Hooray for Decay Composting

Bringing composting to the masses, because we owe a lot to rot.

Happy Belated World Rat Day

rat 001Did you know that World Rat  Day is April 4th?  Me neither, until fairly recently.

As a compost care-taker, I am engaged in a never-ending struggle to keep rats out of my various compost systems, because the last thing I want is for folks to associate these activities with our little rodent friends.

The problem is that rats and compost care-takers are both drawn to the magic of the compost pile, which makes us sort of like jealous lovers vying for the affection of the same mistress.  Sort of like Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson singing “The Girl Is Mine.”  Except in this case, the girl is a heap of decaying organic matter.

We each love this heap for different reasons.  I love it because it is where compost is made, to feed the soil.  Rats love it because for them, it can supply both food and shelter.  It’s as if someone built a house made of potato chips!  I wouldn’t be able to stay away, either.

I wish we could live in a world where we could all share in each others’ love, one big happy rat-human-compost ménage à trois.  But we do not live in that world.  While a rat, or even a whole bunch of rats, probably won’t negatively impact the web of life that is a well-functioning compost system, the human ire that rats attract can shut down my adventures in decay, lickety-split.  So, we are doomed make war and not love.

It is my lot as an urban compost care-taker to try to thwart the rat at every turn, but not because I hate the rat.  In fact, I recognize that these formidable foes are endowed with a tenacity and physical hardiness that I would love to possess.

Therefore, I would like to take a moment to mark World Rat Day, even if I am a bit late.  Below you will find some links to heartwarming examples of humans and rats living in relative harmony.

 

World Rat Day

Out Of The Rat Race: Lucky Rodents Find Their Own ‘Taj Mahal’

Dutch Police Recruit Rodents to Rat on Criminals

 

Emerging from Hibernation

Well, it has certainly been awhile!  It seems like the indoor retreat that winter encourages would be an ideal environment for diligent posting, but that has proved not to be the case for me.  Maybe I was just taking a cue from the rest of the natural world and using the frigid season as a time to sloooooowwww down and be aggressively unproductive.

At any rate, now that the calendar has informed us that spring is technically here, and we have a few sunny days above freezing under our belts, I find my attention drifting toward the compost pile, the bokashi trough, and the worm bin.

A few days ago, I headed over to the compost compound to see if the pile had finally thawed enough to be turned.  A couple earlier exploratory pokes with the digging fork had revealed that our maturing pile remained frozen solid through the end of March, but a few non-freezing days in early April had loosened things up a bit.

Lucille the Compost Queen diligently guarded the compost compound through a very long winter.  Hopefully we will have a new head for her by the end of spring. since the old one is about ready for the pile!

Lucille the Compost Queen diligently guarded the compost compound through a very long winter. Hopefully we will have a new head for her by the end of spring, since the old one is about ready for the pile!

As worked my way into the pile, I found that the center was still frozen enough to render my digging fork useless.  After a few minutes of heaving, I managed to pry the sizable chunk of ice and partially decayed plants  loose with my gloved hands and drag it off to the side, to later be placed on top of the pile, where the sun could warm it.

I was surprised and amazed to find several live, responsive earthworms clinging to the edge of this ice chunk!  One of them appeared to me to be (based on its rosy hew) a red wriggler (Eisenia fetida), which I’ve always heard cannot tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  In the past, I had assumed that the worms that live on or near the surface of the ground in cold climates would die during the winter, and new worms would emerge from eggs in the spring.  It was interesting to see that a least a few hardy individuals were able survive even the relatively harsh winter we just experienced.

compost 006compost 007

 

Another little surprise came when I began turning the pile where we collect feedstocks.  At the end of last year’s autumn, we had a mound that was about four feet tall.

As I would expect, during the cold months when decay slows almost to a halt, the pile didn’t experience the shrinkage that would occur during the warmer parts of the year.  What I did not expect was how thoroughly dry the interior of the pile would manage to stay throughout the winter.  As I sifted through it with my digging fork, I was amazed to find that almost all of the material I encountered was bone-dry.

The pile has always been completely uncovered, and we received quite a bit of snow this year.  I had assumed that a lot of the snow would trickle down into the interior of the pile as it melted.   Evidently this pile turned out to be pretty good at shedding moisture;  maybe thatched roofs work on the same principle.

compost 008

I spread the pile out a bit in an attempt to make it a bit less impervious to spring rains.  We’ll see what happens!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part IV: The Filling of the Bucket

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Click here for a basic explanation of a bokashi composting system.

