Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hot to Rot

We are very excited this week to have received our first request for advice - we feel we are moving up in the world (nice that we don't really take ourselves that seriously). First off, we'd like to thank you for reading, and second, we'd like to thank Anna from Chicago for writing in about a particularly rotten topic - compost:

"I'm a regular reader of your blog, living in an extremely suburban suburb of Chicago. We do have a backyard and our own little garden, but what we REALLY want to do is start composting. I've been looking at a lot of commercial composting systems (mostly on but there has to be a cheaper way... right? One that won't have the neighbors smelling what we had for dinner last night?"

So...we have decided to answer this question with a two part series on small-space composting. First, let us say that our commitment to recycling and sustainability lead us away from commercially made products in general, and we feel that one can create a satisfactory composting system (or systems) using reclaimed materials. We are not saying that commercial composting systems are bad - just that we prefer not to use them.

The first rule of compost is that everything breaks down eventually (including that computer you are on, but we don't recommend composting that), but that the practice of using a compost system is a means of speeding up the process. What is the process you ask? The verb of composting is that microorganisms, bacteria, fungus, worms, and other various critters consume organic matter, breaking it down into simpler components. These components comprise the elements in soil (phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium and more) that plants need in addition to sunlight and water to survive and thrive.

So it would follow logically that if you engage in backyard gardening, that a great low-cost way to get nutrients for your plants is through composting. Today we are going to highlight one way to compost that takes up a small amount of space and works relatively quickly - worm composting (vermiculture - no pun intended).

You can engage in worm composting indoors or out, large scale or small. What it takes to get started are the following materials:

- A container (minimum 4 cubic feet). It can made out of just about anything, but needs an outlet in the bottom to drain liquid. In the past we've used a bathtub for an outdoor worm farm, but an old sink would work, or just a plastic bin with holes punched in it.
- Means to prop the container up off the ground or surface on which it is placed. This needs to be high enough to place the third element, a smaller container into which any liquid can drain.
- Newspaper or office paper. This should line the bottom of the container in a 'fluffy' way either through shredding or crumpling to a depth of 1-2". Once you have this in place, moisten it with water.
- WORMS!!! There is debate about what worms you need. Know that before you go digging up your backyard for nightcrawlers that you should probably do some research about what kinds of worms work best for your situation and climate. We recommend red wiggler worms because they are able to withstand the heat generated by the microbial activity in compost. Jason got his worms online through Uncle Jim's Worm Farm. The worms came in the mail ready to go! You can also check bait and tackle places for red wigglers. You don't need a lot of worms to start - they will reproduce to the size of the container you get.
- Put the worms in the container and start adding kitchen scraps, grass clippings etc. (no meat) Over time pay attention to what the worms do or do not eat and adjust what you add accordingly.

As you add food to the container, put it in one end and push what is already there down towards the other. This allow the worms to eat, leave castings, and move out toward the new food so that you can scoop out what is left and apply to your plants. It helps to tilt the container downward in the direction of the drain. What drains out is called 'worm pee' or 'compost tea' and also can be applied to plants for nutrients. Worm castings (what is left after the worms are eating) are higher in nutrients than other compost, so this a great way to generate high nutrient compost with a small amount of space.

Some people put their worm farms under their sinks. Others in garages, and still others outdoors. Our suggestion is to try out different ways of doing it to see what works best for you. If you put the worm farm in a place where there is light be sure to cover it. This will also cut down on any smell you might deal with. Check your worms to see that the material is moist but not saturated. If you find you are getting a very smelly worm farm it means you are putting in food faster than the worms can eat it, or you are giving them too much water. In this case back off on water and consider either starting a second composting system or expanding the worms to fit your needs.

Once you have it going, have fun. Use the castings, get rid of kitchen waste, and name your worms.

Next posting: bin systems and other small-scale composting.

FYI: We LOVE the book, Let it Rot, by Stu Campbell.

1 comment:

  1. I'm really excited to read this post! But it's taken me a while to stop saying "ewww!!! Worms in my house?!" My husband is totally psyched. He's on the lookout for the supplies now and I'm safely taking myself to the library this week to read more about it.

    Luckily we have a nice basement far from where I'll be reminded of the critters in the house. Thanks!!!!!