I’m on vacation this week. A stay-cation really. Visiting with friends, finishing projects around the farm and planning a day at Frontier Days. I’m also doing some reading, which is always a treat.
This week I am reading and thinking about poop. Worm poop, chicken poop, cow poop, etc. If you are apprehensive regarding bodily fluids, I ask you stick with me on this one. I’m reading Holy Shit, Managing Manure to Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon (hero of mine). I highly recommend this read, even if you only have a tomato plant on the windowsill in a small apartment in the city. It is perception altering.
I’ve been composting on some scale since I was a kid. My grandmother had me either bury food scraps in an empty garden bed or drop them into a hole in the ground covered by a sort of manhole cover. It was just what you did. You didn’t throw that away. And you certainly didn’t buy bags of compost. You made it. It was only later that it became a novel idea with a fancy name, composting, and a commercial industry.
On the EPA website, they claim in 2010 the US sent 33 million tons of food waste to the landfill. That is a hugely wasted resource. Not only are we throwing our soil reviving nutrients away, but food waste is a major contributor to the creation of methane gas in a landfill. It should be illegal! At the very least this is a crime of nature. Throwing away soil nutrients and then buying and hauling in bags or truckloads of compost to feed your soil makes no sense to me.
So, in researching I have been learning a ton about the priceless benefits of urine and manure. On a small scale, for the apartment or small lot dweller there are the choices of vermicomposting (composting with worms) and regular bin composting. Having done both there are benefits to each. With vermicomposting you have a fast acting isolated system which provides hyper-nutritious worm castings. The nutrient dense castings can be sprinkled on house plants and mixed with potting soil to provide contained plants a boost. If you vermicompost on a larger scale, provided you have enough to feed these little fellas, you can add it to your garden plantings. This stuff is amazing! You will turn your little house plants into a jungle and heavy feeders like tomatoes will appreciate the boost over a season in a container. If you don’t make your own, which is always my first choice, you can buy bags or containers of worm castings from a nursery.
Composting brings you to another level. What you are looking to do here is utilize the heat created by the decomposition process, aerobic composting, to kill weed seeds and pathogens and quickly break down your kitchen/garden scraps into humus. This is then added to your garden. You know it’s working when the pile is visibly shrinking and doesn’t smell. If it smells it is telling you the water or brown to green ratio is seriously off and there is a lack of oxygen in the pile. Working in layers and materials of various sizes, the brown layer (consisting of twigs, leaves, branches) provides your carbon, while the green layer (lawn clippings, veggie/fruit scraps, and coffee grounds) contributes nitrogen. Water, not too much and not too little, helps break down the organic matter. Too much water creates sludge and all the good stuff leaches away, while too little and you have dust and not enough heat created. Personally, I like the pallet compost bins that I can get in and check the breakdown rate and turn the compost. However, many bins available on the market work well. But for the frugal, you can usually find cheap, or better yet free pallets and a little small hole garden wire to build a great bin. Also, in the windier parts of the state, I have found the commercial plastic bins, when starting or minimally filled blow away and smash to bits, thus wasting your hard earned money. Whereas a pallet bin, set in place with stakes if in an open area, handle the elements a little better. And, while it is a little more work, with smaller scale composting I have two to three bins and once a year rotate the piles to the next bin. It mixes it up and assists in the breaking down of all the materials. I have composted a pallet bin sized pile in as little as six months. When I am adding livestock bedding, I let it sit at least one year before applying it to my garden. While it’s sitting, I am creating more piles.
Which brings me to livestock manure. Dressing your garden beds with fresh manure or liquid manure results in quick depletion of nutrients like nitrogen. Aged piles are slightly better in retaining the nutrients and destroying pathogens that could cause harm. So, if you are dressing fresh manure on a bed you will be planting food in, you should be leaving it to age on the bed before planting food in it. It takes a year of aging to completely destroy the pathogens. Did I mention patience was a pre-requisite for composting?
The ideas I am currently obsessing over are those of the manure pack. Joel Salatin discusses similar ideas in his books. Layering the bedding as animals use it is key. Straw being the best bedding as it has a higher absorption rate to capture that liquid gold that is urine, and breaks down quicker than wood shavings and other materials. Logsden identifies that livestock urine contains over half the nitrogen and potassium available in manure. The straw also adds it’s own level of nutrients to the process, depending on what type of straw is being used. By starting with approximately a foot of bedding, you capture the majority of the liquid and solid manure. After that, continue layering clean straw or bedding to reduce smells and begin the pack down process. As the animals walk over the pack they tamp it down, releasing the air trapped, and creating a slower aging, less heated process of decomposition, called anaerobic composting. This allows for more nutrient retention compared to the hot garden composting. Once the season in a shed or barn is over, whether due to rotational grazing or the end of winter, the pack can be left to continue aging and placed on the beds or fields the following fall. If you let your chickens in this area, they will eat all the bug larvae and keep any fly populations down, and add their own high nutrient droppings to the mix.
Smaller livestock have the highest nutrient content in their manure. That is the chickens, the goats and the sheep. So if you have a choice if you happen to be purchasing aged manure from a farmer, or if you live in city limits and plan on adding chickens and goats to your urban homestead, you are in luck. A little will go a long way for you in your composting efforts.
The City of Fort Collins website has wonderful resources to learn about composting and vermicomposting. They have specialists in the various areas of composting and at Spring Creek Gardens the city has a demonstration site where they have several backyard composting options to check out. If you wish to learn more about worm composting check out the website of the Colorado Worm Man (John Anderson), located here in Laporte. We are truly blessed here in Northern Colorado with a variety of resources and education at our fingertips. It’s my hope that everyone realizes the necessity and benefits of loving poop and kitchen/yard scraps. If we want all this yummy front range food, we need to first feed the soil before feeding ourselves. Happy composting everyone!