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Composting in place

 
Shalonne Halstead
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Hi - I wanted to start composting in place instead of using compost bins. I was searching through the forum posts and it seems like that's possible, but I'm a beginner to permaculture / gardener so some of what I found was over my head. We have chickens, goats, and rabbits and a lot of kitchen waste generated by two kids whose eyes are constantly bigger than their stomachs. Do I just throw all that stuff in a garden bed? Or is it more complicated than that? Do I need to wait a certain amount of time before I can start growing food in that garden bed? Is there anything I can't throw in? Thanks!
 
Dave Burton
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Composting can be as easy or complicated as you would like it to be. Things are decomposed of and recycled in nature easily enough without any help from humans.

Shalonne Halstead wrote:Do I just throw all that stuff in a garden bed?

Sure! Absolutely! I think burying the food a little so nobody digs up the garden might be helpful, thought not wholly necessary. If the waste is buried, then the microherds in the soil will eat it and fertilize the garden, and if left under some leaf litter or hay or something similar, wildlife will eat it or it will sit there and compost in place. If wildlife does appear, you might receive their droppings and urea which will still fertilize your garden. A little soil compaction from wildlife will not really be harmful because it varies the landscape which increases biodiversity. Also, they may eat other things, but I think they make up for it in their beauty and the wonderful new seeds and organisms they introduce onto the site. It really just depends on which group you would like to have fertilizing your garden for you.

Shalonne Halstead wrote:Or is it more complicated than that?

It can be; it depends on how much work you would like to do and how you would like the system to operate. Three composting techniques the Native Americans used that were easy to do included: 1) sheet composting 2) burying waste 3) putting waste inside seedballs. Similarly, Ruth Stout and Masanobu Fukuoka have nature-based approaches for gardening and composting- just let nature take care of it! I think there might be some risks from not burying waste, but a little observation and common sense solves most things. One might find that one enjoys watching things decompose unburied; there are organisms to make use of everything- some eat underground, some feed in water, some eat on land, some eat in the air. I liked it when Paul said in his permaculture keynote presentation, "That violates my rule of being a lazy bastard!" because that statement emphasizes how gardening and composting does not have to be complicated if you don't want it to be. Just deal with your waste in whatever manner you want to!

Shalonne Halstead wrote:Do I need to wait a certain amount of time before I can start growing food in that garden bed?

Once again, I think that just depends on what you would like to do. Decomposition does take some time, but I think sowing seeds right ontop of a layer of soil which covers your waste will be fine; the organisms in the soil will decompose the waste while your seeds germinate, and by the time they need nutrients the most, the waste will already be composted.

Shalonne Halstead wrote:Is there anything I can't throw in?

I think any organic materials will be fine for composting.

Lastly, I think observing what happens from whatever method you choose and applying the feedback from the system and its users is the easiest way of handling it.
 
Ken Peavey
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A bin is not a requirement. Stuff will decompose just fine in a heap. Rather than haul all your material to a bin, then haul the finished compost to the beds, build that heap where you are going to use it and save your back some extra work.

You may find some volunteers sprout from time to time. Tossing in some tomato or cucumber slices offers their seeds a remarkably rich environment for sprouting. I get them now and then. The seeds in the heap let you know if the compost is ready. I'll move them to a more desirable location. I'd leave em be but I wish to spread that compost over a wide area.

 
Shalonne Halstead
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Thank you! This information is very helpful. So, if I understand correctly, I don't have to really worry about getting sick from food grown in material that's not 100% composted into "black gold?" We have a chicken coop and use the deep pile litter method so there's shavings and chicken poop in there going down several inches. The stuff on the bottom is around a year old but the stuff on top is fresh. I wondered if I could just add it directly into the garden without worrying about how old the stuff on top is? We also have the same type of situation in our goat shed. We have so much poop here!
 
Ken Peavey
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The issue is not you getting sick. The nutrients have to go through the plant before it gets to you, and they'll be good for you anyway.
The issues with using unfinished compost in the garden:

Heat
Unfinished compost can generate considerable heat, even with a thin layer. You are adding a biologically active material to your growing areas that is rich with resources and has the optimum environment. Microbes will have a party and when they do, they make a lot of heat. It's that heat that can damage your plants, particularly the roots.

Weed Seeds and Pathogens
That heat will destroy weed seeds and pathogens (plant diseases). Unfinished compost may not have removed the problem. Time is also a factor. Those plant pathogens thrive in the plant, but don't thrive in a compost heap. Over time, even in an unheated pile, conditions are not conducive to pathogens and their populations die off.

