Simplest Home Compost

Short, sweet, and to the point.  Seize the fall season and make this composter today.  Before the how, let's look at the why.

Why compost at home?  Because it's easy.  Sure I can go down the rabbit hole of compost science and try to optimize everything for fast results, but in my backyard I can go slow and keep it simple and pretty hands-off. 

Why compost at home?  Because it's healthy.  Healthy for my soil, my garden, the ecosystem of my yard.  Compost promotes life, this fosters human health in turn.

Why compost at home? Because it's nice.  Nice smelling, nice to my back, nice to watch over time.  Smelly heavy garbage that disappears every week leaving a stinking can behind is not really nice, but most of us just accept it.  By diverting food waste from the garbage can, my trash doesn't have to stink and be so heavy.  Also I get to see my kitchen scraps slowly transform into black gold.

What else is there to say?  If you're inclined to try composting at home, now's the time!  Ease is king, fall is here and there is no easier time to get brown fall leaves.  Plenty of dry leaves keeps a pile smelling fresh instead of foul.  

Water is important, for a good start, you can spray down the initial load of leaves, through rain and the high moisture of kitchen scraps this kind of pile usually takes care of itself as far as water.

When adding new scraps, mix them into the existing material and cover them up.  This keeps down insects and when half-way composted stuff is smeared on the new scraps it can discourage animals from being interested.

Over time the leaves settle quite a lot, take action now to keep your leaf stash flush.  When you need fresh leaves, just crack open one of the bags that your neighbors conveniently put on the curb for pickup and top off the bin.  Don't worry if they're a little musty or dusty later in the year.

This kind of pile trades speed of composting for savings in effort.  Keep adding to the pile until it stops settling after adding new leaves and there's no more room for leaves to balance out the kitchen scraps.  For a normal household, this should take a whole year.  So if you start now, this time next year you can stop adding to your pile and start a new one.  Once you make your last deposit in the compost bank, it's important to let you pile age for several months.  So that pile I just started today (in the video) should hold a year of my kitchen waste, then I'll use the compost in April and May of 2018.  I think that long-term thinking is an expression of love for my home.

The most important think about starting a compost pile at home is that you give it a try.  There's plenty of great info out there in the internet, I hope that this quick note encourages a few people to go out and save up their leaves to start their first compost pile.

Wonders of Living Soil

This is a blog post about how rocks turn into people.

Soil doesn't get the attention it deserves.  We mostly take it for granted or curse it when it hitches a ride on our shoes into our houses.  But soil is of course critical for our food supply, it's also the filter that creates clean rivers, soil is beneath any beautiful landscape, and soil is worthy of our admiration for being the most complex ecosystem on the planet.  Indeed, soil is the antecedent for life on land as we know it.

The earth's crust is rock, rock full of the building blocks of life, but rock nonetheless.  Soil is that thin gateway that transforms rock into things like lawns, bees, dogs, beautiful flowers, wooden chairs (trees) and of course humans.  So how do elements from the earth's crust, aka rock, turn into a person?

It's the soil food web that ushers the humble phosphorus atom from a grain of silt up through the food chain and ultimately into a strand of your lovely DNA.  

"But wait!" you say, "Where's the rock in this diagram, isn't this a blog about rocks turning into humans?"

You're right, this diagram is dramatically simplified.  Aside from the omission of rock as the original source for all the mineral elements of life, we don't have arrowheads pointing back to plants from every single organism group to represent the plant-available nutrients they are excreting.  OK pooping, this is the Soil Dynamics blog, we handle all the poop from both zoos in the area, so we might as well call it what it is.  Even protozoa poop, in their small and humble way, but it definitely adds up.

You should mentally place rock along side "organic matter" in the diagram.  Bacteria and fungi have been perfecting their rock-eating for 4 billion and 1.8 billion years respectively.  They are so good at mining the necessary minerals from rock that nobody else in the food web has bothered to evolve mechanisms to cut out the middle-men.  In other words, bacteria and fungi work tirelessly to turn rocks into their own organic bodies, and all the thanks they get is to become the potato chip of the soil world.  Everybody eats them, from one-celled protozoa, to earthworms, to beetles.  Even chickens will scratch around in soil and eat visible fungus... not to mention, well mushrooms are delicious.  This process of nutrients flowing around in a food web is called nutrient cycling.