I started filling my bokashi bucket about five weeks ago, and now it’s pretty full.  Here are some of my findings and experiences from that period of time.

I was planning on draining the bucket every few days, but I found that it took a couple weeks to accumulate a drainable quantity of liquid.  This liquid is definitely the stenchiest part of the process so far, possibly because it sits so long in the bucket.  The stuff that comes out of the spigot in the bottom of the bucket is light brown, quite viscous, and rather foul-smelling. I’ve seen suggestions that this liquid, when highly diluted, can be applied to plants, but in an effort to limit the stink factor, I’ve just been flushing it down the toilet.

I might start rinsing out the liquid collection part of the bokashi bucket on a more regular basis, just to prevent things from getting gross.

I have a collection vessel in my kitchen, and I’ve been emptying that vessel into the bokashi bucket every few days, covering each deposit with a solid layer of bokashi bran, and then squishing it down with the plastic pressing plate and then making sure the lid is tightly sealed.  It has been my intention to sprinkle bokashi bran into the collection vessel on a daily basis, to make sure the bokashi microbes have a chance to set up shop before the other guys do, but  the reality is that my innate laziness has prevented me from achieving this less than lofty goal.  We’ll see if this leads to problems down the road.

Most bokashi info sources suggest that once my bucket is full, I should let it rest for a couple weeks, allowing its contents to become thoroughly pickled.  After the resting period I would bury the bokashi in a fallow patch of earth and wait a month or so for it to decompose completely.

I’ve decide to take a slightly different route.   I’m going to dump my bokashi into a separate, larger container, and let it hang out indefinitely, for two reasons.  One, I only have one bokashi bucket at this point, and I have more stuff that is ready to go into it, so I don’t want it to be out of commission for a couple weeks.  And two, it is currently December, in Buffalo, which means the ground is frozen and will be for the next few months.

I’ll call this larger container the maturing vessel.  It’s a large plastic tub with a lid.  I covered the surface of the bokashi with a plastic bag before sealing the tub, to keep air out as much as possible.  I’m keeping the maturing vessel in my basement, where thetemperature is probably in the high 50s (F).  

So, to sum up: 

This system currently involves three containers (not counting the containers I use to hold the dry bokashi bran):  a collection vessel, a bokashi bucket, and a maturing vessel.  

I try (but generally fail) to sprinkle contents of the collection vessel with bokashi bran on a daily basis.

I dump the contents of the collection vessel into the bokashi bucket whenever I feel inspired to do so (probably every few days).  I cover this deposit with a solid layer of bokashi bran, press it with the plastic plate, and seal the bucket.

I drain the bokashi bucket when it accumulates enough liquid to come out of the built-in spigot.

When the bokashi bucket is full, I dump its contents into a larger container, the maturing vessel .  I’ll bury the bokashi when the ground thaws in the spring.

Next post: more manageable names for all those containers!

Daily Composts: The Human Element

Having been a compost enthusiast for awhile now, I think it’s funny that one of the trickiest pieces to get right in any compost system has nothing to do with the technicalities of controlled decay.  Rather, it’s the human element.  Sometimes it can be easier to collaborate with a bunch of microbes and invertebrates than with our fellow Homo sapiens.

This months issue of BioCycle magazine features an article entitled Community Composting in New York City.  It is a great example of organizations working together to achieve maximum awesomeness.  Hooray.

Setting Up a Worm Bin: A Gram of Prevention is Worth a Kilogram of Cure

worms & flowers

When setting up a worm bin, I find it useful to consider common vermicompost “challenges” (i.e., problems) and address them before they happen.  Don’t let this post scare you away from vermicomposting!  It might seem  pessimistic to start a project thinking about the stuff that can go wrong, but it’s also smart.    Here are the problems I see most often:

1. Sludgy anaerobic conditions

2.  Fruit flies

Sludgy anaerobic conditions make the vermicompost smelly and unpleasant to deal with, and they tend to occur when there is too much moisture in the bin.  To avoid accumulating excess liquid, I make sure there are lots of holes drilled in the sides and bottom of the bin.  I also make sure I have plenty of worm bedding on hand.  Bedding is simply a high carbon material like dried leaves, straw, or shredded paper/cardboard.  (If you’re using paper or cardboard, avoid the glossy or dyed stuff, as it probably contains toxins you don’t want accumulating in your compost.  Colored inks may or may not be problematic due to heavy metal content.)  The bedding absorbs moisture and creates an extra barrier between the vermicompost and the outside world.

