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Go Back   BHM Forum > Homesteading > Plants

Plants Plant-related topics that do not have a dedicated board.

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  #1  
Old 03-06-2012, 03:22 PM
kfander Male kfander is offline
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Join Date: Apr 2011
Location: Millinocket & St. Agatha, Maine
Posts: 1,947
Default Composting: In Town and in Woods

I have been composting everything compostable over the past few years, and with large successes. I learned a lot from the failures of my first batch, although it was nevertheless usable, and will hopefully learn new things with each subsequent batch of compost. In the process, I have learned to appreciate junk mail and, in fact, take steps to generate more of it than I might otherwise. I have also learned to ignore those who would insist that certain things should never be composted. Actually, I don't ignore them entirely, because there are generally good reasons for their arguments, but I take them as cautions rather than prohibitions. With few exceptions, it isn't plastic or metal, I compost it. This includes junk mail, newspaper and magazines, including glossies. I have composted old paperback books, as well as hardcovers. I compost cat litter, used toilet paper, tissues and paper towels. We do a large percentage of our shopping online so we have a lot of cardboard shipping boxes; they are composted as well. Cereal boxes and other food packaging is composted. All of our food scraps are composted, including meat, bones and fats. Once in awhile, during the summer, I will add peat moss or humus to the mix, but this is a matter of convenience rather than necessity.

I have two different composting environments and, while I make some adaptations for the different environments, the basic premise remains the same: I compost nearly everything. In different environments and with different purposes, you may need to make other adaptions, but I think that you can still greatly reduce the amount of stuff you contribute to the landfill. You may not wish to do everything that I do, but I wouldn't discount something just because it sounds gross, or because the books tell you not to do it. There are no appreciable odors coming from my backyard compost pile and, other than an occasional raccoon, it hasn't attracted pests. Anyone who has done any composting at all has had to get past the gross factor to some extent, and this might require you to go a step further along those lines.

Environment One: I have a home on just under a half an acre in a small town near the center of Maine. I have a neighbor to the south of me. The house to the north of me has been vacant for the past several years. To my west is a railroad track leading to a paper mill that has been closed for the past few years, so there is seldom any train traffic. My compost piles are set up near the northwest corner of my yard. I have two compost piles, and would add a third if I lived here year round, or if I were using the compost on food crops, in order to give it a full two year composting cycle. As it is, my house was build over a hundred years ago on land that was once underwater much of the year. The paper mill was constructed before the town, so the mill used its coal ash wastes to fill in wetlands, something that certainly wouldn't be allowed today. A few inches of earth was dumped over this coal ash, so that lawns could be planted, but if I dig down five or six inches anywhere in my yard, I will hit coal ash. Consequently, deep rooted trees cannot be easily grown here. When I bought the house, we had a couple of cherry trees in the back yard that were growing on a 45-degree angle, one of which has subsequently fallen over, its root system being unable to sustain the weight of a full grown tree. Trees that root horizontally, or whose roots are able to get through the coal ash, can grow well. Perhaps for this reason, the town has long had a compost program, where the town will compost grass clippings, leaves and chipped tree branches, making the finished product available free to any town resident. The first year that I was here, I made several trips back and forth from the compost area, trying to build up my soil, and creating raised rock gardens. Then I realized that it didn't make a lot of sense for me to be hauling grass, leaves and compostable household trash to the compost area or transfer station only to bring finished compost back home with me when I could be composting much of that right here. So my backyard composting is used for the purpose of building up the soil of my yard, not for gardening, although if I gave it an additional year, I wouldn't be afraid to use it on food crops.

