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Why not a compost roller?

 
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I just saw a thread about the pros and cons of compost tumblers.  Feedback is that they make good compost, you skip the turning with a pitchfork bit but they're not in contact with the soil.  I didn't see mentioned that they need to be fairly large to work well and then they're hard to turn.  Or hard to DIY a large and easy to turn tumbler.

So here's the idea.  Make a big compost tumbler but lay it on the ground.  To tumble it, you roll it over a few times.  If it's big enough, you might need a tractor, 4 wheeler, winch, etc to turn it.  But it's on the ground and the construction should be fairly simple.  I hadn't thought of the ground contact advantage, but if you roll it back and forth and leave it in the same spot, that might be a place for beneficial organisms to enter.  And it can have holes in the sides for ventilation and organisms (smaller than a rat).

 
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Mike,

So are you thinking about a big, porous/full of holes cylinder filled with composting materials laying on the ground?  Is the idea then to roll to stir contents, but then leave in place so the liquid composting goodies drip into the soil while soil microbes make their way into the cylinder?

This is actually not a bad idea.  I used to obsess about getting a compost pile just right and always failing.  I then thought about a fancy compost tumbler.  A neighbor has the one I was thinking about and it makes absolutely perfect finished compost in no time.  But the tumbler was expensive and the soils didn’t get the compost goodness, nor did the compost get the soil organisms.  I now just make a pile and what decomposes decomposes, the ground beneath is magically better and whatever is left over gets spread in spring.

But your idea might be the best of both worlds.  You get nice, tumbled and stirred compost complete with soil organisms while soil beneath get the compost drippings and the organisms specific to the compost pile.  To boot, you would be spreading the compost goodness across a patch, not concentrating on one spot.  Even better, if the cylinder could be made of chicken wire or something with similar sized spacing, you could fill, roll and as the compost broke down it would exit the cylinder right on to the ground beneath.  This might be perfect for a raised bed.

OK Mike, you got my mind crawling with possibilities and I am thinking this might be an awesome project.  We should make a BB for it!

Eric
 
Mike Haasl
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You got it Eric!  I was thinking a 55 gallon drum with forty 1/2" holes in it.  Or a fabricated larger cylinder that would hold more stuff.  

I was thinking it could return to the same spot but that's a good point about using it to distribute/sift the compost.  I have an old metal spool from the electrical utility.  Be closing that in with wood I could make a 1000 gallon composter...
 
Eric Hanson
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Mike,

A variation on a theme might be to make the cylinder a hexagon.  It would not roll as easily but it would have a nice, flat surface to interface with the ground.  You could leave it in place for a while, then move to stir and then park in a different place.

On the other hand I like the idea of filling up with material, roll-to-stir, and park somewhere.  Every few days?  Once a week? Or whatever time period it could be roll/stirred and parked in a different spot.  I would think over time the sitting interval could be shorter as the compost breaks down and falls out onto the ground.  Or maybe each roll/stir could be longer to really break up the compost materials and spread it on the surface.

This is kinda an interesting joint idea—yours for the compost roller, mine for the sifting and spreading action.  I am really thinking this would be great on a raised bed.  I mean it could be used on any bed, but for a raised bed it could be tailored fit the width and the diameter matched to the bed length.

Mike, you are ahead of me on this and I am really curious as to how your project will work out.  I am still thinking about how I can adapt this to my beds.

Awesome idea!

Eric
 
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I've made a LOT of compost. I've tried the tumblers, and Mike, you are right, once they get get large enough to be capable of hot composting, they are a bear to turn over.
I've also tried the stationary bins, and again they are okay for small quantities. Both of these have the problem that they are mostly bin, with a small hatch... fine for additions, a pain for emptying.

I also had an idea for a giant tumbler (built to be transportable by hook-lift truck to give an idea of scale) the drum would be expanded metal mesh and have a door large enough for loading by tractor/loader. The whole drum would have a removable cover to hold in the contents and moisture (my plan involved spent grain that would just fall out the mesh).
Nothing really new here, big rotating drum composting vessel... except that to empty it you could remove the outer cover and spin the drum so the compost filtered out through the mesh. Anything too big/needing further composting would remain inside and inoculate the next batch.

Now I make windrows and turn with the tractor. I got an old manure spreader to help do it, but it needed to get fixed up, and you know how that goes...
My favorite method for making by hand, however, was just a ring of wire fencing with the cut ends bent into hooks to hold itself in a ring shape. It could be set up anywhere, and it "roamed around", since you would peel it off and set it up next door to turn the contents over to the new spot. dry stuff from the outside went in the middle and got covered by the moist inner stuff.

