Chemicals in Compost

While it should not prevent a person from composting, people should be aware of the possibility of recycling pesticides and herbicides in their compost. This might happen if the materials you are composting have had recent heavy applications of these chemicals. For example, people have spread compost on their garden and then noticed that some of the broad leave plants were not doing as well as expected. Turns out, they had recently put a heavy dose of a broad leaf herbicide on their lawn, mowed the lawn and added the grass to their composter. When they put the compost on the garden, they  had unknowingly recycled some of the herbicide into their garden. This is an extreme example but you can see the point.  The use of chemicals in our environment should always give us concern and that includes watching what goes into our compost.

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Compost Bins and Tumblers do not work!

From people new to composting, I too frequently have heard them say… “my composter is not working, maybe I should buy yours,” or “your composter does not work, maybe I should buy someone else’s.” Well they are right, composters do not work… only microorganisms work (compost). It is not about what composter you build or buy, it is about microbiology. This is not about opinions, it is about science. Whether you create a compost pile, build a composter, buy a bin, tumbler, or put the material in the trunk of your car… if you create a healthy environment for the microorganisms you will get effective composting… if not… you won’t.

A composter is just a container for material and a tool to help the person composting create the most favorable environment they can for microorganisms to work. Doing that sometimes becomes an art but it must still be based on science. The design of a composter only matter to the degree it makes it easier to create a favorable environment for microorganisms and thereby encourages people to compost.

For example the Urban Compost Tumbler (UCT) was specifically designed to bring the best features in a tool into play in a single small batch composter. It is in fact the best tool available in providing the opportunity to create a good environment for microorganisms. However like any composting effort, it is only effective to the extent a person follows the rules for the care and feeding of microorganisms. The UCT and other composters just give you a tool to do that… but it is still up to you.

Understanding the type of microorganisms involved in composting is important because they will really affect the outcome of your composting efforts. There are two basic types: aerobes and anaerobes. The most efficient are aerobes as they work much faster and harder than the lazy anaerobes. However they are much picker about their environment and if conditions are not just right, they either do not develop or they die off leaving you with just the anaerobes. The anaerobes will live and work through almost anything but can take a much long time to get the job done. The key to rapid composting then is creating a healthy environment for the aerobes.

I’m going to round off the corners a little and summarize but here is what you must have to create a favorable environment for the aerobes microorganisms:

1) Material, 2) Moisture, 3) Temperature, 4) Oxygen, 5) Time

1) Material…Material is made of up of carbon (Brown stuff) and nitrogen (Green stuff).  Nitrogen gives the microorganisms energy and carbon is what they eat. While it can vary based on the material, a 25:1 to 30:1 (C:N) ratio of carbon to nitrogen is considered a good starting point. Particle size is also important as the smaller the size of the material, the more surface the microorganisms can get to. Give the aerobes too much energy (nitrogen) and you can burn them out pretty fast and don’t give them enough food (carbon) and you starve them to death while degrading the quality of your compost. Mixing a variety of materials will typically enhance compost quality.

2) Moisture… This is primarily the transport mechanism for microorganisms but also softens material. Not enough moisture and the microorganisms can’t get around in the material to grow and work. Too much moisture and they get lost or drown. Compost material should be damp as a wrung-out sponge and feel wet, but you should not be able to squeeze out water. Use rain water if possible when you need to add moisture to your compost. Municipal water is fine but remember it is treated to kill microorganisms. Those chemicals are in small quantities and will evaporate but something to think about.

3) Temperature… There are two temperatures to consider in composting; ambient (outside) and composting (material) temperatures. Once the outside temperature drops below 50 degree F composting really begins to slow down and when it gets below 40 it is practically stopped.

Temperature of the compost material itself is important and is a good indicator as to the health of your aerobes microorganisms. Heat generated in the composting process can (and should) easily reach 130 digress F and is produced by the activity of the aerobes. The initial period of heating my only last a few hours to a day or so but is import. The faster the aerobes are consuming the nitrogen and eating the carbon, the hotter the compost becomes. Hence, if your compost stays cold all the time, the aerobes are not happy and will let the anaerobes take over a lot of the work so you better not be in a hurry to get compost. Also compost that heats up properly not only composts faster but is higher quality as it can help kill some of the weed seeds, root structures, and pathogens.

