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Archive for the ‘Composting’ Category

About this time last year, shortly after I started my first compost bin, I opened the bin and noticed that its contents seemed to be moving. Upon closer examination, I found hundreds of creepy crawly things munching on my food remains. I don’t really do bugs. I panicked, slammed the lid closed, and worried that there was something wrong with the way I had created the bin. After a lot of internet research, I had a name for the bugs: black soldier fly larvae. Not only are they common in compost bins, some people even want them to come.

The black soldier fly larvae are in my bin again now. Here’s what one looks like up close (I don’t get closer to them than this):

And here they are munching on food scraps (check in the center of the photo — again, sorry they’re not too clear. There’s a limit to how far I’m willing to lean into my bin in order to take their photo):

Based on my experience last year, I know that my biggest fear about the larvae is unfounded – I imagined that they would all, at the same moment, turn into black soldier flies and not be able to escape from my bin until the moment I pulled the lid off, releasing them to swarm my face. I’m pleased to report that they become flies at different rates, easily leave the bin through the holes, and don’t stick around. In fact, I’ve only seen one black solider fly and it wasn’t too scary, although I did scream when it landed on my leg but I’m a jumpy person.

I tolerated the black soldier fly larvae last year, but this year when they appeared I wanted to know if I should be embracing the larvae rather than merely tolerating them. Certainly, they eat a lot of my food remains, and they do it fast. Without fail, within two days of putting my food scraps in the bin there will be no evidence of the food. Pretty incredible. I sent an email to the woman who conducted the compost demonstration I attended several months ago to ask for her take on the larvae. Her response: “Rejoice in the larvae! They eat, and poop, and do a great job.”  Well, the same could be said about me, but no one seems to be rejoicing in the fact. Regardless, should you notice a horde of black soldier fly larvae in your bin, you have reason to throw a party.

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A couple of months ago I made my second compost bin by drilling holes in a circular trash can. My first bin, which I made late last summer, was a huge success and this spring I’ve been happily spreading the finished compost throughout our garden. But the second bin, well, this one had me worried. For one thing, it smelled bad. The more troubling problem though was that after two months not a single worm was in the bin. Not one. And I know that if you build a bin properly, the worms find it. No worms = you screwed up.

It was time to problem solve. A stinky bin plus no earthworms is a big sign that the bin is too wet and not draining properly. And, truth be told, when I made the second compost bin I basically knew that I hadn’t drilled enough holes in the bottom of the trash can. I only drilled four holes. I would have drilled more, but the plastic on the bottom of the trash can was really thick and, frankly, I’m lazy. Fortunately, the sides of the trash can were a lot easier to drill through so I made lots of holes in the sides.

Anyhow, last week I figured that I needed to drain my bin. In order to do so, I just turned it on its side and left it alone for a few days.

And when I came back to check on it, oh sweet mercy, the worms had come.

That little ringed section near one end of the earthworm is its clitellum which is part of its reproductive system. Reproduce, little worm, reproduce!

There aren’t many worms yet, but they’re there. I am in no way embarrassed to say that finding worms in my compost bin is one of the more exciting things that has happened to me recently.

As soon as I finish using the compost from the first bin, I’m going to transfer the second bin’s contents to the first bin. Then I’ll diligently drill lots more holes in the bottom of the second bin.

In the meantime, although there aren’t a lot of worms in the second bin, I trust they’ll call all their friends and tell them about the cool party in my bin. After all, I’m serving really great food.

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Compost this!

Last Saturday I went to a compost demonstration. When I told Mark that I wanted to go to a compost demonstration, he joked that I didn’t have any signage, as if  “demonstration” meant “rally,” like I was going to a trash protest march. Alas, the compost demonstration was not a rally but rather a meeting at a local park where the education director from our county’s solid waste management office offered tips on successful composting. Still though, how fun it would be to have a rally with recyclable (compostable, even!) signs like:

“Oppose the trash establishment!”

