Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Starting Composting: The Basics

What's Going On

Composting is the process of turning rottable waste into soil. Through erosion of inorganics, and the feeding of life on organics, EVERYTHING becomes soil...eventually. Your job as the gardener or farmer, is to accelerate this process as much as possible. The three constraints (other than time) are: money, work and space. 

This model for farms minimizes time, and effort, but costs a bundle, and takes up a lot of space.
I choose a tumbler for composting because it decreases time, is affordable (for me) and eliminates the problems of pests.

Composting is Easy

Anything that rots can go into the composter. If it is possible for it to get moldy or smelly, it will rot and can eventually become soil. I err on the side of "Whatever, just throw it in." If it was a bad idea, I won't use it again.

Composting is Hard

Again, we come to constraints. Everything will become soil eventually, but we want to maximize the speed with which this happens. There are some basic rules for this. 
  1. The right ratio of carbon to nitrogen is about 30:1. In practice this is about equal parts brown matter and green matter by volume.
  2. The right amount of water. People say "like a damp sponge", which is a bunch of crap for two reasons.
    1. The stuff at the top of the pile, where you are checking, is dryer than the stuff at the bottom.
    2. A pile can get wetter or dryer within hours, so you sort of have to guess what it is going to do in 3 days.
  3. There is never an occasion where rotating the pile is bad.
  4. A compost pile is a living ecosystem, it's alive and needs to be treated like a plant. There are various levels to which you can care, and it is possible to kill it, in which case you have to (mostly) start over. It requires:
    1. A seed (all plants have the microbes needed to start a compost pile, although those that have never been in a refrigerator or subject to chemicals are best)
    2. Food - brown matter and green matter
    3. Water - but not too much
    4. Air - never seal a compost pile, it works faster and stinks less with air
    5. Heat - fortunately a compost pile can create its own, and cannot die of chill
    6. A lack of poisons - anything that kills bacteria or fungus: bleach, oil, preservatives, vinegar, alcohol etc.
    7. A lack of "weeds" (other organisms that aren't the ones you want), which is why you dont put things like dead animals and dog crap in it.

How to start

  1. Get some green plants (kitchen scraps, grass clippings), get some brown matter (dead leaves, straw, shredded paper).
  2. Put them in the composter until it is at least half full, the fuller it is, the more heat is will be able to retain which will make everything go more quickly.
  3. Water it till it's sopping. Most composters can leak out the bottom, so just go to town, the rest of the water will evaporate out the top, or leak out the bottom.
  4. Rotate the pile, the idea is to not miss anything, make sure all your brown matter is wet.
  5. You have now started the pile - that is it. 

How to maintain

  1. I check on my tumblers whenever I'm bored, which is every 1-3 days. Check at least once per week, give it a spin, and open it up to check its smell and temperature.
  2. If it is hotter than ambient temperature, you are doing well, nothing to be done. The hotter the better - municipal compost piles can get to 160-180 deg F, but you have a rinky dink little pile, and can't hope to get that so don't worry.
  3. As long as the pile is above ambient temperature, you can add stuff to it. 
  4. If it smells like piss or ammonia, there is nitrogen that is not being used, add brown matter and top off with some water.
  5. If it smells like muck, low tide, or a bog - it needs more air and less water. Rotate the pile, if it's early in the process, add brown matter to keep the pile from collapsing (thus allowing more air in the pile), and to absorb water. If it's hot out (>80 deg F), rotate the pile and leave the lid open for the rest of the day. 
  6. If there is brown matter that has not broken down - add more green matter, or pee on it (for guys), girls can use a measuring cup on the toilet.
  7. If it smells like rotting flesh - Never add that much meat to a pile ever again. Add more green/brown mix. Nothing really to do except wait the 2-3 weeks for it to go away. Lie, and tell the neighbors it was not your fault.
  8. If it's winter - make the pile bigger, do not add water. Any freezes will break the cell walls of the green matter and release water into the pile. Always keep the pile full and big.
  9. If there are these round turd-looking clumps in the compost, that when broken apart have a strong smell, undigested green matter or are warm - Add a lot bunch of brown matter, and a lot of water. The clumps need to be broken up so that they can be exposed to air and break down.
  10. If there are these round turd-looking clumps in the compost, that when broken apart look like brown mush that doesn't smell, or feel warm. You are done with the primary composting. Time to let it age.

How to age

This is the part of the process where you can get the compost to get hot, but it still looks more like garbage than soil. This part takes 1-3 months, instead of the primary processing which takes 1-5 weeks.
When I start this stage, I have a bunch of impenetrable brown/grey turds of grass and cardboard fibers. They need to get broken up. 

