Returning to Our Roots // A Few More Composting Tips...
We've been successfully composting for about three months now. Wow! I had to look back at our blog to check and make sure that it had really been that long. In that amount of time, I've documented our journey into living waste free, what we've struggled with, and just what doesn't work for us at all. So far, we're still not doing so well with reducing plastic wraps and tin foil for saving leftovers. However, we really haven't been using them at all anyway because we now eat whole food. That means we're not eating as much food as before, because we're buying less of it. What we eat for dinner tends to make its way into our tupperware containers without the need for excess plastic wraps. I don't know how we accumulated so much food before we started changing our lifestyle - it was kind of like our problem with acquiring too much stuff. We've become minimalists even inside of our fridge!
I can say that above everything, I feel lighter. In mind, body, and soul. Life is so much simpler now, and I would never try to make anyone believe that changing your lifestyle to how we live makes life better for everyone. Each person's needs are met differently and not everyone can get rid of their belongings or even their Little Debbie's, but if you're on the cusp of wanting to dive into whole foods, waste free homes, and sustainable living... the outcome has ultimately been positive. Cheese is hard to find, but that's okay, and so is food when you're on the run and forgot to pack something along. We're still learning, failures and all!
The other day, I made my dad come along outside with me to visit the compost pile. I really seem to be the person that's most interested in it. Who really gets super excited about a pile of rotting poo-dirt? Well, that person would be me. I mentioned on Instagram a couple of weeks ago that I was watching Twilight and realized I had grown up to become to nerdy biology teacher who freaks out over "compost tea." YIKES. Not sure which is worse... that, or me watching Twilight still. Either way, I turn the compost pile about once or twice a week, depending on the weather and how often I'm outside perusing our urban homestead. I just love saying that! We realized the other day that, by definition, we have a "farmette," or a,
"small farm that is maintained without expectation of being a primary source of income, who earns income from a source other than the farm. It is sometimes known as a yokelet or a farmlet. Farmette owners are typically city workers who want to own rural land without operating a full farm."
Well, the sounds pretty close to us! Though we aren't city workers, our property is only half an acre and can therefore only withstand so many livestock animals. Chickens, and hopefully bees one day, will be plenty for the amount of space that we have. It's been really fun watching everything start to grow and be built up around us, thanks to my dad. I love walking out to the compost pile to dump the day's vegetable scraps. I pass by the apple trees and berry bushes, kick around in the pile to see the progress, and then walk past the chicken coop and greenhouse and say hello to my plants. Soon I'll be passing by the garden, too. It just fills me with so much joy and peaceful thinking.
Back on track - I take my dad out to the pile so I can show him that, "hey! it's actually working. like really working!!" because we've had some decent compost-like material in there for about 3-4 weeks now. I've been trying to figure out if we need to actually make two piles instead of one, so that we have a more matured pile and a newer one for fresh scraps that come out everyday. While we were raking out the pile to turn it over and mix in the new scraps, I noticed there were tiny brown ants crawling throughout the center. Oh, craaaaaaap, I thought, not sure if this was a good thing or a very bad thing. I've tried to do my research on composting as much as possible, but I knew that at some point I would probably mess up. Even though I was prepared for it to happen, I really didn't want to have to compromise my entire load of compost. That was quite a bit of irreplaceable material there! So, I took to the research and discovered some new tips and lessons on composting that I would like to share with you:
Bad Bugs vs Good Bugs
Without a doubt, you are going to have bugs in your compost pile. That's what makes the compost happen, after all. But when I overturned my pile to find ants, I couldn't remember if those were actually considered good bugs or not. I knew that worms and most isopods were okay, but I wasn't sure about ants. Would they harm my garden? What was I supposed to do?
After looking into it, it appears that most bugs are not necessarily bad for your compost itself, but can be bad for your garden. For instance, ants will not harm your compost pile, but if the queen decides to lay eggs there... then you have a problem. Ants like cool, damp places, and if they begin to lay their eggs in the compost, then they're probably also harvesting aphids. Aphids can destroy your plants if you're not careful. A solution I found was to turn your pile on a hot, sunny day, and most ants will pack up and move out of there. If they don't, then you can lay out the compost you plan to use in your garden on a tarp, spread it out pretty thin, and let it dry in the sun. The ants will leave indefinitely. If you find egg sacks, then you may have to compromise your pile. Ugh!
Other bugs that might eat your seedlings or vegetables are pill bugs and sow bugs. You could also raise the heat of your pile to 120 degrees F to make sure it's getting enough heat. You can measure this with a compost thermometer. I tried doing the "meat thermometer covered in plastic wrap" trick but couldn't get an accurate reading. There's a use for my plastic wrap LOL! You can rebuild up your pile and water it down; if it has a lot of leaves or straw in it, then you might need to add more nitrogen (shellfish shells, manure, or bloodmeal). I have been adding the wood shavings and chicken manure from our brooder to the compost pile every few days, and that has seemed to help the pile break down.
I have not yet had this problem! Our compost pile actually smells like nothing, or at least, it doesn't smell any different from the other plants and nature around it. If you have a smelly pile, then your compost is not decaying and contains too much nitrogen-rich material, or green material (kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, fresh leaves and plants, feathers, seaweed, manure). You definitely should not have flies hanging around your compost pile - then you know it's gone rotten! Flies can infest your pile, lay their eggs, and it will become filled with maggots. Not good!
If you want to avoid a smelly pile, make sure you really break up your kitchen scraps beforehand. I have been lacking in this department, and I also added some wet leaves to the pile (brown material) about a week ago. I wonder if this is what brought on the ants who were already hanging out on the leaves! But, I do now have a really perfectly balanced mixture of leaves, grass, bush clippings + chicken manure and soiled bedding. So it smells really good!
Just make sure you mix your pile really well each time you add something. Try to avoid cooked vegetables or veggies from a dish that had added sauces or were sopping wet. These can start to rot really easily if not left to dry out. Compost needs water, and that can usually be brought on by rain or a good dousing from your hose.
Find Your Composting Season
I didn't really realize there was a "season" for composting, but I guess it makes sense. The pile needs to remain at around 150 degrees F and that is all due in part to the sun. In the winter, it's pretty cold here in the midwest. That might be the answer to my ant problem as well; it's been too cold, and it really has. Even though my pile is breaking down quite well, it's still not nearly hot enough to kick those ants' butts out of the house. That hot sun has rarely had a chance to beat down on them. So it may just be a test of patience and of adding more brown materials like leaves and twigs and clippings to the pile. Though we don't have much of that around...
So my next solution would be a to have an indoor worm composter. I started looking into these after discovering the ant infestation, and have to say, there are quite a few out there that I like! They make quite a bit of compost for our entire garden and seem to work best for kitchen scraps. We could have a pile outdoors that isn't overloaded with green materials, which seems to be the culprit for most composting problems like critters eating it or it's not the right consistency. If we had a pile inside for the scraps as well, and had the benefit of adding worms to our garden! That's kind of a score.
Do you compost? What issues have you run into? I'd love to talk bug poop with you! HA!
Tad's romper c/o Fin + Vince