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Composting for Self-Reliance: The basics to get started now!

Poster: Hank @ Sun Dec 07, 2008 7:20 pm

Like Jack in 'Sideways,' we're an infant - at least as regards our ability to look after ourselves in a real and substantial way. If we're going to get our sovereignty back, we like the bambino must first learn how to feed ourselves.

Food matters, big time. Most crucially, it's what we choose to use as fuel and building material for our bodies. Nearly as importantly, it's a major component of our cultural and social reality. No factor is as crucial to our bodily and mental health as food security -- reliable access to nutritious food.

Food can be transformed in numerous ways, but ultimately all food comes from the ground -- the soil. The food chain starts with that which grows in the ground, and much what we eat comes directly from the dirt. Everything that is in our food was once in the soil, chemically speaking. It follows, then, that anything we put in our soil will end up in our food.

This last fact, coupled with expense and ecological factors, makes plain that for best health and nutrition, we want our soil to be free of poisons. Poisons, as we understand them here, include among other things all chemical and synthetic toxins such as pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers.

How, though, are we to raise an adequate amount of food for serious self-support without the use of 'fertilizers.' especially in harsh climates?

Organic, self-produced compost is the answer. Compost that we make ourselves, controlling all inputs and results, gives our crops the nutrients they need in abundance, while freeing us from chemical residues created by commercial fertilizers. Compost is so effective at increasing crop yield that it has earned the sobriquet ‘brown gold.’

With a properly-implemented composting plan, we can raise really substantial amounts of our own food without much delay. Here's the scoop, starting with a brief overview and FAQ :

- What is compost and what benefits does it provide? -

-Compost is organic matter that has fully decomposed, becoming a uniform dark, microbially-active but non-toxic, soil component material that is much like the soil type known as 'humus.'

-Compost, when added to soil, acts as an addition of live matter that promotes plant growth.
-Composting recycles spent plants back to the soil
-Compost, with its active microbe communities, attracts beneficial worms that aerate the soil, promoting root growth and good water drainage
-Compost buffers excessive sodium content -- a common problem in many arid and depleted regions
-Compost provides high-density nutrients to plants
-Compost protects plant root systems from heat and cold, and fortifies entire plant against the elements by means of better nutrition
-This same nutrition, combined with the microbial community it brings and the underground ecosystem is engenders, protects crops from disease.
-Compost application is very effective at balancing the pH of soil, quickly bringing it to the 6.4 to 6.8 range that is ideal for cultivation of food. This is of great value in areas with harsh, alkali soil, such as deserts.
-The application of sufficient compost completely eliminates the need to till the soil. Eliminating tilling altogether dramatically improves soil health.

- Are mulch and compost the same thing?
- -No. Mulch is relatively large-sized chunks of relatively dry organic material (for example, wood chips) whose primary functions are to improve water drainage, to protect soil from harsh sun and cold, and to choke out weeds by denying them sun. Its secondary function is to help clay-heavy soils become more permeable to root systems, which occurs as mulch breaks down. Some mulch is partially decomposed when delivered, some is not. Mulch, added to a compost batch as a ‘carbon input’, will become compost over time. Note that there exist products known as ‘plastic mulch,’ which are bits of plastic marketed for use as mulch. These are harmful to your growing environment, will not break down, and should be avoided. Beware also of mulch that may be covered in insecticides, such as commercial landscaping byproducts.

- What tools do we need to start composting right now? -

-A bucket for the compost material
-A shovel to spread and stir the compost
-A pair of clippers for getting raw materials like branches down to compostable size
-A long-stemmed thermometer ("compost thermometer")
-Compost screen -- you can make this yourself in minutes
-A dust mask or respirator
-Other useful but nonessential equipment includes a wheelbarrow, chipper / shredder, blender, gloves both rubber and leather, and pitchfork.

-What are the popular methods of composting?

There are three major methods of composting. Each requires a correct balance of raw materials (more on this later), regular turning / agitation, and monitoring of the internal temperature of the compost as it breaks down.

