How to Start Composting: You, Too, Can Be a Composting Fool
How to Make Compost Out of Nearly Anything
By Lisa Jansen – I wanted to learn how to start composting, but I was skeptical the first time I tried it on my own. Could I really learn how to compost at home, on my own? I read a book and took a class. Then, I started driving around town to steal lawn clippings so I could start composting grass clippings at home. I kept plastic bags and a flat nosed shovel in the trunk. My pet pig and I rode around in the mornings looking for freshly mowed lawns. (If you do this, be prepared for dog poop. Folks hide it in the pile.)
I brought all these things home, determined to learn how to start composting. Mixing green and brown materials as recommended in my class, I filled the black recycled compost rings given out at the composting class. I turned and lightly moistened. Then I stuck in the meat thermometer. The center, to my surprise, stayed around 120°F! That was ages ago, when I lived in town. After learning how to start composting, I’ve become a composting fool.
How to Start Composting with Worms
Once I moved to Far Out Farms, an all-solar, remote, micro farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I added a large worm composter so I could learn how to use worms for composting. The container was an old water softener container. It stood about 3-1/2 feet tall and about a foot wide. It had a good fitting lid. With an awl I poked a few holes in the bottom and tossed some wood chips in. The red worms came from a fishing bait store. Then, all small kitchen waste was added daily. No meat or grease, of course. That set-up produced lots of rich compost with worm castings.
How to Start Composting with Manure
Far Out Farms has been home to a horse, pigs, chickens, ducks and goats over the years, so I have a close relationship with manure. My favorite is pig manure. I rescued pot-bellied pigs for a number of years. Their manure does not have to be composted. It will not burn plants. It has a higher phosphate content than other manures. My soil is low in phosphates so it works great here. All the other manures need composting. It’s easy to learn how to compost chicken manure or goat manure: just take the litter from the chicken coop or goat stall and just pile it up. Tarp it and moisten occasionally, you’ll never need to buy fertilizer again. If you want a liquid fertilizer just put poop in a bottle and add water, let it sit a couple days and you have liquid fertilizer.
For a while I did windrows of compost. They are just elongated piles on the ground. Some local stores give away unwanted produce. I picked up boxes of produce daily. From the cargo area of my Subaru they went to the processing station outside my greenhouse. The processing station consists of a bench, old bathtub, buckets, gloves and a sharp knife. Every box had to be sorted. The twist ties, rubber bands and paper were removed before being assigned to a windrow or pile. All produce was cut into small pieces; that makes it easier for the microbes and macrobes to devour. My property was mined by hydraulics in the 1850s. The mining companies took the topsoil. All these years later there is still little topsoil, so I can use all the compost I can produce.
How to Start Composting: Heating With Compost
I have a geodesic dome greenhouse on an all-solar farm. My home is heated by propane. It’s expensive to heat a greenhouse with propane, so I tried heating it with chickens. I built a small coop in the greenhouse that six chickens called home for months, until a bear called them “dinner.” This year the greenhouse has been heated by compost.
I have three compost bins in a 17-foot wide greenhouse. Two are made of stacked tires. Tires work very well as compost containers. The black rubber absorbs heat that is radiated during the colder night. They also hold moisture well and can often be obtained for free. And you can un-stack them to turn the compost. The third compost container is an old Rubbermaid garbage can with a few holes poked in the bottom. Many styles of compost bins will work. My greenhouse was designed by Growing Spaces (www.geodesic-greenhouse-kits.com or 800-753-9333). It came with a thermal mass tank. It is a black water tank, currently holding about 40 gallons of water and a few gold fish. The tank also absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The greenhouse runs about 100°F during the day and 74°F at night while the outside temperatures are about 85°F during the day and 40s at night.
I think I have a winning heating method. So far, no wildlife has been interested in these composts. I always cover the compost with chicken manure-soiled straw after I add produce, and they all have a lid or cover of some sort. The bathtub outside the greenhouse usually has compost in it too. It’s my over-flow bin.
I still pick up unwanted produce and, of course, my garden and yard clippings go in the compost. Kitchen waste is composted. Anything that will compost is added. Too bad no one has a lawn in this area. Maybe my pig and I need to take a drive. That rich, dark, earthy smelling stuff is what Far Out Farms runs on!
Originally published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.