COOL COMPOSTING : Composting Conversations Part 3

The ‘Cool Compost Bin’ …..

…….. is a traditional method of composting that uses a closed large tub to contain waste. These are usually made from recycled plastic and can be purchased from a local plant nursery or retail hardware outlet. Well managed, the cool compost bin offers a rich source of organic matter. The container has a neatly fitted lid that is removed to deposit waste material and is open at the base, siting directly on the ground where it drains and easily accessible to worms and micro-organisms living in the soil.

The traditional cool compost bin with lid in place. The bin has been positioned in front of an olive tree which will benefit from the seeping nutrients and worm activity at the base of the bin.
The traditional cool compost bin with lid in place. The bin has been positioned in front of an olive tree which will benefit from the seeping nutrients and worm activity at the base of the bin.

People often talk about problems with this type of bin, especially when waste is soggy and becomes sour, a problem that is best avoided through good management but can also be easily solved. The closed bin is a good performer in urban areas as the lid ensures that flies and birds do not have ready access to the waste.

Because the bins are mobile they are perfect for people who are renting. When you move house the bin can move with you – scooped up into buckets – so can your compost.

One of the secrets to success for the cool compost bin is patience. The other secret is introducing a variety of material and layering the waste to balance the mix. This technique is excellent for the busy person who is time poor and has an erratic interest in gardening.  The mix can be quietly working away decomposing while you’re going about life. The cool bin will offer the busy ‘urbanista’ a rich source of humus when the weather is perfect and they have a window of opportunity to try their hand at gardening.

Friable compost ready to spread on garden beds, worms and micro organisms contained in the compost will recharge the soil and promote healthy growth in plants
Friable compost ready to spread on garden beds, worms and micro organisms contained in the compost will recharge the soil and promote healthy growth in plants

Step 1:  Place your open bottomed bin in a convenient and strategic spot. Consider the route you travel every day; as you walk to the gate, or are leaving via the tram, train or car – near your rubbish bin, collecting the mail or hanging out the washing. If you are making a regular journey past the compost bin you are more likely to deposit waste or ‘give the mix a stir’. I often place a bin at the base of a tree, the goodies that drain into the ground are beneficial to the tree and the worm activity around the tree is a bonus. I also think about where I might be going to develop a new garden bed and make the compost in that spot. When it ‘s ready it’s just a matter of slipping of the skin, scooping off the top third of the compost material and spreading the remaining contents over the garden – easy.

Don’t think of the bin as an unsightly feature to hide away, place it somewhere that is pleasant and easy to visit. Design your garden around the bins, plant nasturtiums and herbs or plants that will benefit from the draining nutrients.

Cool compost bins beside the entry drive, a number of bins allows a time gap between each waste deposit and time for the worms to get to work helping with decomposing material.
Cool compost bins beside the entry drive, a number of bins allows a time gap between each waste deposit and time for the worms to get to work helping with decomposing material.

Step 2:  Once you have found the perfect spot begin by putting cardboard or wads of paper down, placing the bin over the top. Then begin to fill the bin by building layers of waste. Kitchen scraps, straw, shredded paper, pizza boxes, an occasional handful of pellitized manure, grass clippings, chopped up green garden waste. Never put too much of one item in at the same time, a variety of materials and layering the elements is the key to success.  Stockpile a range of waste material close by so you can throw a material into the mix.

Spread dampened newspaper or cardboard over the soil before putting the bin in place, this will help level the bin and create a graded layer when the mix is ready to be collected.
Spread dampened newspaper or cardboard over the soil before putting the bin in place, this will help level the bin and create a graded layer when the mix is ready to be collected.

Always place a layer of straw or dry leaves mixed with shredded newspaper over the top of the sloppy waste, then a handful of manure over the top (this can be compressed or pellet type garden manure that is purchased in a bag from the local garden supply – try and buy a certified organic mix). Lawn clippings are excellent, be careful to not add a thick layer, they can very quickly become soggy or dry if they overheat.   Occasionally the mix will need some extra moisture, sprinkle with the hose or add a few buckets of water and ‘tease’ the mix with the tines of a garden fork.