“Composters unite! Overthrow trashers!”

“No veggies left behind!”

OK. You get the idea.

Anyhow, off I went to the park on a chilly Saturday morning to get some tips. I wrote this beginner’s composting post a few weeks ago that gives basic information on starting a compost bin. But, I am not an expert composter, so I knew I could learn more.

As I mentioned, our composting teacher works for the county’s solid waste department as their education director, and she began her lecture with such little nuggets as, “I talk trash for a living,” and “My business is trash. Once you get in, it’s hard to get out.” She also had a 12 gallon indoor worm compost bin with a sign taped to the lid that said, “Worms eat my garbage.” I won’t cover worm composting in this post, but if you’d like to know more, here’s a great tutorial on how to start your own indoor worm bin.

The following are some highlights of what I learned at the demonstration (some of this information is also in my previous post on composting, but it’s worth repeating):

There are four main ingredients to successful composting:

  1. Nitrogen (the “greens”): these are fresh vegetable waste like coffee grounds, and fruits and vegetables. Grass clippings also provide nitrogen, but leave them on the ground as you mow instead of gathering them up for your compost bin since they offer even more benefit to your lawn as they break down.
  2. Carbon (the “browns”): these are essentially things that come from trees, so leaves as well as shredded newspaper, office paper, and paper towels. Avoid glossy paper. Compost pine needles in moderation. They have a waxy coating and take a long time to break down in the bin.
  3. Water: ideal saturation is no more than 70%. Keep the compostable materials moist but not dripping wet. If you squeeze your compost in your hand and water comes out, it’s too wet. If the bin gets too wet, you will prohibit air from circulating properly and will, at worst, kill your worms and other beneficial organisms. At best, you’ll cause a mass exodus of the worms and other creatures. Either way, once the critters leave, it will take much longer for your materials to decompose and the whole bin will start to smell bad. Proper drainage in your bin is also critical so that moisture doesn’t build up. Likewise, during hot weather, you should monitor your bin to make sure it doesn’t get too dry. If it gets dry, add some water and mix the materials thoroughly.
  4. Air: the beneficial little organisms that help to break down your compostable materials need air to survive. If they die, then the process of decomposition slows way down and, again, the bin starts to smell bad. To keep air circulating, turn the bin frequently. My compost bins are made from 32 gallon trash cans that I drilled holes in to allow air to circulate. We roll the bin around at least once a week. However, in the compost demonstration, I learned that I should probably also be turning the materials with a shovel or pitch fork to make sure the materials really get combined properly and moisture levels are constant throughout the bin. Also, one great thing about adding leaves to your pile is that they help create air pockets in the bin, so it’s crucial to mix them in properly.

General tips:

  • A good compost recipe is 1 part “greens” to 1 part “browns.” I mentioned in my previous post that whenever I bring greens from the house to the compost bin, I always add a roughly equal amount of leaves (I have a big pile of leaves next to my bin).
  • Chop food into small chunks before adding it to the bin. Our composting teacher mentioned that she once dumped a big ball of leftover cooked rice into her small indoor worm composting bin. Her worms revolted and left the bin (and took up residence on her floor!). She also mentioned that she once tried to compost Fritos in the worm bin. This, too, was a mistake because fats are not compostable (and the high salt content was also a problem for the worms). That being said, large outdoor compost bins are much more forgiving than small indoor ones, so the occasional vegetable that was cooked in oil should be fine. I am usually too lazy to cut up my compostable foods, but I’m going to start trying especially now that spring is here and I really want the materials in my bin to decompose quickly so I can use the compost in my garden.
  • If your bin starts to smell, add carbon materials (like leaves). Carbon helps neutralize odors which is why so many air filters advertise themselves as carbon air filters. Healthy compost has a very mild, almost sweet smell.
  • If you’re really serious about speeding up the decomposition process, add manure. Our teacher describes horse, cow, and chicken manure as “rocket fuel” for compost bins. She far prefers horse manure over cow or chicken manure because it doesn’t smell as much. Also, apparently, it’s much easier to collect. She said that farmers are usually more than happy to have you come collect their animal manure and take it away (provided you ask first and bring your own bucket). She only recommends using manure from vegetarian animals (so don’t start adding your dog’s feces to your compost bin).
  • Outdoor bins need sufficient volume to generate enough heat to break down materials. If you want to quickly increase your bin’s volume, you can ask for coffee grounds from local coffee shops. Many are happy to have you take away their grounds. Even the filters are compostable. Also, grocery stores and restaurants with salad bars often have produce that has passed its prime and will just be thrown out. If you bring a bucket, you might just convince someone to let you take home the “leftovers.”
  • “If you build it, they will come.” You don’t need to add your own worms to your outdoor compost bin (this is obviously not true for indoor worm bins). If you build your compost bin properly (following the four main ingredients outlined above), worms and other beneficial organisms will find it.

