch Thistle I'm letting bloom. The bees also love the mints and oregano that are happier and blooming more at this house than at our previous house.

During peak blooming there is a shimmering forhalo of bees, wasps, and moths around the peppermint and oregano. It's amazing. And last year the 3 or 4 tomato hornworms in the veggie garden had an astonishing number of wasp larva on them. I figure the wasps visited the flowers, mated, then hit the veggie garden to lay eggs on the hornworms.

I've video of the larva-covered hornworms up on my web site,

DIYer said...

I wouldn't be too worried about either the poison ivy or the nightshade. The toxins in those plants are natural compounds which some microbe in your compost heap will find delicious. The end product should be perfectly good compost.

Things like silicones, synthetic hydrocarbon polymers, and fluorocarbons, on the other hand ... not so good. Like Hal, I try to peel the junk off of cardboard and use it, but there's always bits of tape turning up in the compost and in the garden.

Kalki said...


Garden and kitchen scraps must surely be food for oyster mushrooms, producing food all year round.

And on a macro scale, industrial hemp would at the very least ensure people have food, let alone fuel and building materials.

We forgot hemp - we need to repair the relationship.

flute said...

Two tips from a reader in Sweden:
1. I always use two compost bins. One is active, i.e. being continuously filled. The other one is emptied of its nutritious content when the first one is full. Then they switch roles. This is IMO better than filling at the top and taking out at the bottom.
2. A single family does not generate enough organic kitchen waste to keep the compost going in cooler climates/seasons. So a compost cooperation with a couple of neighbours is a good idea. I live in an apartment block where we compost together with some of our neighbours. This keeps the compost "well fed" so that it is warm enough to even do its job during freezing winter temperatures.

An Eaarthly Planner said...

On the subject of bees, my wife and I have observed with great pleasure the number of bees and other pollinators in our garden. Many more than last year (but last year was our first year with that garden). We also enjoy the wasps, knowing that they are our first line of defense against some invasive insects, e.g. those irritating moths that lay eggs all over our kale, cabbage, etc.

We believe the variety of perennial flowers helps attract these pollinators... great example of why diversity is valuable in a garden (or farm plot, for that matter).

On the subject of honeybees in particular, we had an interesting conversation with a local food retailer recently. She gets her "organic raw honey" from a local guy who doesn't move his hives around much. He keeps them where he knows no nearby farmers spray petrochemicals. Several years ago, as the story has it, his bees started dying in great numbers. Whereas many comparable apiarists began spraying antibiotics, anti-virals, etc., on their beehives, he did nothing. He let most of his bees die, then carefully stewarded the remains of the hives back to health and abundance. And now he has bees that are more resistant, as the weak died and strong survived, Darwin-style.

I suppose a lesson could be that a certain amount of callousness is useful in the long run.

Jim Brewster said...

@Cherokee Organics: "The reason that we have centralised facilities for processing our waste is because of historic and human reasons and not because we live in a nanny state."

Well you could say it was two sides of the same coin, or a chicken-and-egg question. Acting as a "nanny state" is one perfectly natural response to the manifestations of overshoot.

Of course it is a well-intentioned response to real problems, but once the infrastructure (physical and bureaucratic) is in place it's very difficult to question its continued maintenance. That's in line with JMG's concept of catabolic collapse, and what software developers call "creeping featurism."

Don Plummer, the only problem with composting the nightshade might be propagating the plant or a disease that it may carry (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes might share the same diseases.) The toxic alkaloids are biodegradable and should be completely destroyed by the compost.

Twilight said...

Plumbing - my grandfather taught me to sweat pipes many years ago, but by now the thrill is gone. The suction line from our surface well pump sprung a leak earlier this summer, and I've been using a temporary line since. Sometime before it freezes I must dig up and replace the old pipe - on a steep rocky bank, by hand. I also must remove the old heating oil tank I dug out this summer. And then there is the old paddock wall that needs mortar replaced before another freeze/thaw cycle takes it out. And firewood.

Maintaining the comparatively simple infrastructure of a home (especially an old one) takes an incredible amount of time. Working mostly by myself while still employed at a regular job, it's about all I can to to keep my head above water. In this case, it will limit my composting to a simple pile, as I won't have time to build anything.

Now I look at every system, every piece of equipment, and I think "do I really need that?" (sometimes "will the wife and kids let me get away without that?"). I know that all of it will eventually place a bid for my time.

Kieran said...