N
Lots of nitrogen, in your case in the form of fresh manure, can be damaging to plants when the concentration exceeds 150 parts per million (or something like that).

In the case you describe, the bottom half of the litter is probably ready to go. I'd throw it on the plants with no hesitation. For the top half, you may want to make a heap in an area you will be planting in a month or two. Give it some time to work it's magic and calm down.

I just love poop.
 
Dennis Barrow
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I am looking forward to a couple of new raised garden beds this spring with a lot of my garden "waste" from last fall. I didn't chop it up much for the compost figuring it will go on the bottom of the new beds with some tree branches, wood chips, etc.
I have done this in the past and my gardens sure do like it.
 
Mike Feddersen
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Shalonne, I know I am late to this post but wanted to add:
I read once about someone that thought every restaurant anywhere should have a chicken coop out back. I know my great-grandmother Mary Reese on my step-dad's side of the family just pitched all the food scraps and coffee grounds over the fence. Any time she wanted great compost or nightcrawlers she'd head to that spot.
From what I learned from the birds of the air and my desert tortoise, they'll eat anything except green and red peppers.

That ammonia smell at the bottom of the chicken coop poop is some great stuff too.

I was watching some Eliot Coleman youtube videos and love his strawbale compost pile. http://m.youtube.com/results?q=eliot%20coleman&sm=3
 
Christoph Holloway
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Hi, first post. Glad to be here!
I figured I would just bump this thread, as it has a lot of the same questions I had and a similar line of questioning, and to save some space.

I'm very new to composting, only having used a tumbler for a few months (not more than 2 [(mostly) failed] batches by now) and tried making a bed by composting in place. I had more questions prepared, but read as much from Permies as I could first and just finished the Mike McGrath TED talk, "Everything you know about composting is wrong," leading me to think I should just eventually go for leaf mould for the browns and putting the greens in a worm bin. I know by now there's ten thousand variations on what to choose and it's up to me (thank you Dave for the encouragement, as well as the link to Paul's keynote presentation which I had not found yet), so I guess I don't need to ask if that makes sense.
But a part of my confusion lies in the fact that there are so many variations. Why make compost if composting-in-place works, too? I understand having a consistent substance that is soil-like, no longer able to putrefy further, and easy to transport and work with. But, as mentioned, lazy bastard rule (or Fukuoka's least effort thinking, from a different lens).

I am overwhelmed with food scraps from my family, with nowhere to put them, as in no new bed yet (although planning to make one very soon) and the tumbler is processing, and a pile may not be possible as the garden is not on my property. Which is one form of my confusion with composting: nowhere to put it and yet the food scraps keep coming (and always will). I suppose I could have a hidden, somewhat underground pile.

Something bewildering to me and seemingly hardly spoken of, is putrefaction. When is organic matter officially putrefied, and how much does this matter in various forms of composting? I vaguely understand aerobic and anaerobic processes. I've read several times on this forum that people are planning to use their food scraps from the year before, typically in buckets. Is this usually sealed? So it is fermented? So something fermented, gone anaerobic, can be broken down aerobically later? Is a collection of food scraps sitting outside in an unsealed bag, exposed to air and insects for a week or more, aerobic or anaerobic? Can it be used safely in sheet mulching/composting-in-place a new bed? I would guess its fine in a worm bin...at any point? It's fine if it's totally rotten? Okay in a tumbler or hypothetical pile at that point? When do pathogens or unfavorable insects actually come into the picture and do harm, to plants and/or people? Also, do nutrients lose potency in this state?
These sorts of things are just hardly ever addressed it seems, but at the same time no one seems to say, " ...BUT DON'T EVER [x]," so it seems like there's no big threats and it's hard to really mess up. I just don't want to encourage disease in plants or make anyone sick.

I really don't mind if anyone wants to cut right through my excessive Gordian Knot of questioning with a simple, wise sentence. Or if anyone has a link or suggestion of something to check out that addresses this stuff, it would be super-duper appreciated. Thanks! So much!
 
Tristan Vitali
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Hi Christoph - just happened to be taking a break from my regularly scheduled day and thought I'd try to help out here No expert on this stuff myself, but feel like I'm starting to make progress. I, too, have tried all the complicated composting techniques and have come up with nothing but failures - here in the new england area it's usually too wet and/or cold to *easily* get a compost pile "hot" and the various turning, tumbling, ratios, etc, etc seems overly complicated. Haven't seen the Mike McGrath vid yet but planning to watch later today (thanks!), but the title is pretty much what I've been discovering myself - what I thought I knew is all wrong

Christoph Holloway wrote:Why make compost if composting-in-place works, too? I understand having a consistent substance that is soil-like, no longer able to putrefy further, and easy to transport and work with. But, as mentioned, lazy bastard rule (or Fukuoka's least effort thinking, from a different lens).