I also learned that in our county, 20% of what ends up in the landfill is compostable, and another 20% is recyclable. Consequently, if we all just made a little more effort to compost and recycle, we could reduce the amount we put in our landfill by up to 40%. What an incredible prospect.

So this Saturday, our compost rally will be held at the local landfill. I’ll be the one holding the “Compost this!” sign. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It is April Fool’s Day, after all).

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Composting is a way of recycling your food scraps and yard trimmings – thus keeping them out of landfills — and turning them into a valuable material to use in your garden. Using compost on your plants will add nutrients to the soil and improve absorbency thereby helping your plants to grow stronger. And, it’s fun to produce compost at home instead of buying it at the nursery. Composting is good for the environment, your plants, and your wallet. Heck, these days it’s even good for your image – didn’t you know that “green” is the new black?

Last week I made my second compost bin out of a trash can. Now I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the very basics of beginning to compost.

Before I started composting, I was a little intimidated by it. I didn’t know exactly what I could compost and I thought there was some formula I had to follow. There isn’t really a formula, but there are things to keep in mind. Remember, however, that you can make a lot of composting “mistakes” and still end up with compost—it just may take longer than other peoples’ compost or it might smell funny along the way.

This EPA site offers a nice list of things that can and cannot be composted. The highlights: along with both kitchen scraps and yard trimmings, dryer lint, animal and human hair, shredded paper, newspaper, dust bunnies, and eggshells can all be composted. Do not compost meat, bones, fats (including grease), or dairy products.

Compostable materials can be thought of in terms of “greens” (rich in nitrogen) and “browns” (rich in carbon). Greens are things like fruit and vegetable scraps, and browns are things like leaves and twigs. This site does a good job explaining the science behind balancing greens and browns in your bin. I’ll give you the take home message for an easy way to make compost: add roughly equal amounts of both kitchen scraps (such as fruit and vegetables, coffee grinds, egg shells) and leaves.

Shredded leaves (also known as “leaf mold”) are a great brown material to add to the compost bin. Our town offers free delivery of shredded leaves during the fall and winter season when they’re picking up our raked leaves at the curb. I had them dump a pile of shredded leaves a year ago and I’m still working my way through it. I use the leaves as mulch for garden beds, and when I was working on my little front yard landscape project, I dug the leaf mold into the soil to improve drainage (we have heavy clay soil). I keep my compost bins next to the pile of shredded leaves so that when I’m in need of brown material to add to the bin, I just pick up some of the leaves and toss them in. Simple.

It is important to maintain the proper moisture level in the bin. The material should be like a very slightly damp sponge – not so wet that you can squeeze water out of it. If the pile is too dry, it will take much longer to break down; if it is too wet, the beneficial little microorganisms won’t get the proper amount of oxygen they need to help break everything down. This site recommends the following as a quick moisture test: Squeeze a handful of the compost. If water drips out, it’s too wet; if the compost crumbles apart, it’s too dry; if it stays compacted without water dripping out, it’s perfect.