Inside a compost bin, the signs of worms at work with the castings on the surface of the bin, the straw helps keep the mix moist and controls pest flies on the top of the mix.
Inside a compost bin, the signs of worms at work with the castings on the surface of the bin, the straw helps keep the mix moist and controls pest flies on the top of the mix.

If you want to vermin proof the bin you should do this at the beginning. Before you start place a piece of chicken wire or similar mesh down before you put the cardboard down. This is not an absolute barrier to keep rats and mice out but it will discourage them.

Layering of material is important as it evenly distributes wet and dry ingredients and will prevent the heap from souring. Don’t add material that is chunky, try and chop things up a bit, it helps with the process of decomposition and will speed your compost making.

Occasionally you will need to stir the mix. Do this with the garden fork by placing the tines down into the compost and gently lifting the waste. This will aerate the material and accelerate decomposition. Do not use a spade, the blade slices through your worms – the fork is kind and teases and lifts the mix without harming your little urban helpers.  You could purchase a compost twirler.  This tool twists down into the heap and lifts material, distributing air into the decomposing matter. Either way a good agitate and the mix will be revitalized.

Look for dry spots when you’re mixing – a quick hose or bucket of water over the dry area will help reactivate the compost. If the mix is soggy or wet then add some straw, shredded newspaper or leaves and mix this through, sprinkle with a little coffee grinds and top off with straw.   It you are adding moisture to your compost add some liquid seaweed fertiliser to the bucket, this tonic will also give a sluggish compost heap a boost.

There are two enemies in compost making – when the mix is to wet – or – when the mix is to dry! By trial and error you will learn how to manage this balance to make sure your compost keeps progressing along.

Through this process you will eventually build layer upon layer of goodness. The bottom of the bin will compress and be active with worms while the top might still be quite ‘green’ and loose with new material. I always try and have the mix capped with some straw, it helps control any smells or compost flies and keep things ‘sweet’ and moist.  Push the straw aside when adding new material and reuse the capping straw at the top again and again.

Step 3: Time and patience is required to make cool compost. I judge that it takes between 4 to 6 months to reap the rewards.  When the contents of your bin are reaching the top of the container leave it a while, check for dampness, give an occasional stir with the garden fork and allow the material to settle. You will be surprised by the number of worms that will make their way up and through the decomposing waste. This is what you are aiming for, natural decomposition together with worm activity that will transform sloppy waste into rich humus.

Compost mix with the plastic container lifted showing the graduated layers. The bottom layer is decomposed and ready for spreading. The top layer should be used to help set up the next mix in a new location.
Compost mix with the plastic container lifted showing the graduated layers. The bottom layer is decomposed and ready for spreading. The top layer should be used to help set up the next mix in a new location.

When the mix has subsided a little you can add extra layers – this is especially good for people who don’t have much time. The bin will look after itself between your bursts of interest.

Step 4: I judge if a bin is ready by gently lifting the plastic skin of the whole bin and slipping it up to reveal the bottom. It is ready when there is a healthy amount of black moist humus at the bottom. You will see multiple worms scurrying to find a dark hiding place when you do this. You can put a garden fork into this bottom layer to ‘investigate’ the progress of decomposing material.

The skin of a compost bin being slipped off the mix, the lower layers are always compacted and quite dense. The upper layers will be semi decomposed and perfect for starting off the next compost cycle. Separate the mix and use the best parts on the garden.
The skin of a compost bin being slipped off the mix, the lower layers are always compacted and quite dense. The upper layers will be semi decomposed and perfect for starting off the next compost cycle. Separate the mix and use the best parts on the garden.

When there is adequate humus remove the plastic container and transfer the cyclinder to a new spot.   Prepare the bin as you did in Step 2 with cardboard or shredded newspaper at the bottom and place a little dampened straw over the paper. Using a garden fork scoop the top third of the mix into the bottom of the new bin. This is your compost starter. I compare this to yeast in bread. The starter will make an excellent base for your new bin and will mean you may not have to wait so long to harvest the next round of contents. Always make sure you also transfer some of the worms, they are urban livestock, your little garden workers.