1) The Pile Method : This is where you simply layer your raw organic materials into a pile in a specified place and allow it to decompose in the open. This method is popular but can be susceptible to weed germination and pests within the pile, and can be unsightly.

2) The Bin Method : Construct a wooden bin from scrap wood, old pallets, or drill aeration holes in a 30 gallon rubbish can. This method offers more control than the pile method.

3) The 'In-Vessel' Method : where a closed, rotating vessel known as a 'Compost Tumbler' or 'Compost Drum' is used. These can be bought commercially or made with some effort. The advantages of this method are considerable convenience of agitation and material addition, and nearly complete protection from weeds and pests.

-What raw materials should I use?

-We need a proper ratio of two classes of materials in our compost :
1) "Carbon inputs" - this means dried brown material like dry leaves, wood chips, and clippings
2) "Nitrogen inputs" - this means green and / or moist material such as green plant and grass waste, discarded fruit and vegetable material, coffee grounds, and manure
NOTE : the proper ratio is 25 carbon to 1 nitrogen by weight, which works out in practice to about 1 : 1 (half and half) by volume.

-What must I avoid composting for use on food crops?

-Dog, cat, and other predator manure -- these can carry persistent pathogens
-Castor and oleander products -- these materials contain persistent toxins
-Pine needles in high quantity -- these contain a persistent natural herbicide.

-So what manure is OK to compost?

-Cow (as opposed to steer) manure is best, and has properties that in practice appear to protect against certain plant diseases, such as dollar spot disease and sweet basil wilt.
-If cow manure is unavailable, look for horse manure. Horse manure is available from stables and, as a bonus, comes with straw (so you get both nitrogen and carbon inputs from one source)
-Avoid steer manure - this contains harmful amounts of sodium -- this includes all commercial manures
-Be aware that if your manure comes from animals which are fed non-organic diets and / or treated with chemicals, certain of these residues may remain in your compost. See addendum on bioremediation for details on how to mitigate this factor.

- What exactly is going on in my compost bin?

-What's happening is the biological process of decomposition, which converts solid and liquid waste into a stable, humus-like product. This is acheived through the action of bacteria. There are three types of bacteria :
-Aerobic : bacteria that need oxygen to live
-Anaerobic : bacteria that can thrive without oxygen - such as those inside your stomach
-Facultative : bacteria which can adapt to either condition
We want to encourage the action and propagation of aerobic bacteria in our compost, because this type of bacteria is best at controlling the odors of decomposition. This is done by regular agitation (mixing) of the compost as it decomposes.

-Why do I need to take the temperature of my compost every day?

-There are two reasons for this :
1) To be sure that your compost is achieving what is known as the 'thermophilic temperature range' - 114 to 160 Fahrenheit degrees. This is essential for the elimination of pathogens, pests, and weed seeds from your compost. If your compost doesn't get this hot at its core, it's not properly decomposing.
2) To judge when the compost is 'done' -- this is when it returns to the low end of a temperature bell curve.
-The heat described here is caused by the action of living microbes as they go about consuming and processing the composted material.
-If your compost isn’t getting into the proper heat range, that means that your carbon / nitrogen (“C/N”) balance is off target.