I think for someone wont to have a lawn, the roller idea could be spectacular! hitch it to the lawn tractor and roll it to the other side of the yard, then back again, advancing each pass... voila! you just spread compost over your yard.
 
Mike Haasl
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I might give this a try but don't wait on me to try it
 
Kenneth Elwell
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I think I have half of the makings of one! Two round expanded metal mesh patio table tops... the umbrella hole is ready for an axle!
 
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HI, I actually started that other thread.

Well I had planned to make my tumbler out of a 55 gallon drum laying on some upside down casters. Now thanks to this flash of genius I am seriously considering skipping the casters (although now what am I gonna do with 'em?) and just slow-rolling this thing across the property. I do agree however that a flat sided tumbler would be better as it would have a better contact patch. I am not the guy to be making one though! In related news, I bet my wife is going to LOVE having a rusty old barrel creeping around our yard!

 
Mike Haasl
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I did more thinking on it as well.  I think a perfect building material is a wooden utility spool.  Take it apart and add some boards around the perimeter to turn it into a huge drum.

Much like a rotating tumbler, having some baffles inside would be helpful to force the material to tumble instead of slide.

And you could have someone paint something cute on the ends of the drum so that when it rolls to a new spot it adds art to that spot.
 
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Kenneth Elwell wrote:I think I have half of the makings of one! Two round expanded metal mesh patio table tops... the umbrella hole is ready for an axle!



This is brilliant!
I think a 55 gallon drum is too small, but the table top could be perfect in size, aerated and sturdy.
To create the side of the cylinder,I would use hardware cloth,or one could cut the sides off of multiple 55 gallon drums.

If you cant find a table top, building hexagonal side would be pretty easy.
The hexagonal shape might be harder to roll , but a bottle jack could help with that.


 
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I've got a big, black ball tumbler, 4x4 feet/ (a little more than a meter across) that seemed like a good idea, except that it could take off down a hill and really do some damage.  

It also takes up a huge amount of room in order to roll it, ground space that can't have anything else on it, which seems like a real waste.  

It's very heavy and awkward, the door to it is not easy to take on and off.

It's not big enough.  Compost shrinks as it breaks down, but you can't keep adding to it because it essentially starts over every time there are additions.

And now the tragically bad big black ball is sitting where it's just taking up space.  Still trying to figure out what to do with it, cut it in half, something like that.  These giant plastic things really shouldn't become landfill items, which is their only future.

I've started making slow compost in 3x4 foot bins, solid walls and a tarp over the top.  It's all out of recycled wood, pallets, old plywood that can't do anything else.  Once it's filled up to the 3-foot/1 meter height, with soaked cardboard and mowings, plant cuttings, kitchen scraps, I stop adding to it and let it go for a couple of months.  In the late summer, if it cools off, I'll add some water, not too much, and it starts heating up again.  Then I fork it once into a large cart, because it shrinks to about half the size it was, let it sit for another month, covered with a tarp,  and it's pretty much finished.  Winter compost is a little slower, but I don't really need it until the end of January, beginning of February in a mild winter location.

Not much work at all, and they are very satisfying to fill.

 
Mike Haasl
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I'm thinking if you reserve room for it to roll one way (maybe two revolutions) and then come back to park in the original spot, I'm sure you can stack functions for that space.

I was also imagining four 55 gallon drums that all roll together back and forth. Then you can be adding to one while the others cook.
 
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Mike Haasl wrote:I'm thinking if you reserve room for it to roll one way (maybe two revolutions) and then come back to park in the original spot, I'm sure you can stack functions for that space.

I was also imagining four 55 gallon drums that all roll together back and forth. Then you can be adding to one while the others cook.



If we do the fun math and get the circumference of the circle (the measurement around the outside of the barrel or container), then that is the distance it needs to travel for one revolution.  It is surprisingly big.

There are clever frames with office-chair-type wheels facing upwards that the barrel can rotate on, but the barrels won't get you much in the way of compost.

I think the absolute best way is to do hugel trenches (as opposed to hugel mounds), and bury the compost ingredients, preferably over rotten, water-soaked wood, then plant atop that.  I have two raised beds that I filled with soaked, rotted wood filled in with compost ingredients, and even lettuce in full sun needs less watering than a raised bed without the buried wood.  The rotted wood, depending what type it is, can last for several years.