A new composting process about to be started, the soil has been gently forked and paper will be spread before placing the composting container into place. The straw mulch surrounding the trees helps keep moisture in the ground and micro organisms active.
A new composting process about to be started, the soil has been gently forked and paper will be spread before placing the composting container into place. The straw mulch surrounding the trees helps keep moisture in the ground and micro organisms active.

The new compost is ready to spread on your garden. I find I get the most from my compost when I add it to an area after I have forked over the soil. I make sure the ground is moist before I top dress with the compost and I often ‘cap’ the compost lightly with some extra damp straw. This means any worms that have been moved from the bin have an immediate source of food and continue their good work in your garden. If the worms have no source of food they move elsewhere or simply die through lack of food.

Worms feeding on over sized zucchini that have been sliced and placed face down into the compost bin. Worms enjoy soft vegetables and fruits and will devour the material in a matter of weeks. Adding a mix of material always helps introduce balance to the compost process.
Worms feeding on over sized zucchini that have been sliced and placed face down into the compost bin. Worms enjoy soft vegetables and fruits and will devour the material in a matter of weeks. Adding a mix of material always helps introduce balance to the compost process.

A few extra hints

Adding Coffee Grinds: I find that used coffee grinds are an excellent material to sprinkle over the top of the wet waste when you deposit it in the bin. Worms love the gritty nature of the used coffee and it helps to stabilize the mix and controls compost flies.  I collect coffee grinds from a local cafe and stockpile it in a bucket for quick easy access.

Have more than one bin:  I always try and have a number of active bins on the ‘go’. This allows me to alternate where I dispose my waste and allows time for the process of decomposition to take place between deposits. It also avoids souring inside the bin with an over supply of wet waste.  Having a number of bins allows me to rest a bin for a while – I usually allow 4 to 6 weeks from my last deposit before I use the waste.

Do Not Add Citrus or Onions:  This is a rule that can be bent. I believe it depends on the quantity of citrus and onions you are adding. I do not eliminate these from my cool compost but would never add them to my worm farm (refer the the blog posted 23 August 2015). If you use a lot of citrus then I would be cautious and carefully manage the amount you are adding. You might like to try having a citrus only deposit spot and see what happens.  Pineapple is also a questionable fruit.

Egg Shells:  I add these to the compost but crush them well. I collect the shells, wash them and place them together in a baking tray. The shells then go in and out of the oven when I am baking – to absorb the ‘end heat’ – this makes the shells very brittle. When I have collected enough I grind them with a mortar and pestle and add them to the worm farm, use them as a snail barrier or sprinkle them amongst seed in the chicken house for grit. Ground eggshells are also good sprinkled around seedlings to protect young plants from snail and slug activity – the pests do not like the very sharp nature of the crushed shells.

Eggshells, washed and dried in the oven then crushed to a gritty texture, these can be added to the compost along with coffee grounds to the mix.
Eggshells, washed and dried in the oven then crushed to a gritty texture with a mortar and pestle, these can be added to the compost mix along with coffee grounds to ‘sweeten’ the decomposing matter.  Worms like the gritty nature of the egg shells and the coffee grinds.

Animal Waste:  People have often asked me what about my dogs droppings. I have a small dog and she has small droppings but I don’t add them to the compost. I use them as a deterrent for foxes and scatter the dog waste along the fence line near the chicken house. However I have read that pet waste can be used in compost but not on plants and produce that you are going to consume. Save this ‘type of compost’ for the decorative parts of the garden and have a special small spot to deposit the material separate from the goodies that will go on your edibles.

Worm Farming – Urban Agriculture

Adventures with Worms

Worms are natures wonder creatures. These little critters process waste and through natural digestion create juice and worm castings that are high in nutrients. The ‘Castings’ and the ‘Juice’ are tonic for your garden and can be used on everything from veggies to flowers and even your indoor plants.

Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food
Deep in the heart of the worm farm the wriggling mass of worms congregate and mass feed on their favourite food, these are composting worms, red wrigglers, it is essential that the correct worms are used in a worm farm.