Understanding Carbon / Nitrogen Ratio and Temperature

If your C/N ratio isn’t close to the recommended 25:1 (by weight) mark, your compost will not break down properly. If there is too much carbon input in the mix, you will see very slow decomposition rates. If there is too much nitrogen input, you will detect an ammonia smell coming from your compost container. Note : Compost should not create unpleasant odors! If your compost stinks, mix it up and add more carbon inputs.
The temperature of your compost will rise and fall on a bell curve over the processing time of the batch. From the starting temperature, it should gradually climb to 114 to 160 Fahrenheit, and then begin a gradual decline back to near the starting temperature. Because we rely on the action of aerobic bacteria for this progress, it is important to aerate (turn) the compost regularly, up to once per day but at least twice a week. This is how we introduce oxygen to the aerobic organisms that need it. If you are using the pile or bin method, use your shovel or pitchfork to turn each batch; if you have a compost tumbler, you simply turn the crank.
Be sure to stick the stem of your stainless-steel compost thermometer into the very center of your compost batch to ensure an accurate reading, and take the temperature every day.
It is important to keep the average size of the particles in your compost batch small to encourage speedy decomposition – this is where the chipper/shredder (balance horsepower with cost according to your needs when selecting these) and blender can come in handy. The smaller your starting particles are, the more easily they will be processed by the bacterial action. Smaller particles are also easier to store – note that you can store carbon and nitrogen inputs separately in plastic rubbish containers for future use, and it is wise to do so.
In addition to being properly oxygenated, each compost batch must be properly hydrated. The proper moisture level of the compost batch should approximate that of a wrung-out sponge; there should be no standing water. Standing water will attract pests and insects – if you detect excess water in your compost batch, add more dry inputs. Typical sources for moisture in your compost will be green nitrogen inputs such as plant trimmings, household waste (non-animal-product food scraps) that has been blended with water, and ‘compost tea,’ the making of which is described in the addendum.
You can add water directly as necessary, being careful not to overwater, but beware! Do not use water direct from a tap or garden hose unless you have a whole-house filtration system. The chlorine added to municipal water will quickly kill the bacteria you need for successful compost and leave you with a soggy, inactive waste mass. Chlorine also combines with other compounds in compost to produce harmful methane molecules. If you have no filtration system available, you can put water in a watering can and allow it to sit outside for 24 hours before using it – this will cause all the chlorine in the water to evaporate. De-chlorinating filters are also available, which attach to faucets and hoses.
When the compost batch returns to the bottom of the bell curve, decomposition is complete and the batch is ready to use. Take care! If you do not wait until the compost is ‘done’ and at the bottom of the curve (that is, until the bacteria are done processing), the active and voracious bacteria will eat the seedlings you’ve planted. Waiting until your compost has completed its thermal bell curve is known as ‘resting to maturity.’ A well-executed, efficient compost batch will go from start to finish in about two weeks; less efficient batches will take longer.

Understanding the Role of Manure

Manure can be a helpful and inexpensive addition to your compost batch. It’s important to understand the nature and role of manure before deploying it, however, to avoid potential serious problems.

-Manure is animal waste. As noted above, only cow (not steer or commercial) and horse manure are acceptable among mammal wastes. Chicken and other bird manure is also good for composting. Cow manure has properties as an antifungal compost additive and a unique complement of nutrients, and is therefore widely sought.
-Rule #1 : Never apply raw manure directly to your soil. This is a grave error made by many, from commercial farms to home gardeners. Direct application of raw manure to soil has the following negative effects :
-Raw manure contains numerous pathogens that will be passed on to your crop – potentially a deadly situation in the case of vegetables like leafy greens that grow low to the earth. One has only to recall the recent salmonella outbreaks to understand the gravity of this problem.
-Raw manure contains weed seeds that you likely do not want to introduce into your growing environment.
-Raw manure contains high concentrations of nitrogen that can cause ‘nitrogen burn,’ wherein the plant uptakes a harmful amount of the element and suffers what is in effect chemical burn, and ‘junkie plant syndrome,’ wherein a plant will get ‘high’ after the first application of raw manure, growing rapidly, and then ‘crash,’ wearing out and withering rapidly before producing a substantial harvest. Both of these effects substantially reduce your yield and biologically damage your plants.