What I used to do was let them dry out in a garbage can, and then when they had the moisture of modelling clay, I would shred them on chicken wire sieves. That was a big waste of time. 

The better way I found was to add a whole bunch of coarse sand (the stuff they use to make concrete), and add water and toss it in a tumbler. The sand coats the outside, but when a turd breaks up, the sand coats the new smaller turd, and they can't re-form. 
  1. Add sand and turds to the tumbler. 
  2. Rotate.
  3. If there are uncoated turds, add more sand.
  4. Rotate.
  5. Spray with water.
  6. Rotate.
  7. If there is dry sand, add more water.
  8. Rotate.
  9. Using a 3-tine hand rake, stab into the largest turds at the top of the pile and fling them apart. 
  10. Rotate and repeat step 9 at least once per week.
  11. If you see mold, or smell anything, or have turd's over 1" in diameter, the pile is not done. Rotate it, break up some turds and wait another week.
I've never actively tried vermiculture, but aging compost is what you would probably put in a worm pile/bin, since the pile cant produce neoughheat to harm the worms.

This aging step is mostly to make the compost more manageable and finer. It also gives a chance for any pathogens introduced via dog crap or meat to die off. If you are fertilizing inedibles, this step can be skipped entirely. Any aging that needs to be done can be accomplished by worms and pill bugs.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Global Carbon

On the note of global tree recycling: I have been watching "How it's made" as my standard after-dinner-with-a-drink TV show. In two episodes, one on printer paper, and another on toilet paper, it describes part of the process. Printer paper is made from mostly trees, where it gets chopped, boiled, bleached, dehydrated, sold and eventually printed on. Toilet paper is made from mostly recycled paper, where it is boiled, removed of ink, re-bleached, dried and put on cardboard rolls. In my favorite issue of Science everan article describes how Washington DC is going to upgrade its sewage treatment facilities to turn half of our carbon sewage into fertilizer (the other half will burn the methane by-product to run the plant). So if you think about it, carbon gets emitted from the temperate zones, where all the cities are, where it gets sequestered by the forests of Canada  which get turned into trees, which get turned into paper, which get turned into toilet paper, which get turned into sewage, which get turned into fertilizer which gets turned into food in the temperate zones. The food obviously gets turned into crap, which gets wiped by the toilet paper. It makes me hopeful about the future. The systems we have in place can already accommodate the cycling of nutrients for a global economy, except for the fossil fuels. The less we rely on fossil fuels, the more the carbon loop becomes closed, in which case nature will take care of herself.

A Garden in January

Its always a bit tough to occupy yourself in the garden in the winter. It's even more frustrating here in Maryland where it can get up to 50 degrees in January and February. On those days I feel like screaming "Its warm enough for me, why not you?! Grow damn you, grow!" But, predictably, there is nothing to be gained by such talk.

One thing I have found that does make me feel good about doing something in the garden is composting the Christmas tree. After we take off the ornaments indoors, we move the tree outdoors to the grass and strip off the lights. This is better because then you can walk around the tree with more space than in a living room with a 7 foot tree and two couches in it.

So after the lights and ornaments are off the tree, I take it to the back of the yard where I have a big stuff mulch pile. Any big sticks, branches, dead plants, root balls, etc. go there. Every time I pull out the lawn mower, I mulch whatever has accumulated there. So I stand the tree up there and start hacking away branches with garden clippers. Once the Trunk is a bare stalk, Throw it on the firewood pile to dry out for a while. In a few months it will make some very sweet smelling firewood (that will not gum up a blade that tries to chop it into logs).

The branches just get mowed down...pretty efficiently too.

I'm unsure if it's carbon neutral to do so. Basically what I am doing is burying carbon that got sequestered in Canada. So my lawn mower emits fossil fuel into the atmosphere, which gets sequestered in the arboreal forests of Canada. Those same trees get chopped down t get turned into Christmas trees, Which I then chop up and sequester in my garden. Of course 10% of the gasoline is ethanol from Iowa, which in turn used fossil fuels to fertilize the corn crop (via the Haber Bosch process which basically turns coal into ammonia - sort of).

Other things I like to do in January:

  • Trim the last of the rose seed pods
  • Cut back the mint stalks
  • Cut back the lavender flower stems
  • Try my damndest to keep the compost bin above ambient temperature
  • Try to figure out what to do with all the shredded paper that isn't being used by the pathetically under-active composter
As you can see, the first three things take about an afternoon...if you were in a wheelchair. Which makes the rest of January rather dull.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Garbage Flow Chart

I finally found a program that will make flowcharts that have automatic tracking of arrows. It's called LucidChart and it is available at the Google App Store. It integrates with Chrome and Google Drive, and allows for collaboration. You have to buy the program if you want to increase the size of the document beyond a normal letter page, or want more than 60 boxes on your flowchart. Boxes snap to a grid pretty intelligently, and arrows can be straight or 3rd order B├ęzier curves. I loved working with it.

