Healing the yard with a huge compost pile

The new compost pile is covered with a tarp to keep moisture in. Eventually it will fill this whole space. In the background you can see our leftover adobe bricks.



So–our regular readers will know that we have high levels of lead in our back yard soil. We’re dealing with this by filling most of our yard with mulch and perennial natives to lock down the soil (lead laden dust is bad) and to diversify the local ecosystem.

Meanwhile, our vegetables must be grown in raised beds from now out. We used to have two main vegetable beds in the center of our back yard–they were our workhorses. Since the lead scare we’ve pulled up those beds. They were semi-sunken beds, the soil in them a mix of native soil, compost and imported soil.

When you have contaminated soil yet want to grow food, the easiest solution is to build extra deep raised beds and fill them with imported soil (soil which has, hopefully, been tested for lead!). Some people put plastic sheeting or rock barriers between the imported soil or native soil, which in effect makes the beds into giant containers.

We did something a little different–and a lot harder. We dug out a huge pit where our beds used to be. When I say “we,” I mean Erik dug a huge pit. (Somehow I weaseled out of this project.) This excavation had two purposes: 1) to remove the topsoil, where most of the lead (lead being an airborne pollutant) is located and 2) to harvest the clay beneath to use in our earth oven. Between the clay harvested for making the adobe bricks and cob, and the supplemental clay that we’ve put aside for future repairs and maintenance on the oven, the pit has grown to be about 12 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

This pit is going to be our new planting area, but obviously it needs to be filled in. Instead of buying imported soil, we’re going to grow soil by composting on a grand scale. We’re going to compost right in the pit and fill it up bit by bit. When it’s done, we’ll have a big round area where it will probably be safe enough to plant food crops. Might the plants suck some lead up from the deep clay layer? Maybe. We could test the deep clay. Might some lead leach in from the sides of the pit? Possibly. But this solution is good enough for us.

What drives us to this decision is our intuitive relationship with our yard. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but I encourage you all to pay attention to what your gut tells you about your gardens. It won’t steer you wrong.

Our gut instincts told us to dig down rather than build up, and to make good use of excavated dirt in the oven. Now our instincts tell us to fill this giant hole with rich homemade compost rather than imported soil. It just seems more…holistic to grow out own soil. It will rise out of our meals, our labor, our intentions. It will belong to this place.

How long will this take? Probably about a year. Maybe more. We’re willing to wait for those future harvests because this feels right.

Disconnect to Reconnect: Ditching the “Flushie” for a Composting Toilet

Image from the Wikimedia Commons

We’re lucky to have another guest post by Nancy Klehm (see a nice interview with her on foraging here). Nancy visits us at the Root Simple compound at least once a year. What follows is an account of a plumbing misadventure she had on her last visit. 

To give you some context, ever since we’ve remodeled our bathroom and switched to a low-flow toilet we’ve had periodic backups. We think there is a low spot just within reach of our turlet snake. The toilet flushes OK most of the time, but at least once a week I’ve got to deploy that damn snake.

Here’s Nancy:

I don’t use a flushie often, I made the decision to ‘go dry’ years ago, adopting the bucket toilet + sawdust system as it pairs nicely with my composting obsession and food growing habit.

I stayed at Erik and Kelly’s back in February. Their low flush toilet and antique piping can’t seem to handle even the most modest bodily donation. Once a flushing attempt proves unsuccessful, and immediately following the ‘oh no…’ guilty grimace, a light-hearted blame game plays out and then according to homestead rules, Erik snakes the toilet. The closet augur is kept on the front porch (to greet visitors?). Erik augers for a few minutes, flushes successfully, marches the tool back outside to air out and we settle back into our routines relieved that our burdens are flowing into the larger mystery of pipes and their soupy contents to the municipal waste treatment plant miles away.