Another important fact that a lot of people do not realize has to do with mass. To get effective heating you must have a critical mass of material. In general material mass with less than 9 to 10 cu ft in an enclosed composter are going to have a harder time heating. Some of the composters on the market today are less than 7 cu ft in capacity and simply are not going to heat well at all. They will still compost but you are not going to get enough mass to really heat the material.

4) Oxygen…The anaerobes don’t need oxygen but that is why they have little energy and are lazy and slow. The aerobes are like you and me; they must have oxygen to work and play well. When you put your material together (your recipe) and start composting it can take only a few hours to burn the oxygen out of the core of the material. When this happens the aerobes sit back and wait until you get them more oxygen. This makes aeration of your compost critical if you want to keep these guys working. Remember, their working is where you get your composting heat. No oxygen… no work… no heat. In large compost piles they frequently drive aeration tubes into the core to help aerate. The Urban Compost Tumbler has a built in aeration tube in the center for this purpose.

5) Time…There needs to be a qualification here as to how long it takes to produce compost. You hear many composter manufactures, including us, making claims they can product compost in a couple weeks or whatever. The qualification is that you can call it compost and you can spread it on the ground and use it but it is not fully matured compost. The concept behind the backyard compost bins and tumblers I think follows the 80/20 rule. Get 80% done in the composter and let the last 20% finish in the ground, container or pot. With the proper material mix you can product compost in a couple weeks (80% done) if you understand that it could take the better part of a year to “finish” the last 20% in the ground. I think this is a great idea because to effectively compost at home and cut the waste stream to landfills we must be able to compost in higher volumes than waiting up to a year for “finished compost” in each batch. Turns out, this is works great.

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The BEST Composter to Buy!

OK… so there is no BEST composter or composting approach that fits everyone but there are some BEST choices or direction to go based on several factors. People’s environment, available materials, budget, and (the biggest issue) willingness to spend time doing it will dictate the BEST composter or approach for you. Let me start with the bottom line and then add my qualifications for my comments and opinions.

 1. Got time to spend, some land space, no local restrictions, lots of material, pest and odor control is not a big issue… just dig a 4’ x 8’ x 1’ trench, fill 4’ high, cover and aerate it weekly and you have the BEST approach.

 2. Live in an urban environment, maybe lack the space, have neighbors, kids, dogs and whatever to contend with…. one of the many compost bins available will be your BEST (or good enought) composter.

 3. Same as #2 but you don’t have time to mess with it. You don’t mind spending a little extra for convenience, keeping it clean and simple, yet works well. A compost tumbler is BEST for you.

 If you fit in category #1 above don’t waste your time reading this, just go do it and enjoy. For the rest of us who are typically living in an urban environment #1 is not really an option. Many municipalities and housing associations have banned open composting as it can create problems including pest and odor control issues. Also sitting on my patio sipping lemon aid (or whatever) on a warm summer day next to a compost pile just doesn’t do it for me. The idea of watching my grandkids and pets play in the compost is also something I don’t even want to think about.

 There are many articles written on why adding compost to our soil is so important for everything from growing quality vegetables, herbs, having more colorful flowers to reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides to preventing run off… so I will assume you already know this or you would not have read this far about composters. Another important value of composting at home is to recycle things as close to the source as you can. That is, stop transporting it to landfills and taking up space there. Waste stream reduction of organic material is becoming a big deal in a lot of communities… and you haven’t seen anything yet because all mid to large municipalities will be making this a big deal in the near future.

 While many people have been composting their yard and garden material they often forget their kitchen also can produce a lot of material in the form of garbage or what is being pushed down a garbage disposal for our wastewater treatment plants to deal with. When you start taking stuff from your kitchen and mixing it in your compost the variety of material usually improves the overall quality of your compost. However even when being careful to include only vegetable material, it frequently will start attracting more unwanted attention from all sorts of pests.