Environment Two: I have a hundred acres of land in far northern Maine. Thirty years ago, I am told that most of this land was in potato production. Currently, we have a five acre field and part of another field in potato production, but the remainder of the land has grown into a woodland, with parts of it qualifying as a forest. Approximately one quarter of the property is a cedar swamp, which I will be leaving as is, because deer and moose winter there. Except for the small area in which I have a cabin, I will be keeping the woodland pretty much as it is as well, except that I would improve upon it. There are natural clearings throughout the woodlands, on some of which I will be planting perennial crops, including fruit trees, both for ourselves and the wildlife. There are areas in the woodland that I want to build up so that I can walk through the property without getting my feet wet in the spring and early summer, and so that I could make better use of it. Currently, we live up north during much of the spring, summer and fall, returning to our home periodically. I started a compost pile in the woods. My woodland compost piles will compost in place, and remain where they are, and I will establish new compost piles as needed. I will probably continue the compost pile that I began last spring through another season, starting a new one in another part of the woods the following year. This reduces the amount of trash that I have to haul to the transfer site, and allows me to make good use of my wastes.

Currently, we rent a small place near our land from a friend, so that I can work on the property and cabin. I haul all of our household compostables to the woodland compost pile. Once I complete the cabin and we can get a well drilled up north, we'll be living in the cabin through the spring, summer and fall. At that time, I will be establishing additional compost piles for food crops near the cabin. Since we have bears, raccoons and other woodland creatures on the property, I will want to avoid the use of any food products in these compost piles. While it is my desire to share my extended property with the bears and such, I don't want to encourage them to come around the cabin looking for food. Food scraps will continue to be deposited across the road, and further into the woods, along with much of my paper and cardboard waste, where the wildlife can feel free to help themselves and being the compost process.
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  #2  
Old 03-06-2012, 03:24 PM
kfander Male kfander is offline
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Join Date: Apr 2011
Location: Millinocket & St. Agatha, Maine
Posts: 1,947
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In my backyard compost, at my home in town, here is what has worked well for me. In late summer or early fall, I will harvest the compost from the previous year, spreading it across my lawn, raking it down, and seeding it with native grasses. Anything that hasn't fully composted from the previous year gets thrown in with the new compost. This will generally consist of shredded paper that has packed too closely together for proper aeration, as well as wads of paper towels, which often take at least a couple of years to compost.

My compost piles are fenced in on four sides. For my first pile, I used a bunch of wood strapping that I pounded into the ground, tying it together with string. I didn't expect that to hold together for more than one year but it's doing fine, going on three years now. My second compost pile is fenced in with a couple of old doors and some scrap lumber. If I had neighbors on that side of the property, I would have made them prettier and, when it comes time to replace them, the new ones will look nicer than the old ones. Nevertheless, they are functional.

I begin the compost pile with ten large compost bags that have been filled with leaves and grass clippings. The bags are filled tightly, but not packed densely. These bags are stood up along the ground of the compost area to form a base. These form air pockets along the bottom of the compost pile, facilitating the compost process on the bottom of the compost pile. On top of these filled bags, I will add a layer of leaves and anything else that I rake up from the yard. Grass clippings are, of course, allowed to compost in place. On top of that, I'll add my household wastes.

Food scraps are placed in a plastic bag in the kitchen. This may include potato peelings, fruit and vegetable rinds, nutshells, uneaten food, coffee grounds, coffee filters, tea bags, and anything else compostable, including waste meat, bones and fat. I have a good shredder, one that can handle even cardboard packaging material. All of my paper and cardboard is shredded, which generally amounts to a full container of shredded paper every day. I even volunteer to receive junk mail whenever the opportunity presents itself because I used the shredded paper to cover up the nastier stuff that is added to the compost mix. I used to shred newspapers as well, but I now use wet newspapers as a base for plantings so I have a better purpose for that. I know that there will be those who will quarrel with me, but I have had no problems composting even glossy magazine paper and waxed cardboard. The prevalence of toxic materials in inks today is not what it used to be, and my opinion is that whatever harmful affects may result from composting glossies are outweighed by the greater harm that comes from contributing these materials to a landfill. Nature is tougher and more capable than we give it credit for, and I'm not seeing any problem with that. You may want to leave out the glossies, particularly if you are using your compost in food crops, although I think that giving the compost process another year will even things out in that respect.

