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the downsides of composting

 
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this thread makes me feel a lot better about being a failure as a composter. I have been fighting with my compost for the last 10 years or so (I live in a place with almost no browns, and only recently found sugar cane bagasse as an option, but it's a pain to haul. No decidious leaves, only hay if I want to buy it by the kg.). Even when I get what I figure would be a balance, the piles take up too much space in my tiny backyard garden (taking a lot more time to break down than I would have expected), tend to attract vermin, and I end up losing space that could be productive.

This past year I decided to get rabbits, and reduce my (admittedly) gigantic stream of greens (mostly kitchen scraps, we cook most of our food out of the garden). The little that the beasts won't eat is now going into a bokashi barrel, which so far is going great (got my first bit of liquid slime from it today). The 1-2 sq m I was losing to compost piles (often more than one) is now producing corn and spaghetti squash, and the rabbit poop is doing its magic.
 
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I compost for two reasons; 1. so I can make compost teas for areas I am building up for garden space and for spraying tree trunks to fight a disease, this compost is done in a container that doesn't allow easy escape of gasses but some do get out so the moisture excess can leak out.
I make about 100 lbs. of this type of compost per year and when it has been used for tea the left overs go into a garden bed.  2. I compost the bedding from the chicken house and the donkey poop that piles up in the donkey's bathroom area, this is used in the gardens three or four times per season.

I don't rake leaves except from around the fruit trees, these are just turned into leaf mold or reused as leaves out in the forest floor.
Chickens and hogs get all the food scraps.
Paper is turned into char or ash for addition to composting manure or directly into straw bales that we use for vegetable growing.

tree branches, cut in the process of making firewood for cooking and heating or fallen from high wind events, are turned into wood chips for pathways and low, soggy areas.

That takes care of everything organic that is created or left over on the farm.
 
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This thread has provided some excellent food for thought.  After 11 years in an apartment, I am purchasing a house, and the thing I'm most looking forward to is being able to start composting again.  

I appreciate those who have pointed out that different people have different needs.  Intensive composting might not be optimal for everybody, but that doesn't mean that it's not the right solution for others - especially for those of us who don't have a garden that is up and running yet.

The soil on my new estate* seems to be in pretty poor condition.  I will get a soil test as soon as I can, but I'm quite certain that it will need a heavy infusion of organic matter.  You bet I'll be "importing" organic materials!  I will be giving serious consideration to how I source these materials, however.  My options are somewhat limited here in central Jersey, but I'm going to do the best I can. I expect my need to import materials to go down over the next few years.

More importantly than the above, I just really enjoy composting.  It's a fun science experiment.  I like trying different methods.  I like scrounging materials and seeing what happens to them as they rot down.  I like composting more than gardening - it's certainly less stressful.  No matter what I do, I'll end up with compost sooner or later.  The anecdote above about the people with the towering piles of compost that took up 90% of their space was funny, but I have to admit I was just a little bit jealous.

I'm looking forward to seeing you all around the forums.


* Okay, it's only 1/6 of an acre.  Establishing a true permaculture garden just isn't feasible given the circumstances, but I will be applying permaculture principles wherever possible.
 
gardener
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I've enjoyed this thread. It's nice to see how different people use different processes, based on their environment, needs, & preferences.
In the past, I've never done "official" composting. I've always just dumped my organic wastes in an open spot in the garden, under a tree dripline, or wherever I thought it would be useful.
I breed & raise show rabbits as a hobby, so rabbit manure/urine, clipped/shedded wool (Angora breeds), and hay/straw scraps makes up the bulk of my compost.
The only outside inputs I bring in are animal feed & wood chips, which I don't see any issues with since they're available, and are being used instead of dumped or burned. While I totally see the point of only using what is there and not outside resources, I also give away a lot of produce, meat, plants, and eggs every year; so I need to try to balance it out a bit to make up for the outputs.
I just recently made a "dedicated compost area" out of hardware cloth & cage wire outside the rabbit barn & cold frame that I plan to "store" excess rabbit wastes, extra fall leaves, used paper products, and chopped stuff with seeds. I know I won't have time to baby sit it, but it's in a spot where I can easily monitor it and add urine/coffee grounds to heat it up a bit (and hopefully provide a warmer microclimate around the cold frame in winter). I divided it into 2 sections of 4ft high, 3f wide and 3 foot depth, so I can, either, flip/mix it a few times a year, or start a second pile.
I will probably still end up just dumping most of the waste in one of the gardens/beds, but I had the extra wire taking up space and figure it doesn't hurt to have a spot set up for extra material or stuff like paper towels/junk mail that makes a mess & looks bad if it hasn't broken down a bit before being applied to a garden/bed.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Tereza Okava wrote: Even when I get what I figure would be a balance, the piles take up too much space in my tiny backyard garden (taking a lot more time to break down than I would have expected), tend to attract vermin, and I end up losing space that could be productive.