 One of the more troublesome pests includes rats. This is why in an urban setting open composting is really not a good idea unless you manage it very closely. When you buy a compost bin be sure it has a good base/floor and does not just sit on bare ground. Some of the cheaper bins don’t have a floor and rats, raccoons, possums, dogs, etc… will dig right into them. Here is where the compost tumblers offer more protection as they are elevated off the ground, stopping, deterring or at least slowing down most pests.

 In the #2 option above, instead of buying a premade compost bin, there are many plans and approaches to building your own. If done right I question that building your own is actually much cheaper although I’m sure more rewarding. By right I mean to make it fully enclosed and pest resistant. Also avoiding chemically treated woods (so plan on rebuilding every few years) and metals that will rust out. Many people plan on building their own compost bin but just never seem to get to it… so they are not composting. If that is you, just buy a bin and get it over with and get rid of that guilt.

 I am a little opinionated on compost tumbler and here is way. I think a lot of people do not compost because they think it will take up too much time, is messy and smelly, and they don’t want their nicely landscaped yard with a blemish. They not only don’t own a pitch fork or tools to turn compost… they don’t want them either. If they have a choice on a nice Saturday morning of playing a round of golf or turning compost in their backyard…. guess what? That was my guess too so we specifically designed the Urban Compost Tumbler for these people because it is probably the only way they will ever get into composting. And it’s true… I don’t own a pitch fork … don’t give me one for Christmas … and I am still working on my golf swing.

Now that I’m pitching compost tumblers for some of us, there is a CAUTION. Size does matter so read on to find out why. Over simplifying a little, you need five (5) things to get quality compost; 1) a good carbon/nitrogen material mix, 2) moisture, 3) oxygen, 4) heat and 5) time. You can stuff some organic matter in a tin can and it will compost (rot) given enough time but it will probably not be quality compost. While no secret in the composting community, a lot of people do not appreciate the value and importance of HEAT. Heat from composting activity breaks material down faster while helping to destroy things like weed seeds, pervasive root structures and some pathogens that would be nice to do without if you can.

Assuming you have a good brown and green mix (30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen) properly moistened (wet but can’t squeeze out water); you get heat from MATERIAL MASS and OXYGEN feeding the microorganisms. Making it easier to aerating material and getting oxygen in the mix is an important advantage of compost tumblers. They make it easier thereby encouraging people to aerate their compost more. But all the mixing in the world is not going to help a lot if you have insufficient mass to allow material to heat up and maintain it long enough to do any real good.

This is not about opinion but microbiology and physics as composting is about microorganisms and how they work (or don’t work). Keeping these little guys happily working away is where you get the heat. The harder they work… the hotter it gets. If the temperature is below 90 degrees they get lazy so composting slows and above 140 degrees they have over done it and start dying off.  Most composting experts will tell you that a compost pile with less than 10 cubic feet in mass will not heat effectively. I think the benefit of many of the fully enclosed compost bins and tumblers is that they help insulate the compost and hold the heat in far better than just an open pile so a little smaller mass can still heat. However as you drop below 9 cubic feet the odds are the heating ability is dropping rapidly and as you fall below 7 cubic feet, forget it. See… bigger is better. You can find at lot of inexpensive compost tumblers in places like Lowes, Home Depot, Costco, Sam’s Club and many more places I’m sure but they are typically less than 7 cubic feet in capacity. They are less expensive and maybe even cute, but much less effective than the larger tumblers. Tumble them until your arms fall off, but they just do not have the mass necessary to create and maintain enough heat to make much difference. They will still compost, you just won’t get as good a quality or as fast as well heated compost. There is a big difference between cold and hot composting.

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White worms in my compost bin

Question:

I have a question we purchased your UCT-7, I have never had an enclosed compost bin and we purchased it to speed up composing.  But the other day I opened it to check the batch and there were these small white worms all over and I mean all over the inside, they are not maggots.  I must admit it’s kinda gross, what are these and will the cause problems if I use the compost in a vegetable garden?

My answer:

If they are not maggots then they are probably enchytraid worms also known as pot worms. People doing vermicomposters are really glad to see them typically because they help break things down and are considered a health part of composting. The problem for some is keeping them alive and working. They should not cause any problem I know of by adding them to your soil later. You can go online and check out what others are saying about these little guys.

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