Friday, August 6, 2010

Composting 101

A couple weeks ago the local newspaper came out to do a story on us, and we knew it wouldn't do to be lounging around all day sipping lemonade under the big oaks, not that lounging has been on the agenda this summer. Plan A was to build a portable chicken coop, but we're currently researching what kind of portable coop we want to build. Jeff with Walnut Hill Farm suggested we build something on an old hay wagon and get some electric feather net fencing. Both are easy to move around the pasture. He also mentioned that at the scale we're thinking of going with poultry, it's just as easy to get 40 chickens as it is to 20. You put two scoops of feed in the feeder instead of one, which isn't that big a deal. So as we work on the inside of the house, we're thinking and searching for deals on used hay wagons.

But I digress. Since we're in think mode regarding the chicken housing, we decided to build our compost bin that day from the pallets I scored at the big box store. It's a really, really simple project and seriously cheap if you can finagle the pallets for free. Ideally, compost bins should be about 3'x3'x3', but most pallets are a bit bigger than that. However, when you account for the vertical pallets sitting perpendicular on top of the horizontal one, it takes you closer to that optimum size.

The pallets can either be nailed together as they are or disassembled, as Byron did in the back, creating the horizontal slats. The front is simply chicken wire, which we hooked onto screws so it can be easily removed when need be, and the top a piece of plywood. The back is slightly higher so the plywood slopes toward the front, allowing the rain to run off. We made two for "cooking" and one active bin. As you can see, all we have right now is an active bin in which we throw our scraps.

Composting can be done a number of ways. Some people compost EVERYTHING (including, say, the unusable parts of slaughtered chickens) and some people stick to uncooked veggie scraps, eggshells, brush, leaves, and poop from herbivores. We're kind of in the second camp right now. There is a bit of a science to successful composting, and it's important to have a combination of all the elements I've listed above. We also wet the compost down at times and turn it to allow air to enter and help break down the organic matter. The slatted pallets help with air flow, too.
Compost is done when you have something that looks like rich soil, or "black gold." It can be worked into your garden and returns nutrients the the soil that the plants deplete through the growing season. Making your own compost is probably the easiest, cheapest way to fertilize your garden.

Since we don't yet have our own animals, we're looking for a trustworthy source of horse or cow manure, in between hanging drywall and keeping up with baking and canning. If you have a source for manure, keep in mind that cow manure tends to have less weed seeds in it (multiple stomachs will do that), so using horse manure in your compost means you may have to let it cook a little longer to ensure that the weed seeds are killed off.

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