This past year I decided to get rabbits, and reduce my (admittedly) gigantic stream of greens (mostly kitchen scraps, we cook most of our food out of the garden). The little that the beasts won't eat is now going into a bokashi barrel, which so far is going great (got my first bit of liquid slime from it today). The 1-2 sq m I was losing to compost piles (often more than one) is now producing corn and spaghetti squash, and the rabbit poop is doing its magic.



Have you investigated the "compost in a circle garden" concept? It might work best in a small space situation. I love what you are doing too.

Redhawk
 
Tereza Okava
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:"compost in a circle garden" concept?


Dr Redhawk!! Thank you for reminding me! I have indeed, and I love the idea. Especially with the way drought is coming here lately, it seems like it is going to be useful. I have my eye on a specific spot to put one, one of these days when I have fewer vehicles to fit in my yard...

It is great to see this post revived. So much has changed in the last two years. The rabbits made a marked difference, and I found that while digging bokashi into a bed is a great idea, it means I need a good sized empty spot to dig up. So..... experimentation proved that it is also perfectly viable to put it in an old trash bin with some of the crummy clay soil I have here (lately, dug out from planting fruit trees). In a few weeks in the trash bin, the bokashi is gone and the soil is compost-like and there are lots of critters. I put that in the beds and start again.
I had raad of people doing this in an apartment in large plastic bins and was not sure, but it is totally viable.
 
pollinator
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One of the downsides of composting is the emission of greenhouse gases!
Even a well aerated compost will burp methane in intervals, of course an anaerobic heap more so. I read a German comparison of different commercial compost methods and open composting such as we tend to practise in our backyards had the worst climate balance due to methane, the best being anaerobic digestion with capture of biogas. The study seemed quite thorough, including all infrastructure and transport.
so if your green waste goes to a biogas facility less than 50km away you'd be producing less climate gases by using the service than  by composting yourself!
I still don't.
1. I love feeding my chickens and garden.
2. The farm i garden at produces large quantities of asparagus waste in season. Using wood chips available on hand I make all my potting soil for the next season in Johnson su composers. The green waste service does not come to the farm. These heaps are also my source for compost tea.
3. The heaps I've got going allow me to compost chicken droppings and carcasses.
I will continue to teach compost making because it is an excellent tool to get people understand nutrient cycling and soil health.
 
master pollinator
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I live in an urban area. We don't have a local biogas digester. The area burned coal heavily for decades and the soil isn't appropriate for food production. I dig out beds deep and build new soil up from there. Years from now I hope those beds will be raised but right now I'm happy with ground level or slightly above because most of the beds are 2-3 feet deep. In order to overhaul this property, I'm bringing in a huge amount of organic material in order to remedy the lot (which is less than a quarter acre including buildings, sidewalks, etc). I don't have trees because every 8-10 feet there is some sort of wastewater, water, electrical, or gas line underground running longitudinally all the way across the lot. I buy some inorganic additives (rock dusts, etc) as well as add based on soil sample results. I'm four years into this rehab.

I compost by burying in beds, trench layering....like a trench Hügelkultur bed, in open piles, and just about any additional way I can add to my system. I should note that my pickups are close and I'm able to plan my errands so that I would be in that area anyway. There is no way to grow food without inputs thus far. That said, I have focused heavily on inputs that the city is paying to haul to the dump. Bagged leaves and coffee were the early backbone though I lost the coffee to a local University. After months of looking for a local alternative, two days ago I was able to score a fair amount of spent grains from a local microbrew as my new  green backbone for compost. I do still make weekly or biweekly pickups at a small kombucha manufacturer as well. I still grab bagged leaves...hundreds of bags and last fall made an arrangement with a local jack-of-all-trades who also does leaf removal to bring his here as he has regular leaf removal customers nearby. I haven't found a close source of safe animal manure.