A 6-foot/ 2 meter open trench, about the depth of a shovel -- or two if you are adding rotted wood -- works fine, and when it's full, make another 6 foot trench ready for dumping ingredients as they become available.  It's a lot less work digging a little bit, and the contents stays damp, the plant roots love it.

Rot happens, doesn't have to be from a container  

:-)

 
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And, honestly, I think the use of plastic is a serious problem.  A lot of plastic degrades in the sun rather quickly, and I don't know why it is so different these days than from 20 years ago, but it tends to crack into pieces, almost like it's dissolving.  I don't have a lab, but the off-gassing that happens before it cracks has to be a lot, and that is going into the compost.

Even if there is a recycle symbol on the plastic, the majority of plastic used to be shipped by dirty diesel ships to China, until they stopped taking our "recycles", and now they are going to Vietnam and other small counties, and who knows what's actually happening to them?

We can keep everything on-site in a much more earth friendly way.

:-)
 
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Cristo B. said,
"I think the absolute best way is to do hugel trenches (as opposed to hugel mounds), and bury the compost ingredients, preferably over rotten, water-soaked wood, then plant atop that.  I have two raised beds that I filled with soaked, rotted wood filled in with compost ingredients, and even lettuce in full sun needs less watering than a raised bed without the buried wood.  The rotted wood, depending what type it is, can last for several years.

A 6-foot/ 2 meter open trench, about the depth of a shovel -- or two if you are adding rotted wood -- works fine, and when it's full, make another 6 foot trench ready for dumping ingredients as they become available.  It's a lot less work digging a little bit, and the contents stays damp, the plant roots love it."


Ok, I have done a variation of this, and I could use some advice.  

A stationary compost pile didn't work for us (I won't go into why), so I turned it and a lot of branches from a downed tree into my first-ever hugel (I was so proud of myself).  I had the bright idea of putting all our kitchen scraps into a five gallon bucket and when full, having my DH dig holes in my garden beds to fill with the bucket contents.  That turned out to be a good way to destroy several portions of my garden during thegrowing season. ☹️

So, this year I got multiple buckets so I could fill them up and then when the season is over, have my DH dig trenches down the middle of each bed and pour out the bucket contents.  Well, what I have is four buckets, lidded, that you literally can smell from 15 ft away.  At least one of the buckets is full of wriggling maggots, so despite the lids, flies have gotten in, and flies and wasps and assorted critters are constantly around them.  Needless to say, DH is not smiling and neither are my neighbors (I'm an urban gardener).

Any suggestions on what I could have done better or how to remedy the current stench?  I shudder to think of the smell when it's time to dump the contents....
 
Mike Haasl
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How about if you dig some compost holes in your hugel that are maybe 1' diameter and as deep as possible (3+ feet).  Maybe insert a cage of chicken wire to keep the hole open.  Then just dump food scraps into the hole whenever you have them and cover with some browns (leaves, paper, straw).  That should keep the smell down to nearly nothing and allow the worms to put it right to work where you need it
 
Emilie McVey
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Mike Haasl wrote:How about if you dig some compost holes in your hugel that are maybe 1' diameter and as deep as possible (3+ feet).  Maybe insert a cage of chicken wire to keep the hole open.  Then just dump food scraps into the hole whenever you have them and cover with some browns (leaves, paper, straw).  That should keep the smell down to nearly nothing and allow the worms to put it right to work where you need it



My hugel has volunteer winter squash and zucchini growing out of it, as well as comfrey, mint, and wildflowers I planted.
So I'd have to wait until they die back or I'd kill them all.  My hugel was only 3 ft tall to begin with, and about 5 ft long....

Re browns, they've always been a challenge to get in the spring & summer, given that I use tree leaves.  I don't take a paper, and any straw I have (this is my first year using it) is keeping my beds from drying up.  

I'm not trying to shoot down your ideas, I'm just frustrated and don't know what to do without spending money.  And I dread having to deal with those buckets....
 
Mike Haasl
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Yeah, I was thinking ahead to next year for you.  Not sure what to do with your current buckets...

As for the browns, can you collect leaf bags in the fall and store them somewhere on your lot to use for compost or other purposes?  Or get coffee grounds from a coffee shop?  A layer of them might be close enough to a real brown to block the smell.
 
Emilie McVey
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Mike Haasl said,

"As for the browns, can you collect leaf bags in the fall and store them somewhere on your lot to use for compost or other purposes?  Or get coffee grounds from a coffee shop?  A layer of them might be close enough to a real brown to block the smell."



