Chickens and Compost; A Match Made in Heaven

Before I got the chickens last year, I was already quite passionate about, or perhaps obsessed with, composting and fruit trees.

My composting area was way at the back of the yard ( I also keep three worm bins by the house for easy kitchen access). When we were deciding to put in the chicken coop we put it adjacent to the composting area. The composting area later became a part of the chicken run. There is a tangerine tree that is next to the compost that provides shade and protection to the hens. I never could have dreamed how well the chickens would fit in with composting and fruit trees!

They love eating fruit – pomegranates, figs, peaches, even oranges. The chickens make contributions to the compost with their poop, of course, but the real fun is when you turn it. Chickens are very curious- I’d say they are much more curious than my cats, who have disappointingly little interest in compost. I have to be careful where I plunge the pitchfork into the compost pile because the bird brained Peckerella (pictured) likes to be right in the middle of things. The chickens eat the bugs, grubs, worms and assorted creepy crawlies with glee. They scratch and peck and slurp up worms like noodles. It is a delight to behold. My father, who was very skeptical about the chickens at first, now loves to come over and watch them eat bugs from the compost. It is the best television show I know of, made right here in my own back yard. With the chickens, everything really comes together into a working system. They are also a lot of work and I worry that I’m overly emotionally attached to them. But over all, I am delighted with my backyard agroecosytem.

Wonderful Worms

 I’ve been composting with worms for many years now and I am continually impressed by how good they are at what they do- eat our garbage. 

For those who want to start a worm bin of their own you can either buy a bin or make your own. I must say the black, stacking bins made from recycled plastic work very well. They are well designed to allow for a lot of waste in a small footprint and provide good drainage, which is absolutely key for worms. I’ve also made my own bin and I’ll write about that in a separate post. Target has also come out with a fancy worm bin they call the MIO(I’m not sure how to make the link work so you’ll just have to look it up) . I’m incredibly jealous because I wanted to be the first to come out with a snazzy, hip worm compost bin. The Target bin is cute but unlike other prefab bins it is not made from recycled plastic. I still kind of want one. 
Mr. Homegrown has encouraged me to share my failures because apparently readers of this blog love to hear about projects gone awry. I’ve only had one problem with worms but it was a doozy. I had been composting with worms for several years without a glitch when I got overly enthusiastic and threw everything off. There is a local juice bar that doesn’t compost. All that lovely, ground up juicing waste just ends up in the trash. So I decided to take home a big bag- maybe twenty pounds of ground up carrots, wheatgrass, apples, kale and whatever for the worms. I spread it out as a layer in one of the bins. Several days later I noticed flies. I opened the bin and there were all of these hideous larvae crawling around. Now I love worms, but larvae are just gross. They were some kind of fly larvae. I screamed and jumped up and down shrieking for about 5 minutes. I closed the bin and decided to wait. Composting is all about balance. I knew I had thrown off the equilibrium of my worm composting system. After about five days of just letting the bin do its thing I started by slowly adding just my morning coffee grounds. I put down a thick layer of shredded newspaper to keep any more flies from getting in. After about two weeks I had restored the balance, the larvae were gone and the worms and I have lived happily ever after.

Compost Outlaws

Yard Trimmings being used as “ADC” at the Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley

Our neighborhood comrade Tara Kolla, who grows sweet peas for farmer’s markets in her urban backyard, has been busted for . . . composting! Specifically for composting fruit and vegetable scraps from a local restaurant. From last Friday’s Los Angeles Times:

Tara Kolla said she was doing a good thing for her Silver Lake Farms business while doing the right thing for the planet by filling a garbage can each week with produce scraps from a nearby restaurant and dumping them into her compost.

A neighbor did not see it that way and complained about the compost, which Kolla has in two wood boxes covered with black plastic.

“I didn’t put it here to offend anyone. I put it here because it’s a work area,” Kolla said one morning as she showed a visitor her half-acre urban farm, where she grows flowers as well as some other crops to sell at farmers markets in Echo Park, Hollywood and Silver Lake.

In August, Kolla received a letter from the Los Angeles Local Enforcement Agency telling her to “cease and desist” composting food waste that was not generated at her home. The letter was signed by David Thompson, the agency’s program supervisor, who declined to talk on the record. But a city spokeswoman said there would be no additional action taken if there are no more complaints.

