The art of composting – continued

You would think the first project after completing my PDC would be to implement some new concept I learnt about, like a jet stove, a wicking bed for those thirsty blue berries or maybe a worm farm. But no, apart from fixing a popped water pipe and watering and feeding some Seasol to the resulting thirsty treelets, circumstances had me jumping boots and all into the compost heap. But then, we did learn that feeding the soil and composting are both very important.

It was as if the moon, stars and Saturn were all aligned. The under-counter compost bin was full, we had a heap of cardboard, a lot of green weeds and despite the warm weather of late, a small section of lawn needed mowing too – all catalysts for doing some work on the ¾ heap that was desperately waiting for some action to happen.

In essence we use a cold composting approach (mesophilic composting), not because we want to, but primarily because we add material to the compost heap in drips and drabs as they become available. In addition, it is very dry because the compost heap is partly under a huge gum tree and there is a lot of wind blowing through there. Besides, turning it is a massive labour-intensive exercise, and there are always higher priority jobs calling for attention. Our first attempt also contained a large portion of dry Eucalyptus twigs and leaves, which didn’t help at all. The effect of all that together was that our first heap produced a dry brown groundy substance – basically a topsoil only slightly more organic than our hard clay soil. However, we have used that “topsoil” very productively over at Dreamland for planting groundcovers as well as for planting beds with corn, sunflowers and pumpkins (we added mushroom compost to these beds) and they are all growing well.

In a previous post (with a very romantic title) I also described how we were now adding more organic and damp material, like more household green waste, coffee grinds from our church’s coffee shop, more grass clippings and so forth to increase the nitrogen content. We also regularly dose it with bursts of grey water. I have also added corrugated iron sheets to two of the sides of one of the bays to protect the contents from drying out.

So, I layered all the “new” material on the ¾ heap, added two buckets of Valerian biodynamic preparation to rev it up a bit, watered it thoroughly until it seeped out the bottom, and then I started to top it with the old hay mulch, dry weeds and other stuff lying on top of the second heap – the one where we started using the greywater.

Compost - current heap

Latest heap ready to work its thing. No apologies here – my compost heaps definitely do not qualify for garden & home awards!

Great was my excitement when I discovered much darker and damp compost deeper down on the second heap, under that top layer of covering. With the aid of the greywater and the other changes we have made, it has formed much more proper compost. I still had some of the “topsoil” compost in the first bay, which I could then use to compare to the second bay’s compost. The difference was remarkable – we are now generating compost and not dry topsoil anymore! And it was formed in much less time than the first batch – in about six months as opposed to the two years that the first batch took.

Compost - old and new

This photo clearly shows our first attempt (front) vs our second grey water infused attempt (behind). Progress! But more work to do….

We covered the second heap (with the darker compost) with left-over weed mat, while leaving the greywater feeder pipes in there, in order to try and keep it damp and maybe bake a bit warmer. We do not have it 100% covered, but that was all the weed mat we had lying around. If it works, we can always get more weed mat or proper tarpaulin to fulfil that function in future.

Compost - covered

Precious compost covered ready for use

So while the third heap is now doing its greywater-fuelled work – I wish I could get a bobcat in there to turn it regularly! – I have started a new heap in the first bay, which will be greywater-fuelled and better fed. I also have a sheet of corrugated metal I want to use on the edge to protect it from the dry summer winds, but now there is a little bluetongue nesting under the sheet metal, so I dare not touch it. Maybe I can scrounge a sheet or two from my neighbour, who has some lying around, to try and reduce the drying out.

Compost - new heap with greywater

New compost heap started, with the first of many greywater drip irrigation pipes in place

Lessons learnt

I can’t say this enough times – you have to adapt your compost system’s design to your local climate and circumstances:

  • For us the protection against the dry winds is more important than enabling aeration – it gets enough air through there already. I’ve now realised that any measure to keep moisture in is useful.
  • With such dry summers as we have, adding the greywater feeders has made a big difference. We can’t afford to waste our saved-up rainwater on the compost, even with compost being so important to soil health and organic growth. We need that rainwater for the fruit and vegetables. So pumping that greywater a good 40m to the compost heap has been a very good move.

I’m looking forward to monitoring and reporting on the third heap’s progress in a few months. The saga continues….






About (207 Articles)
My name is Martin Rennhackkamp, I now live happily in Lara, Victoria, Australia with my wife, two children and two dogs. My interests, apart from the obvious Organic, Biodynamic and Permaculture Gardening and Farming, include sustainable living, surfing, horse-riding, a wide variety of music, dancing, nature, birds, reading, Christianity and a few other things which I never get to...

2 Comments on The art of composting – continued

  1. Great to read about someone else locally getting into Permaculture in a practical way. That’s a big compost pile! Yes, you are right about the need to keep moisture in. I’d suggest to make the overall area smaller; but in multiple bays, so when full, you move to the next one and fill that.

    Also, I know it’s extra work, but it does pay dividends in the quality (and work ability) of the finished compost…. Try to chop the weeds up first, with a spade, run over it with the lawnmower or put through a chipper. Although what you’ve done is totally fine, it just takes longer to break down into a usable state.

  2. Hi Goshen, thank for yo comment. You are 100% right – I should wheel the chipper out there – it is a bit of a labour issue. At the moment dumping stuff on the compost pile is always the last step of some process – it should be the beginning step of a new process 🙂 Smaller bins would definitely be a bit more handleable – then I can actually turn them over. It may also help with moisture retention and to generate more heat (I have since acquired a compost thermometer and the temperature is disappointingly low.) I’m actually thinking if taking the feeder pipes out of the heaps too, because they make turning so difficult, and maybe just “blast” the grey water from the top. Great learning curve 🙂

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