Vancouver is pretty supportive of composting.

For about two decades, they've been providing cheap recycled composters (including worm bins) to residents. They've also been collecting yard trimmings for composting at a central facility and eventual resale to the public.

A few months ago they started taking food scraps. The next phase is to transfer over to collecting the compost bins weekly with the recycling, and the "regular" garbage only bi-weekly.

It's a pretty good step in the right direction.

When I visited Sweden recently, the apartment building of the friends we were staying with had a central facility for recycling and composting. This included a large machine for shredding food scraps, complete with a bin of dried worms to sprinkle in and get things started. Everyone in the complex composted and recycled by habit, as apparently do all Swedes. This was a relatively low-end apartment, too.

Backyard composters are great, but centralised solutions (at larger or smaller scales) help out too.

Thardiust said...

Your latest post actually brings one of these things to mind. Hopefully hardware stores will catch on to them soon if they haven't already.

LynnHarding said...

I have read through the comments and find no mention of Comfrey. I also picked up a copy of "Let it Rot" and found no Comfrey. So I must tell you about the wonders of Comfrey and point you towards Steve Solomon's website. Google the Soil and Health Library. Most of you probably have Steve's book "Gardening When it Counts" and if you don''t you should have. But the most wonderful thing about Steve is that he has a library of old books about agriculture and farming. I can recommend the book "Russian Comfrey" by Lawrence W. Hills, written in about 1949 and "The Natural Way of Farming" by Masanobu Fukoka. I got both of these from Steve in pdf form. Both of these books, but especially Hill's, discuss the importance of comfrey as a feed, a soil improver and a compost maker.

For the past ten years I have been experimenting with various ways of raising chickens and trying to cut down on the expensive processed concentrates while improving soil with chicken (and horse) manure. I am combining composting of comfrey with vermiculture. The comfrey is planted around the chicken coop with its attached greenhouse (built of cattle panels.) It is planted in horse and chicken manure that has been mixed with peat moss or shredded oak leaves. The worms are living in beds inside the hoophouse with screens and pallets over them so the chickens can't eat them unless we open up a door for them. The worms are fed comfrey and, of course, chicken droppings.
We shall see how far through the winter I can keep raising enough worms and comfrey to supplement the expensive chicken feed.
Comfrey has roots that go down many feet. They are bio accumulators bringing calcium and other minerals into their leaves and roots which, when they rot, enrich the soil. They also provide forage for goats and other animals. Extra milk for the goats provides accessible protein for the chickens. Who knew they loved to drink whole milk. (No skimmed milk for them.)
No compost heap is complete without a bit of comfrey!

Anne said...

Ugh.. vermiculture can be done with something as simple as a decent sized container with a few holes poked in it for ventilation. As most of the "composting" worms are invasive species to the US, you most likely already have them in your yard. Under 5 inches, pigmented and found in the upper layers of soil. If someone tells you only E. Foetida can do the job.. it's because they don't have a clue. Very few in the US can actually positively ID the various species, and even then some require DNA testing to verify. You can compost with any earthworms, just the epigeic (upper soil level dwellers) are the best candidates because they don't burrow, live in the upper soil layers and their habits are best suited for living in a bin. They have a simple brain structure.. in short only reason they would be motivated to leave a bin is because something in the environment is off.. and no other reason.

Hot composting.. you don't want the temperature to get to 190.. you really don't want it over 160 as it is just losing more nitrogen faster. At 160 for a few days is hot enough to kill weed seeds, many pathogens, cysts, etc. and also is the max temp. the thermophilic bacteria in the pile process. The pile can be made without aything.. and just be a pile. If you do drop cash on anything more than chicken wire, keep this in mind.. how easy is it to turn? I have one of those bins from a neighbor and although it is nice to keep out the rain, it is a pain to turn (and the edges are sharp, so be cautious or slice your hand open like I did). Size matters... more importantly C:N ratio of the items, and I am not talking the dumbed down "brown" to "green" that usually screws people up.

Yes.. obsessive composting geek here.

An Eaarthly Planner said...

@ Anne (and in general on composting)

According to The Humanure Handbook, the idea that one must turn one's compost is a myth. Jenkins says that turning just accelerates nitrogen loss without significantly contributing to the oxygen content of the pile. He says if you are really concerned about oxygen levels just make sure, when you build the pile, to insert large, bulky items like hay, which will trap air pockets. Mostly, he says, the microbes take care of themselves. Further, turning just upsets the micro-ecosystem that forms in the pile, disrupting a thermophilic process (if you have one), but otherwise just turning all the microbes all around from where they wanted to be in the first place.