That's a great idea!  Both of them.  And there's a Starbucks onlya block away 😁. Thanks!
 
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Emilie, check out Worm Towers that you can put in your garden beds about 5-6 feet apart, a  1-gallon or 2-gallon pot, sunk about halfway into the soil,  that is drilled with 3/8 holes on the bottom and on the sides,  that you fill with kitchen scraps whenever they are available, and the worms come and go from them.  Then the plants aren't dealing with fresh scraps, and storing a 5-gallon bucket wouldn't attract gnats or rodents or nosy raccoons and foxes and skunks.  

A raised bed can get some good water that way, too, if the container that has the scraps is filled up with water in the scraps just before dumping into the worm tower.  There are several examples of people watering their garden beds this way.  Probably the distance between the worm towers would vary depending on the soil.  A saucer or plate that is big enough to cover the pot top is a good lid for it, might require a rock or brick to keep out critters if that is an issue.

 
Emilie McVey
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Cristo Balete wrote:




"...and the worms come and go from them. "





Thanks, I'd forgotten about this kind of idea.  I tried something like this about four years ago; all the worms escaped.  So maybe if I don't actively try to raise worms, but rather feed the worms that are in the soil now (and I know they are there, I frequently come across earthworms when I work in my garden), it would work better.  We generate a *lot* of fruit & veggie scraps, and I probably overwhelmed the poor worms.
 
Cristo Balete
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Emilie, it's not that they escaped, it's that they left to find food they could eat.  Most likely the scraps weren't consistently wet enough, were big chunks of things  (worms don't have teeth, they just suck in mushy stuff that passes through their systems.)  Add the occasional couple of cups of soil in a layer once in a while.  They are attracted to wet dirt, and will do just about anything to get into it.   If water is added with each addition of kitchen scraps, the kitchen-scrap tea that comes off it will show them the way.  

Start with a good layer of wet soil in the bottom of the worm tower, then start adding scraps, then every once in a while add another 1/2" of soil layer.  You can add torn-up garden trimmings as well, which adds bacteria and yeast to the mix.

I keep kitchen scraps in a half-gallon pail and empty it almost daily, with water added before I dump it.  I cut up banana peels, chop chunks of carrot ends, chop onion skins, not super fine, but a bit so that they will break down faster.  It's the bacteria that breaks down the tough part of the scraps, and bacteria also need damp scraps.  A lid on the worm tower keeps the scraps damp.  The water going through it also sends out finished worm castings.  Keeping the interior of the worm tower dark is important, so a clear plastic bag over the top wouldn't help with that.  They want darkness and about 50 F degrees.

I have a lot of worms doing a lot of things for me, and I often find that they have climbed into a container where they weren't before because the water dripping out had what they wanted in it and they just followed the water.  Once they start laying eggs, the population increases so then they start going out into the damp soil surrounding the tower, and hopefully will find the compost we put there or the neighboring worm tower.  It doesn't happen the next day, but within a week you should see them starting to take residence.  

If there aren't worms in your garden bed now, it could be because it's not consistently damp enough.   If you can find some in wet soil around your yard, dig them up, transport them into the worm tower, they will stay under the right conditions.

I am so impressed with worms, I can't tell you how much work they have saved me in several circumstances.  
 
Emilie McVey
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Cristo Balete wrote:Emilie, it's not that they escaped, it's that they left to find food they could eat.  Most likely the scraps weren't consistently wet enough, were big chunks of things  (worms don't have teeth, they just suck in mushy stuff that passes through their systems.)  Add the occasional couple of cups of soil in a layer once in a while.  They are attracted to wet dirt, and will do just about anything to get into it.   If water is added with each addition of kitchen scraps, the kitchen-scrap tea that comes off it will show them the way.  

Start with a good layer of wet soil in the bottom of the worm tower, then start adding scraps, then every once in a while add another 1/2" of soil layer.  You can add torn-up garden trimmings as well, which adds bacteria and yeast to the mix.

I keep kitchen scraps in a half-gallon pail and empty it almost daily, with water added before I dump it.  I cut up banana peels, chop chunks of carrot ends, chop onion skins, not super fine, but a bit so that they will break down faster.  It's the bacteria that breaks down the tough part of the scraps, and bacteria also need damp scraps.  A lid on the worm tower keeps the scraps damp.  The water going through it also sends out finished worm castings.  Keeping the interior of the worm tower dark is important, so a clear plastic bag over the top wouldn't help with that.  They want darkness and about 50 F degrees.