For items I collect in the house to compost, I keep an old plastic container (with lid) under the kitchen sink. When it’s full, I just take the container out to the bin and dump the contents in. It’s important that your container have a lid because otherwise it will quickly attract little fruit flies and other uninvited guests.

So let’s get this compost bin started. Begin by filling up the bin about 1/4 of the way full with dirt, topsoil, or, if you’re really feeling fancy, some of the compost from your first bin (complete with earthworms!).

Add some leaves (if they’re shredded, they’ll break down more quickly).

Add fruit and vegetable scraps and anything else you’ve collected in the house. If you’re interested in speeding up the decomposition, cut up the food scraps into small pieces before putting them in the bin. I don’t do this because I’m lazy. Also, if you add eggshells to your bin, it’s a good idea to crush them because they take a long time to break down.

Give it all a pretty good watering from the hose. While I occasionally use a thick stick to stir everything up, I generally just put the lid on, turn the bin on its side, and have Charlie do all the work for me.

Now that the bin is started, just remember that for every “layer” of green material you add, throw a layer of leaves in. Then roll the bin about once a week.

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Late last summer I began a small landscaping project in our front yard. It is, alas, an ongoing project because the money for the landscaping budget went to fix the car unexpectedly. Though the project seems discouragingly never-ending, it did get me interested in composting because I bought quite a lot of compost to add to the soil to prepare it for my new plants.

Our town actually sells very nice compost bins, but they cost $50 each. You can buy a lot of compost for $50, so I decided to try to make my own bin. Last fall, I did just that. The bin is pretty full now and since compost needs some time to “rest” so everything can finish decomposing, I decided to make another bin for all the food scraps and other compost-able things I collect in the meantime. Since the first bin is working out so well, I made the second bin just like the first. Here’s how I did it.

What you’ll need:

  • power drill
  • large outdoor trash can with lid (the one I got is 32 gallons)
  • bungee cord (optional, but probably a good idea)
  • newspaper or tarp to catch the little plastic bits

Put the trash can on newspaper before drilling the holes. I forgot. I had to pick up a lot of little bits of black plastic from the deck.

The compost bin needs air to aid in decomposition, so drill holes in the bottom, sides, and lid of the trash can. I drilled about four holes in the bottom, but I’m regretting that now and think I probably should have drilled more. It’s just that the plastic on the bottom of this bin was very thick and hard to drill through so I gave up after four. Having lots of holes in the bottom helps with drainage, which is a good thing.

Four holes probably isn't enough -- drill more.

Then I drilled about 25 holes all around the trash can and 8 holes in the lid.

Drill holes all around the bin.

Then I placed the new compost bin next to the one I made last fall. Don’t they make a pretty pair?

The new bin is on the left.

I put a bungee cord on the old bin when I made it last fall because I read that critters might get interested in the contents of the bin which creeped me out. But I’ve never seen a critter anywhere near the old bin and the new bin’s lid fits quite snugly, so I didn’t bother with this one. I’ll change my mind at the first sign of a critter though.

So how much money did I save by NOT purchasing the town’s $50 bins?

The tally:

2 trash cans: $20 (Yup, that’s right. Each trash can cost only $10.)
bungee cord: $2 (I actually can’t remember the cost since I bought it last summer, but it can’t have been more than $2.)
power drill: FREE, since I borrowed it from my neighbor.

Grand total for two homemade compost bins: $22
Total cost if I had purchased two of the town’s bins: $100
Savings: $78!

In my next post I’ll go over how to get the party started — what to add to the bin and how to stir it up. Here’s a sneak peek though:

The best little compost mixer around.

Update — 5/17/2010

I was having trouble with the bin not draining properly which made the contents too moist, so I drilled several more holes in the bottom of the bin (and even a few more holes in the sides) which seems to have solved the problem. Also, if you’re interested, I’ve written several posts on composting which you can read here, here, and here.

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