Turning also upsets my laziness.

Maybe it's because we have some space in our urban backyard, but I don't understand what's so attractive about so-called "vermicomposting." The worms make their way to our pile all on their own! Why import them?

Don Plummer said...

DIYer and Jim Brewster:
Thanks for your advice on composting poisonous plants.

sgage and Houyhnhnm:
Thanks for answering my questions about horse-drawn vehicles.

Jim Brewster:
What you describe in your last post sounds like what James Howard Kunstler calls the "psychology of previous investment." Psychologically we are unwilling to give up use and maintenance of a costly, complex system even if its continued use has become a liability or even dysfunctional.

An excellent example is the automotive-based transport system here in the USA. It has decades since become dysfunctional: environmental damage, energy waste, 40k traffic fatalities per year and untold numbers of maimed and otherwise disabled, traffic congestion, road rage, social isolation, etc., etc. Yet what do we do? We spend untold billions of "stimulus" dollars on new highway construction, and billions more [temporarily] saving the auto manufacturers from bankruptcy! Restoring public rail transport--both local and inter-city--would be a far more sensible way to spend that money (if we have to spend it at all). But politicians can't even fathom these alternatives.

rbtp said...

I live in the burbs with very little space. I was going to build a tumbler out of a 55 gallon drum, but while I was collecting the pieces, I started to store my yard clippings in trash cans. Although on the small side, the trash cans created usable compost in about 4 weeks. I've abandoned the tumbler plans in favor of 3 trash cans that I cycle through the process. The key seems to be chopping the clippings as small as possible. I've been doing it with a lawnmower, but that makes a mess. I'm considering moving up to a dedicated chipper shredder.

Our weekly trash output has dropped by half and this approach is even acceptable to my germophobe spouse.

Tina said...

We sold our tractor(& implements) and now work our acreage by hand. We will soon know what the ratio is between intensive raised beds and on farm fertility via compost and mulch. I find a European scythe to be the best for harvesting our fields. Thirty years of green wizardry lifestyle find us happy and healthy. I would speak to why we choose this lifestyle in this way. John you said,"figure out what she (nature) wants to do anyway, and arrange things so that her actions work to your advantage". I would say it with this subtle yet important difference (to me). Figure out what nature does, and arrange things so that your actions work to her advantage.

FernWise said...

Rbtp - I must have missed something in your post. You've little space, you are composting, and you plan to buy a large, unitasking, energy consuming machine that you'll have to store somewhere in your little space? I understand that your zoning folks might prefer that to a goat, but wouldn't one more garbage can dedicated to the woodier stuff be a more appropriate technology?

rakesprogress said...

Lynne, we just started growing comfrey this year, and making comfrey tea in a bucket for soil amendment. Will feed it to the chickens when we have enough, too.

The compost book I have is Easy Compost, edited by Beth Hanson, published in 1997 by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It's lucid and illustrated with copious photos. It's bibliography includes a number of books previously mentioned here.


idiotgrrl said...

I am only an egg, but I have made a few tentative steps along the path. I have a rain barrel under the rain spout in the front of the house and will have a second-hand composting bin delivered to me by the woman who does my yard work. (I am over 70 and none too strong.)

I am going to buy a worm bin as well.
The site I hit on Google said not to put acid vegetable scraps like tomato wastes in, or of course any meat, dairy, or cat wastes. But that I must add material like newspapers, twigs, and other such materials.

Is there anything else I need to know? I have to keep it simple, being a total novice at this.


Pat in Albuquerque

Shane Odom said...

Wow, John Michael!
Great post as all ways. I have been reading regularly, but not comment. Composting is to close to my heart to let it go by.

I may be JMG's 4H kid? At least i remember a vast rambling conversation covering those topics, and the coming events, all while ironically standing in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket. That was a weird day, but so appropriate, wouldn't you say, John Michael? I was in 4H but it was actually on an organic farm my wife and I were working.