"OK, this is even worse, there's no pictures AND no rocks on this diagram!" you might be thinking.  Sorry about that, but hang on!  Top left see 'nutrients from mineral',  mineral means rock there.   When an atom of phosphorus or sulfur or molybdenum is so inextricably bound up in the mineral lattice of a grain of sand that all seems lost, you better believe that some needy bacteria or fungi has the tools to chew it out of there.  When that bacteria or fungi is eaten by a nematode near the root of your tomato plant, most of the time that nematode has enough phosphorus, sulfur, or molybdenum.  So that nutrient goes right through the nematode, out its back end in a plant-available form, so it can go into the tomato plant root.  Then into you.  Rock becomes human.

Well there you have it.  Humans are made of rocks.  And water.  And air because bacteria are able to munch nitrogen gas from the atmosphere when they need more nitrogen to build proteins. By adding compost to soil, you are adding useful organic matter that our microbe allies can mine for nutrient and energy.  Also, well made compost contains a thriving ecosystem of soil microbes and it doesn't harm existing beneficial microbes in the soil when used as an amendment. 

But there is an alternative to a healthy soil food web and the choice is yours whether you have a lawn, 10,000 acres of rangeland or cornfield, or a houseplant.  Chemical fertilizer is concentrated plant-available forms of nutrient, extracted by energy intensive processes from air or rock or petroleum.  This shortcut to soil fertility produces immediate results when you're looking for a green lawn, but it also produces immediate and devastating results when you're looking for that abundant population of earthworms, fungi, amoebae etc..  Chemical fertilizer is salt-based, and our microscopic allies are very much like slugs.  You do the math.  Once the soil microbes are crippled, soil is addicted to regular inputs of soluble fertilizer.  Plants living in a thriving soil ecosystem get balanced constant nutrition, so they are less susceptible to pest and disease.  Pests and disease attack and damage chemically fertilized plants more dramatically, so pesticides are the quick fix...  Addiction mode.

Soil Dynamics manufacturing compost

Soil Dynamics manufacturing compost

An amonium nitrate plant manufacturing fertilizer

An amonium nitrate plant manufacturing fertilizer

On a subject as complex as soil ecology, there is always more to say.  I hope this post has been interesting.  Many soils are damaged, and many of our readers would like to reestablish a thriving soil ecosystem in their lawn or garden.   That said, fertilizers of all stripes can be used more or less responsibly, make sure to always follow application rates.  The worst of the results that powerful chemicals are capable of can be avoided by following directions!.  As we publish more blogs, we'll have to link them here.  I'd say we owe a "how to manage a thick lawn without inorganic fertilizer and herbicide" post.  But in the mean time, feel free to comment here or on our facebook page, share your best tips for landscaping and gardening.

Meet the Machines

I am a real nerd when it comes to compost.  During 8 months working at a research farm in California I spent hundreds of hours between counting microscopic creatures, formulating compost recipes, and turning piles by hand.  I developed an awe for the microscopic world: busy, complex, and varied, landscapes hidden in smallness.

Now I work at Soil Dynamics.  We do not turn piles by hand.  We do not measure our compost ingredients in 5 gallon buckets, but instead in loader buckets - 5 yards each.  I am now 300-1000 times more time-efficient when I turn compost.  The landscape that captures my awe now is one of magnitude.  Massive, powerful, and surprisingly precise: these are the machines that we rely on at Soil Dynamics.

Tractor, Turner, and Water Wagon.  This lets us turn about 300 yards of compost in just a few minutes.  The water wagon holds 1700 gallons of water that spray from nozzles just above the turner blades so that the compost is evenly moistened when necessary..

Tractor, Turner, and Water Wagon.  This lets us turn about 300 yards of compost in just a few minutes.  The water wagon holds 1700 gallons of water that spray from nozzles just above the turner blades so that the compost is evenly moistened when necessary..

In its natural habitat, this shepherd of compost sleeps with the flock.  Piles are 12 feet wide by up to 300 feet long.  That's as much as 400 yards per "windrow".

In its natural habitat, this shepherd of compost sleeps with the flock.  Piles are 12 feet wide by up to 300 feet long.  That's as much as 400 yards per "windrow".