In part because of a plumbing problem, I have begun composting used toilet paper and tissues, but I think it's a good idea anyhow. After a sewer problem, the plumber ran camera into our sewer pipe and found that we have a partly collapsed sewer pipe near the connection of our piple with the municipal sewer line. Correcting this will involve tearing up a part of the state road that runs past our house, as well as excavating much of our front yard, the estimated costs will run into the thousands. Since we don't have that at the moment, we decided to greatly reduce the amount of paper that we flush through our sewer lines. Except for the really messy stuff, we deposit used toilet paper and tissues into an empty plastic cat litter bin. Eventually, we'll have to fix the sewer line but I am hoping that we will by then have gotten used to composting our paper wastes.

Because I am using my compost to build up our yard, the addition of clay materials is not a problem for me. In fact, it is a benefit. I have four cats, each of which will come indoors to use the litter box. In their litter boxes, I use a mixture of clay clumping litter and various biodegradable clumping litters, particularly those using cedar and walnut shells. I have tried corn and newspaper based litters, but the newspaper-based litter doesn't work very well, in my opinion, and one of my cats will not use corn-based litter, for reasons that probably make sense to her. Feline Pine worked very well, for my purposes, but the same cat refused to use that as well.

Here's the routine. Each morning, generally before my wife gets up, I will take the plastic bag of household wastes downstairs (our kitchen is upstairs) to the room where the cat litter boxes are. I will then scoop the cat litter from the boxes into the bag that already contains the food scraps. That will be dumped into the center of my compost pile. Periodically, the entire contents of a cat litter box will have to be changed, and that too will go into the compost pile. Each of the four cat food bowls are filled with hot water, which is emptied into the plastic container that holds the used toilet paper and tissues. After wiping out the the cat food bowls with a paper towel, that too is added to the plastic container. I fill the plastic container two-thirds of the way with hot water and set it aside while I feed the cats their morning allotment of canned food, which is a quarter of a can each. I free-feed them kibble, which makes up the bulk of their food. The empty can is placed into the plastic bag that had once held the food scraps; which is then tied and deposited into the trash. I then take the container of used toilet paper, tissues and paper towels, which has been soaking in hot water, to the compost pile and add it to the center. In the winter, this makes a convenient hole through the snow and ice that may have accumulated there, allowing this material to sink further into the pile. On top of that, I add the shredded junk mail, cardboard and other paper, which efficiently covers any odors that might otherwise result. On the rare occasion that I don't have enough shredded paper and cardboard to serve this purpose, I might add peat moss, humus or another purchased material, but I seldom need to do this, as I can usually find something that I could shred.

From time to time, I will add small cardboard boxes to the compost pile as they are, without shredding or flattening them. I might loosely fill them with household scraps or other compostables. This helps to build pockets in the compost, and to aerate the compost material. When the pile has grown to be about three feet high, I will flatten a large cardboard box and lay that across the top of the compost pile. Since unshredded carboard will compost a slower rate than the other materials, this will not only create an air pocket, but it will allow the material below it to continue composting throughout the Maine winter. Periodically, I might flatten smaller carboard boxes and lay them across at various levels of the compost pile.

Before the snow comes, I'll rake the yard every now and then, adding layers of leaves to the compost pile. Once the snow comes, because my compost pile does not have a cover, snow and ice add much in the way of bulk to the pile. On cold days, this allows the compost beneath the snow and the ice to remain warm, continuing the compost process through the winter. On days when the temperatures rise above freezing, the melting snow and ice add moisture, and then a solid covering of ice when temperatures dip again. Consequently, my compost piles are deceptively high by the end of winter. In the spring, I cover the compost pile with a tarp and begin using the second compost pile. I am here only a few days each month through the spring, summer and fall. During that time, a friend (who winters in Florida) stays here. While I haven't been able to get him to compost to the extent that I do, he does add compost to the new pile during the summer, after I have begun the fresh compost pile in the manner described above.