I honestly believe, after trying this crap myself, that it's all a throwback to the whole "more work with less results" school of thought. It's rubbish, and worse, rubbish that's promoted by the "organics" school as the best course of action. The "lazy bastard" rule makes so much more sense and is more or less how our ancestors did things BEFORE the advent of modern agriculture. The one thing that I can't shake off about all of it is Dr Elaine Ingham's stuff (google her). You sort of do need a traditional "compost" to make her "compost tea", so there's that.... Personally, compost tea sounds complicated, time consuming and exhausting, so haven't even attempted it myself.

Christoph Holloway wrote:I am overwhelmed with food scraps from my family, with nowhere to put them, as in no new bed yet (although planning to make one very soon) and the tumbler is processing, and a pile may not be possible as the garden is not on my property. Which is one form of my confusion with composting: nowhere to put it and yet the food scraps keep coming (and always will). I suppose I could have a hidden, somewhat underground pile.


Worm bins work, and making your own works well enough to recommend. Google up some basic plans and you'll be on your way. Just don't feed them cooked food - that's where things can and do go stinky. The rule of thumb with all of this is if it stinks, something is wrong. I've been keeping a red worm bin since....2009 or 10 and only had it go stinky twice. Once was on a trip to the desert southwest - they were riding along in the bathtub of the camper-trailer I was hauling and things just got too hot back there (this was during a heatwave in July). I found them crawling out of the bin trying to find cooler environs and the whole camper stunk like swamp - pretty nasty but not horrifying. The second time was when Black Soldier Fly invaded and caused it to heat up too much for the worms again - this time it stunk more like a toilet, however, as the BSF do give off a pretty sharp odor themselves.

Christoph Holloway wrote:I've read several times on this forum that people are planning to use their food scraps from the year before, typically in buckets. Is this usually sealed? So it is fermented? So something fermented, gone anaerobic, can be broken down aerobically later?


Though I can't be sure it's what was being spoken of where you saw it, look up Bokashi, which is a technique of fermenting kitchen and food scraps using I think lactobacillus (yogurt culture). The scraps become fermented and give off only a slight odor that's not too offensive - haven't done it myself so can't give any first-hand accounts on that. I've read that feeding the fermented scraps to worms works really well - that they gobble them up faster than non-fermented foods - and that they will (aerobically) compost down very quickly since they're already most of the way there anyway.

Christoph Holloway wrote:Is a collection of food scraps sitting outside in an unsealed bag, exposed to air and insects for a week or more, aerobic or anaerobic?


Basically, aerobic = air, anaerobic = no air. The problem is that plastic doesn't transmit air and as the food on top, exposed to air, starts to decompose, the stuff underneath loses access to air and goes anaerobic. So, the horrible but truthful answer is that the unsealed bag goes both ways, which is why it stinks (anaerobic decomposition generally stinks)

Christoph Holloway wrote:Can it be used safely in sheet mulching/composting-in-place a new bed?


Yes! It's most of the way there and, though stinky and gross as hell to work with, it'll provide nutrients while it quickly (and aerobically) decomposes on or under the soil surface. Because it already stinks from the plastic bag stopping air flow and causing it to turn into an anaerobic puddle of muck, it's smart to bury it just under the soil surface...give it at least 1 inch of soil covering and you should greatly decrease offensive odors while helping to speed the introduction of soil microbes that will turn it into plant food.

Christoph Holloway wrote:I would guess its fine in a worm bin...at any point? It's fine if it's totally rotten? Okay in a tumbler or hypothetical pile at that point?


Yeah, sure - any aerobic treatment methods are good...just remember that it's going to stink, which is why I'd recommend burying it with at least and inch or two of soil.

Christoph Holloway wrote:When do pathogens or unfavorable insects actually come into the picture and do harm, to plants and/or people?


Think of a stinky, mucky swamp - is that a safe haven for pathogens and unfavorable creepy-crawlies? Yes. My thinking is that AS SOON AS it goes anaerobic, it's going to invite the nasties. If it stinks, it's dangerous. .....BUT....and big but here....aerobic decomp generally takes care of all that anyway, making things safe again. Swampy anaerobic muck from pond bottoms and the like is some of the best soil once you get in the air and maybe let some worms turn it over for you.

Christoph Holloway wrote:Also, do nutrients lose potency in this state?