My worm farm was originally purchased for my father as a gift over 12 years ago – it was returned to me when we sold ‘Greenacres’ and has been in heavy production since I moved to Arundel. By trial and error I have developed a system that works for me.

How Have I Achieved Success?

The worm farm is managed as a stack of ‘filters’. The key to a good outcome is to keep the base where the liquid drains as clear and clean of worm castings as possible. This ensures the juice flows freely through the dispensing tap and does not pool and stagnate. To assist drainage I have my worm farm slightly tilted, the dispensing tap permanently ‘open’ with a bucket at the base to catch all the drips. I use 1 part juice to 10 parts water and spread it on the garden in a watering can, often mixed with a measure of seaweed fertilizer as a ‘garden tonic’.

The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing things away.  The water can and scoop sit beside the bucket.
The full multi storey worm farm, tap and bucket at the bottom, trays stacked and capped with lid, hessian sack and a brick to stop the wind blowing the lid away. The watering can and scoop sit beside the bucket.

The base is topped with four trays, the top tray is the ‘feeder’ tray and has a lid topped with a hessian blanket. The base with legs (bottom layer) has a tap attached and is where worm juice drains.

The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top.  The tap is left open and 'Juice' drains freely into the bucket,
The worm farm base cleaned and ready for trays to be stacked on top. The tap is left open and ‘Juice’ drains freely into the bucket.  Don’t be put off by the black liquid, it is black gold and rich in nutrients.

The middle trays are filter trays. Cardboard, shredded newspaper and straw are spread to catch and filter the juice and fine castings that dribble down from the top layer. The tray immediately below the main ‘farm’ can be quite damp and covered with worm castings. This layer will eventually be transferred to the top.

While the majority of the worms will be clustered in the top tray some worms will move up and down travelling through the various levels via the sieve like holes in the trays.

A middle 'filter' trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.
A middle ‘filter’ trays with straw and paper catching the worm castings that drift down from the top, migrating worms can be seen amongst the organic matter.

 

In the past I have had a problem with the fine castings building up and blocking the base and preventing the juice from flowing freely through the dispensing tap. I solved this problem by lining the middle layers with paper and straw using this material as an organic filter. I never have a blockage problem now and only occasionally take the base away and hose it out. The paper and straw eventually breaks down and forms part of the organic waste that the worms convert. The filter material needs occasional topping up and to help the worms along I always use slightly damp filter material.

 

Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings.  This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.
Bottom tray with corrugated cardboard and straw filtering the draining juice and any drifting castings. This method ensures the base does not clog with castings.

 

At the Top Where All the Action Is………

The very top layer has the majority of worms and rotting vegetable material. Worms like soft fruits and veggies. I have discovered over grown zucchini is a favourite, as are watermelon and banana skins. Cut your excess fruit and vegetables and place flesh side down, skin side up – they will devour the core of the material very quickly. I also add semi-rotted straw and finely shredded newspaper, giving the mix an occasional gentle stir. When I am ‘feeding’ the worms I tend to place waste in a clump, on one side of the farm, placing a clump on the opposite side with the next deposit. I am unsure why this works best but it gives the worms time to demolish one area and happily move onto the next deposit.  I would feed my farm at least once a week, however when busy this might stretch to two weeks.  The time span can be longer between feeds but you need to ensure there is other organic matter (like wet straw) to keep them going.

Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.
Tasty morsels include banana skins, tomato ends, fruit peels, the cardboard is the the top layer to the tray with a blanket and then a lid with the hessian sack.

 

Finally I sweeten the ‘feeding’ layer with an occasional sprinkle of used coffee grinds, worms like the grit. I also use finely ground eggshells, this adds calcium to the mix and helps correct the ph balance in the farm which can be slightly acidic.

Maintenance…….

About every 4 months (sometimes longer) I change the trays around.

I use the second layer and transfer it to the top as the new ‘feeder’ layer. When removing the ‘feeding’ tray scoop any half rotten material into the new tray– I have a plate of tasty worm treats ready – made up of the most tempting waste (banana skins, fruit ends, soft veggies).