Last year I didn't have much so I ended up making a LOT of leaf mold. Either way, everything is heavily used by soil organisms and plants have responded accordingly.  

In a perfect world, these waste streams would not exist. I get that. But I live in the one that has these issues locally. The realistic alternative is that many people and large trucks would remove the waste to the local dump which has burning gas flares night and day. They dump it all into a pile and they offgas even more than my piles. Reality is that at some point, I won't need as much (any?) input.  I get the myriad of ways all this stuff could be handled without me making use of them. But that is not currently happening and there seems to be little interest by govt or business to do anything other than make it all go to the dump. I appreciate seeing in this thread all the great ways to avoid these issues. In my case, I have few options if I want to transform this property. The buildings are 130 years old. Anecdotally, the transformation has been witnessed by a good many neighbors and passers-by. Sometimes people driving by will stop if they see one of us out front. I've given several seeds and/or plants to many of these people and had followups while they start transformations on their own. I'd love to have acreage, and that was the goal. But life took over and time passed and we made modifications to our plan. My goal now is to build up the resources on this property and continue to improve the footprint we make while preserving a historic property. Kudos to those of you on acreage. We take ideas and support from y'all any time we can.

Anyway, I hope this thread continues.

 
Tereza Okava
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Wow, Echo, you have a wealth of inputs!!!

I don't know about you, but I know when I was a beginning gardener I had this notion that inputs were bad. But the more I learn about people who do it on larger scales, the more I realize there are all sorts of inputs, and it's normal. It doesn't have to be toxic gick kind of inputs, and it can even come from your own place if you're lucky enough, but I think it's fair to say that there's nothing wrong with bringing in stuff from outside, especially if you're removing it from the waste stream. I wish I had realized that years earlier than I did, I definitely would have had better soil and better outcomes.
 
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Does anybody know whether this large losses in nitrogen and carbon also happen in piles that are not stirred/turned?

According to the humanure handbook it is sufficient to just build the pile and then let it sit for a year,
only maintaing consistent humidity in the pile.
So are you guys turning compost only to get it done faster, or is there a drawback from the lazy mathod that i am not aware of?
 
echo minarosa
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It's far quicker to process if you turn piles. If you don't turn them, they probably won't burn hot as long and you might end up with fewer weed seeds killed off.
 
R. Han
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echo minarosa wrote:you might end up with fewer weed seeds killed off.



Thanks, thats a point to consider...in the humanure book the compost pile is insulated with straw and/or sawdust if
i remember correctly + is has a good ratio of Nitrogen/Carbon...
however the goal of the humanure compost pile is not primarily to get rid of the seeds,
but to desintegrate the pathogens, antibiotics, parasites and other harmfull stuff humans might excrete.
According to the autor you do not want to turn a pile containing human shit.

But what about the carbon/nitrogen gas-off in a non turned pile?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Composting is the process of breaking down organic materials, thst means you always have lots of gassing off of N and C, usually in the forms of CO2 and methane, the two things that are accelerating global warming. The best way to have your compost and not be contributing to the planet heating is to cap the rotting heap with soil or dirt. This provides materials that will react with the inevatable gas off so less escape to the atmosphere. It does not matter if you are tturning or not, there is always gassing off happening in compost heaps. Capping reduces the quanty that enters the atmosphere.

Redhawk
 
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Dr RedHawk’s point would seem to indicate another benefit of composting food waste under woodchips or other organic mulch right in the garden/food forest. In natural forest conditions, much of the off gassing co2 is absorbed by trees’ leaves l, and would bet the nitrogen/methane would also be utilized by soil life that can trade it with plants for sugars.

In general, according to Noss in Redwood Forest Ecology, decomposition is more efficient (less off gassing of Carbon and Nitrogen) the slower it happens. Hence the extremely slow decomposition of fallen redwood (it can take 2x the lifespan of the tree trunk, which could be 2200yrs old), allowing for maximum retention of organic matter for the forests’ unparalleled moisture/humidity temperation. Also, nitrogen is the limiting growth factor for most coastal nw old growth forests, so retaining it with slow decomposition would similarly be beneficial to long term success of the ecosystem and create positive evolutionary feedback loops. This is how I rationalize not turning compost piles much anymore (I do plenty of back breaking work already). Instead I use the Johnson Su bioreactor method, and also bury food wastes in woodchip pathways between garden beds.
 