But with Erik and Kelly out of town on one of the weekends during my stay, the daily chores of feeding the kittens, letting out the single hen to roam the yard and snaking, if so needed, fell on me. And yes, the toilet clogged and no, I did not assume the blame. I am regular enough (2-3x/day) as are Erik and Kelly for the record [editor's note: the editors demur from either acknowledging or disavowing the hypothetical frequency of their natural propensities.] to avoid creating such monsters and yet, the flushie needs snaking every day soon after the post-caffeine effect.

Continue reading…

The Stages of Alchemy as a Metaphor for Composting

I’ve been struck, for a long time, at the connections between alchemy and composting. I thought it might be interesting to “thoughtstyle” on the alchemical process and what it has to teach us as a metaphor for composting. Though there’s not universal agreement on this, western alchemy is often divided into four stages identified by color:

Nigredo or blackening
“The ever deepening descent into the unconscious suddenly becomes illumination from above” as Carl Jung put it. In other words, you have to go down to go up. When you work with compost you’re literally working with poop, waste and trash.

Albedo or whitening
The nigredo stage is purified by the fire of thermophilic bacteria and transformed into the albedo or “whitening”. The dark night of the soul has concluded as the trash (poop!) in our compost pile are now a living, breathing collective entity.

Citrinitas, the yellowing
Connected with the symbolism of the sun it’s a reminder that all life, including the microbes, fungi and insect life of the compost pile are ultimately (somewhat tangentially in the case of fungi) connected to the solar power of the sun.

Rubedo, a reddening
At the final stage, the rubedo, a multiplication takes place – life pervades the compost pile in a highly concentrated form. Lead becomes gold and, in fact, everything the rubedo touches becomes gold. The same goes with our compost. Everything it comes in contact with is pervaded with microbial life.

At its heart, alchemy is a metaphor for spiritual change. When we compost, we’re participating with and accelerating one of nature’s miracles: the transformation of waste in to life. Compost, then, is the spiritual, life-giving transformation of the planet.

Compost pail failure

We have one of those standard, stainless steel compost pails–the kind you keep on your countertop to collect scraps. It’s a couple of years old. Last week, it began to leak from the bottom. This mystified me because a) it’s stainless steel and seemed a quality item and b) it had no seams on the bottom. For a while I wondered if there was a miracle at work–you know, sort of the composting version of a weeping Virgin Mary. But today I took it into strong light and found one teeny tiny hole and pits that look like they soon will be holes, too. I assume the pitting is a caused by the acidity of the compost juice?

Has anyone had something similar happen?

Our consultants agree it smells fascinating.

Cat Poop Compost Installment #2

Drum full o’ cat litter

WARNING: Human waste and cat waste contain dangerous bacteria.  I fully believe that composting is a safe and sane solution to a waste stream problem–that’s why I’m writing about it, after all– I also know that it can be handled badly. (The stories we hear!) So please, read up on the subject before starting. You should have a solid foundation in regular compost to begin with, because all the basics apply. Take a good composting class or find a compost mentor. Read the Humanure Handbook. For complete safety, all cat/human waste compost should be allowed to sit for two years, and it should not be applied to food crops (but it can go around fruit trees).

***

Last year at the end of July I posted about our experimental cat litter composting solution in The Cat Poop Portal post. It’s been a while since we reported in, and I’ve received some gentle pokes from readers, so this is an update.

Long story short, it’s going slowly. At the time of the last post we’d installed a 50 gallon drum in our side yard. That drum filled up fast. We have two indoor cats now (I think we only had one when this started) and they are slinky little poo machines. Also, we were using pine pellets which require a complete change-out more often than clumping litters, so we managed to fill the drum in about four months. That was faster than I expected, and a little disappointing, but there are two ways to ease this problem.