Like I said, I'm no expert so don't quote me on it, but I doubt it. While actually *in* the anaerobic state, probably, but once the aerobic decomp begins in a worm bin, tumbler or compost-in-place situation, the answer would be no.

Christoph Holloway wrote:These sorts of things are just hardly ever addressed it seems, but at the same time no one seems to say, " ...BUT DON'T EVER [x]," so it seems like there's no big threats and it's hard to really mess up. I just don't want to encourage disease in plants or make anyone sick.


There are certainly, threats but they're not dire. The way I see things, the biggest threats usually faced would be 1) wasting time on a big old compost pile that's not going to heat up, 2) neighbor complains about stinky compost piles because you're doing it wrong, or 3) ground bees or the like nest in there over night and you go trying to stir the compost only to find you're really stirring a hornet nest

Hope that helps
 
Christoph Holloway
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That does help, thank you Tristan! And thank you for the quick reply.

Tristan Vitali wrote:Though I can't be sure it's what was being spoken of where you saw it, look up Bokashi, which is a technique of fermenting kitchen and food scraps using I think lactobacillus (yogurt culture). The scraps become fermented and give off only a slight odor that's not too offensive - haven't done it myself so can't give any first-hand accounts on that. I've read that feeding the fermented scraps to worms works really well - that they gobble them up faster than non-fermented foods - and that they will (aerobically) compost down very quickly since they're already most of the way there anyway.


I believe they were referring to what they were going to add to their compost piles. I've done some research on bokashi before and thought about trying it alongside the tumbler and worm bin (which I forgot to mention I also started, and that went stinky, too), or have a fermenting/EM system right in home. But reading my own words makes me think, "That's too much work! I'm creeping from imitating nature to that human-looking-for-something-else-to-do thing."

I feel better about it, and it does make sense that all organic matter is doing something productive (in a way that is helpful) at first or eventually. I don't mean to obsess too much. Philosophically speaking, I am coming out of my human conditioning and re-learning how nature works, a lot of which is simple and straightforward. I'm just having trouble with the logistics (and sometimes mentality) of these practices.
For instance (and something else I meant to ask before and forgot), all I'm really generating is kitchen scraps. I don't have much carbon to add in my particular situation (another bewildering thing to see is people casually mentioning for every 3-4 lbs. of greens to add 100 lbs. of straw. I don't have 100 lbs. of straw! In other words, I just don't have 30x the amount of brown to green in constant supply, I'm also new to my area). So if I mostly have greens, does it follow that my situation warrants a(n actually functioning) worm bin? And since you only feed them once in a while, does it follow that I ought to actually have two to alternate between? Etc...

Thank you, all you permies.
 
Tristan Vitali
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Christoph Holloway wrote:That does help, thank you Tristan! And thank you for the quick reply.


No prob and always glad when I can actually help...spend more time lurking these forums learning than I'd be willing to admit

Christoph Holloway wrote:So if I mostly have greens, does it follow that my situation warrants a(n actually functioning) worm bin? And since you only feed them once in a while, does it follow that I ought to actually have two to alternate between? Etc...


I'd say sure - makes more sense than cruising around wasting time and gas trying to find wood chips, straw, bagged leaves, etc. Use what you've got and when you've got more, use that too. Evolve with your evolution, so to speak

I'm wondering how your worm bin went stinky - were you using a 50-50 of greens to browns for them? When I first started with my worm bin, a lot of people were touting coconut coir, which for most of us is too much $ investment, while others were saying to use plain old newspaper and junk mail. I've found, though, that they absolutely LOVE (hardwood) sawdust / fine chips and handfuls of leaves right off the forest floor. For the majority of my time keeping the wigglers, I wasn't on my own land and mostly had little to no access to the countryside, so didn't have access to those sorts of things and just stuck with newspaper/junk mail which did them well for years. Now I swear by using leaves when they're accessible (up here, 4 feet of snow in the winter means good luck getting leaves for the worm bin). As for feeding them constantly, I always did. I'd save up scraps and coffee grounds for up to a week (anything uncooked of course) then put it all in there at once. After a while, you do tend to get ahead of them, which would be when I got a second bin started to take the overflow. 1lb of red worms turned into two large bins with something around 5lbs of worms over the years. Now I'm back down to 1 bin with a fluctuating population since most of the scraps just get chucked under the mulch in the gardens. The worms definitely don't get much attention around here these days...almost starved them out of existence once this year already!

Great TEDx presentation, btw - thanks for the pointer on that. Caught myself entertaining the idea of buying a leaf blower just so I could go suck up leaves in the fall
 
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