Backyard Chickens : Ramial Woodchip Composting

So in our new home (well, we’ve been here almost three years, but still) we are keeping 9 laying hens and, as usual, I am working to upgrade the soils to what I had in the old home where I could take a garden stake and drive it in almost 1′ by hand due to the stupid rich topsoil I had built up.    I like to keep a minimum 2000 or so sq ft of ground under cultivation between the annual vege gardens and the permaculture guilded trees.  And to build up that area I add 1-2″ of compost annually, plus mulches.  That means I need 6-12 cu. YARDS of compost a year.  That’s a bit silly, even for me, so I shoot for 5 yards a year and focus on the annual beds and any new guilds and just heavily mulch the rest.

But I also travel 25-50% of the time now, and unlike my old job I just get two days off (I don’t know how people do this!) vs. the 3.5 in my old gig.   To help me hit my soil building goals and still deal with the reality of my new work-life (im)balance I stack functions onto the chicken coop and have added two composting systems to the runs.   I’ll post about my simple ‘traditional’ composting run in a bit, but today I’d like to share my Ramial Woodchip Composting run since I spent the day playing in it.

Now in any good permaculture function stack it should be difficult to tell what is the true purpose of the system- and this run qualifies in spades.  Is it a ‘no’ work Chicken Feeder?  Is it a Worm Farm?  Is it a Composting System?  YES, yes it is.    In my previous gardens, I noticed that the very best soils were often found UNDER my wood chip paths– the bottom layer of the wood chips would seemingly melt away as the worms and fungus ate away at the chips, and the compost was of exceptional quality- super light and friable due to the high lignin content of the wood chips aiding the aggregatization of the carbon. I’d harvest my paths annually- laboriously sifting and forking away, but I’d always wanted to recreate it in a more purpose built system.  And now I had my chance.

The system is pretty simple- it’s just a modification/intensification of a wood chipped chicken run.  Every 1-2 months I get a trailer load of chips (1.5 cu. yards- any family sedan can tow that) that are very fresh and from a living tree (Ramial-you’ll know it because they will be hot composting almost instantly) and pile them ~1′ thick in a small fenced in area off the chicken coop.   Ramial chips (full of green leaves and smells like sap) are important as they breakdown faster and feed the worms almost immediately- dead and dry chips take a month or two for the fungi to break them down so the worms get interested.

Nothing fancy, I just string 25′ of 24″ garden fence up around the coop door and dump the chips in a wheel barrow load at a time- the chickens will spread them out. I let this sit for 3-7 days (or until I get around to it) so they hot compost briefly and the worms start to work up in them.

Then I start to let the chickens (we have 9 dual purpose chooks- they are layers only and pets that we’d never eat) in for a few hours to all day depending on weather and if I’m around.  The birds express their ‘chicken-ness’ by scratching and pooping, and the worms express their ‘worm-ness’ by breeding like crazy and eating/pooping their weight daily.  After a week or so I start forking the chips over now and then-just a few forks here and there as I pass by which helps the chickens get into the worms, and gets the top layer of chips rotated into the worm fest.  After 4-6 weeks the pile looks like the picture above– the large chips are still there, but the ‘fines’ and all the green shredded material is basically humus and worm poo now.   That’s pretty fast, aided by the stirring and shatting of the chookens, and the close ground contact maximising worm habitat over 200 sq ft.  At this point I do one of three things depending on my needs.  I either fork the mix onto my perennial guilds as is or if I want to seperate the fines and humus from the large material I sift it.


My sifter is designed to fit over 2 recycling bins that I got at a giveaway (dead useful things, those).  If I don’t really need compost NOW, then I throw 3-4 forkfuls into the sifter every time I walk past and the chicken happily jump in to scratch and eat out all the worms.  The fines fall through the screen (3/8″ hardware cloth) And I dump the large pieces back out or into a bucket to add to a fruit tree guild- takes 5 minutes 2x a day.  Or If I really need compost- I do it myself with a fork.  I can get 2-3 wheel barrow loads of sifted compost this way every 2 months.


Meanwhile, the chickens get 25-100% (depending on where in the chip cycle I am- the worms take time to breed up) their protein needs from the worms and macro soil fauna they get from scratching in the chips.  Plus I get tons of high carbon compost (10-15 7 cu ft barrow loads per year) and all the chip mulch I need.

This compost is quite heavy on the Carbon end- PERFECT mixed with forest soil for starting trees and as fall applications in the vege gardens, but it will starve annuals of nitrogen if added in in the Spring or Summer.  So in that time frame, I either stockpile it, or more typically use it as a Carbon layer in my hot composting for seedy greens that need to be nuked (vs just run through the main chicken composting run). Weeds tend to get away from me with my travel schedule so I always seem to need to do a ‘hospital compost pile’ in late June.


And it works perfect for that- above is a 1 cu yard pile of Canda Thistle (GODS do I hate them) shredded -yes that’s an obscene amount of thistle-and mixed .5″ of Ramial compost to 3-4″ layer of thistle shreddings.

I am quite fond of this set up as it spreads the work over time- Other than the day I load/unload the trailer, the system never takes more than ~10 minutes a day several days a week and provides the chickens with a great source of animal protein, and keeps them entertained.  Our egg production goes up a bit when we have them on this system and we seem to have even oranger yolks.  Plus we always have hundreds of easily found worms for fishing or to prime a sheet mulch.

Simple, multi function, and labor saving with mega outputs of fertility and food.

Be the Change.

-Rob

Cranberry Pecan Bread -aka “CRACK”

Thought I would share the recipie which is essentially a variant to the No-Knead Bread Recipes.  Couldn’t be easier and it is unbelievably delicious.