A powerfully active pile, I built it starting with a base of cornstalks for air circulation. Then layers of rotting veggies from a market, well chopped leaves, and Lama manure and bedding straw. Any round pellet manure, like rabbit or lama, is excellent for compost or even direct bedding in a garden. Each layer was top dressed with a nice thick sheet of woodland humus. I had been reading up on compost starters, which are expensive buckets of compost containing microbes. I thought it sounded silly, considering the vast reserves of bio-herds in the surrounding woods. Each layer was watered in with the secret ingredient and biological "match" to get the Green Fire lite. Pond scum. We threw roped buckets into our pond, dredging in water, duck weed, and bottom muck. Built the whole thing like a cake. (I have always approached composting like baking, and the analogy is VERY apt!) This was a huge pile. 5x8x8, as we had access to a lot of rotten veggies from a market. Once it was built is heated up fast! I took it's temp every few days and started turning on the third. Got finished compost in 14 days! I was only in my early 20's fresh on an organic farm, but had grown up passive composting. I remember being very proud, especially when the experienced farmers came visited just to see the working pile. By the time we got the first one finished, we had another going!

All that was over 14 years ago. These days we are passive composters. Six pallet bins. Three on one side for ingredients, three on the other. "Feed Me", "Cooking", & "Done" respectively. We dump in kitchen scraps, along with all the other things you are not supposed to compost. The occasional varmint gets buried in there as well. Each time a five gallon bucket of compost goes in, we add 2 to 3 times as much chopped leaves. In the fall, loads of manure and bedding (sometimes Elephant manure, it pays to have big friends!) gets mixed in. I also add some root free weeds, etc. By the late Autumn, the bin is filled to the top, 4x4x4 and we let it rot until next year, with a couple of turnings. By late spring, we have a finished yard or so of compost.

As best I know, our bins are the only composting area in our county with a Latin Motto. "Omnia Mors Aequat", roughly, Death Makes Us All Equal.

I don't seem to be able to post a link to a picture.

Sadly, we recently had a huge rat snake get killed in a rat trap. In respect, I buried him at the bottom of the pile. I hope the same is done for me one day.

Green Blessings!

flute said...

Kieran wrote: "Everyone in the complex composted and recycled by habit, as apparently do all Swedes."

Not true. We may on average be slightly better at recycling than many other industrialised nations, but most people in Sweden don't compost, althought I think a majority recycle glass, metal, plastic and paper.

Ben said...

Kalki -- You can buy starter cultures of various edible fungi from Fungi Perfect ( I once tried inoculating five gallons of coffee grounds with their oyster mushroom spawn. It sort of worked -- but I didn't do it properly the first time, I didn't get many mushrooms, and my wife became increasingly annoyed at the increasingly noxious-looking mess in her sewing room. It all went into the compost pile, I got no more oyster mushrooms out of the deal, and I haven't tried it since. Maybe next year.

Fungi Perfecti also offer fungal spawn that -- allegedly -- you can inoculate your garden mulch with. You might get edible mushrooms, and the mulch breaks down and releases nutrients to the soil. I tried this once, and didn't see much difference, but it was a limited experiment -- I might try it again later. Anyone else done deliberate mycocompostremediationizing?

elf said...

re: Big Crops from Little Gardens -
Short version: I have a Word doc & an image-based searchable PDF for you, if you'd like them. elfwreck [at] gmail [dot] com

Word doc: 3.6 mb (because of the pictures); PDF: 10.6 mb. Word doc's not perfect, but it's at a point where someone who was good at Word macros could convert to HTML fairly easily.

Longer version: I've been reading over the last few years' posts, and this caught my eye. Since the book's not yet at the Cultural Conservers' site, I assumed you probably hadn't scanned it yet (don't blame you; scanning is time-consuming). The book *has* been scanned, by the Hathi trust (or rather, by Google, but Hathi figured out it's public domain; Google isn't sure); I used those scans.

aunteater said...

A hundred bucks for a compost container is totally out of our budget. Short on money, but long on time, I built a very pretty one with a machete and a sledgehammer. I cut a bundle of less-than-two-inch diameter trees, chopped them into roughly three or four foot segments, with the narrow ends hacked into points, pounded the points into the ground in the edge of the woods with the sledge, and then wove them together with the smaller, flexible branches I'd cut, til I had a large withy semicircle. I piled up the kitchen scraps, woodstove ashes, soiled coop bedding, and scrap cardboard there for a year, and then built another one next to it the following year to house the new heap while I hauled the old one out to the garden beds. Worked beautifully and didn't cost a dime. And the chickens love scratching around in it for goodies.

The best part is that it isn't toxic or permanent. I'll probably have moved away in a few years, and the compost heap will turn into humus and not be someone else's problem.