Which brings us to the second very common vermicompost challenge, which is fruit flies, and their tendency to drift into the outside world (i.e., your kitchen).  Unfortunately, the conditions that are ideal for worms are nearly identical to those that are ideal for fruit flies (at least in my experience).  When setting up a worm bin, I find it helpful to assume that unless you mount an aggressive prophylactic anti-fruit fly campaign, you will end up with an annoying fruit fly infestation.  Here are some tools that you can use to discourage fruit flies from being fruitful and multiplying.

1. Bedding:  Keep a thick layer of it on top of the vermicompost.

2. A thickish sheet of plastic: placed on top of the uppermost layer of bedding, it can impede fruit fly access and reproduction.

3. Moving air:  the fruit flies are sometimes content to stay in the worm bin, where they aren’t bothering anyone.  (The worms seem to appreciate the insouciant frivolity they bring to the table.)  However, you will probably find yourself confronted with a cloud of the little pixies when you open the bin to feed it.  Aiming a fan on high toward the bin before you remove the lid can make them less likely to wander.

4.  The killing power of extreme temperatures:  freezing feedstocks before you add them to the bin can help make any eggs they may contain less viable.  As an added bonus, the structural break-down that comes with freezing food makes it easier for the worms to eat once it has thawed.  (If this seems overly labor-intensive to you, I’m right there with you.  I’ve never been ambitious or disciplined enough to deliberately freeze feedstocks.  Not to mention mention the fact that my freezer is usually stuffed to the gills with tater tots.)  Heating feedstocks, either in a microwave or oven, has pretty much the same killing effect.

5. DIY fruit fly traps:  I think this is one of the more useful tools in the kit, although some may consider it a bit cruel.   There are a few different designs for these traps, but the basic idea is to get fruit flies to fly into a container and stay in there, so they are less likely to lay eggs where you don’t want them.  Click here for instructions on how to make a trap.

If you already have a vermicompost system with anaerobic sludginess or fruit fly issues, consistently using these methods should get the problem under control.  If you are in the process of setting up a system, having these tools on hand will get you started on the right foot and enable you to nip any problems in the bud.  Happy Composting!

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part III: Making Bokashi Bran

Ever onward with The Great Bokashi Experiment.  To see the previous posts in this series, click below:

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part I

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part II:  Building a Bucket

OK.  The aroma of ripe sour dough starter has permeated my house, which means that it’s bokashi bran drying time!  Bokashi bran is essential to a bokashi system (as the name might suggest), and it also happens to be one of the more money-intensive parts of the process.  Since one of the goals of The Great Bokashi Experiment is to manage a bokashi system on as small a budget as possible, we’ll talk today about making our own bokashi bran.

A quick perusal of the interweb will yield bokashi bran prices ranging from &12.69 for 400 grams $19.77 for 600 grams (on the Home Depot site (?!?)) to larger orders of 10 kg costing a little less than $100.

A 10 kg supply of bokashi bran would probably last your average family around a year and half, so we’re not talking a huge expenditure when you break it down month by month.  But bokashi bran is a pretty simple-to-produce fermented product, and anyone who has paid four times as much for sauerkraut (which is essentially salted cabbage that has been allowed to sit around for a few weeks) as they have for cabbage knows that having a little foresight and patience can save you some moolah in the long run.

Here’s what you’ll need to make a 10 pound (please forgive me for switching back and forth between English and metric measurements, it comes with being an American) batch of bokashi bran:

bokashi ingredients

10 pounds (4.5 kg) wheat bran

10 cups (2.4 liters) water (if your water is chlorinated, allow it to sit uncovered for 24 hours, so the chlorine can evaporate)

4 Tablespoons (59 ml) blackstrap molasses

4 Tablespoons (59 ml) Effective Microorganisms (EM)

And here’s what you need to do:

1. Thoroughly mix the molasses into the water.

2. Thoroughly mix the EM into the water/molasses.

3.  Thoroughly mix the water/molasses/EM into the wheat bran.   You don’t want to have any dry clumps at the end of this process, so you really need to get in there with your hands and stir things up.   The resulting mixture should be just moist enough to barely hold together when you squeeze some of it tightly in your hand.