  • 2 cups room temp water in a good sized mixing bowl
  • Add a short 1/2 tsp of dry yeast
  • let sit for 3-4 minutes for the yeast to dissolve and then stir until water is cloudy
  • add 4 cups flour mix (see below)
  • 1 heaping TSP of sea salt
  • heaping 1/2 cup of chopped/halved pecans
  • heaping 1/2 cup of dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup hulled sunflower seeds
  • OPTIONAL – 2 Tablespoons honey
  • Stir until dough is sticky – should be much wetter than usual bread dough – add water as needed
  • Cover with damp towel and let sit for 12-18 hours
  • Roll onto well floured surface and press the CO2 out of the dough.
  • Form a ball and let the dough ‘rest’ for 15 minutes
  • press the dough out again and form into loaf and place into rising bowl – seam side down
  • let rise for 90 minutes
  • Preheat oven to 450 F and place covered container (pyrex, dutch oven, bread cloche) inside to heat up as well
  • After dough has risen for 2 hours- total-, and oven is at 450 , remove baking dish to stovetop and roll dough into the baking dish so that the seam side is up.
  • Cover baking dish and return to oven
  • Bake 30 minutes covered
  • Remove cover and reduce heat to 425 for 10-15 minutes
  • Remove bread when crust is hard and deep golden brown
  • Let bread cool for as long as you can (10 minutes preferred, but I never make it that long!)
  • Enjoy!

Flour Mix: I use a 25% whole wheat mix:: 3 cups white + 1 cup whole wheat +  3 tbsp wheat germ + 1/4 cup wheat bran.  I also add 1/2 cup ground flax.  Mix very well with a spoon, etc.  I keep a large container of this mix on the counter and use it for much of my baking – from pancakes to bread to pizza dough.  As my kids and wife are all vegetarian, the extra protein and fats from the flax is good assurance of their health (we spend heavily on health ASSURANCE not just health INSURANCE) and the white flour ensures the bread is light enough to form a good crumb.

Pit and Mound Gardening

Hang out in sustainability circles for any length of time and you will notice a distinct antipathy towards traditional vegetable gardening. It ruins the soil; it is dependent on inputs; it eschews perrenial plants. It is un-natural. And in most cases that is all true.  But there are some real truths that this attitude can gloss over.  First, annual vegetable gardens are wicked productive – easily a pound or more per sq ft.  Second, the vast majority of us are used to eating food grown in annual vegetable gardens and food habits are extremely difficult to change – they are a integral part of our living culture and that changes slowly;  I am much more likely to eat potatoes than skirret or sunchokes, no matter what the permaculture books tell me.  Third, its gonna take YEARS for your multi story permaculture forest garden to start producing much of anything.  For certain, eventually it will outpace your annual gardens in productivity, but that is a decade or more out.  Until then, the 25#’s of harvest per tomato plant is gonna make you and your larder a lot happier.

So whats a suburban homesteader to do?  I’ve read thousands of pages on sustainable vegetable gardening – fantastic books from John Jeavons, Elliot Coleman, and many more that have inspired and intrigued me to the possibilities of vegetable gardens.  I’ve also read thousands of pages on ecology and soil science that contradict so very much of what those masters and mistresses have to say; tilling is very rough on the soil.  I want to have healthy soil, but I also need and intend to have a large canning garden for years to come.  Mulch Gardening like Ruth Stout’s “No – Work” garden and Lee Reich’s Weedless Gardening makes a great step towards integrating the two philosophies by removing much of the tilling.  Word to the wise though on this – Ruth Stout gardened conventionally for over 7 seasons before switching to no-till.  It takes a long time to build up your soils and you also need to irradiate persistent perennial weeds like quack/couch grass, sow thistle, and the like if you have them on site.  No till gardening is a journey, not a destination!

Bolstered by some impressive results from 2009, I mulched heavily this year and was very impressed with the reduced weed and irrigation inputs.  But the garden was still flat and that bothered me.  So at the market garden I tried a new technique that I want to explore Whole Hog in 2011.  Essentially it is based on a side bar blurb in Chapter 12 of David Blume’s epic opus Alcohol Can Be a Gas. Now a book on homebrewed energy revolutions is not a place one would expect to have an epiphany on vegetable gardening, but David is a die hard permaculturist so its all connected.  His idea was to dig trenches under your paths, fill them with mulch, and then use these mulch paths to breed up trillions of red worms to function stack a “wasted” space in the garden.  This idea worked wonders at the farm – with the beds I used this technique out producing my conventional beds by 20-50%.  As the season went on, I gave it more and more thought and always paid special attention to those two beds – digging and poking around as I tended to them.    My findings in short were these:

  • Mulched Trenches improved drainage -essentially turning the planted areas into raised beds
  • Mulched Trenches improved water retention – the mulch acted like a sponge, holding water for weeks and weeks between rains keeping a higher water table within reach of the annuals
  • As hoped, Mulched Trenches foster just ridiculous amounts of fungus.  My hope was that even with the soil intrusion in the beds from potato harvest the fungus would live on in the paths to re-innoculate the soil for the next season.  The mycelium was often inches thick and brilliant white to the naked eye.  Bingo!
  • Thanks to the moisture and fungus, the Mulched Trenches are havens for earthworms, even if you don’t plant worms in them, they will be there soon enough.
  • Within only 3 months, a 1/8″ (3 mm) layer of humus formed under the straw that mulched the potatoes and was clearly evident to the naked eye when harvesting.  That is very impressive soil building in such a short time.  Now, this was on incredibly microbially rich soil that has been farmed organically for 20 years so your results may vary, but it is no wonder why straw mulch gardening works.  You are truly “uppening” your soils!