I have a lot of worms doing a lot of things for me, and I often find that they have climbed into a container where they weren't before because the water dripping out had what they wanted in it and they just followed the water.  Once they start laying eggs, the population increases so then they start going out into the damp soil surrounding the tower, and hopefully will find the compost we put there or the neighboring worm tower.  It doesn't happen the next day, but within a week you should see them starting to take residence.  

If there aren't worms in your garden bed now, it could be because it's not consistently damp enough.   If you can find some in wet soil around your yard, dig them up, transport them into the worm tower, they will stay under the right conditions.

I am so impressed with worms, I can't tell you how much work they have saved me in several circumstances.  



Wow, that's a lot different than I understood from the worm growing info.  I would toss in whole banana peels, mushy green beans, tomatoes, cabbage & lettuce leaves, etc.  I guess it was like giving them the grocery store without a can opener to access the food.
I used to have a food processor that I'd run a five gallon bucket's worth of scraps through.  The food broke down pretty well, I guess, although there was generally a mat of fibrous material laying on top of the area on which I had poured the slop, which hung around for a long, long time.  The food processor broke down eventually, and it was a extremely messy, smelly operation, so I didn't get another fp to continue.  Maybe I should try to find another cheap fp and whirl the scraps daily and pour the slop into the worm towers.  ("Feed them and they will come")  I still have those buckets with the holes.....
 
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Great ideas in this space.

Two thoughts.

First, for those of us for whom the compost must live in one spot, I propose not a cylinder, hexagon, or octagon, but a cube as large as can be manipulated full with a long lever attached to one side (I will leave defining large and long to the composter's situation and purpose, save that the compost pile in a part-full cube should be large enough to do the trick). I would build it out of six pallets, with one hinged to act as a door.

It would have two ground contact points of framed chicken wire, one opposite the door, and one adjacent to it, such that the bin could be raised onto the corner shared by these panels and rocked gently from side to side with a broomhandle or other similarly long lever applied to sockets at need on the top front corner. The contents would shift about with the rocking, and at the end of a bin's composting cycle, it could be shaken vigorously in this manner to sift the finished compost out the bottom through two sides. When at rest with the top up, a panel could be affixed in place over the chicken wire covered side.

Second, my ideal composting situation, should I not have chickens and pigs to break scraps down for me, is to install an old laundry sink outdoors adjacent to my composting area. Into the drain of this sink I would install one of those drain blender thingies made so famous by certain horror movies. The brand name I remember is Gerberator or Garborator or something like that. I think it would be ideal to have one just shredding scraps into a pail that I then give to my composting crew.

-CK
 
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Emilie, adding to the buying/storing of appliances and dish washing chores may not be fun in the long run :).

A simple chop at the time is enough, or dedicated a pair of kitchen scissors, they cut most things.  If you want to soak your scraps on the counter, make the pail 1/4 full of water, then add scraps, wil. speed things up.  But what worms are familiar with is wet soil.  Give them what they recognize, then they will check out the other stuff as it becomes available.

When I have started a worm "situation", I've started with 50% soil, then added rough chopped scraps on top of that.  They will stay in the damp soil long enough for the first batch of scraps to rot.  Then you're home free because they have someplace to go while waiting for the scraps to rot.   At first, when there aren't a lot of worms, they get big and fat.  Then as their numbers increase, they get skinnier and more numerous.  I have one situation where I've taken a shovelful of worms out of one place and moved them to start another, so getting the conditions right makes a big difference.

The last worm situation I put together I used gopher mound dirt, and they were perfectly happy in that.

You've probably heard of lasagna layering for composting, you can do that, too, in the worm tower, with shredded wet paper - junk mail -   (shred by hand, then soak)/greens from the garden chopped with clippers/kitchen scraps/soil.  

I've found the more sturdy cardboard, like a cereal box, needs more water than a worm tower will have available, and I soak and compost torn cardboard another way.
 
Cristo Balete
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Location: In the woods, West Coast USA
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50 F Degrees, BTW, is the most common temp of the earth a few inches below the surface when it's not frozen, and even under frozen soil, it is about that temp.   That's how the worms can overwinter in frozen places, then come back up when it thaws.  

I didn't mean that we have to do anything to maintain the 50 degrees.  Although a black plastic pot from the nursery, which is commonly used, would get hotter in the part of it exposed to the sun, so spray-painting it white or light tan to reflect the sun wouldn't hurt.  If it's really hot, only expose the top few inches above the soil.
 
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