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4.  Pack the bokashi bran into an air-tight container.  I put it into a plastic trash bag, squeeze the air out, tie it, and then stick it in a plastic bin.  I think the idea here is to allow as little bran as possible to be in contact with the air.

5.  Allow the bran to sit for a month or so in a warm place.  I put mine in an upstairs room in the summer time, where the temp probably ranges from 65F to 85F.  I also neglected to check it for more than two months, and it seemed fine.

gerber daisy, bokashi 011  Those two white spots are mold colonies.  Or eyes.

6.  The bran is mature when it has a “fermented” smell.  To me, the odor is kind of like bran muffin plus vinegar.  White fuzzy mold in the bran is OK.  Black mold probably means something went wrong, in which case, the bran can be composted in a non-bokashi system.

7. If you’ll be be able to use all the bran within several months, you can simply store it as is in an airtight container.  If you would like to store it for longer periods of time, you can dry it.

gerber daisy, bokashi 012

8.  Drying:  I just spread the bran in a thin layer in as many porous vessels (e.g., baskets) as I could find.  (The towels you see in the photo are to prevent the bran from falling through the basket weave.)  We have old hot-water radiators in our house, and the baskets that I rested on top of them were dry within two or three days.  Baskets that I put in other places are taking a bit longer.  Once the bran is dry, it should be stored in an airtight container for up to a year.

Note:  Drying ten pounds of bran has definitely been the most annoying part of this process, with baskets perched precariously on virtually every horizontal surface in my house.  Also, this has been the most odoriferous phase of the experience, with an aroma similar to what you might encounter if you stuck your face in a bag of salt & vinegar chips permeating our first floor.  I don’t mind the smell, but it might be a deal-breaker for some folks.  I think a more sensible tactic might to more frequently make smaller batches of bokashi bran that can be used within several months, so the need for drying is eliminated.

Here are some links to more bokashi bran how-to’s:

Compost Guy

City Farmer

Podchef video

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part II: Building a Bucket

Ever onward with The Great Bokashi Experiment.  To see the first post in this series, click here.

Ok, so I just finished making my first bokashi bucket, and this post will cover how I did it,

I based my design on the commercially-produced buckets you can buy online.   These days, their prices seem to start around $50 including a small bag of bokashi bran, but since I have easy access to empty buckets at my job, I figured I’d try and rig up my own.  (If you want to take a middle path and customize a container that already has a spigot, a restaurant beverage dispenser like the ones that are used for iced tea would probably work.)

Basically, a bokashi bucket needs to be airtight because this is an anaerobic process, and it needs to have the ability to drain liquid.044

I used a two-bucket nesting design.  The interior bucket holds the bokashi and allows it to drain through holes that are drilled in the bottom of the bucket.  The exterior bucket keeps the air out and has a spigot to allow you to drain liquid from the system.  I went with rectangular buckets (as opposed to round ones) because it seemed like it would be easier to attach a spigot to a flat surface.  These ones each held 14.7 kg of laundry detergent, and I’m guessing their volume is around 11 liters.

054 Mr. Mao is HfDC’s interwebs consultant.

I bought a spigot for around $4 and a couple nuts (they came packaged together, but I only used one) for around $2 at my local hardware store.  (I later noticed that the threaded end of the spigot was slightly tapered, so that the nut I bought was a bit too small to go all the way on.  I don’t know if this is deliberate or not…perhaps using two nuts of slightly different size would solve the problem.)  I looked for a washer, but couldn’t find one with a large enough opening.

bokashi bucket 001

Here are the buckets after a series of alterations.