All of this really coalesced with the epiphany that  my Mulched Trenches essentially mimic “pit and mound” topography in old growth forests and were creating all kinds of interesting micro climates for soil fauna and plant roots to exploit.  Wait a minute – the reviled and ecologically barren annual vegetable garden was starting to sound a lot like permaculture!  I was on to something.

With that in mind, I set out to integrate these learnings into my freshly “pimped out” garden as I prepped it for the 2011 season.   The layout will be a 1′ Mulched Trench on each side of 30″ growing beds.  Now that is a lot of path, and purists will give me hell for that.  Whatever!  To manage a 1100 sq ft garden, be a husband, father, and still work a full time job and do all my other projects if I can’t get into my garden easily and efficiently it will turn into a mess faster than you can say “fundamentalist”.   I plant in straight lines – it may not be efficient in space, but it is incredibly efficient in time and labor – we need to factor those things into our plans too.  Mandalas are great, but they’re not for me.  While digging the trenches the soil was piled up onto the 30″ growing beds – mimicking a “double dug” bed.  On top of this I applied .5-1″ of compost and topped that with 4″ of straw with a nod to Ruth Stout.  Here are some pics:

1' deep and about 1' wide - basically dig a trench with a spade and pile it onto your garden bed. As these paths are to be semi permanent I pulled some lines to keep me honest.

Once the trench was dug and emptied, I filled it with chips. I like to use fresh chips with leaves in it if I can - the nitrogen helps to feed the soil ecosystem. Tamp the chips well (walk on them) and mound them slightly as they settle. I aimed to keep them about level with the top of the growing beds. As the trenches are 3/4 full, rake the growing beds flat to get them back to 30" width and then top the trenches off. Figure a cu ft per running foot - these beds are 32' (9.7 m) long so it takes over a cu yard each.

After the growing beds are raked flat, I put down a .5" (13mm) layer of compost which is enough to cover the soil. More is better, but the most important thing is to inoculate the bed with soil bacteria which will munch slowly on the straw all winter and add some humus.

At this point the beds are built and the straw is laid down.  That is all pretty straight forward.  But before I sign off I would like to show some examples of just WHY this is so important:

This was from one of the chipped paths from this summer's garden. These chips were only 4 months old - just LOOK at that fungal growth!

This is also  my answer to any concerns about “locking up nitrogen” by adding this much carbon to the soil.  The fungus is working like crazy to break it down, plus the soil in the growing beds is normal and the nitrogen concerns will only be in the paths or just next to them.  And once the plant roots start exchanging sugars with the path fungus the soil economy will go bonkers to the benefit of your pantry through increased yields.  Just so you understand that this wasn’t an isolated  shot her are some more pics — all from the same row!

Almost 4" thick - the fungal net was already reaching well below the chip layer. Again - this is 4 months or less of growth!

These fungal nets capture nutrients and water reducing leaching and feed worms (see him?) and other soil fauna. Fantastic!

I am an unabashed Soil Geek, but these discoveries had me beside myself, jumping, hollering, and dragging my wife and kids out to see the bounty growing under my paths. Wow.

So there it is, my Pit and Mound gardening method.  Essentially I am taking straw mulch gardening -the tomatoes and other big plants will grow right into this mulch- and taking it up a notch with a healthy dose of soil ecology by fostering fungus, worms and all their buddies in the “permanent” paths.  This also reduces labor by increasing the gardens ability to self irrigate by essentially creating contour swales next to each bed.

Time will tell how much of an impact this will have.  But I do know that some of the best soils on my property are found UNDER my wood chip paths, humus is formed from carbon after all.  Any question about the efficacy of fungus to make soils is erased by going out to a nearby woods and rummaging under the leaves – its amazing.  In addition to the paths, the growing beds now more precisely mimic a natural soil structure – beneath my garden is the sub soil, then a foot of top soil, the the “duff” layer of partially decomposed material in the compost I applied, and topped with raw organic matter in the mulch.  EXACTLY the same strata you will see in a prairie or forest.   Its still a veggie bed, but we’re a helluva lot closer to building more sustaining system as it holds water, suppresses weeds, and builds soil and soil ecosystems.

Be the Change!

-Rob

Midden L’eau Chaude: The Big Build

Load #2 being dumped for a total of about 17 cu yards (13 cu m). Let's do this.

Last summer I built the Methane Midden which was inspired by Jean Pain’s epic work in 1970 France.    It was big, it was a little insane, and ultimately it didn’t work. Don’t get me wrong – it made a syck amount of compost, but it failed to meet my goals of also producing methane and hot water.  Time to do better.  The second Midden will focus on Hot Water (L’eau Chaude) with a dedicated heat exchanger and will be even larger.  Not only that, but I wanted to learn how much material it truly takes to make one of these so I also sourced all the biomass myself from two local farms, dropping literally hundreds of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckles as well as aggressive “weed” trees such as red mulberry and box elder over a week and then renting a 27hp Vermeer chipper to grind them up.  It was awesome!

This post is pretty epic itself – I opted for smaller photos in the post to keep the overall post length a bit shorter – click on them for a 600×800 shot.   This really should have been 2-3 posts, but I spent more time working than writing.  Skim or read it all the way through at your preference.  Total work covered in the build is 3 weeks, with another 1.5 in the biomass acquisition.  These are “puttering” time lengths – I am always working on 4-10 projects at a time :).