1) Changing litter, so we use less. Most clumping litters are either clay-based, which is not good for compost, or have sketchy chemicals in them. We’ve recently found World’s Best Cat Litter, which is a clumping litter made of corn. I called World’s Best to make sure there was nothing added to the corn, and they promised me that there’s nothing added to the standard formula–the magic is all in the way the corn is processed. So yes, we’re supporting Big Corn…but what are you going to do? The stuff works really well and is compostable. Now that we’re using it we’ll reduce our overall litter waste volume.  (Of note: our friend John, a madman with six cats, swears by Swheat Scoop, which is wheat based. I don’t find it works for me, but he blames my litter management skills. It’s an alternative.)

2) We’re offloading half-finished cat compost to My Big Fat Worm Bin. Regular readers (and Vermicomposting workshop participants) might remember that composting expert Nancy Klehm had us add a good amount of mature cat litter compost to the mix when we built up the bedding material for the worms. She said she wouldn’t want to foist raw cat litter on the worms, but when it was well broken down they could handle it.

The drum has been, shall we say, resting productively over the winter. Today I went and dug it up to see how it was doing. As with any pile, the stuff on top was less finished–it looked pretty much like a cat box. It isn’t stinky, though, as long as I make sure all the cat poo is buried.

Down lower the material was more broken down. It’s an interesting rusty orange color. But I didn’t get the sense of lots of activity going on. It was a cool pile, and it showed very little insect life. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The pile is decomposing, just on a long timeline. But at this rate of decomposition I suspected it would need at least another year of sitting to be fully broken down, and then it would need to rest even longer for safety. Compost made from carnivore and omnivore poop needs a two year cycle to allow the pathogens to die off.

Digging down all I see is decomposing red sawdust

Wanting to move it along faster, I did what I’d do for any compost pile that was a little pokey: I turned it, and added nitrogen and water.* Shoveling 50 gallons of kitty litter is exactly what I want to be doing on any given Saturday! As I shoveled, I decided that if I didn’t already have Mad Kitty Disease, I’d have it by the end of the day. As if to confirm this, Trout sat in the bedroom window over the poo-bin, wearing a peculiar, self-satisfied expression while he watched me slave away over his waste. (Phoebe didn’t join in, because she doesn’t admit to creating waste at all.)

Okay, he doesn’t look smug here because he’s wondering what I’m doing with the camera. Prior to this I assure you he he looked very smug.

But back to business. For those of you who are new to composting, turning a pile stirs everything up, increasing bacterial activity, making the materials hotter. This speeds decomposition. There’s much debate over whether to turn or not to turn and how often to turn, and I’m not going into any of that right now, except to say that humanure piles are not usually turned, and I’d hoped not to do so with this catmanure pile, either, but necessity drives.

Just like turning, adding a nitrogen source to the pile heats it up. All compost piles are a balance between carbon and nitrogen sources, aka “greens and browns.” Too much carbon and your pile is cool and slow. Too much nitrogen and its slimy and stinky. But if you get the balance right, you end up with lovely compost.

In kitty litter composting, the litter is the carbon and the urine and poo deliver the nitrogen. Starting out on this path, I had no idea how the natural carbon to nitrogen ratio in a cat box would play out. Now it seems to me that the ratio is carbon heavy. Cat litter materials, such as compressed sawdust, are really dense carbon sources and need tons of nitrogen to balance them.

So my preliminary finding on this point is that it might be help to add extra nitrogen when you add a new layer of litter. Extra nitrogen could come in the form of green yard trimmings, veg scraps, urine, fresh horse manure, etc. Today, though, I decided to add alfalfa meal because we had some wasting away in the garage. Alfalfa meal is ground up alfalfa. It’s used as a natural fertilizer and top dressing, and is high in nitrogen. Generally speaking, I think nitrogen should be free, but if you don’t have a lot of scraps/trimmings/spare urine around, you could do worse than to have some alfalfa meal on hand to perk up your compost pile if it’s gone carbon heavy.

Mixing in the alfalfa meal and water

When it was all done, I thought my pile looked a little more loved, and I think it’s going to heat up nicely. I was able to move ten gallons of the more mature compost over to the worm bin, but the barrel is still pretty close to full.