I used a paddle bit to drill a spigot hole in the exterior bucket (the one on the left).  Figuring that the amounts of liquid that would accumulate by the time I would want to drain the bucket would be pretty minimal, I put the hole as low as I could while allowing room for the height of  the spigot.  As I mentioned before, I wasn’t able to find an appropriately sized washer, and there are issues with the fit of the nut. This could cause some leakage issues down the road, but for now, I just added a little rubber gasket and some rubber bands to the stem of the spigot (as well as using some teflon tape and the ill-fittling nut,)

bokashi bucket 002bokashi bucket 003

I drilled a bunch of small holes (probably around 5mm) in the bottom and lower quarter of the interior bucket.  I also cut enough of the edge of its lid off to allow the lid to fit inside the bucket.  (This was probably the most annoying part of the whole process.  I used a couple little saws and then a utility knife, and for some reason, it was really a pain.) I’ll keep this plastic plate on top of the bokashi to help exclude air.  The piece of blue twine you see tied around it is a “handle.”

bokashi bucket 004

This is the finished bucket, with the drainage bucket nested inside.  Now that I think about it, I’m wondering if it was really necessary to install the spigot on the exterior bucket.  It might be just as easy to simply lift out the interior bucket and pour the liquid from the exterior bucket.  Or maybe the interior bucket tends to get suctioned in place, making it a pain to extract.  Yet another idea to explore…

Next post in this series: inoculating bokashi bran!

 

Grassroots Gardens Workshop

Compost face

I’ll be doing a a workshop entitled “Compost Why’s & How’s” at the Grassroots Gardens office at 10am on Saturday, October 19th.

For your viewing enjoyment, here’s the slide show I created for the occasion.  It’s more exciting than a can o’ worms on Christmas!

The Great Bokashi Experiment, Part I

bokashi ingredients

It sounds like something you might order at a sushi restaurant, but bokashi is actually a method of fermenting organic materials to allow them to quickly become incorporated into the soil.  If you ask the internet what the word “bokashi” means, you’ll find a couple seemingly unrelated definitions:  1. fermented organic matter, and 2.  a technique of grading pigment on a (printing) block by hand-wiping.  I imagine that the printing definition came first, and the fermentation usage arose as a poetic description of matter gradually dissolving.   As you might have guessed, this post deals with the fermented organic matter bokashi.

To make a long story short, bokashi involves inoculating a high-carbon substrate like rice bran or wheat bran with a particular blend of anaerobic microbes.  You mix your organic waste with this bokashi bran and seal it in an air-tight bucket that has a spigot on the bottom.  Once the bucket is full, you let it ferment for several weeks, occasionally draining off the liquid that seeps out of the bokashi.  At this point, the contents of the bucket should be thoroughly pickled, and you can bury them in the garden, where they should break down completely within a month. Click here for a nice, concise exploration of bokashi from Organic Gardening Guru.

This is a method of processing organic waste that I’ve always wanted to try.  Typically the first rule of home composting is to never, ever allow anaerobic conditions to develop.  Bokashi actually requires anaerobic conditions in order to work, so it sort of feels like it’s operating in some Bizarro World of decay.

Still, I haven’t put much effort into starting a functional bokashi system, for a couple reasons.  First, there’s the fact that my vermicompost system and outdoor compost system already do a great job converting my food scraps and garden trimmings into black gold.  Second, bokashi requires some ingredients and equipment that can potentially, in my opinion, make it a bit cost prohibitive.

So, in undertaking The Great Bokashi Experiment, I have decided to give the process a go, but to do it on a small a budget as possible.  In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about making a bokashi bucket from upcycled laundry detergent buckets, a few pieces of hardware, and a drill.

Daily Composts: Carbon

If my writing process were a compost system, it would be one that has been sloooowed by an overabundance of carbon.  Daily Composts are my attempt to add some nitrogen and get things cooking! Of course, there is a risk that the results will be a little stinky.

organic recycling

Today’s Topic:  Carbon

Maintaining a compost system is sort of like being a personal chef for microbes.   If you were preparing meals for humans, it would be good to have a basic understanding of the macronutrients we need in order to stay alive:  carbohydrates, protein, and fat.  When you’re feeding microbes the macronutrients you’ll want to consider are carbon and nitrogen.

I’ve been sort of enamored of carbon, maybe because this is the time of year when carbon is literally falling from the sky in the form of dry leaves.  Carbon-rich feedstocks, which tend to be dry and brownish in color (e.g. woodchips, straw, dry leaves, cardboard) are often referred to as browns.

Browns can treat a multitude of compost system ailments, including (but not limited to)

- excess moisture

-bad smells caused by anaerobic conditions

-bad smells caused by inherently odoriferous feedstocks

-uninvited guests like flies, cats, dogs, etc.

Browns can be mixed into the interior of a pile to encourage moisture absorption and aeration, and applied in a thick layer around the outside of a pile to create a barrier between it and the outside world.

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