With this program i was finally able to make a flowchart of the Garbage streams in my house. We have 7 or 8 depending on how you count. Printer paper, Shreddables, Kitchen Waste, Bird Waste, Yard Waste, Recycling, Trash, and possibly Old Food. Old food can get fed to the dog, go in the food waste bin or go in the trash. Bird waste gets separated into stuff that can be fed to outside birds or compostables. With All the different trash streams our trash is kept down to less than a bag per week.

Earlier this spring I measured how much paper we were producing. It came out to about 7 pounds/week. This includes junk mail, boxes from Costco  boxes containing soda (diet soda being our primary beverage), and printer paper produced by my at-home office. Corrugated boxes I cut into 2-4 inch strips with a box cutter, and then put it into my 12-page cross-cut shredder. Putting it through this workload dulled out the teeth my last one in about 2 years.

Garbage Streams at our house. Most garbage ends up staying on my property. Recycling stream not  shown.

Hot, Cool and Cold and Compost

Two nights ago was the first hard freeze in College Park. I woke up at about 8am, went outside and there was frost on every shadowed patch of ground. The sun had already started melting the grass it touched. The planters around the yard were frozen four inches in, and my currently running compost batch was mostly frozen to the bottom of the bin.

When I opened it up, it seemed much more wet than it should be. Then I thought about frozen fruit. Freezing breaks the cell walls of most living organisms (most organisms that can survive freezing have some chemical in their cells besides water which keeps ice crystals from forming). So during freezing of the compost, the cells in the grass, kitchen scraps etc, break apart, releasing the water contained in those cells. I ended up adding brown matter to the mix to absorb the water, and keep the pile form going anaerobic (the stinky black slime that occurs when there isn't enough turning and therefore oxygen).

In the best compost piles, the pile stays hot enough that it doesn't freeze during the winter. Because I have a tumbler composter, the pile can freeze from the bottom and top. Also because it is well-mixed, the compost proceeds faster than a pile, so even if I added enough stuff to make it hot, it would quickly shrink in size to the point where it could no longer sustain the reactions to keep it hot. So my compost kind of goes dormant in the winter.

So I learned something, Warm weather is good for compost - it speeds up reactions. Cool weather is bad, it's like putting food in the fridge, it just stays cool, and decomposes very slowly. Cold, or freezing weather can be good because it breaks apart cells to make it easier to decompose later.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bug Life Cycles

I've wanted to do a post on these for a while. But since I cant stomach going to websites to learn about what I am posting, I am simply going to post some photos, and if anyone wants to give me information, then comments are greatly appreciated.

Mosquito Larvae

The reason I posted the Bat House post was because mosquitos have become much more of a problem than they have been. This is probably because I have a 5 gallon bucket of water keeping some Eucalyptus clippings for my aunt-in-law. We had to clip the Eucalyptus because it was blowing into our neighbors power lines during a storm. So like reasonable people, we went out  with one of those reach-and-pull-by-the-rope clippers during a lighning storm, in the dark to clip a tree that was six inches from black 220V lines delivering 200 amps. So we thought we were going to ship them to her. We didn't and in about a week, mosquito bite rates went through the roof. I am pretty sure that the grey curly things in the water are Tiger Mosqitio larvae. Based on that is what we have in the area, and now we have a lot more.

<Pre-emptive update: My wife saw my post and pictures and did the Google search for me. They are mosquito larvae. Based on her research, people on the internet say that bleach is a good way to kill them. Also soap because the larvae have to come up for air, and get it on their bodies when they do, disrupting their skin and breathing. Oil works the same way, but is more potent.>

We tried bleach about half a cup in about 3-4 gallons of water. We had apparantly no kill rate after 2 hours. No larvae floating on top, and the big one wrigglign away as per normal.

Fly Pre-Pupae

I looked this one up earlier in the week and couldnt get past two photos before I closed all my browser windows in disgust. These next photos are of fly pre-pupae or maggots. Flies find my compost, deposit eggs and in 3-4 days, I have lots of these guys. They like to live under the surface out of the light. When I rotate my compost, and open the lid, they are innevitably on top, but 10-30 seconds later, they are not visible on the top of the compost. You can see a sunflower seed in the middle for scale, and to the upper right of that, a cantelope seed.