Adding the kitty compost to the worm bin

For the near future we’ll probably be able to send about half our litter to the barrel, and the other half will have to go to the landfill. Eventually we’ll get rid of this big mass of pine litter, and I hope that by using the clumping litter will keep the bin from filling up quite so fast, and will somehow reach cat:compost equilibrium.

*To be clear, I added water because the pile was dryish, not because water in itself is a magic activator to be used in all circumstances. If a pile is too wet, I’d blend in dry stuff while turning. The goal is for the materials in the pile to be about as wet as a wrung out sponge.

Other People’s Poo: Biosolids in the Garden

It’s people!

Why not use city compost in your garden? Ecological designer Darren Butler, at a class I was sitting in on, showed a soil report from a site that had used compost from the city of Los Angeles. LA’s compost contain biosolids, a euphemism for sewage. The soil test showed high levels of:

  • zinc 196 ppm
  • copper 76 ppm
  • sulfur 5,752 ppm

The problem isn’t human waste, it’s all the other stuff that ends up in the sewer. I see a future when we’ll be responsibly composting human waste (see Joseph Jenkin’s website for how to do that). But watch out for that free city compost.

Update: A blog reader, Helane Shields, left an interesting series of links about biosolids in the comments. Thanks Helane!

My Big Fat Worm Bin

These worms are fat and happy

Some of you may remember that Earth Goddess Nancy Klehm taught a vermicomposting class at our house in October. Some of you reading this may have even attended!

That day, Nancy and the class foraged and gathered materials to fill a bin and worked together to chop, moisten and prep the materials. The materials included our own kitchen scraps, farmers market trimmings, cardboard and newspaper gathered from neighborhood recycling bins, chunks of our infamous prickly pear cactus, a “nitrogen contribution” from one of the more intrepid class members, some well aged humanure compost and some of the aged cat compost from our kitty litter compost barrel. (More on that later.) We didn’t have our final worm bin built at that time, so the materials were layered like a lasagne in a 50 gallon drum. When introduced the worms from our sad little kitchen bin into this pile of goodness, the worms thought they had landed in nirvana.

Since then, Erik has built a giant wooden bin for us following Nancy’s plans. It’s a simple thing, very like a toy chest. Nancy’s plans called for it to be 4 feet long, but Erik built the chest 5 feet long because he was working with 10 foot boards (less waste that way, you see). The result is a long pine box that looks disturbingly like a coffin! But that’s okay. Really, what better than a pine box full of worms staring us in the face to remind us all that we have to seize the day? 

Why do we have a coffin on our back porch, you ask?
The inside view, proving it is not a coffin. We’re going to decorate this somehow–which might help, or it might just look like we have a decorated coffin on our back porch. Right now the process is stalled because we are bickering over which pretentious Latin motto to paint on the side.

I transferred all the contents into the coffin box. What was interesting about Nancy’s mix is that it is much more like an active compost pile than the traditional newspaper shreds + scraps that make up a typical worm bin. The materials had heated up while sitting. Heat isn’t good for worms–they like to occupy cool compost piles–but I figured in a box of that size they could find cool pockets and edges to hang out in until it cooled off.  And that’s exactly what they did. There weren’t so many of them to begin with, and they were happy to hang out on the top layer until the rest cooled.

Since then, a wormy miracle has taken place. First, given the space and resources, they’ve started breeding like crazy. That’s to be expected. More interestingly, they’ve grown. The worms are getting super big and fat. I figure they’re like goldfish, adapting to fit their space. I think they really like the diversity of materials they’re living with, both in terms of habitat and nutrients.

The surface of the bin as of today. You’ll see it looks a lot like a compost pile, as opposed to a bunch of newspaper.

For my part, I love, love, love having a huge worm bin because it can easily absorb all of our kitchen waste. I can take my entire one gallon scrap pail, dig a hole in the bin, and dump it all in. When we had the small worm bin–which was made of a plastic storage bin–I could only add a cup or two of scraps at a time. This made the bin more of a hobby than a convenience. What’s extra cool is that those huge scrap loads vanish really fast in the new bin, whereas scraps tended to linger in the small bin.

