Saturday, May 8, 2010

It's the final countdown!

Duh-duh-duh-duh, dut-duh-dut-dut duh!

I'm sorry if you now have an 80's Swedish rock song stuck in your head, but I'm super excited because we are less that a week away from chickie-time!

I've been candling our little eggs pretty regularly, and nine out of the dozen that we started with appear to be on track to hatch next week. A few of them have even moved a little while I've been having my peek! It has been an amazing and very educational little journey so far. The girls are learning so much about prenatal development and more importantly, to marvel at the complexity and beauty of life.

Look for baby photos around this time next week!!! :)

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!!! ;)

Composting 101

Quite a few folks have asked me for additional information about composting, and as weird as it is for me to think that I might actually know a little something about something, when it comes to composting, apparently I actually kind of do. Crazy! ;)

So I guess that I'll begin at the beginning. Compost, by definition, according to Merriam-Webster is "a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land." Basically, do-it-yourself dirt.

Compost can be made from TONS of different things - plant-based kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, fallen leaves, straw, food-soiled paper, most animal manure, twigs, newsprint, wood chips, wood ash, etc. The ideal formulation for a compost heap consists of 1/3 "green" ingredients, and 2/3 "brown".

Green ingredients-
Vegetables & Fruits
Grass clippings
Coffee Grounds
Fresh Manure (horse, poultry, sheep, goat, cow, rabbit and -believe it or not- bat are the most common)
Aquarium water & plants
Plant cuttings/trimmings
Wine making/Homebrew leavings - yeast dregs, must, etc.
(It isn't on most lists, but I also throw my fish carcasses - especially salmon - in my compost heap because of their outrageously high nitrogen content. They can be very attractive to rodents and other critters though, so use sparingly.)

Brown Ingredients-
Egg Shells
Tea Bags
Wood Chips
Wood Ash
Corn Cobs

The compost heap or bin itself can be as simple or as fancy as you make it. Some folks use tumbling or stackable bins to help aerate and mix their compost, while others have nothing more than a literal heap of clippings and scraps in a corner of their yard. Most people opt for something in the middle, such as a refrigerator box with the bottom cut out or four wooden pallets knocked together to form a bottomless box.

When starting a bin or heap, take time to consider it's placement. Though your heap, if assembled with the proper proportions of ingredients and reasonably well tended, shouldn't smell much if at all, the possibility of smell issues is still a consideration. You won't want to put it right under your kitchen window, for instance. ;)

Another consideration when initially assembling your bin/heap is animal activity. If you live in an area with raccoons, opossums, etc., you'll probably want to make a closeable/contained bin. Otherwise your kitchen scraps will be eaten or strewn about regularly by marauding wildlife.

Once you've made or chosen a bin, and begin throwing you scraps and yard waste in there, all that you really have to do after that is to make sure that your compost stays moist, and that you turn/aerate the pile every few weeks to a month to ensure adequate airflow. That's it! You're composting!

Coming up, er... eventually; Composting 102 - the finer points of turning stuff into dirt. ;)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Queen of the Compost Heap

When it comes to garbage and recycling, I can be a little neurotic. I hesitate to label myself OCD, and yet I definitely have my neuroses about most things "trash" related.

With our diaper days long behind us, our family of four now generates a modest 35-gallons of garbage (as in, that destined for a landfill) every two weeks. Try as I might to whittle that number further down, with holidays, spring cleaning, purging closets and what-not, I almost always manage to nearly fill our 35-gallon can by trash day. Though I'd love to be producing even less trash, I already drive myself - not to mention my family members - quite crazy with my militant recycling and composting rules.

In spite of my kids having been raised from day one of their lives knowing about the rules and importance of recycling, I am still forever fishing perfectly recyclable items out of our trash cans that they have wantonly tossed. I know it's a little nutty to dig an empty paper towel roll out of the garbage, but my conscience honestly can't stomach throwing away forever something that has at least one more incarnation left in it. And don't even get me started on throwing away food - that has spawned a madness all its own.

An example of this would be what I call my compost hierarchy.

When it comes to kitchen scraps, the order is this -

If the food item can be eaten by a chicken, rabbit or turtle, the critters get first dibs. I figure that I'll be getting this back for the compost heap eventually anyway, at least in the case of the hens and the bunnies, in an enhanced form, no less.

If it can't be eaten by the critters, and isn't meat, dairy or bread product, then it goes into the Worm bin (our "cool" compost pile*). We end up putting a lot of egg shells, onion peels (that chickens shouldn't eat), coffee grounds and spoiled fruits & veggies in this bin. (*We also have a "hot" compost pile, which I'll delve into on another day.)

If it can't be eaten by critters or put into the worm bin, it goes into what our city calls the "organics bin". The organics bin is largely responsible for our household's reduction in garbage. We're allowed to put otherwise uncompostable items like meat, dairy & bread products, as well as "food soiled paper"/aka drive-thru packaging, Starbucks cups, pizza boxes, paper towels, etc., into the bin. We also put undesirable yard waste like dandelions gone to seed and blackberry brambles into the organics bin, as the city processes the lot through a massive, high heat digester that can break down and combine all of these materials, rendering a "soil-like" product (their words, not mine).

The result of all these rules and sorting is that -

A) We have cut our landfill garbage contribution more than half in the past year.

B) Between free-ranging and supplementing with kitchen scraps, our animals eat better food and cost us less to feed.

C) We save a bundle by making our own compost.

D) We have begun a symbiotic relationship between our soil, plants and animals, along the lines of permaculture gardening, wherein we feed our animals and ourselves, as much as possible, what we grow on our own land. We use collected rainwater to irrigate, fallen leaves and needles to mulch, and chicken & bunny poo to fertilize the very same plants that will feed us all. The same is basically true for the chickens, we feed them, and they feed us, and on it goes.

So in the end, I really do feel like all of the nagging and uptight compost sorting is worth the trouble. My garden and critters are happy and well fed, and I shave a few bucks off of the garbage bill every month, but most of all, I have an easier time living with myself when I know that I'm doing what's healthiest and just plain right for the land and for the lives in my charge.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Eggy Update

We're on day 9 of our 21 day egg hatching adventure, and try as I might to get a good picture of the eggs when I candle them, I just can't. However, they look similar to this right now.

There is some variation in the developmental stage of the eggs, as though some are a bit further along than others, which I suppose may be possible since the fellow that we got these from said that he gathered them from hidden nests that were strewn here and there throughout his yard. The good news is that most of the eggs are showing some signs of development and most excitingly, I saw movement in one of the eggs today!

Right up there with puppy breath, peeping fuzzballs are a sure cure for a case of the blah's. I can't wait for these little chickies to get here and turn this dreary spring into a hopeful one.