Based on the flies I see in the yard, there are normal houseflies, green flies, and the guys below. Im assuming that all the maggots looks the same (maybe different sizes) and that they are all in there and i cant tell them apart. I cant find the website, but I think I remember them having a termperture range of 80-120F. So having them is indicative of a compost pile not being hot enough to kill them, weed seeds, and most pathogens.

Large Black Flies of unknown name (maybe a wasp?)

Based on the flies I see in the yard, there are normal houseflies, green flies, and the guys below. These guys I found in my finsihed compost storage bin which was known to have the pre-pupae in it. So Im assuming theat they hatched from those. They are large, 3-4 times the length of a house fly. In the picture you can see a scrap of paper with "eng" on it. That is 10pt Times New Roman for scale.

These guys were just chilling on the top of the pile when I opened the lid. Either they were drying out after recently hatching or they were in the process of dying from the parasitic infection I'm going to discuss next. When I came near, they moved, but did not fly away, and did not move by enough, or as fast as one might expect.

Fly Parasites

When i was diging thorugh the finished compost, (I cant remember whether it was the same or different bin that the one with the above photos - but it doesnt really matter since I mix compost from the two every other month), I found the following dead flies. They had small red aphid-like insects on them. The carapace had been split open, and the red aphid-like bugs were inside, presumably eating what was left of the inside of the fly. It is barely visible in the image. What is not visible, but what I did see was the same red bugs attached to the bottom of a much smaller different kind of fly. If I were to guess at the size, I would say they were 500-1000 microns (1000 micron=1mm). Inside the dead carapace, they looked gouged and fat. On the smaller fly (2 microns) they looked like 6-8 puppies clinging to the legs and abdomen of a mother dog - that was the scale.

Request for comments

If anyone knows anything about any of the four characters in today's post, please say something in the comments. If what you say cant be quickly verified on wikipedia, please post a source or a link. I want to learn, but cannot trawl through entomology websites on account of my weak suburban constitution. Thanks.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bat House Plans (Audubon Knockoff)

So this is something I've wanted to do for a while, but since it involved what i think is the most difficult power tool in existence - the router, I have yet to try it. I made the plans a while ago, and because I have received a few comments on this blog, I got in the mood to writing for it again.

So back in the spring, I took photos of this bat house sold by the Audubon Society. It is $50 if you can see in the photos after shrinking. The extent of my charity is paying taxes, signing petitions and voting for non-bigots. I really do not see $50 in craftsmanship here. I see $10 in materials and 10 man-minutes of work with the right tools, and a $40 donation to the Audubon Society.



So I reverse-engineered it. It's made of cedar so it doesn't rot. The 5 grooves which are present even on the outside of the house indicate that the entire box is made from 1 piece of lumber which is routed on both sides, then cut, then screwed together. The top and sides have two channels, but the others dont. To make it cheap, you would make it out of a single piece of 1x6x8'. So I made the drawing, dusted off my algebra and geometry, wrote out those equations in the middle left, plugged in t=3/4", w=5.5" and had Solver in Excel/OpenOffice/LibreOffice solve the equations for a, b, and c.

You are going to need a V-Groove bit, a Roundover bit, and a 3/4" Dado or Straight bit. Set up your jig to make the 5 V-Grooves on one side. Make the roundover routes. Cut the plank at the 46"/50" mark. Then route the 46" "half" with the straight bit on the other side. Then cut the 46" half into the A/B/B pieces, and the 50" "half" into the five 10" C pieces. 

A note on materials 

As with all router bits, get the largest chuck you can fo the bit you want. That means a 1/2" chuck for the 3/4" straight bit. The three bits for this project will run you about $40-$60, but they are some pretty useful bits. The Cedar, i found at Lowes for $10/board. My Home Depot doesn't carry planks of cedar.

A note on placement

Cedar was chosen because it lasts forever in the elements. So think about permenance. The screws looked brass or that funny outdoor gold patina stuff. The original builders avoided glue, I would also. 

I wouldnt mount it with a string because blind bats are going to be flying in and out of it - you wouldn't park your car in a garage that was suspended from crane would you? Id put two masonry screws through the bottom C board into the mortar of my brick.

Bats shit - think birds not mammals. Don't put it over something edible. And since it is the white bird kind (I think) it is going to be high in nitrogen, and might burn naked grass. I don't know I haven't built this one yet, but I would put it over ground I don't care about, or put some chippings/mulch underneath once I have bats.

I have also heard that bats - like all other mammals - get particular about the temperature of their home. They will prefer homes that are warm but not too warm etc., which is based on the amount of sun the house gets and the ambient temperture I am planning on solving this, but building 2-4 bat houses and placing them on the 4 sides of the house N-E-S-W. So the bats can choose the house of their choice based on the time of year and insolance.