Permaculture – Composting At Scale

Following up from our “re-everything” post quite a while back, we’ll take a look at various composting techniques, today.  We’re going to look at the scale of economy for each of these methods, what they can and can’t compost, and the length of time before composting is ready for use.

Composting can be as simple as tucking some unfinished salad into the mulch of a garden bed and walking away.  It can also be as complex as making a large pile that must be turned on frequency such as the 18 day method.  It can take as little time as feeding leftovers to a container of Black Soldier Fly Larvae (BSF Larvae) which is a few minutes to a day or so, or as long as several years for a Hugelkulture mound to be finished.

As we go over each technique below, we’ll discuss volume of material, frequency of attention, quality of compost produced, purpose of the technique if any, as well as where it fits by scale in any size operation.

1) Composting as or with mulch, directly in the garden or via leaf mold bags.

This technique can be as simple as taking some selective kitchen scraps out to the kitchen garden and tucking them into the mulch.  The worms and other soil life will break it down within a day or two, if not sooner, in small amounts.  It’s never more complex than bagging your lawn leaf litter in the fall, and instead of sending those bags off site, set them in a cool place outdoors to break down on their own.  By the following spring, they should be already partially composted.  This can be used as a partial mulch that will quickly become its own in place compost around the base of your productive trees, or it can be set aside to mix in with option 2 below, a little along.

2) Composting in small amounts via a commercial tumbler.

There are several compost tumblers on the market, mostly for urban gardeners to use.  These come in various sizes, but the gist is that you put your scraps into the tumbler, then give it a spin to mix it in with the existing already-started composted material.  Over time, you end up with compost that is heavily composted mixed with compost that is still pretty fresh.  If you plan to use this kind of system, it’s a good idea to get two (or have some alternative available, such as a bucket to put the scraps in for a week when you’re ready) so that you can give the tumbler a week or so to “finish off” the compost it’s been making for however long it took you to fill it up.  It still needs a tumble every day or two while it finishes off.

3) Composting in small amounts via red worms (red wrigglers.) Also known as vermicompost or vermiculture.

If a tumbler is too much hassle, and you’re only producing small amounts every day or two, you may want to consider using composting worms (red wrigglers) to create vermicompost instead.  If you’re producing enough scraps through the week, you could use both methods, since each method produces a different kind of compost you can use.  The compost in the tumbler is more useful for making your own potting mixes, for example.  The vermicompost is more useful for creating spikes of nutrition selectively for plants that aren’t doing as well.  Either of these can also be used to make a compost tea, which can be sprayed as a foliar feed, or injected into a drip line feed to give all of your plants a boost of nutrition.

Red worms also love coffee grounds, so if you have a love for coffee, this is a good place to drop them off.

4) Composting in small amounts via BSF Larvae.

The big problem with all of the above methods for a small family’s waste production is that they can’t handle things like fish or red meat.  If you want to compost those, you can use a different critter, instead.  Black Soldier Fly Larvae are voracious feeders.  The adult fly has only one purpose, which is to breed and lay more eggs.  The adults don’t even have a mouth, so they cannot transmit disease to humans.  They also put off a pheromone smell which repels pest flies such as the common house fly.  The larvae are self harvesting, so when they reach a certain size and are finished being mostly-mouths, they start crawling up whatever incline they can to get out of the pit they’re in.  This means a well constructed container can be used to catch the “ripe” ones ready to be used as feed for chickens, fish, or other animals in your system.  And they are capable of eating those meats that would otherwise rot and turn rancid due to your compost not getting hot enough on its own.

Again, you can pair these with red worms if you like.  The waste material produced by BSF Larvae is perfectly fine to feed to the red wrigglers in the vermicompost system, as long as you don’t add to much of the fluids, and drown them out.

5) Composting in larger amounts via mushroom inoculation.

Mushrooms can be used to compost anything from pounds of coffee grounds, to old newspapers, and even firewood that maybe wasn’t sheltered as well as it should have been.  It’s a great way to deal with heavy toxins in a pond system, as mentioned in the “re-everything” post, and the break downs for non toxic materials can make some of the best spongy material to add to a compost mix.  If you do run your coffee through a mushroom farm (for example, oyster mushrooms,) you can still put the leavings in with the red worms, if you so desire.

6) Composting in larger amounts via piles.  This can be 18 day method or longer.

The compost piles often need turning, but a few methods don’t do this.  Piling leaf litter, lawn clippings, small twigs in a cage with a few layers of aged manure and/or fast decaying green matter (such as comfrey leaves) can be left alone to compost in place.  This can be planted in directly, if you won’t be turning it, as long as the cage allows good air flow.

Making a pile of browns (carbon rich material such as wood chips, fall leaves, and so on) with greens (the nitrogen rich manures and green leaves) and watering it down makes a decent pile.  To speed up the process, we need to “turn” the pile every few days, and keep it wet.  The core of a large pile like this will heat up as the pile composts, and this will accelerate the compost process greatly.

7) Composting in very large amounts via Hugelkulture mounds.

Hugelkulture mounds are built by laying logs of wood, branches, twigs, and such on the ground in a long line.  Often this is curved in multiple ways, and several mounds are done together.  These are NOT on contour as done with swales.  This shaping is to help cut the wind so that wind erosion is lessened.  The piles of wood are interspersed with “pockets” of manure, straw, and so on, and the whole thing is covered with dirt.  The pile should be a couple of feet to several feet tall, but not any taller than a man’s height.  Small limbs are often “stapled” into the sides of the mount to give it structure, and a cover crop is seeded to the mount to give it some root stability.  This mound can be planted into, and will take several years to produce soil, but the amount of soil produced in the end is worth the wait.  This will later be spread over other areas on the land, and new mounds created for the next batch to function.  During the soil creation process, the first few years the soil will be less nitrogen available, as the dead wood absorbs much of the nitrogen, but once the wood is saturated, the plants on the mound will suddenly thrive as the wood also acts much like a sponge, and water will be better retained.  It is best to plant annuals and short term perennials, initially, since the end goal is to spread the soil these mounds create onto other parts of the property after a few years.

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