Compost is all the rage in the sustainability and permaculture communities, but what can compost do for you and your home garden, and how can you produce it on a small scale? In this blog post, we are going to discuss how to get your compost tumbler or pile to create rich, nutritious compost as efficiently as possible, and finish up with a great recipe for compost tea.
If you have a yard with some space away from your house, the simplest way to compost is to create a basic compost heap. You empty out your food waste onto the heap, mix in a bit of surrounding soil, cover with leaves, and keep layering in this manner until you have a decent sized-pile that will break down into compost.
We recommend eventually having two piles: One that you are actively adding to, and one that is breaking down into great stuff for your garden. You’ll want to occasionally “turn” (mix up) your resting pile so that the ingredients will mix and it will break down evenly. When you remove all the compost from the finished pile, make that into your new active pile, and let the formerly active pile rest and decompose.
If you don’t have a great space for a compost heap, there are great options for compost bins. Compost tumblers allow you to quickly turn food and yard waste into compost, and mixing or turning the pile is easy, because you just spin your tumbler! You can add anything to the barrel as far as food wastes (vegetable and fruit peelings; grains; paper towels; bread; eggshells; coffee grounds; etc), but we generally recommend avoiding adding meat or dairy products, as they can smell and attract critters.
For food scraps, it’s easy to collect them in a countertop compost holder, and then add a few days’ worth of waste at a time to your tumbler or heap. Our countertop compost keepers have a built-in carbon filter, which is a lot better than the old jar I used because it would still smell sometimes.
Composting Tips for Tumblers:
- Activate faster breakdown by adding a bit of compost, soil, or purchased compost activator to the materials in your tumbler.
- Add a balanced mix of materials with a Carbon-to-Nitrogen ratio of about 25 or 30:1.
- Shred your compost materials to into small pieces.
- Make your compost a batch at a time – or more simply stop adding materials and let the breakdown process complete.
- Keep moist – about as wet as a squeezed out sponge.
A compost tumbler is a closed system, and one you are hoping is going to churn out finished compost in about a month or so. If you have the right balance of nitrogen rich green material and carbon rich brown material – in other words a Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of about 25:1 – there is at least some hope that you will succeed. Too much of one or the other will turn your tumbler into an expensive contraption that stores either guck or fluff and has little hope for getting to finished compost anytime soon.
Here are some Carbon:Nitrogen ratios of common composting materials:
- Food Scraps – general 15:1
- Grass Clippings 19:1
- Vegetable Trimmings 25:1
- Fallen Leaves – varies 35:1 – 85:1
- Straw 80-1
- Pine Needles – varies 60:1-110:1
- Newspaper 170:1
- Sawdust – 2 months old 625:1
So if you’re loading up on grass clippings, make sure you have even more leaves mixed in to your pile, to bring that carbon level up to where it needs to be. Similarly, if you are composting a bunch of straw, make sure you add a lot of green material to your bin, or your straw won’t break down properly.
I’ve gotten my mix down to an ‘almost science’ – one part green (nitrogen source) and two parts brown (carbon sources) water & oxygen. Here it is in layman’ terms:
- Part 1 (Nitrogen) One 5 gallon bucket filled with any combination of grass clippings, vegetable peelings, garden wastes and possibly some raw cow manure.
- Part 2 (Carbon) Two 5 gallon buckets filled with a mix of fallen leaves, coffee grounds, hardwood sawdust, and hardwood ash (bio char).
Additionally, I add in small amounts of amendments to the start of the composting process. The amendments are also ingredients in my tea recipe itself.
It always speeds things in the compost up when you chop or shred your materials before adding them. In a tumbler this is even more important. First of all you spent serious money to buy the tumbler and you likely want your compost fast. Leaving it all in the tumbler for a year to slowly decompose I’m betting isn’t in your plans. Chopping material into smaller bits makes more surface area available to the bacteria and fungi that will be at work breaking this stuff down. This really speeds things up.
Tumblers are small batch composters. Think of a batch of cookies. You add your ingredients, mix them up, and then bake. You don’t open the oven half way through and add more flour and then pop them back in the oven. A batch composter is a bit like baking cookies. Keep adding your ingredients until your tumbler is almost full. Don’t fill it all the way or the contents won’t mix. Then stop adding new material. The breakdown time – the promised two to four weeks to convert that stuff to compost – starts when you stop adding new stuff.
Hardly anyone gets finished compost in two or three weeks. At the two week period the compost might be broken down enough to move out of the tumbler and either mulched around your garden or left to cure for a few months. But to get crumbly compost to mix into your soil, you’ll need to wait a few more weeks.
Once you have your compost, you can turn it into your beds before planting; use to side-dress existing plants to give them a slow-release feeding; or you can use it to make compost tea to water plants with (indoor or outdoor plants). Here is a great recipe to create your own compost tea to add to your indoor garden nutrient schedule. Anything you can do to increase quality and yield and overall plant health at a low cost to you using your trash, is a great thing, right?
All my teas begin with the humus that I compost myself from the spinning compost tumbler I spoke of earlier.
This humus is approximately 45% of the tea recipe.
Worm poop also makes up roughly 45% of the tea recipe. If you’re not vermi-composting, you can buy worm castings. Using just these two ingredients you can brew a compost tea.
Place roughly 1 cup each of the humus and worm castings into a nylon-stocking; throw it into a five gallon bucket filled with rainwater, and get brewing. You will get acceptable results using just the composts. If you want to turn the volume up to 11 on the 0 – 10 scale, then you should add amendments.
In no particular order, here is the list of the dry ingredients I add in very small amounts: kelp meal, soybean meal, alfalfa meal, langbeinite, greensand, rock phosphate, leonardite, basalt, sea minerals, nutritional yeast and a dash of Yucca. (Of these, only the sea minerals, yeast and yucca are not added in when I start composting for humus).
All of the dry amendments have a purpose, which at the end of the day, comes down to providing all the macro & micro nutrients needed to grow the highest quality plants, food and medicine. When I post about composting and how I build soil, I will lay out the reasoning behind each of these dry ingredients.
Additionally, I add three wet ingredients to every batch of tea. These ingredients are worm poop juice, organic unsulphured blackstrap molasses, and organic liquid amino acids. The worm poop juice comes out of the bottom of my worm bin. Molasses is a complex carbohydrate that feeds and fosters a friendly environment for microbes. The amino acids chelate minerals like calcium, open plant ion channels allowing for the rapid uptake of nutrients, and helps adjust the pH.
Here’s the simple rule of thumb for the amount of tea you need. One cup of tea ingredients mixed together for every 4 gallons of water you have in your brewer. When I brew my 24-gallon batches I use 3 cups of tea in two separate nylon stockings for a total of 6 cups. You can extend your brews by diluting the finished tea up to a 5 to 1 ratio.
Also, When it comes to water for compost tea, do yourself & your plants a huge favor. DO NOT USE CHLORINATED MUNICIPAL WATER. Municipal water almost always contains chlorine dioxide. Chlorine dioxide is in the water to kill off bacteria & microbes that can be harmful. Only trouble is it kills of the good ones too. If you can, use collected rainwater for the best results, or go buy a water filter for your hose that filters chlorine out.
When brewing your compost tea, you need to aerate the mixture so that potentially anaerobic bacteria don’t grow in your tea. You can regularly stir your tea, or you can add an air stone to a small pump and set your tea a bubbling! Keep tea out of the sunlight, and at room temperature. After 2-3 days, your tea should be ready to apply.