It was International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) this week so in celebration I thought I’d do a post all about compost.
In some areas of the world, substantial amounts of the waste deposited in household mixed-waste garbage bins is organic matter that could be used as mulch or to make compost. In 2011 in Australia for instance (according to EC Sustainable) approximately 1/3 of the rubbish in mixed-waste systems was food scraps and 1/10 was garden waste. That means that close to half of the waste going to landfill could have been composted! tweet this
When you consider just how easy it is to compost garden waste, it is surprising that so many people do not compost their organic waste. When you realise the benefits of composting through, it is downright astounding.
Compost improves water retention in sandy soils and also improves drainage in clay soils. It provides nutrients for your plants and helps improve soil structure. Aaaand, did you know that research has shown that plants are less likely to succumb to disease if they are grown in soil treated with compost! tweet this
So if you’re keen to start composting in your garden here’s what you should know about composting:
composting is for organic matter – anything that was once living – so don’t add material in plastic bags
composting works best when it’s aerated so turn your compost regularly and choose a container that allows plenty of air circulation
don’t compost diseased material, the roots of weeds that spread by runners or weed seeds
compost should be made up of brown material and green material
brown material is usually older organic matter such as straw and autumn leaves
green material is fresher organic matter such as lawn clippings and fresh food scraps
for every 1 part brown material added to your compost, add about 2 parts green material – this will give you the fastest compost system
If you want to know more about compost and how to make your own, check out the Garden Realm compost page.
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A few months ago, I won a competition and received two bokashi buckets and associated additives from composting home/maze. I was very excited to try out the system as bokashi is one form of recycling I hadn’t yet tried.
Bokashi is simple enough. You put any food scraps you like in the bucket (that’s right even meat) and spray them with the liquid additive or cover them with the solid additive. Bokashi works without oxygen, so you need to press the scraps down with the provided tool if there are air pockets. You also need to keep the lid on whenever you’re not adding scraps. When the bucket is full you leave it for a few weeks while the scraps ferment and then the products are ready to use on your garden.
The bokashi system can use solid or liquid additives. The solid version is comprised of fermented grains and it smells slightly alcoholic. If you’ve ever smelled the fermented barley used in beer making it smells a bit like that (though it’s a lot drier). One benefit to using this material is that it’s easier to see when you’ve covered all of the food in the system. It also adds more organic matter to the system. I suspect it might be possible to make your own fermented grain additive but I haven’t tried this.
The liquid additive contains a mixture of beneficial microorganisms. The smell is hard to describe but I would say that it smells clean, if a little odd. The liquid is very useful for those who wish to put large bones in a bokashi system as it’s a lot easier and more economical to cover a bone by spraying it than by filling a bucket with fermented grains until the bone is buried. The manufacturers also claim the liquid is good for cleaning. I have not been game enough to try this given that I’m not that much of a fan of the smell.
The process produces two products: the fermented solids and a liquid. The solids can be put in a worm farm or buried in a garden bed. They are full of nutrients so should act as a fertiliser for your soil.
As the scraps ferment, liquid is produced and this collects in a chamber at the bottom of the bokashi bucket. The bucket has a tap that allows you to extract some of the liquid at any time. You can then dilute it and use it as a liquid fertiliser around your garden. It’s full of beneficial microorganisms so not only does it add nutrients, it also improves your soil biology by providing microorganisms that can multiply in the soil.
The Down Side
The system sounds great. You can use it to recycle any food scraps that aren’t recycled by any other systems you may have (compost heaps and worm farms for instance) and it’s not supposed to produce a smell (or at least not a bad smell – the additives do have an aroma so it’s hard to imagine that the finished bokashi product won’t have a smell at all) so it can, proponents say, even be used by those who live in apartments and don’t have an appropriate area for composting.
Unfortunately, I did not find it to be free of unpleasant odours. After a couple of moths in winter and only a few weeks in summer, the smell was unpleasant enough that we could only open the bucket outside when we wanted to add scraps. If we did it indoors, the whole house soon smelt bad. By the time we emptied the first bucket, the contents smelled very strongly of rotting food and we ended up burying it all in the middle of our lawn so we’re not likely to dig it up by accident before it has completely decomposed. As a result we’re not going to continue to use the bokashi system. It’s a shame because it has a lot of potential.
In the system’s defence, we recycle all our food scraps except for some citrus peel, bones and meat skin (fresh scraps go to our chickens and cavies and anything that happens to go mouldy in storage or the animals can’t or won’t eat, we put in the worm bin). So our bokashi bucket was chock a block full of meat scraps (with just a few lemon and orange peels) and this may have affected the process (especially because it’s hard to get rid of all the air if you’re sticking a chicken’s rib cage in there). I would hazard a guess that proponents of the system who claim that it is odour free, experienced that with a mixture of food scraps and did not imagine that anyone would only put meat/bones in the system. If you’ve got a variety of scraps to try in the system, it might still work for you.
On another note, be warned that the additives don’t necessarily last as long as they claim. The spray for instance, is supposed to last for about 2 months. Ours lasted a bit longer than that but we only put scraps in once a week (when I cook a roast). If you put scraps in every day, I suspect you would go through the additives a lot faster than the stated rate. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but the additives are a little on the pricy side. It may be possible to make your own (by fermenting grains or diluting the liquid product) but I’m not sure whether it’s really feasible.