Here's one of two loaders that we rely on.  To move lots of material, obviously this does the trick.  But I was amazed at Alonso's dexterity with this behemoth while we were building a wall out of concrete blocks (like in the background of this image).  I hooked chains to the blocks, then Alonso would lift and place them.  He could set the block, then nudge the block half an inch into the perfect position.  It reminded me of an elephant shelling a peanut.

Here's one of two loaders that we rely on.  To move lots of material, obviously this does the trick.  But I was amazed at Alonso's dexterity with this behemoth while we were building a wall out of concrete blocks (like in the background of this image).  I hooked chains to the blocks, then Alonso would lift and place them.  He could set the block, then nudge the block half an inch into the perfect position.  It reminded me of an elephant shelling a peanut.

Meet the tub grinder.  At the bottom inside that round tub this machine has a cylinder spiked with "teeth," fist sized hunks of steel that punch apart any thing in the tub.  Logs, stumps, root balls, occasional rocks no doubt -- it all gets pounded into bits small enough to fit through whatever size screen is installed under the blade.  This machine turns trees into mulch.  It's why mulch has that frayed texture compared to wood chips.

Meet the tub grinder.  At the bottom inside that round tub this machine has a cylinder spiked with "teeth," fist sized hunks of steel that punch apart any thing in the tub.  Logs, stumps, root balls, occasional rocks no doubt -- it all gets pounded into bits small enough to fit through whatever size screen is installed under the blade.  This machine turns trees into mulch.  It's why mulch has that frayed texture compared to wood chips.

The screener, this was featured in our most recent newsletter, so maybe you saw it there.  This machine accepts loads of material into a hopper (left in photo) and then pushes it onto a gently sloped rotating screen (right).  A conveyor catches screened fines from under the screen, and chunky material that cannot pass through the screen falls onto a different conveyor.  Both fractions are carries in opposite directions, off and up forming two large mountains of material. (see next photo)

The screener, this was featured in our most recent newsletter, so maybe you saw it there.  This machine accepts loads of material into a hopper (left in photo) and then pushes it onto a gently sloped rotating screen (right).  A conveyor catches screened fines from under the screen, and chunky material that cannot pass through the screen falls onto a different conveyor.  Both fractions are carries in opposite directions, off and up forming two large mountains of material. (see next photo)

Many horsepower makes light work, that's the old saying right?

Many horsepower makes light work, that's the old saying right?

Behold the side-dump.  This dump trailer holds 25 yards, the largest unit of material that comes or goes from the compost farm*.  It's the way we interact with the world at large, as well as a small fleet of familiar looking garbage trucks that haul yard waste and food waste.  A smaller regular looking truck can deliver more modest loads of compost, mulch or topsoil for retail clients. *with one exception, the "live bottom" looks like a regular big-rig, it holds up to 100 yards, but only fills all the way up with mulch.  Anything else would be too heavy.

Behold the side-dump.  This dump trailer holds 25 yards, the largest unit of material that comes or goes from the compost farm*.  It's the way we interact with the world at large, as well as a small fleet of familiar looking garbage trucks that haul yard waste and food waste.  A smaller regular looking truck can deliver more modest loads of compost, mulch or topsoil for retail clients.

*with one exception, the "live bottom" looks like a regular big-rig, it holds up to 100 yards, but only fills all the way up with mulch.  Anything else would be too heavy.

Last but not least (except in size) the skid-steer.  This is a familiar one, it can zip around, carry modest loads, it can hold a fork lift or a bucket, I use it to shave off the edges of windrows if they're too wide.  It has the most variety of uses, like a swiss army knife.

Last but not least (except in size) the skid-steer.  This is a familiar one, it can zip around, carry modest loads, it can hold a fork lift or a bucket, I use it to shave off the edges of windrows if they're too wide.  It has the most variety of uses, like a swiss army knife.

We hope you enjoyed a little glimpse behind the scenes.  Some of my coworkers have worked with machinery in oilfields, I have mostly worked in educational gardening!  Never with machinery until now.  We all know that humans have the power to shape the world, but I've never understood it up close.  I'm glad that we at Soil Dynamics put all this horsepower to good use.  

All we do is recycle.  Everything we haul away from clients to the compost farm is unwanted material, and everything we deliver to clients is transformed into a valuable product to beautify our landscapes and improve environmental quality.

-Ben Samuelson

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