With the material on site it was time to get it soaking.  One of the keys to Jean Pain style brushwood composting is to soak the material for 2+ days to ensure that the chips are saturated to supply the pile with enough water to sustain it for months.  One of the problems I ran into early on is that of scale.  I can only soak about 6 yards of material at a time, which limited me to 1.5 batches a week with my days off and the shorter daylight of Fall.  All told it took over 3 weeks just to soak all the material.

Giant 375 gln (1420 l) totes I bought off of craigslist a few years back for $25 each. Why? Why not!

Once the material was soaking it was time to prep the ground.  I spent a day spreading the old Midden around the gardens.  This was unreal – never before have I had 8+ yards of compost to spread all at once.  EVERYTHING got mulched.  Yes, spreading compost by the wheel barrow load (40 of them!) is as fun as it sounds.  I will say it again and again – COMPOST is the true point of the Middens – gathering energy from them is merely function stacking an intrinsically useful activity.

As this pile was going to be 50% larger I had some concerns about it breathing well.  At one point I had myself talked into laying out 4″ perforated drain tile for air circulation, but thought better of it for several reasons.

Cupplant, Sunchoke, and Sunflower stalks forming the passive air circulating foundation to the Midden. After the winter it turns into humus and sequesters carbon. Regenerative waste stream? Check.

First – it added expense and resources.  I like to keep the plastic to a minimum; while not afraid to use energy or resources for the Greater Good, I also like to use natural products whenever its feasible.  Second, Jean Pain never did so I’m not even sure its necessary.  My solution was simple – I cut down a half dozen Cupplants that were nearby in the prairie garden that serves a insectary habitat near my permaculture guilds.  The thought is that these will allow air to come in slowly from the under the pile as they decompose themselves.  Basically the same reason you are often told to put twigs under a normal passive compost pile.

Now, the observant amongst you will notice a piece of .5″ conduit stuck in the ground with a tape measure  in front of it.   Of course there is a very good reason for this.  The Midden LC will have a 3′ (1 M) diameter core of brushwood that will be wrapped with 1″ tubing, but I am getting a bit ahead of myself.    With the base down, it was time to get building.

The Core

The core diameter of 3′ was chosen for the simple reason that hot composting seems to benefit from a minimum dimension of at least a meter.  Build a pile smaller than this, and you won’t get hot enough.   One of the downfalls of the Methane Midden is that the layout forced a width of only 2′ in most cases.  I thought that the straw bales insulation would be enough.  I was wrong.  Back to basics then.  Getting wood chips to form a cylinder can take some doing.  Luckily I had enough 2′ garden fencing in the garage to make a “mold”.  The thought was to cut the fencing to the circumference of a 3′ diameter circle.  Time for fun with math!

4' (1.2 m) tall Core. As I unwrapped the fencing, I would wind 150' (45 m) or so tubing around the chips to keep them in place.

A circle’s circumference is Pi x the Diameter of a circle; 3.14 x 3′ = about 9.5′.  Done.   Now, when you cut the fencing – leave the “nubbins” on the cuts – this works well to fold around once you get the circle made – think giant velcro.  The conduit I stuck in at ground zero and measured 18″ off each side to center the core column.  Then it was simply a matter of schlepping in the soaked chips.  About every 8″ (22 cm) or so I tamped the chips well with a 12# (5kg) sledge hammer.  Once I had 2′ tamped in place, I unhooked the fencing and unwound it.  Thanks to the tamping, the chips stay in place very well.  I then wrapped the fencing on the top of the cylinder with about 2″ (5 cm) of overlap on the bottom.  Then I started wrapping the heat exchanger around.

I love this shot. It really shows how stable the chips are with tamping (walking on it at this point). Jean Pain didn't use molds, just slapped it all in place with a pitchfork and walked on it.

This progressed 2 times until the core got about 5′ tall.  At this point I was becoming somewhat concerned that the column could topple, despite how stable it seemed.  Redoing it at this point would SUCK, so I opted to switch gears and work on the outer “donut” of biomass.  The thought here was to again use the 1 meter width of material to maximize the bio-reaction of the thermophilic bacteria.  Having 3′ of material on each side of the exchanger giving the Midden L’eau Chaude a total diameter of a bit over 9′ (2.75 m).  The other important reason to start building out the “donut” was that stacking, and especially tamping, the Core was getting difficult as it was over shoulder height for me at this point.  With a 2′ tall rim around the Core I could bring it up to its goal of 6’+ bringing the total heat exchanger length to over 550′ (168 m).  The heat exchanger needs a bit of explaining since it is critical to the Midden, so here goes.

The Heat Exchanger


550′ (168 m) of 1″ (2.5 cm) polyethylene irrigation tubing. Never one to be modest… this is a work of art.

This is the finished heat exchanger and I won’t even try to be modest.  It’s GORGEOUS!.  The water will come in the bottom, spiral up for 6′ and then take two larger loops back down to exit the pile.  Why this way?  It has a lot to do with temperature gradients.  Heat transfers best the larger the temperature differential (delta T).  The final goal is to that the water entering the pile at about 80 F (26 C) and exiting north of 120 F (49 C).  The bottom of these piles are cooler (heat rises!), but will still be rather warm.  As the water in the exchanger warms it is also climbing up through the pile, which is also getting hotter.  The thought is that there will always be a delta T of 20+ degrees between the pile and the water in the tubing.  Slick, huh?  Now wth is up with the big looping spirals?  The poly tubing kinks somewhat easily, so I chose to take 2 revolutions to expand the diameter of the spirals and slowly increase the degree of bend up to my final exit point. Now some final thoughts on the exchanger.  First, I would shift the hole thing up a foot.  Starting 4″ from ground level like I did will not add much heat to the water, whereas there is over a foot above the top of this column now that I am done.  I had thought that the top would be cooler, but that is not the case – no matter how much I pile on the heat just comes right through it: put your exchanger to within 6″ of the top without fear as long as the pile is hot.  Can you see I am already planning Midden #3?  But for now we need to bury that exchanger. Fleshing out the Midden

 

Taking shape! This is about 12 cu yards ( 8 cu m) with a current height of 5.5′ (1.7 m) and a 9′ (2.7 m) diameter. Awesome.

