a little morning compost

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There she is! I call her the compost beast. She lives on a tarpaulin on the upstairs deck. How beautiful she is, basking in the morning sun.

Let’s open it up and see more of her.

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The right end of the beast is the input end, AKA her “mouth.” This is where the new “compost food” (kitchen scraps, mostly) goes in. The left end is the output end, AKA her (well, you can figure it out).

150222-1050At right is a close-up of part of the input end. There are moldy fruits, egg shells, various other food debris, and you might also notice some bits of shredded paper.

A few chicken bones are allowed into the stream to add more phosphorus and calcium as they slowly break down. There are also a few twigs and stems of garden cuttings, but not the ones that have lots of viable seeds.

In the past I used to take the time to carefully break up the compost food into bite-size chunks, as a way of “pre-chewing” it so the beast could digest it better. But nowadays I don’t bother to pre-chew her food, because she does a very good job of it as the food decays inside of her.

Time to get to work!

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Before I can add any new compost food I need to do a bit of “grooming” using a soft-tined garden rake. With this type of composting one must act as a sorting agent, bringing the largest bits of undecomposed material back to the input end from the output end. They get re-cycled through the beast until they either break down or are removed during an operation I call “slimming down” that will be described in another post.

To accomplish this debris-sorting the rear end is groomed up toward the front end, bringing those larger bits back for re-digestion. Even though this grooming is only done to the surface layers, over time it is a very effective way to keep the beast sorted from front to back.

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Above is today’s “meal.” You can see citrus peels (often considered too acid for making good compost, but the beast can handle them). There are also avocado peels, egg shells, and a coffee filter (the grounds are there too!) and underneath are some rotting eggplant parts and much more.

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Above: A shovel has been used to open out the input end, creating a flattish space where new food can be added. But we are not ready to do that yet.

150222-1117The kitchen scraps alone would not make good compost. They are too dense and wet, and they are chemically unbalanced. First, I have to add some absorbent, high-carbon content bulk.

That’s easy enough. Like most suburban households, we generate a fair amount of scrap newsprint. This excellent material is sliced into strips with an old-fashioned paper cutter and deposited into the beast’s open mouth.

However, we don’t just use any old paper. Fortunately, the right kind is readily available for free. It’s mostly made of local free newspapers, almost all of which (these days) use good paper and non-toxic, soy-based inks. That’s what we want.

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I’m almost done! The compost food is deposited on top of the shredded paper, and mixed around a bit with the shovel. Any really large chunks are chopped into a few smaller pieces.

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Above: The beast’s mouth is re-closed by moving debris from around the edges back up on top of the new food. Now she is ready to digest her meal. Notice how she is all humped up around the new stuff. That hump will drop down over the next day or two, as the kitchen scraps rapidly decompose.

Below: Back in her tarpaulin robe, the compost beast lies in the warm sun, peacefully digesting her new meal.

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3 comments
  1. Ignorant questions here: doesn’t it smell? How do you combat that?

    • Hi Kirizar,

      No it doesn’t smell very much. When it is opened up to “eat” there is a little bit of healthy decay smell, but it is not strong, and resembles the smell of a richly fertile marsh or forest. The final sifted product (ultra-compost) smells like fertile soil, like a scoop of humus from the forest floor.

      The main reason it does not smell much is that we carefully exclude meats, fats, and other materials that disturb the chemical balance of the process. The meats, in particular, are very high in nitrogen, which degrades into ammonia, cadaverine, and other smelly stuff. Almost no meat, so very little ammonia.

      Another reason for not much smell is that when we add new “food” we always bed it on a layer of newsprint strips, which soak up extra moisture, and immediately cover it all up with material that is already partly decomposed (and has little smell).

      There is a complex ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and decay critters such as nematodes, protozoa, and countless insects that all work together to rapidly break down the “food” we deliver. It only takes a few days for most of the new “food” to turn into a complex, dark material in which the original ingredients are only barely visible. This first stage decay product already smells more like soil than garbage!

      It is worth noting that the compost beast regularly attracts a large variety of birds who come to forage for insects to eat. They love the various larvae and adults they can find there, and take them away to feed their babies too.

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