Mucking in

Mucking in

Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.

Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin.  Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:

img_6275
Base layer – carbon-rich straw. Ideal size for the heap is 1.5 m wide by 1.5 m high – and as long as you like. This facilitates efficient heat build-up.
img_6276
Next up – nitrogen-rich horse manure. To generate heat and kick off decomposition, compost heaps need a good mix of carbon and nitrogen (more carbon than nitrogen). Saskia sources her manure from the local stables.
img_6280
More straw, then mineral-packed, nitrogen rich seaweed, foraged from our coastline.
img_6296
Some fresh cut greens for more of a nitrogen kick. Greens also store nutrients and minerals such as potassium and phosphorous in their leaves which are released during decomposition.
img_6301
Kitchen scraps, clay and – a key ingredient – water. The compost heap needs to be moist but not waterlogged. We learnt a nifty trick: squeeze a handful of the compost really tight, if a few drops trickle out, you’ve got the moisture content more or less right.
img_6309
More ‘brown’ matter to up the carbon content – newspapers and more straw. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to do it in this order, or with these particular materials, just work with what you have to balance the carbon and nitrogen. And you don’t need to layer either – you can mix it all up before creating the heap.
img_6315
Voila! A magnificent heap, ready to start working its magic.
img_6319
Within days the heap will start heating up. You’ll need to check the temperature in about 3 weeks – it should be hot (you can use a stick or an iron rod to gauge the temp, which should be hot to the touch). When the heap starts cooling down again, you’ll need to turn it (which sounds like quite a job!). 3 weeks after turning, it should be ready for harvesting.

That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.

Bin, bokashi or worms?

Composting is totally win-win. You divert waste from already-heaving, methane producing landfills, plus you create fertiliser which enriches your soil.

When you’re ready to start, first thing is to decide where you’ll put your waste. Once you’ve got that sussed, the rest is easy – it’s as simple as chucking your kitchen waste onto your heap, applying a few basic principles, and waiting for it to decompose into beautiful rich soil.

Whichever container you choose needs to have a lid. For urbanites in compact spaces, the best options are a compost bin or a bokashi system. If you’re feeling adventurous, or don’t mind a bit of muck, you could try worms. Here’s the lowdown on each:

*Bokashi*
Bokashi (meaning ‘fermented organic matter’) uses enzymes to ferment (‘pickle’) your waste. All food waste, including cooked meat and dairy, is thrown into a plastic bin and covered with a layer of bokashi (a powder that looks a lot like bran). When the bin is full, you close it and let it stand for about 2 weeks. It’ll then be ready to add to your compost heap.

bokashi-powder
Kitchen waste sprinkled with bokashi powder. Because a bokashi system needs to be anaerobic (oxygen free), flatten your waste with a potato musher to get rid of any air pockets. This also helps you fit more waste into the bin.
bokashi-container
Sealed bokashi bin – store it anywhere in your kitchen or scullery. Most have a tap at the bottom for pouring out any liquid run-off. The principle here is the same as with worm tea (see below). If it smells bad, don’t use it for your plants – rather pour it down your drains as a natural disinfectant.

Pros
– can be kept inside
– can add cooked meat, dairy and bones
– speeds up the decomposition process

Cons
– does not fully decompose waste – it still needs to be transferred to your compost bin or dug into your garden so it breaks down completely.

*Wormery*
Worms are a great way to return nutrients to the soil. Worm casings (essentially their poo) create nutrient-rich vermicompost which improves soil fertility.

A wormery consists of a series of stacked buckets – we use three. The top two buckets are where the worms live and eat their way through our waste. When the middle bucket is full of compost, we start filling the top one with waste. Eventually all the worms will move into the top one (through a few holes in the lid), allowing us to harvest the compost in the middle bucket.

The bucket on the very bottom collects the liquid run-off, also know as ‘worm tea’, which is a great tonic for your soil if your compost is healthy. Worm tea can be diluted and used as a fertiliser.

A layer of egg cartons or newspaper on top of the food waste is handy for keeping fruit flies and other miggies out.

stacked-bins
A stacked worm bin. Inside the top two bins are worms munching their way through our food waste. The bottom bin contains the ‘worm tea’, which is not so much worm wee as run-off from the decomposition process. If your worm tea is in any way smelly, don’t use it, as out-of-balance compost can be damaging for plants.
worm-bin
Peering into the top bin with the lid slid across (not convinced we have the balance right as there are always miggies and other creatures crawling around, though thankfully no rodents). It could be that onion? The strong odour of onions is said to attract critters.