To keep the pile nice a tidy, and also to ensure that I could still walk around it, I again used a garden fence mold for the 9′ (2.7 m) diameter “donut”.  this time I opted for 3′ tall fencing.  The outer section takes an immense amount of material to fill – it was almost 2 weeks to get it to this point as the pile at this point was over 12 cu yards and weighed over 6 tons due to the sopping wet chips.  Remember that I could only do 5-6 yards at a time as the chips had to soak for several days.

 

I had intended to unwrap and re-wrap the fencing again, but in the end chose to leave it on and switch again to an insulating rim of straw, which I ended up stacking 3 tiers high.  It gets significantly colder here in southern Wisconsin than in Jean Pain Provence with winter lows dropping to -15 (-26) at least once or twice.  Time to break out the dump truck again!  Back to Craigslist and I contacted a farmer about 4 miles away with 70 bales of Oat Straw.  I would need about half that for the Midden, but filled up the truck to mulch the beds as well.

BART holds 48 bales of straw. I am not saying *everyone* needs a dump truck. But in my case I am making a good argument..

With the straw in place around the fencing, I then stacked a third tier of straw to form the mold for the final several yards of material.  In the shot at right the pile is nearing 7′ (2.1 m) tall which was the goal.  At this point I was nearing the end of the biomass and began to focus on rounding out the pile and maintaining the 3′ length from the heat exchanger as much as possible.   Was incredibly pleased with how the Midden was literally shaping up.  Sometimes a project just CLICKS.  This was one of those!

Gap left for the pump installation. You can FEEL the heat coming from the pile, the core of which is 150+ (66 C) at this point. Dang sucka.

Jean with one of his piles. As you can see his heat exchanger loops would have gone around the OUTSIDE of mine. Then again his piles crested 80 tons - 10x as big as mine. Jean was a visionary, and I am honored to be able to promote his work for a new generation.

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Brush Composting – 5 wks to Humus

So this summer I went Compost Crazy.  First with the Midden and its ongoing Epic Insanity, and then once I saw the power of shredded brush composting, I starting going ape shit with my chipper.  Over the past 1.5 months I have cut or scrounged over 5000#’s of brush, run it through my chipper / shredder and all but filled my Compost Bin of Dreams.  In fact, I am one trip away from it being maxed out which is about 5.5 yards of compost.  Dang sucka.  Of note, I have yet to start my third gallon of  gas.  The Bio-80’s 5hp Briggs is frugal.

I have good reason for my madness.  Shredding weeds and very brushy material makes SYCK compost – and it does so incredibly fast.  The batch of lambsquarter I ran through on July 29?  Yeah – its DONE.  Not “yeah, I can *probably* spread this.” done.  Its DONE.  And its not only the speed on the decomposition end – its on the sourcing end.  One of the problems with home composting is it takes all year to get material to fill a bin, then another 3-4 months to cook it down.  Thats a year or more.  I don’t have time for that given the harvest goals for my place and the resulting soil building needs.  With my Chipper, I now cruise the municipal yard like a crack addict looking for fresh cut shrubs or prunings on an almost weekly basis.   I can take 2 loads from the yard to my house and shred them in less than 3 hours, and 2 loads will get me about 1.75 yards or chips (800#’s) which will cook down to about .8-1 cu yard.  3 hours of work and a fraction of a gallon of fuel for 600#s of humus.  I’ll take it!  Here are some shots of the process in action – the Week 3 shot didn’t turn out, but I will add one tomorrow.

It all starts with shredded material – this is what 350#’s of willow looks like after the Bio-80 has its way:

Small particle size is crucial. LOTS of green material as well. This is soaking in 20 gallons of water overnight to raise water content.

It takes 2 loads of with the trailer to fill a bin, about 8-900#’s of brush.  Here is what it looks like after 2 weeks – remember that this will be 165 degrees with in 24-36 hours and stay over 140 for 14 days.  This system is stunning.

Woody chunks still visible, but greens are all gooey. The woody bits in the middle are well on their way to humus. This will heat again to 150, and fall to 120 over the next 2 weeks. Add water if needed, but if you soaked it well, it should be fine.

Again, Wk 3-4 pic was a flop, but will add one soon.

Here is a shot of the lambsquarter : box elder pile after 5 weeks.  This is the fastest I have ever seen compost created, and on par with the commercial operations with mechanical turners.

Done. The clumping is due to moisture - this pile is sopping wet due to rain. There is virtually no identifiable raw material left other than some box elder twigs. 5 weeks!

Now, the lambsquarter pile is likely going to outperform the other 3 piles in the bins right now due to the fact that it was primarily annuals with much less cellulose and lignin to break down – it also shrank almost 50% for that reason. This pile was also so nitrogen rich that it hit 178 degrees in early August – that is just silly and literally destructive to the microbes in the piles – at that temp you are cooking your hibernating mezophillic bacteria which is NOT a good thing.

I am very curious to see what the pure brush piles look like in 1.5 months, but they aren’t tracking too far behind.  This pile can be recreated with sun choke stalks, cupplant, as well green sweet corn or sunflower stalks – but again – it takes ALOT – 800-1000#’s per pile since green material has so much water in it.