So we’re no longer doing bokashi but all is not lost. The unused additives will go into our other recycling systems and will speed up the decomposition. (As I noted above, the spray is supposed to be useful as a cleaning product but I don’t really want my house smelling of it – it’s not that pleasant to my senses. So I am not using it as a cleaning agent but if you like the smell, why not give it a try.) We’ve also found a use for the buckets – we’re using them to make comfrey (and weed) tea for the garden. The tap makes them very useful containers for this purpose!
Have you tried bokashi and had a similar or different experience? We’d love to hear about it if you have so please let us know.
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Nearly three years ago, I moved into a new house and started building a new garden pretty much from scratch. As part of this process I investigated a variety of different recycling options.
Initially we built a compost bay with the intention of building two additional bays when the first was full of compost materials. The reason for this was that I wanted to have a bay that we would actively fill with materials as they became available, a bay for material that was actively decomposing (composting) and a bay to store the final product until we had distributed it around my garden. This is a common system and I thought it was a great idea.
For us though, there were a number of problems with this system. We had too much ‘green’ material (copious amounts of grass clippings) for the size of my compost system and we had way too little ‘brown’ material. This meant that our compost was slow and inefficient and probably lost a fair amount of nitrogen to the atmosphere. Also, I’m a lazy composter. I started out with good intentions but never managed to turn our piles as often as they needed.
Then we got three gorgeous chickens. Some of the grass clippings became material for the chickens to scratch around in when we weren’t home to put them in their ‘tractor’ or free range them (we get lots of foxes and predatory birds in our area so we can’t free range them when we’re not around – at least not the way our garden is currently structured) and this somewhat evened the amount of green and brown material in our compost heap. This didn’t solve the problem with my laziness – the compost still decomposed slowly because I didn’t turn it regularly.
Next we built a large worm farm that was situated on the ground. The reason for this is that we get very cold winters and we were worried that the worms would die, even in the shed, if they couldn’t burrow into the ground for shelter when required. Our food scraps then started going to the worms. This meant less material for our compost heap.
By this stage we had also replaced a lot of our lawn with garden beds so most of our grass clippings were going to the chickens rather than the compost. We also bought another three chickens. So we stopped using the compost heaps altogether.
By now, mowing was a chore. Well it was always a chore but in the beginning the lawn areas were relatively normal in shape (rectangles) though the steps at the bottom of the garden and the steep slope of the yard did give my partner a bit of a work out (mowing grass affects my hay fever so I am confined to the house when it’s going on). Once we started building garden beds though, lots of grass-filled nooks and crannies developed and mowing these areas became significantly more difficult.
Then we bought two cavies (guinea pigs) to keep the grass down. We built them a mobile home which similar to a chicken tractor except that their house is mobile as well. This enables us to confine them in to spots that are difficult to mow and they nibble on the grass instead. We move them whenever the grass gets sufficiently short (usually every two to three days – it could easily be longer if we built a larger tractor) and they are mostly guaranteed a fresh supply of juicy grass (grass was a bit scarce this summer due to a lack of rain but they enjoyed lots of supplemental carrots). We haven’t mowed since we got them nearly a year ago. They provide other benefits too. They eat many kitchen scraps that the chickens don’t and their bedding straw is a great source of fertiliser and organic matter in the same way that the chicken’s straw is.
Most recently we decided that our worm bin wasn’t quite cutting it. The worms still aren’t keeping up with the food we give them (anything that we can’t feed to the chickens or the cavies plus all our paper waste) and the design we came up with didn’t really allow enough ventilation or collection of worm juice (we did attempt to install a tray with some mesh to keep the vermicast out but the vermicast was too heavy for the mesh so the tray was hard to move in and out when required). It was also hard to harvest the vermicast. We intended to just feed the worms on one side of the bin so that they would vacate the other side but we had too much waste. So we bought two cheap, small rubbish bins, sawed off the bottoms and drilled holes in the to top. We transferred the worms to both bins and hopefully they will multiply enough to keep up with demand. Once they do, we should be able to stop filling one bin so that all the worms migrate to the other and then we can harvest vermicast. These bins are also located in a spot where the juice that washes into the soil can migrate to downhill garden beds.
At the same time as this occurred, a friend gave us her old (purchased) worm farm and we transferred some worms to that system so that we can start to collect some juice. This winter I will finally know whether worms will survive in our cold winters.
Finally, to complement our system, we have be using old newspapers and cardboard boxes to sheet mulch our garden paths. Whenever we have enough for one section we allow the cavies to mow the lawn really short and then cover it with newspaper and cardboard. Then we cover that material with prunings from bushes around our garden. This helps keep weeds from invading our garden beds, allows us to recycle more material than what we can use in the rest of our recycling system and attracts worms and other beneficial organisms. Ideally we would put manure in between the newspaper/cardboard and prunings but we don’t generate enough on site. One day we’ll have to get some more animals!
There are still improvements to be made to our system (for instance, I would like to have a proper, small compost system at some point as I might actually regularly turn something like that and one of those compost aerating tools would also help) and we could do with some more worm farms. I would also like to get a bokashi system one day so I can compost meat scraps without attracting rats. Then the only waste leaving our property would be metal, glass and plastic (all things I try to minimise anyway). All in all though, I’m pleased with the evolution of our recycling system and I’m pretty proud of the progress we have made. I hope others find this storey useful and perhaps pick up some ideas or inspiration that they can use in their own garden. If you’re interested in learning more about integrating animals into gardens, you might light to take a look at Integrating Animals for a Sustainable Garden.
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