Pros
– good for compact spaces
– produces nutrient dense compost + worm tea

Cons
– can be a bit mucky to deal with
– can’t add meat or dairy.

*Compost bin*
A large container – an old tyre, a plastic bucket or a wooden container – where you throw your organic food waste. This includes fruit and veggie peels and scraps, egg shells, tea bags and coffee grinds.

For convenience, keep a little container on your kitchen counter and transfer the waste to your large bin every day or when it’s full.

To keep the acid / alkali balance of your compost bin in check, layer it with organic garden waste (grass clippings, leaves, plants, ash from your fire or paper products).

compost-bin
Our bin is open at the bottom and rests on soil. When the compost is ready we dig it out from the bottom, creating space for more waste on top. It’s quite tricky to turn the compost in this bin – you need to jiggle it around or dig inside from the top. If you can, opt for a bin with built-in turning handles. Most nurseries have a range of compost bins, and some may even have bokashi systems.

Pros
– good option if you have a garden or outdoor area

Cons
– can only take organic waste (meat, dairy and oils will make your pile stink and also attract rodents and other pests).

Top Composting Tips

  • To keep your compost balanced, aim for a good mixture of nitrogen-rich green waste (grass clippings, plants, organic food) and carbon-rich brown waste (branches, sawdust, paper products such as cardboard and egg cartons, straw). This helps keep the acid / alkali balance in check.
  • If you want your compost to be more acidic, add lots of citrus (orange peels) and coffee grinds. By contrast wood ash and egg shells are great neutralisers (wood ash has the added bonus of repelling slugs and snails).
  • Turn your compost regularly (every 6 weeks or so) and keep it moist (but not wet). Keep an eye on the temperature too – waste needs heat as well as moisture to decompose.
  • Keep it covered, in a dry, shaded area.

If you find yourself running out of space, have two or more containers on the go. That way you can use a second or third container when the first is full and doing. Here are some possible combinations:

  • Two bokashis in your kitchen
  • A bokashi in your kitchen and a bin outside
  • A worm bin and a bokashi.

We’ve got a large compost bin in the garden and when that’s full we top up our worms and use the bokashi for a few weeks, giving the bin time to break down and do its thing.

Who needs therapy when you can compost?

Who needs therapy when you can compost?

Last year, I had a writing assignment on solid waste management in Cape Town. A very unglamorous gig on the face of it, but it turned out to be life changing. Until then, I’d never thought much about what happens to our food waste when we chuck it out. I knew it ended up in landfills, but I never bothered to complete the thought. If pressed, I would have said that it just decomposes. I learnt though, that it doesn’t.

When food waste hits landfill, it gets mushed in with the other stuff we chuck out – the plastic and the rubble and the hazardous waste and the toxic sludge – and creates leachate. This is the really putrid stuff that leaches out of our landfills and seeps into the earth, polluting our air and seas. Deprived of oxygen to help it break down, food waste also releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.  It’s pretty grim stuff to contemplate.

I learnt too that our landfills are running out of airspace (at an alarming rate). If we keep going the rate we’re going, we’re going to have nowhere to dump the mindless crap we keep accumulating. How to divert your food waste and keep it out of landfill? Compost it! It’s super simple. Super nutritious for your garden. And super therapeutic for you!

Getting stuck in with all that putrefying muck soothes the soul. It’s a deeply satisfying, tactile experience crushing egg shells between your fingers or ripping apart soaked tea bags to sprinkle over rotting veggies. It’s sticky and grimy – a wonderful respite from our sanitised lives where everything is contained, ordered and scrubbed clean.

Composting has reignited my connection to the very thing that sustains us. It lets me get up close and personal with food in a way that feels fantastically primal. And in our world of excess and waste it feels so good to plough what we don’t use back into the earth — rather than let it transmute into gunk that poisons our environment.

I think there’s a perception that composting and city life don’t gel. But really, all you need is a container, a willingness to get your hands dirty and a little know-how.  Read about how to get started here and here.

Try it, you’ll get hooked.