It turns out it’s against the law to compost material not generated at your own residence. So when you take back that bag of coffee grounds from Starbucks to put in your compost pile you’re an outlaw. It’s a law that benefits the status quo, where the the city and private contractors haul away all that perfectly good organic matter that could be nourishing our neighborhood gardens, parks, and street trees and stuff it in . . . the dump.

There’s a dirty little secret with what happens to the organic matter we all some of us put in the green bin (a trash can provided by the city some municipalities to separate out yard trimmings) in the city of Los Angeles and many other municipalities. According to a friend of mine who works in the recycling business, 80% of the green bin contents in Los Angeles (county?) [Editors note: see neighborhood colleague, and fellow "trash geek" Jeremy Drake's correction in the comments section. Drake says that LA City does not use green bin contents as ADC. My friend may have been refering to LA County waste practices.] are used as “Alternative Daily Cover” or ADC. ADC, which in addition to yard waste can consist of all kinds of things including broken glass and construction materials are used to cover up trash dumped into landfills. So while our friend Tara gets busted for composting, some cities go about taking the same perfectly good organic matter and toss it into the dump along with the rest of our garbage.

The green bin is a sham, but it gets worse. According to Mayor Sam’s Sister City, classifying waste as ADC “allows dump operators to escape paying State per ton fees which in turn are used for State recycling and enforcement programs.”

There’s a opportunity in this composting kerfuffle for an elegant solution. Anyone who gardens in the city knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to get enough organic matter. How about regional composting facilities? Instead of trucking organic matter from restaurants and yards to far-off dumps (and generating tons of diesel particulate matter on those long hauls), how about we compost it closer to home? We’ll need skilled workers for this, perfect in a time of rising unemployment. This is precisely what our friend Nance Klehm does in Chicago, taking the waste from 6,000 daily meals at the Pacific Garden Mission and, with a large worm composting operation, turning that waste into prized worm compost which is sold at a farmer’s market. The operation is staffed with homeless clients from the Mission. Waste is reduced, gardeners get compost, homeless people get work and everyone benefits.

Now let’s change these silly composting laws and get to work . . .

[Editors note--Tara had a correction to the LA Times story--she does not "dump" stuff in her compost pile, but skillfully and responsibly layers green and brown materials. You can take a compost class from her at the Norman Harrington / Franklin Hills Community Garden. More information at Silver Lake Farms.]

A Used Tire Compost Bin

There’s so many damn used tires littering the sidewalks of this grungy town, Los Angeles should incorporate them into the city seal. Thankfully tires make a fine raw material for building projects and Homegrown Evolution has been experimenting with their many uses over the past year. This week we built a compost bin.

Step one is to cut out the sidewalls. You might be able to do this with a sharp knife, but it’s much easier with an electric saber saw. We used a knife to cut a slit to get the saber saw started. Once both sidewalls are cut out you just stack your modified tires up, fill it with compost, put a cover on it (we used a piece of scrap aluminum), and fetch a beer.

We’ll post another tire project soon.

Save the World–Poop in a Bucket


Learn about composting your own poo by checking out our new post, How to Save the World by Pooping in a Bucket, at the consciousness shifting blog Reality Sandwich, for which we write a regular column.

And should you want more potty talk you’re in luck due to a minor sewage synchronicity going on in the magazine/internet world. As we wrote our meditation on human waste, a number of other stories on the subject came out at the same time:

  • A Mother Earth News reader submitted a photo and description of a handsome sawdust privy made out of an old garden hose box. Very clever!
  • Science Daily reports on Converting Sewage to Drinking Water.
  • So take that laptop into your “meditation room” and get some reading done!

    Doing the doo-doo with you


    Tim Dundon, also known as the “King of Compost” and “Guru of Doo-Doo”, dropped off a three cubic yard load of what he calls a “weapon of mass creation”–a fragrant mass of horse dropings and stable bedding. Dundon, who has a tendency to speak in rhymes and spontaneously break out into song, also left us with quite a load of his philosophy, spending an hour on our porch weaving a stream of consciousness revolving around his core belief, that delivering his compost is a way of spreading the life force to counter what he sees as our death obsessed culture.

    Dundon’s views his compost, which he alternately calls “Doo-Doo”, “craptonite” and “craptonium”, as a key component in a visionary life-affirming world view which he hopes to spread to schools and prisons. And with the writers strike is on, Dundon hopes that someone will create a reality TV show to help dissemenate his message. At one point, between digressions about the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, Sung Myung Moon, his brother who belongs to the Bohemian Grove, the Illuminati (which he hopes to counter with his own “Illumipotty”), he suggested teaming up with Yoko Ono. If that reality show ever happens with Yoko as the co-star you can bet that Homegrown Revolution will hook up the TV again.