Worms and Composting

Worms are basic to healthy soil. Their action is to consume microbes and small material and leave behind nutrient-rich ‘castings’ – this is not considered to be raw manure and can be applied directly to soil if desired. When in soil, the worms also aerate the ground, allowing roots to more easily penetrate (essential in areas like Arizona with hard clay-rich soil) and water to drain and distribute. Worms from the nematode and annelid families are both needed for healthy soil, and annelids such as nightcrawlers can be cultivated. Commercial ‘worm hotels’ are offered by many companies, and a side-science of ‘vermiculture’ has grown up around this activity. Generally speaking, vermiculture involves growing many worms at once, in a contained system that allows their castings to be easily obtained (usually in trays). These worms can be added to the soil to continue their work.
It is possible to attract considerable numbers of worms to even arid soils without the need for expensive vermiculture set-ups. This is done through the practice of ‘cold composting.’
Cold composting is the addition of blended, hydrated carbon and nitrogen inputs, most often in the form of non-animal kitchen wastes blended with water, directly into the soil without the step of allowing them to first decompose through microbial action. These blended wastes are put in a shallow depression dug in the ground and then covered with soil, each application in a different spot. Worms are attracted to this ‘cold compost’ from far beneath the surface of the ground and will quickly make their way to the upper soil layers to consume this treat, bringing with them all their benefits of aeration and castings. When cold composting, remember to clip all scraps to a small size before blending, and to dig a new hole for each batch of cold compost. This can be done daily, with great effect coming from little effort.

Screening Your Compost

In order to maximize the effectiveness of your composting effort, make or buy a compost screen and use it with a wheelbarrow. The way that this is done is by building a simple wooden frame of two-by-fours to a size that will sit closely in the opening of your wheelbarrow, securing half-inch steel mesh across the frame, and shaking and raking your compost through it with a trowel before applying compost to your cultivation area. The chunks that don’t fall through the screen into your wheelbarrow are not fully broken down and can be added back to your next compost batch to ‘finish.’ A finish of boiled linseed oil will improve the durability of your compost screen. It’s also possible to build a rotary screen by cutting out panels from a large plastic bucket, covering the panels with screen, and adding a loading gate and hand crank similar to those on a compost tumbler. Once built, this method makes for rapid screening.

Applying compost

Compost should be applied directly to your planting beds before seeding, and then regularly around the crop rows. There can never be too much compost in your cultivation area, so apply liberally. If you manage to generate more compost than you can use in one application, it will keep for a long time in a covered plastic barrel or bin.

Composting and your climate

Those of us who live in climates that are warm year-round can enjoy an uninterrupted composting cycle throughout the year. Those who live where cold temperatures are common and freezing often occurs, however, will be faced with a compost cycle limited by the seasons. It does no harm to leave compost and compost inputs out in the cold, but it simply won’t produce finished product until it’s warm enough to achieve the 114-160 degree temperature range at its core.
Compost will not decompose much during the wintery months in temperate and colder zones. The producer has a choice to either :
1) Compost only when it is warm enough to do so outside
2) Move the composting process indoors, such as in a garage or unused room, during the winter.
Since properly-done composting does not generate offensive odors, we advocate the practice of indoor composting in cold winters. This can either provide a substantial store of compost to be applied in the spring, or provide compost for continuing indoor container gardening. Since compost will keep for months, there is no need to worry about an apparent excess.

Conclusion and end notes

Composting is the way for us to rapidly take control of our food supply by greatly increasing our crop yield and re-using our food waste. As we’ll see in better detail later in this series, the best way for the new food raiser to get a jumpstart is to apply compost and mulch in layers of equal depth directly to the crop area with no tilling, and to plant directly in this, according to season. With good compost, costly and ultimately damaging chemical fertilizers are made obsolete, along with tiresome and time-consuming digging and tilling. With the knowledge presented here and the right inputs, the novice food producer can begin planting within a few short weeks, and can start producing poison-free food and look forward to an expeditious trip down the road to self-reliance. It will be beneficial to the new food raiser to record the data about their endeavors, such as inputs used, daily temperatures, and total length of processing for each batch; in this way, one can learn the most effective methods for their own environs and resources. More information about the actual planting and cultivation process will be presented as this series unfolds. For now, begin collecting inputs and start that compost batch!