When I return in the fall, my first compost pile will have fallen dramatically. As I spread the compost onto the lawn, there will be no evidence whatsoever of the compost bags that had been placed on the bottom, or of any of the cardboard boxes that I had added to the compost pile, either whole or flattened. These will be completely composted. Where I may have added too much shredded paper in one place, I will sometimes find clumps of incompletely composted white paper, and large wads of paper towels are sometimes not composted. The first time that I added paper towels to the compost, I found that they had not composted at all; instead looking as if they had just been placed in the middle of my compost pile. However, a combination of choosing the right kinds of paper towels, not placing them too densely, and soaking them in hot water before adding them has helped considerably. Anything that hasn't composted is added to the new compost pile, to be given another year of composting. Otherwise, there will be no trace of anything ugly in the pile, nor will there be any disgusting odors. The compost is spread onto the lawn and seeded for fall sprouting. In the spring, that portion of the lawn will be noticeably greener and healthier looking than the other parts of the lawn. I have also used home compost in my raised gardens, growing mostly perennial flowers.
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  #3  
Old 03-06-2012, 03:25 PM
kfander Male kfander is offline
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Join Date: Apr 2011
Location: Millinocket & St. Agatha, Maine
Posts: 1,947
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In my woodlands up north, there is no rush whatsoever, and the compost is intended to remain in place, so I don't care how many years it takes for the compost process to complete. Nor do I care if it attracts bears, raccoons or other creatures. Across the road, and nearly a quarter of a mile into the woods, I roped off a portion of a clearing where the ground was lower than I wanted it to be.

Within that area, I add anything compostable. This may include shredded paper, magazines, junk mail and cardboard; but it may also include cardboard boxes full of compostable materials. Discarded clothing made of cotton or other natural materials are also added, along with food scraps. Since we are living a few miles from our woodlands during the spring, summer and fall, the cat litter is collected in compostable dog poop bags, while other household waste is collected and transported there in cardboard boxes or paper bags. Since we don't have any plumbing problems in the place that we're renting, I do not currently dispose of used toilet paper there, but once I get the cabin finished, we'll be using a compost toilet on the property, which will be disposed of in the woodlands compost area.

Since my woodlands compost area is well away from the cabin, it's okay if the bears, the raccoons and the skunks want to begin the compost process for me. In fact, I sometimes set my wildlife camera up to see which animals make the most use of it and the winners, by far, are the bears. The only downside to that is that the bears sometimes like to drag cardboard boxes away from the compost pile, so I have to clean up after them from time to time. Of course, even this is unnecessary, since whatever they hauled away would simply compost wherever it was left, but I don't like coming across pieces of cardboard and stuff while I am walking through the woods, so I even keep an old rake out there. As mentioned earlier, if I were to establish any gardening compost piles near our cabin, I would be more careful about what I put in there, so as not to attract the bears. Given the fertility of the woodlands, even during the first year of my woodlands compost pile, things were growing in it, and there were even plants growing out of the compostable bags of cat litter. In a month or so, when I cat get in there again, I'll decide whether to continue that compost pile for another season or to establish a new one elsewhere in the woods.

This has been my experience. While I know that some of you will quarrel with the use of glossy magazine paper in the compost, or with the addition of cat litter, or something else, it is working well for me. It's not doing me any harm, nor does it appear to be causing any troubles with my lawn in town or the woodlands up north. In town, it's a matter of convenience and compost, but I have to transport this stuff to my woodlands, when it would be easier to simply dispose of it in the trash, so I am doing this because I believe that, as compared to adding this stuff to a landfill somewhere, it is doing far more good than harm, and I'm not seeing the harm at all.
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