But the results speak for themselves.  With my new setup I can have 2-3 cu yards over winter to be spread in the spring for my early plantings, and start new piles in April.  By June I should be able to spread another 1″ of compost over the beds before the Heavy Feeders go in, and then another 1″ after they come out.  It should be possible to run 3+ batches through the Compost Bins netting up to 15 cu yards of compost – in theory, enough to cover my 1000 sq ft annual bed 5 times to a depth of an inch.  Of course the permaculture beds, insectary plantings  and coppice mini- groves will get their share too.  With this much humus hitting the soils of the system, organic matter will skyrocket along with yields.

And the icing on the cake?  15 cu yards of compost (humus) will sequester about 4 tons of carbon each year as well.  Not bad at all.

Be the Change!

-Rob

“Professional” Composting

160 degrees within 24 hours. This system WORKS.

I make a lot of compost.  I would say I make a ton of compost, but in reality I make *several* tons.  Every year.  At home.  In the ‘burbs.  If you want to follow the path of Gaia’s Garden – you almost certainly need immense amounts of organic matter.  We live in a newer subdivision so without mature trees we have to get creative to get our biomass for composting.  In years past I resorted to tapping into local waste streams, namely our local coffee shop to the tune of 30 gallons of grounds and sandwich trimmings every week.  That volume eventually inspired me to build my Compost Bin of Dreams to handle it.  The gorp from the shop was good, though it was heavy and was difficult to aerate.  To our horror that shop closed down this past Spring due to the recession and we lost a significant element in our local community.  It was an awful tragedy to the owners, whom we knew.  As time went on and the grieving passed, and I realized I needed to find another source for compost material.  I had also recently bought a chipper and learned the joys of brush wood composting. Here is my new system which allows me to make up to 15 yards a year:

Materials

To compost at this scale – 5-10 yards a year – you need a lot of material.  You can count on a 75% reduction in weight due to loss of water and half the carbon in the decomposition process.  A yard of compost weighs in at 540#’s or so – so you need literally tons and tons of material.  That means you need to get it for free.  With my local grounds dried up, I turned to other waste streams, in this case brush and wood chips from our local municipal yard (and local farms when we clean up the hedgerows) as well as weeds from fallow feeds at the farm.  Personal favorites from our local / free waste stream:

  • Box Elder
  • Willow
  • Lambsquarter
  • Ragweed
  • Corn/Sunflower Stalks
  • Straw after fall decorations

There is not many food scraps in here, though we continue to add ours and I kick in lawn clippings as needed to fire up a pile.  I certainly could be pounding the pavement of the local grocers and restaurants, but have chosen not to.  First, that would again lock me into a pickup schedule and I am getting waaaay too busy.  Second, the waste streams from those outlets are almost pure nitrogen and if aren’t picked up daily turn into a stinky, anaerobic mess when I get them.  I have pushed my neighbors quite a bit this past year, so want to keep this recent uptick in activity pleasant.  Sourcing my own brushwood and weeds keeps me in control.

Tools

5'x8' w/ 1 ton axle. Arguably my most useful tool. Dead serious.

Trailer: To carry all this material you need something rather large, but I not necessarily a truck.  I do all of this with my 90hp TDI Golf and a 5×8 trailer from Farm and Fleet I bought 3 years ago for $700.   Trailers are useful as they are MUCH lower to the ground to make unloading/unloading easier than a truck, and you only use it when you need it.  I get 48 mpg on my Golf without the trailer.  With it loaded I take a 20% mileage hit and a bit of wear and tear on the brakes.  I also upgraded the suspension with higher spring rates when I needed to replace them, but that is cause I am weird.  Even with all of that it still beats the hell out of 15mpg in a 1/2 ton truck.

Chipper- I resisted this for years, but finally caved.  My chipper is a Bio – 80 from BCS and I got it used for $550.  They are very hard to find and would cost over $1000 new.  Alternatives would be a 3″ model from DR or Bearcat, but again – be ready for sticker shock as they are EXPENSIVE.  Luckily, they can be found on Ebay, and more rarely on Craiglist.  Avoid the “craftsmans” type ones like the plague.  They are underpowered, poorly designed, and worse than useless.  This is also why you see them on Craiglist by the dozen.  This is almost commercial level work, and you need Real Tools.  The rub: To compost brush, you need a chipper, and chippers use fuel.  Mine is averaging less than a gallon for every 7-8 hours of run time, which is more frugal than a typical gas lawn mower, which I haven’t used for more than 8 years.  A larger pto model could work on a tractor running on methane, ethanol, or homemade bio-deisel.  This Briggs could run on ethanol as well.  Methane too, but it would be a bit harder to put the tank somewhere.

Bins –  I wrote this up in detail in my Compost Bin of Dreams.  I have a 4 bin system that can handle over 2000#;s of material at a time.  It is a flow through system – start on the left and turn each bin to the right.  When the 3 turnings are done, most of the compost is ready. When I compost sod, or other marginal material, it usually isn’t done so it goes into my 30 cu ft outdoor vermi-composter for “finishing”.

Each bin is 40" cubed -Combined it will hold 5.5 yards.

Process

This is the real beauty of this system.  You read any book on composting and they say if you really want an ideal pile you need to gather the materials before hand.   But, since that is nearly impossible, they then tell you about how you can compost your lawn clippings (2-3 cu ft at a cutting at my house) kitchen scraps (half a cu ft), soiled napkins etc.  Most homeowners will never fill a bin even after a year unless they have mature trees to add the leaves in.  Given the amount of organic matter we need to put back into our soils we need to do far better than that.