    Part of Dundon’s justified paranoia stems from his multiple run-ins with the “Man” over the past few years. Dundon ran afoul of the law and neighboring yuppies for tending what he called Zeke’s Heap, a 40-foot-high mountain of compost in west Altadena. An article in the LAWeekly covers the whole colorful saga including a trial in which Dundon in the guise of one of his alter-egos, “Zeke the Sheik”, fought marijuana charges,

    “In a floor-length caftan and a blue headdress, Zeke spoke only in rhymes — including a 20-minute statement that kept the room in stitches. One prosecutor claimed it was “the funniest, most hilarious” trial he had ever experienced. Dundon was facing up to six years in prison, but was sentenced to 18 days in jail. Since then, he says, he’s heard that a law professor at UCLA uses State of California v. Dundon as a case study to suggest that “the right rhyme for the right crime will get you less time.”

    For us we’re hoping that Dundon’s compost will give life to the dead soil excavated and spilled out on the front slope of our house during extensive foundation work that we had to complete earlier this year to keep our 87 year old house from sliding down the hill. Dundon says that his “Doo Doo” becomes a sort of life-giving satellite of the Garden of Eden he has created around his own house. We were able to share some of this compost with the CEC (Chief Executive Composter) of Elon Schoenholz Photography who dropped by and ended up literally shoveling shit and helping us carry some of it up the front slope. Thanks Elon! And thanks Tim for spreading life and love.

    Make sure to visit Tim’s website – www.2doo.com.

    Here’s a video from the 2Doo website:

    Cooking with Poo

    Homegrown Revolution Toronto correspondent Nicholas Sammond wrote us this morning asking if it would be possible to generate enough methane in his new abode via a composting toilet to cook with. It’s a great question since once abundant natural gas is getting scarce and expensive here in North America, and the desperation has gotten to the point that large and dangerous liquefied natural gas terminals are in the proposal stage across the continent.

    Unfortunately, as individuals we produce just enough methane gas each day to barely heat a cup of tea. If you own pigs, it’s a different matter. Francisco X. Aguilar of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester has come up with a simple way for folks with a few pigs to generate methane with little more than a big plastic bag. Each day you add one bucket of excrement and five buckets of water. In return you get “biogas” and usable compost.

    Some clever artistes have turned biogas into art. A Danish collective who call themselves Superflex have created a biogas system involving an bright orange ball to collect biogas and claim that just two cows will generate enough gas for 8 to 10 people.

    SurviveLA is working acquiring a herd of water buffalo for Silver Lake. Next step will be to tear up the asphalt parking lot of the RiteAid for pasture. A plastic bag, some pvc pipes, and we’re in business.

    Pee on your Compost

    Judging from comments and our web statistics you people out there love discussing poo. So it’s about time that we move on to pee. Why waste your perfectly good urine? Indeed, both Ghandi and Jim Morrison drank their own urine for it’s reputed health benefits. But we ain’t gonna go there.

    Our suggestion for the day is to save that piss for your plants. Urine is a fantastic source of nitrogen and it’s estimated that we all produce enough urine to fertilize all the wheat and corn that we as individuals consume. And urine is sterile and safe unless you’ve got a bladder infection.

    Urine should be diluted before applying directly to plants since salts in your pee can build up in the soil. Dilution should be at least 10 parts water to one part urine. Peeing directly on plants can burn them as anyone who owns a dog already knows about. Urine is easiest to apply to non-food crops, though it’s perfectly safe to use on fruit trees and bushes. Applying it to root crops is more controversial, and frankly seems like a practice best left to hippies, so if you try this at least cease application at a respectable interval before harvesting.

    There is even a book called Liquid Gold on the subject of pee as fertilizer and the ever more resourceful Europeans have developed a number of urine diverting flush toilets similar to the one we profiled earlier to take the labor out of urine saving.

    Perhaps the most convenient way to use urine is to simply pee on your compost pile. That way you don’t need to worry about saving it in a container and diluting it. As, no joke here, British conservative member of parliament Francis Maude puts it,

    “If I share a tip with the audience it is that if you pee on your compost, it has a double environmental whammy – it speeds up its decomposition so you can get it on the garden more quickly, and it also saves water.”