Here’s a morbid question for you all: Whenever I add new scraps and see the old ones broken down so quickly, I recall something about an old cemetery in France, I believe, which was known for breaking down bodies extra fast, due to the composition of the soil. Mr. Google isn’t helping me recover this lost information, but I believe the cemetery was nicknamed “the man eater” or the “bone eater” or something like that. Does anyone with similarly Gothic tendencies happen to know what I’m talking about?

On outdoor worms:

Outdoor worm bins do have to be protected from worm predators–lots of critters like to eat worms, even dogs–either by weighing down the lid or latching it somehow. For now, we’re just keeping a big chunk of broken concrete on top. (Uhh…do I hear banjo music?)

Extreme temperature fluctuations are a problem outdoors. Worms like the temperatures we humans prefer, essentially. If it’s broiling out and they can’t find cool ground, they’ll die. When their bin freezes, they’ll die. Freezing is not an issue for us, but Nancy, being from Chicago, is an authority on cold. She says what happens with outdoor bins there is that when the deep freeze comes, the adult worms will die off, but the eggs will overwinter, and the bin will rebuild itself in the spring. Obviously, if you want your worm bin to function year-round in a cold climate it will have to be kept in a basement or a mudroom or somewhere where the temperatures are a little more moderate.

On the flip side, the mass of a big bin helps insulate the worms from the heat. They can dive deep, or hang out on the shady side of the bin. But it helps quite a bit if you can give the worms some shade during the summer, either by moving the bin under a tree or setting up some kind of screen to block the worst of the sun. 

Managing the waste stream:

Diverting all kitchen waste to the worm bin works well with our waste stream because of late, Erik has preferred to build his compost piles all at once–usually when we clear out our garden when the seasons change. The piecemeal additions of food scraps interferes with the timing of his compost harvest. See, if you build a pile all at once, you get finished compost much more quickly than if you add material a bit at a time. This is not to say that “bit at a time” piles are bad, they’re just slower. Now we have the best of both worlds.

Regarding the cat poop compost:

This should probably be a whole other post. But the short version is that I’ve been composting our cat litter in its own separate pile. This works pretty well, but with two indoor cats (aka pooping machines) the bin fills up fast. When we built the worm bin, Nancy had us harvest some of the older, more finished kitty litter compost from the bottom of the cat pile to mix into the worm pile as a base material, and I will continue to do this whenever our cat bin overfloweth. The ability to transfer some of the mature material to the worm bin will function as sort of a pressure release valve on our cat pile, allowing the whole system to work better.

Is this safe? I’m not going to say it is. I’m not going to recommend that any of you do this. When it comes to composting pet or human poo, we believe good composting technique, worms and time make all things well. But obviously if this is done badly, it could be quite dangerous. If you’re interested in extreme composting, as always, I recommend you visit Joe Jenkins’ site–he’s the author of The Humaure Handbook.

So from Erik, me and the worms: A huge and hearty thank you to Nancy and to all the class attendees who helped us make this wonderful bin!

4 Vermicomposting Tips

Ecological landscape designer Darren Butler has been teaching a series of classes at the Root Simple compound this month (I think there may be a few open slots in his Intermediate Organic Gardening class if you’re interested. Click here for details). Darren dropped a few vermicomposting tips during the beginning class that we thought we’d share:

1) Worms don’t like empty space in their bin. They dislike voids. They appreciate it very much if you bury their entire working area under a very thick layer of light dry carbon material, like shredded newspaper or chopped straw. Yes, it’s standard practice to put a layer of cover material over the scraps–but the difference here is that Darren recommends that the cover layer should fill all the empty space in the bin, from the worm level to the lid.