Addendum : Bioremediation and ‘Compost Tea’

Most people in the industrialized world live on land that has been subject to the ravages of commercial urban horticulture (landscaping, which tends to use a lot of insecticides and herbicides) or ‘factory farming’ (which also uses chemical fertilizers). What goes into your soil goes into your food, and subsequently into your body when you eat that food. Therefore, the presence of these industrial residues, along with whatever unintentional pollution may exist in your soil (for example, motor oil dumping, waste from mills that has seeped into soil, etc) is troubling for the food raiser.
One way to partially mitigate the effects of these toxins that are in your soil through no fault of your own is to employ a strategy known as ‘bioremediation.’ This is a term that means the use of microorganisms to neutralize chemical toxins – a biological remedy. The technique is used extensively by governments in the cleanup of ecological disasters like oil spills, and can be employed by the self-maintaining food producer as well.
The basic idea is to identify microbes that consume toxins, cultivate them in quantity, and spread a liquid solution containing them across the area that is affected by chemical pollution. The microbes work through the soil, consuming and neutralizing the toxic chemicals.
The government uses classified blends of microbes to achieve its ends, but the private citizen has other options available. The two most popular are the purchase of commercial ‘effective microorganisms’ and the making of ‘compost tea.’
‘Effective microorganisms’ is a trademarked term that generally refers to a specific commercial product, available for sale online. This product is a suspension of a proprietary blend of microbes in a water and molasses solution. The manufacturer contends that the organisms offered in this product can ‘bioremediate’ a wide range of toxins. If one chooses to buy this product, one need buy it only once – these microbes are like yeast and can be propagated indefinitely by adding more molasses and water to the solution as it’s used. Also, we recommend ignoring the ‘expiration’ or ‘use by’ dates on the package, for the same reason. Unless left in the sun or otherwise killed, these organisms will keep and reproduce indefinitely, similar to the behavior of a sourdough starter. The commercial preparation is diluted with water and sprayed directly onto the affected soil.
‘Compost tea,’ simply, is what is produced when a cloth bag of compost is suspended in a barrel of filtered water and ‘brewed’ for 48 hours, preferably in the sun. The resulting liquid is certainly rich in nutrients and helpful bacteria and can be added as an enriching amendment directly to crop areas or compost batches. Proponents of this ‘tea’ often employ it as a bioremediation tool, claiming that the microbes present in the average compost tea batch are similar to those in the commercial preparation, work effectively to neutralize toxins, and can be produced by the grower at little cost (whereas the commercial preparation is very costly).
More research into bioremediation of agricultural soil, particularly for the urban food producer, is urgently needed. Better and more widely-informed science on this subject will go a long way in helping the food producers large and small achieve higher yields of less-toxic crops.
Whichever method you choose, it is wise for anyone growing their own food to apply one of these preparations to their soil before beginning the initial growing process. In addition, if using inputs from non-organic or non-poison-free sources such as non-organic cow / horse manure, or grass clippings and tree trimmings from around the neighborhood, it is advisable to add bioremediation solutions to your compost container to neutralize toxic residues. Unless you have a full laboratory at your disposal, you won’t be able to truly gauge the effectiveness of your bioremediation efforts. Therefore, it’s best to use only organic inputs for your compost when you have the option. There is a mounting body of anecdotal evidence, however, that these solutions can be effective in rehabilitating land tainted by chemical inputs and polluting residues, making food grown in that soil less toxic to consume. There will be more information presented later in this series about the concentration of soil toxins within the food produced. Suffice to say that bioremediation of our soil before planting is a low-cost bet that it makes sense to take.

Acknowledgement : A large part of the information presented here is taken from the lecture “Composting in the Southwest Desert,” by master gardener and writer Jim Muir, as presented on 11-13-2008.

Keywords: Compost  Slavery  Food  Materialism 
Comments: 4  •  Post Comment  •  Share Share Top
Daniel Roe Sun Dec 07, 2008 8:22 pm

When did LW go from gibberish to informational?
1m1w Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:16 pm
When the fall semester reached mid-term.
Daniel Roe Wed Dec 10, 2008 5:08 pm
did you try putting the ointment on it?
Hank Wed Dec 10, 2008 10:10 pm
Nixon composted Tanqueray bottles and pure human death instinct.
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