Hoping to learn about composting, shortly after we moved to CO, we purchased a vermicompost (composting with worms) system.  You can read details about that system, which has found a permanent home in my dining room, by clicking here.  It has been a wonderful way to dispose of food leftovers, cooking scraps, and so forth.

Notice the rich, dark soil mixed in with the last handful of food scraps.

It took us a while to work out some of the kinks, however.  One issue we had was that our directions for the system instructed us to mix the food items with 30% shredded paper.  At first, we loved being able to use up our shredded paper this way, but we soon realized the worms were eating the paper instead of the food scraps.  I called a friend of mine with more experience with vermicomposting, and she instructed me to replace the paper with coconut core.  We did as she instructed, and VOILA! the worms began eating the food.  After a few weeks, I had a beautiful bucket full of rich, dark soil (aka worm castings).  My indoor plants loved it!  The worms began multiplying like crazy, and we thought we were set.  Over time, though, we ran into a few more problems.

I started having a very small (I should emphasize VERY small) problem with fruit flies coming out of the container.  Now, this is a known problem if you overfeed the worms, but we only feed our worms about once or twice a week to ensure they eat it.  For whatever reason, though, we still noticed these little flies in the kitchen.  Another problem we encountered was the worms, who are supposed to move UP in the trays to each level of food as it is added, prefer moving DOWN the trays and staying in the rich soil, resulting in extra time needed for them to eat the food scraps.  I wondered if the food tray was too dry while the soil was moister, and tried watering down the food a bit, but nothing changed.  As a result, we started experimenting.  We found that if, about once a month, we simply rotated the “working” food tray down to the bottom, and the richest, most composted soil tray to the top, then the worms would distribute themselves more thoroughly throughout, and the food composted much faster.  A problem we have not yet found a solution to is seeds in the food.  Mind you, vermicompost is incredibly rich, nutritious soil, and, as we discovered, seeds absolutely thrive in it!  I lifted the tray recently, about a week after tossing some squash scraps into it and found they had really sprouted:

This is actually a big problem in vermicomposting, as the worms will not eat living plants.  So, we have to check the trays regularly.  Anytime we see that seeds have sprouted, we take a set of shears and cut them down to soil level.  This, in addition to the lack of sunlight, seems to kill off the plant enough that the worms eat it over the next 2-3 weeks.

The biggest problem, though, and the main reason for this post, is that the worms, great as they are, do not eat nearly enough scraps for our family of 6!  With a handful of food only once or twice a week, we were still left with more scraps than we knew what to do with.  We also realized that every week, we were cleaning out our rabbit cages, and throwing away wonderful fertilizer in the form of paper, hay, wood-chip bedding, and rabbit waste.  We started contemplating a solution to this waste issue, and decided once again to experiment.  We remembered we had a full-size aluminum trash can in the garage from my horse-feed days.  We pulled it out, tossed in a handful of rich vermicompost and worms to get the process started, then began just tossing all food scraps and rabbit waste into the can.

The goal here was not to vermicompost.  We wanted to learn more about regular aerobic composting.  However, this type of compost requires oxygen and bacteria.  The bacteria necessary is found in any organic substance (to include food scraps), but nutritious healthy soil is just loaded with it.  By adding healthy soil to a new compost pile, you can speed up the process, so that is what we did.  By adding worms to the pile, they crawl around and help distribute oxygen to the pile.  The downside is that this type of composting can produce a tremendous amount of heat, which worms hate (the heat will kill them), however, if done correctly, supposedly, the worms will simply move out to cooler areas of the pile when the compost gets too warm for them.  That is why I put the soil and worms in the bin.

We started this compost bin about 3 months ago in our garage.  Amazingly, despite the waste, ammonia (from rabbit urine) and rotting food, there is little smell coming from the bin.  This is due in large part to the ratio of food and nitrogenous materials (the smelly stuff that produces liquids during decomposition) to carbonaceous material (wood, paper, hay, etc.–which absorbs smell and liquids).  We have found carbonaceous material helps TREMENDOUSLY!We keep a lid on the bin to futher reduce smell, but it isn’t on very tight to allow air to flow better.  To further oxygenate the pile, we have to turn the pile about once every week or two.  Again, this isn’t entirely necessary, as food will rot and compost just because it is an organic material and that’s the way God designed it.  Regular turning, however, distributes the bacterias, heat, oxygen, scraps, and soil in such a way that it can cause the waste to turn into compost in a few months rather than a year or two.

After 3 months, our bin was finally too full for me to turn by hand (time to get a pitchfork!).  As a result, I haven’t turned the pile in 3 or 4 weeks.

A trash can full of waste with high hopes of healthy compost in a few months!

I was needing more space to put food scraps in, and I was also very curious as to what was going on deep in the bowels of this bin.  So, I convinced S to turn it for me.  So, he carried the can outside, and dumped it onto a tarp to turn it by hand.

Notice the 2 distinct layers from the bin. The bottom layer is well into the break-down process, while the top layer contains a good deal of carbonaceous material. It has not really heated to the point of decomposing yet, so it is pretty much in its original form, just as we threw it in.

It was fascinating to see the changes that had taken place.  Obviously, the bottom layer is older, and has had more time, but the distinction between the layers (dark and moist vs. light colored and dry) also shows where it was when I last turned it.  The bottom half is very evenly decomposed, rather than in layers (due to the frequent turning), while the top half has almost no decomposition going on yet.  S noted that the pile, though not hot, was significantly warmer than the surrounding air.  It is obviously working properly, and now that it is stirred, it will likely heat up even more, thereby composting even faster!

Decomposing organic materials. We can still tell what some of the food scraps are, but they are very close to breaking down completely. Any little pressure, and things just fell apart.

S was a bit cold, so he didn’t spend any time looking for the worms.  I assume they are in there somewhere.  After he stirred the pile thoroughly, he dumped the tarp back into the can, and returned the can to the garage.  I will continue adding food to the top now that the decomposing properties are more evenly distributed, and we will probably do the dump-and-stir again in another month or so.  Just for the record, yes, I am aware they make fancy compost containers that spin easily, etc.  However, first off, we are waaay to frugal (aka cheap!) to buy such a contraption, and secondly, ultimately, I plan to have a normal compost pile near the garden.  I just can’t while we live in base housing.  I’m making do temporarily.

This is a fun experiment, and really fascinating how this whole process works.  While I look forward to the day when I can have a regular outdoor compost pile like most folks, for now, I am making the best with what I CAN do!