To be clear, you never want the bin’s working material (worms, scraps, etc.) to get super deep. That’s just asking for problems, because the deeper that material, the more likely the bottom is going to turn nasty and anaerobic. What we’re talking about here is filling the empty air space with dry matter–sort of like an insulation layer.

2) Harvesting worm castings (separating the worms from the castings) is always a bit of a challenge. Well, not challenging as in hard, but challenging as in requiring patience. Our method has been to mound the castings into a pyramid outside on a sunny day. The worms instinctively work their way down to the base of the pyramid to avoid the light. Once they do, we take off the top and sides of the pyramid and transfer that to a bucket. That material will be mostly worm free. Then we reform the pyramid and do it all over again.

This method is fine, but Darren’s method is a little faster. It works on the same principle–the photosensitivity of worms–but instead of making pyramids he lays out softball sized mounds of castings. The worms will cluster at the bottom of the balls, allowing you to harvest off the tops and sides. This works faster than our pyramid method because the worms don’t have as far to move. You can harvest faster, and get it done all at once instead of forming and reforming the pyramid.

Of course when you’re doing either method you should remember the worms are very vulnerable when they’re out of their bin like this, vulnerable to heat and sun–you don’t want to forget about them!–and also to predators like chickens, birds and even dogs.

3) Some of you have worm bins with spigots for collecting “worm tea” aka leachate. Did you know it goes bad within 24 hours of production? If you use it, use it right away. Never use undiluted leachate on plants–it can harm them. To use it on plants, dilute it with 4 parts water, put it in a spray bottle, and spray on foliage. They’ll uptake the nutrients through their leaves. Alternatively, you can use it as a soil drench (for watering) when diluted with 16 parts water. In its straight form it can be used as an insecticide.

4) Darren’s favorite way of using worm castings is new to us and quite interesting. Castings are fertilizer, but more than that. They can help bring life to your soil. He takes golf ball sized plugs of fresh castings and buries them here and there in his garden beds (or pots). Used this way, they are little beneficial microbe arks that will help invigorate the life of your soil. A little bit goes a long way. You are, in effect, inoculating your soil with microbial life.

New to worm composting, or just vermi-curious? The classic book on the subject is Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System by Mary Appelhof.
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Vermicomposting Class

If you live in or around LA, we encourage you to take this unique class that we’re hosting in the Silver Lake area. While it’s pretty easy to get basic information on starting a worm bin, it’s rare to be able to dig deeper, especially with a teacher as knowledgeable as Nancy Klehm.

GET YOUR LOOP ON!
A workshop on extreme vermicomposting for the city dweller.

October 23, 2011
9am – 1pm

This class is suitable for both beginning vermicomposters and experienced ones with interest in integrating their worm bin with their larger household systems.


As cities struggle with basic recycling programs, and citizens learn how to grow tomatoes for the first time on their decks in soil from stripped from farmland and purchased at a store, there are some who are curious about having a more intimate connection to their waste and unveiling its worth.

In this workshop we will go “beyond the bin” and build a large, outdoor vermicomposting system designed to handle both kitchen and yard waste. The basics of worm farming will be covered, but emphasis will be placed on integrating the worm bin into the wider ecosystem of yard and house, such as:

* How to combine vermicomposting and thermacomposting in stepped systems
* How to integrate vermicomposting with a dry toilet or pet waste composting system
* How to best use your castings in the garden
* Tips for the apartment dweller
* What to do with all those extra worms…

And more!

Nancy Klehm is a long-time urban forager and grower, ecological system designer, artist and intrepid soil builder. She spent over five years designing and running a closed-loop vermicomposting project in Chicago that used 100’s of thousands of worms to digest 10’s of thousands of pounds of food and paper waste to create healthy soil. She started The Ground Rules, a community soil building center in North Philadelphia and developed and ran a two year collective human waste recovery project Humble Pile Chicago. She is the on-going bio-instigator of soil systems at C.L.U.I.’s South Base in Wendover, UT.

www.spontaneousvegetation.net
www.socialecologies.net