Thursday, May 6, 2010

Composting 102

As eluded to in earlier posts, my compost fanaticism has reached new, annoyingly specific heights this spring with the addition of a second bin to our yard. We added a second after finding that, between kitchen scraps, yard waste and chicken coop cleanings, our bin runneth over. Being so crammed full of stuff, it was not getting adequate air or moisture in it's deepest depths, "retarding", if you will, the breakdown process.

So, we now have two compost bins, side by side. On the left, the "hot" heap, on the right, the "cold".

It's not pretty, but it's very functional.

The hot bin is primarily for critter poo. We also throw in the occasional bowl of kitchen scraps ("green" compost) to balance out all of the "brown". I also add a compost starter now and then to the bin, which is essentially a compost probiotic. It's the "good" bacteria that help eat up and literally heat up the pile. The heat created by all of the microbial activity benefits you in several ways-

1) The bacteria's metabolic process accelerates that rate at which your composting material is broken down.

2) Most compost accelerator formulations include beneficial microorganisms that common topsoil frequently lacks. Again, essentially probiotics.

3) The heat generated in a hot pile, when done right, usually reaches temperatures high enough to "deactivate" weed seeds. So if you have a hot pile and you tend it well, you can throw dandelions, horse poop and other weed seed-filled compostables in there without spreading the weeds all over your garden when you use the finished compost.

The hot bin. With a potato growing in it, no less!

Our cold bin is our worm bin. I don't add compost accelerator or critter poo to it, because I don't want to fry my worms. The majority of my green compostables go into this bin, because those worms are voracious little things.

The cold bin.

My happy little helpers!

The preferred type of worm for a worm bin is the Red Wriggler, sometimes also called a Red Wiggler. They are smaller and more brightly colored than the more common earthworm/night crawler that most people think of when they think of worms and dirt. Earthworms and night crawlers are helpful in their own way, they tunnel through the soil, aerating and adding small amounts of fertilizer in the form of poo as they go. The Red Wriggler is the preferred compost worm, though, because of the quantity of food and plant material that it can break down in a short period of time (they can eat their own weight in food every day!) and because of it's fast reproductive cycle - 5 weeks from hatching to reproductive maturity. You can buy wrigglers online and increasingly more often at garden centers and even farmer's markets. We bought a container of a couple hundred worms a few years back for around ten bucks, and they've gone nuts on their own, ever since.

In addition to making stellar compost, the worms' poo can also be used to make a liquid fertilizer called "worm tea", which many claim, in addition to fertilizing plants, can cure black spot in roses, help veggies root and control unfriendly fungi. I've yet to brew my own tea, but there are a million recipes for it online if you are interested in giving it a try. One trick that I've heard of for making a very effective worm tea is to add a crushed aspirin to your brew, which supposedly boosts plant health and assists root production.

So, if I haven't bored you to tears by now with all of this jabbering on about poop and happy bacteria, I'll say just one last little thing about home composting: Do it! It is absolutely worth the effort! Though you'll be putting 10 times more "stuff" into your compost than you'll be getting out of it, the stuff that you do get out of it is incomparable to anything that you can buy in a store. It is perfect for your plants, critters and land because it was made by your plants, critters and land! Not to mention how much completely usable plant material that it keeps out of disgusting, airless landfills, where it would sit forever, never breaking down, it's usefulness wasted forever. Composting - dig it, baby!!! ;)


  1. Love it. Both posts were well-written and informative. Thank you for taking the time to pour out your knowledge onto us. :o)

  2. I heart this post!! Thank you for sharing your compost knowledge! Do you need a fancy compost bin to have worms - currently I have a simple pile of browns (yard debris) and greens (kitchen scraps) in a corner of my yard, kinda free form really. Anyway, if I got a bucket o worms would that help or do you need the plastic container thingie? Just curious :)

  3. Hey Andrea!

    I don't think that you'd necessarily need a bin to use worms, as long as your pile is big enough to give them a little refuge from the elements and keep them well fed. They are some of the heartiest worms around, but they are still sensitive to extreme temperatures and moisture levels. As long as you keep them in a fairly dark & moist compost heap, I'd think that they'd probably work pretty well for you.

    If you can score a few from a friend (2 dozen should be plenty to start) for a trial, I'd be very interested to hear how it goes! Good luck, my friend! :)

  4. Thanks Michelle! Maybe I'll get some worms for mothers days :-) Just what every mom wants, worms! LOL :) I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

    I'm off to search craigslist now for a fancy compost bin and worms :) Have a great weekend!!