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We are moving away from composting to simply letting the chickens process everything. Part of my battle though is other people. We have two houses on the property, but a shared large garden of around 3 acres. From our house our kitchen scraps go the the chickens every single day. Nothing sits around longer than that, and our "compost bin" is just a small plastic bowl on the open kitchen counter. It never has a chance to get nasty.

My parents, in the other house, have a large under the counter bin. They throw stuff in it until it is full to the brim, by which point it is too heavy to carry far, and to stinky to be good for the chickens. The waste of good chicken food consistently annoys me.  Plus the whole under cupboard bin area makes they kitchen stinky. But they are stuck in their ways. To facilitate their oversized bin we need to maintain a compost heap nearer the house. Because it is nearer the house than the chickens it is easier to dump other stuff there too. Grass clippings, weeds, pruning from the garden all end up there instead of the chicken run because, in the moment, it is just more convenient. After that the piles get neglected, never turned, and never hot enough to kill weed seeds. Using the stuff on the garden is dubious because it can easily spread bindweed or worse.

The compost that the chickens do produce, however, is bloody marvellous. They are on a deep bed of woodchips, and it breaks down fast to a lovely fine mulch. 60 seconds with a mesh gets me a wheelbarrow full of fabulous compost. We haven't had to buy in any bags of potting mix since getting them, because we can finally produce our own weed free material, fine enough for even the most delicate seedlings.


 
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R. Han wrote:Does anybody know whether this large losses in nitrogen and carbon also happen in piles that are not stirred/turned?

According to the humanure handbook it is sufficient to just build the pile and then let it sit for a year,
only maintaing consistent humidity in the pile.
So are you guys turning compost only to get it done faster, or is there a drawback from the lazy mathod that i am not aware of?



The Humanure book mentions that turning increases mass loss, I think (can't find it) it was 70% loss with no turn and 85-90% loss with frequent turning. On page 86 (4th ed) it mentions that C/N ratio affects N loss too: 1N/20C=~40% loss, 1N/30C=~0.5% loss, 1N/76C=~8% loss. So 30/1 is a sweet spot commonly recommended for compost. That said, compost will also lose mass over time and turning the pile results in more mass lost. Somewhere in the book Joe mentions that the added oxygen of turning is only present for a short time, and if built correctly turning isn't needed to keep it hot and aerobic and it will kill weed seeds. Aeration is mostly needed on big commercial compost piles that are way bigger than backyard piles.

My issue with directly burying scraps in the garden is that unless I'm tilling up soil anyways I don't have a good spot to bury without damaging my plant's roots. Tossing on the ground even under a little mulch will feed rodents that will dig it back up if the dog doesn't first, but if I'm lucky the worms will find it and break it down. I guess I could bury in spots I'd use the next year, and alternate annual beds, but tilling the soil results in a lot of lost organic matter too, so unless the bed has really poor soil burying scraps could be a net loss. Finished compost though can be put on the ground directly as a top dressing and rain will soak in the nutrients, without animals digging it up. If I had chickens that would certainly be the preferred way, having a space with a ton of leaves or other carbon underneath and then tossing greens on top for them to eat and they will till it up constantly, so you get compost that way too.
 
Ben Zumeta
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So when meant bury, I meant under woochip path ways between beds about 1shovel head deep. This is illustrated in the book Sepp Holzer Permaculture. Roots grow into it as it decomposes.
 
echo minarosa
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I made the mistake of trench composting and planting on top about 4.5 years ago. None of the plants really flourished. I took a shovel full out one day and it was steamy. I then took a thermometer to it and it was pretty much at 140-160 the full length of the bed. The following year after it died down it was fine.

I do a little composting between rows of plants in some beds and sometimes mulch around plants with some inputs. In the winter, any bed not holding plants over the winter is fair game for trenching and filling with inputs. This last year in addition to kitchen waste it was several hundred pounds of spent brewery grain and LOADS of bagged leaves. I may have solved my spent coffee ground drought. If so, I'll be hitting that hard as well. I just don't know how regular it will be yet.
 
R. Han
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echo minarosa wrote:I then took a thermometer to it and it was pretty much at 140-160 the full length of the bed.



This sounds like the compost was not yet finished.
Where did it come from?
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