A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.
A sample tray cleared out and the contents formed into a hillock to separate the worms from the castings.  The paint scraper is used to gently push the worms to the centre and the castings to the edge. 

 

I then empty the old feeding tray onto a work table forming a hillock, again transferring any soft scraps to the new ‘feeder’ tray. The worms will move quickly into the middle of the hillock away from the light. Start by gently removing the outer layer of castings and scoop in small amounts into a bucket. Move any worms you collect into the new ‘feeder’ tray, these are your breeding stock and the source of the next generation of worms.   Keep transferring small scoops to your casting bucket. I will often do this over an afternoon, moving between gardening jobs, coming back every 30 minutes or so to remove a few more small scoops.

 

Worms separated from the castings, they mass together trying to escape the light.  Keep these, they are your 'livestock' and will breed the next generation.  The 'Castings' will be spread on the garden.
When worms are separated from the casting they mass together trying to escape the light. Keep these these worms, they are your farm ‘livestock’ and will breed the next generation. The rich ‘Castings’ will be spread on the garden.

 

Gradually you will have a bucket full of worm castings and a hillock of thriving worms, all trying to find the darkest spot. Move the worms to your new tray and feed them with some tasty rotting morsels to restart the cycle. Wash the old tray. I usually do this in a spot where I am about to plant new young seedlings, making the most of the washed castings. Finally line the clean tray with shredded paper and soaked straw and transfer to the bottom of the stack as a new filter base.

Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.
Place the worms into the top layer with a few tasty morsels, they will quickly find their favourite place in the top tray.

 

Month by Month stuff to do…………

If we were discussing ‘normal’ livestock or pet management we would be talking about ‘day to day’ care. A worm farm will survive on ‘managed neglect’.  Month to month is fine. Worms enjoy a dark moist (not wet) environment that is slightly warm – never hot. I use corrugated cardboard over the top of the waste then cover this with the ‘worm blanket’, cap the unit with its lid and place a hessian sack over everything. By keeping the worm farm in a shaded spot over summer I stabilize the temperature and moisture levels.   Moving it to a place where it catches a little sun in winter does the same thing and keeps the worms active.  The straw and paper in the ‘filter’ system means the worms always have something to ‘eat’.  Feeding with kitchen waste can happen sporadically. If I am going away I put the farm in a shaded spot, make sure it’s topped up with goodies and put a bit of extra damp straw in place. The farm will happily look after itself for 6 to 8 weeks without any attention.  The perfect ‘pet’ for busy people.

 

Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all thats needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.
Worm castings ready to spread on the garden, a small plug around the base of veggies is all that’s needed.  Juice is sitting in the scoop ready to add to the watering can, 1 part juice to 10 parts water, then sprinkle across the plants that need some tonic.

 

My system is made in Australia. I recently purchased an extra tray to increase efficiency. A similar model can be bought from large plant nurseries and hardware stores. New units come with a list of instructions, these can also be found online – my original instructions had been lost so I went hunting and found the makers instructions.

If you’re starting from the very beginning you will need to also purchase worms. I was surprised how much they cost when I originally purchased the farm for my father. When I set up the farm here at Arundel I collected my own worms from my cool compost heap – it is important to get the right worms – red wrigglers – I call them fast worms. I have ‘gifted’ worms to family and friends – a strange thing to offer but wonderful if your setting up a worm farm.

Making Do………..

If cost is an issue you could improvise with a series of stacking Styrofoam boxes from the green grocer, drill extra holes to allow adequate drainage. You could also repurpose an old esky, bath or trough, whatever your system it needs to be raised and free draining. You must also think about how you are going to ‘catch’ the juice. The system needs to drain to ensure it does not become fetid.

A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, they decompose quickly and are loved by worms.  Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.
A top up of rhubarb leaves, a favourite food, the leaves decompose quickly and are loved by worms. Cardboard will be spread across the top to act as an insulating layer.  2 weeks and they will be gone.

 

Worms don’t need a lot of attention – just a little care. One of natures ‘wonder creatures’ they are the perfect pet for the busy household – your own urban farm, the livestock processing your waste and transforming it into liquid magic for your garden.

Happy Farming