1) Gather your materials I ask you to refer again to the picture of the loaded trailer earlier in the post.  This pile chipped up to about 37 cu ft of material.  That will settle to about a yard, maybe a bit less.  What you can’t see in the picture is that it is not ALL brush.  The top 3/4 is willow, maple, and pine.  This is the carbon for the pile.  I try to only use green brush as I want the moisture, sugary sap, and nitrogen from the leaves.  Green brush still has all the water soluble nutrients in it – and you want those in your compost to feed the microbes which then feed your plants.  Under the compost is about 300#’s of fresh cut, mature (6′-9′ tall) lambsquarter.   It is also just getting ready to set seed.  Normally adding several million weed seeds to a pile would be asinine, but reference the compost thermometer on the top – these piles get wicked hot and stay over 130 degrees for over 2 weeks solid.  They should kill the weed seeds, and lambsquarter when young is a tasty treat whilst weeding and it weeds easily.   Brush bulk is deceiving – that huge pile is barley 8 cu ft chipped, so I also added .3 yards of wood chips from the city pile to be shredded to offset the nitrogen of the lambsquarter and help build humus.  Remember it is lignin and cellulose that build humus, and for that you need woody material like leaves, straw or twigs.

Entropy Once the materials are on site, limb the larger brush with a loppers or axe to ensure easy chipping.  Do this before you fire up the chipper to save on fuel.  I typically start with the brush as its close to perfect on the C:N ratio if its real leafy.   I chip the trunks until the stem is under 3/4″ and then I shred the rest.  As I go I keep an eye on the discharge – if its too brown I add more green material; the mixing starts this early.  Once the brush is done I then move to the green weeds.  These clog even my chipper very quickly.  Luckily my shredder has a removable debris screen.  By opening the screen it is able to shoot out the material after beating on it for a bit.  I like the lambsquarter as it is long enough that I can hold onto the stalks as I feed it – otherwise the shredding blades can pull it through too fast.  If something comes out unprocessed I refeed it later. Every cu ft of material or so, I close the debris screen again and add the wood chips.  This clogs the machine every time, so I keep a tamping stick like a 3′ chunk of 2×4 or 4″ limb thats too big for the chipper to encourage the material to enter the shredder.  This is the slowest part, but oh so worth it since the shredded wood chips are very fine and decompose very quickly for a carbon.  GORGEOUS humus.

300#'s of lambsquarter all chopped up. Add browns 1:1 with this.

Building the Piles.

As the material builds up from the chipping I add it to my 10 cu ft wheel barrow.  Half way through I pour in a 5 gallon bucket of rainwater from a rain barrel, and add another when the barrow is full.  This is vitally important.  As Jean Pain taught us – brush needs A LOT of water to decompose well.  Using rainwater is important for two reasons.  First, rainwater is free from the chlorine present in municipal water which would inhibit bacterial growth for a day or more.  Secondly, rainbarrel water is bacterially active.  It is churning with colonies of bacteria and fungal spores and almost certainly helps jumpstart the pile.  Each heaping barrow load (13 cu ft) gets 10 gallons of water – so I end up with 30 gallons of water added to each bin.  Actually, composting is the prime us of my rainbarrel water, as once the compost is in the soil, I barely need to irrigate! I might try soaking the material as Jean Pain did, but this process goes so fast it doesn’t seem necessary.  As I add the material to the barrow I continue to eyeball the mixture and scoop up greener or browner forkfuls as I go to mix it well.  The end goal is a perfectly mixed and soaked pile from Day 1. Finished piles should look like this:

Look at the mixture and the particle size. It should be wet enough to feel like a damp sponge.

Pile the piles as tall as possible as they settle significantly.  I lightly tamp the piles with the fork as I fill them, especially around the edges where the friction on the sides resists settling.  My bins hold 1.3 yards and I mound them 18″ over the top.  If you don’t have enough material it doesn’t seem to matter if you add to it in a week or so, just know that that material will need an additional week to decompose.

A compost thermometer is vital to this process.  The piles heat up almost immediately – the temp shot at the beginning I took this morning I the pile I built yesterday – about 15 hours ago.  DANG.  160 is the highest you should let the piles get.  The first one of these I built hit 173 – that is far too hot and at the point of concern that it may begin spontaneously combusting like a hay barn.  To slow it down I have added more carbon to the mix.  Watch the pile temp almost daily – as it drops below 125, turn it again, and add more water.  This time is may only hit 140, wait a bit until it drops to 115 or so and then turn it a third time.  The 3rd turning should  be done at about 105 degrees, but at this point you are almost done, and the pile should be left to “mellow”.  This can take months, so I typically put some in my vermicomposter and spread the rest as mulch which I top dress with some straw in the veggie garden, or wood chips in the permaculture beds.  The microbes will continue munching on it in place.

Conclusion

This system is not for everyone.  It takes serious equipment and a serious intent.  I have almost $2000 invested: $600 for the chipper, $700 for the trailer, $500 in the bin.  And that is using used equipment.

But the results!  By spending the extra investment on the front end in material sourcing and prep you are able to take waste brush and turn it into compost in 3-5 weeks.  That means at a 4 week average and my 4 bin system I can reasonably do 15 yards of finished compost in a 6 month composting season.  In reality some batches will take longer, but I also compost more like 9 months of the year.  15 yards is 4 tons of finished compost and enough to spread 5000 sq ft 1″ thick.  To do this I would need a trailer load of material a week for 24 weeks – about 12 tons of raw material.  It will take alot of organic matter to rebuild our soils, and the 8000 pounds of compost I could put back into my yard is roughly 4 tons of carbon that isn’t in the atmosphere anymore and will continue to sequester more as it aids the growth of the plants in my gardens.

Hopefully this system will help you in your quest to rebuild your soils and sequester carbon naturally to help heal the planet as we feed our families.

Be the change!

-Rob

Grow Your Own Soil: Compost Crops

Readers will note that I am HUGE on living soils.  We moved into a dead, denuded landscape and have spent the past 5 years dutifully rebuilding them.  The single most important thing in healing soils is to add organic matter – essentially getting carbon back into the soil.  Why?  Carbon is the primary building block of all life and it is the fuel of the soil food web -from the zillions of bacteria and miles of fungal hyphae to the worms that feed on them.  We’ve been trucking in organic matter for years now – mostly wood chips, but also straw and manures; by the ton.  In fact, over the past five years I would estimate that we’ve surpassed 20 tons of raw material that we’ve either added directly to our soils (manures), or mulched (wood chips and straw).  That may sound like alot, but at least half of the carbon is lost to the air as part of the decomposition process (no fears for global warming as the carbon in wood chips and manure was atmospheric carbon just a year or so ago before it was sequestered by the plants), plus to add an inch to a 1/4 acre (11,000 sq ft) which is my yard (minus house and driveway)  you need to have about 9 tons of compost.  That’s 34 yards of finished compost, or over 100 cu yards of raw material.  Helping others get to this point is why I own a dump truck.

The result is that our soil is teeming with life and the gardens are really starting to “pop” this year with trees adding multiple feet of growth, 5+ cuttings of the Russian Comfrey, and sunflowers over 8′ tall.  We will continue to “uppen” our soils with compost and mulches for decades to come.  But I am trying to do this on as low of inputs as possible.  In the last 5 years we have built our garden soils up and the lawn is getting healthier every year.  It is time to try to see how sustainable I can make this system.  It is time to start growing my own soil.

To grow your own soil you need plants that pull carbon out of the atmosphere, which of course all plants do, but some do it really damn well.  I must tip my hat strongly to John Jeavons and his work on sustainable gardening here, but for annuals the choices are not too hard – what gets really damn big, with a thick stalk?  Think sunflowers, sorghum, corn, quinoa, amaranth, etc.  Add in all the small grains if left to dry out into straw and you get the idea.  Perennial crops are also money as well.  There are a wealth of BIG plants in the tall grass prairie – my favorites are cupplant, giant Joe Pye weed, sunchokes, and the myriad perennial sunflowers like maximillian and ox eye.  The true Big Guns in this area are rapid growth trees, often referred to as weeds, harvested as coppice such as willows, box elder, black locust, and even chestnut and ash.  Other “weeds” like lambsquarter, ragweed, and buttonweed get 6’+ tall , and even invasives like buckthorn coppice well.

Today I spent an hour touring the back yard with my Big Az 10 cu ft mulch wheel barrow, my sickle, and my new brush axe pulling weeds, hacking down old raspberry canes from last year, cutting back insurgent sunchokes, and taking the 4th cutting off the 60 or so russian comfrey I have around the gardens.  That produced an immense amount of green material – piling it into my utility trailer I easily had 80 cu ft.  That is far too much nitrogen for a pile so then I got out my loppers and a pruning saw and took some prunings from the buckthorn out back and two of our willow shrubs.  It wasn’t enough, but in a few years the 2 dozen box elders and  willows I have planted will be on line.  Here are the results.

about 100#'s of material, but dang is it bulky. Brush Axe is leaning on the trailer.

That is from one lap of the backyard – I can do this about 3-4 times a year at present.  In years past I just threw all the weeds into the compost bins, but it doesn’t work too well as the stalky stuff takes too long and the full size leaves mat up.  Now with the Bio-80 shredder it makes marvelous weed puree.

Entropy ala weeds. At least half that pile is/was comfrey so the compost will be awesome. The recycling bin is the chipped tree prunings - not enough to offset the greens, but its a start..

Now the Bio-80 is powered by gasoline, and I am likely to catch flak in the comments for burning dead dinosaurs to save the world.  I agree- its not ideal.  But I am building a transitional system and am not afraid to break some eggs to make an omelet.  The chipper is only 5hp and ran for about 20 minutes using less than a cup of fuel.  In future years I hope to find a way to power the chipper on methane from the ‘Midden or ethanol from a local co-op.  But for now I’m in bed with BP on this one.  One very cool option would be to use a chicken “shredder” to break down the green material – 4 layers in a confined pen would make short work of this over a week or so of adding an inch or two a day for the girls to scratch in.  Of course that is illegal here.  Working on that too…

This bin is 40" cubed and is about 66% full. This will settle almost 30% in the coming days. Making soil takes ALOT of plant material. Plant more trees!

Finally, it takes ALOT of plants to make a yard of compost.  A yard of finished compost weighs about 550#’s.  So the 100-150#’s of material that I put in, most of which was water that will evaporate out, is just a start. But every journey begins with a step.

I am very proud that this bin. When I add another weed lap in September, plus all the corn, cupplant, sunchokes, and sorghum stalks form the yard this fall, this cu yard of finished compost will be 100% homegrown.  As the gardens mature, I will begin getting leaf litter from the trees and willow and box elder coppice to add to it.  My gardens, minus paths, are about 3000 sq ft – that means that 4-5 cu yards could cover it all with .5″ of compost annually, which is alot if you are only maintaining fertility.  I can do that in about 5 years if I add more coppice trees; I am convinced that I can sustain the fertility of my gardens without additional inputs.

We can do this.

Be the change!

-Rob

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