Composting in Dryland areas


Happy New Year – as I have promised for a while now I will post my article on composting – that way I end the year by meeting one of my personal goals.

One of the cornerstones in Permaculture is recycling as much as possible, an cornerstone in recycling is composting.

When we bought the property we were exited to get a compost started – both of us grew up with and “ordinary” compost in our parents gardens in Europe, so we more or less assumed that we could more or less do the same – so we collected our organic trash, and we piled it in something like a keyhole garden and we covered each layer with brown material. After a few weeks we found the first rat in the compost… We got two cats… We later had to move the pile because we needed the space for building materials when we started renovating the house… hardly anything was composted – most of the material had just dried out.

We bought hay-bales and put them in a rectangle with a whole in the middle – hoping they would retain moisture… that did not help. Even though the compost was constantly covered with mulch the composting was painstakingly slow…

So we bought 2 compost bins from compostadores.es. They did help retain the moisture, but the process was still painstakingly slow, and the two bins we had bought were not enough for our use. I found another rat in the bin… (we were not composting milk, meat or other things that might attract rats) the cats were no help…

Last year I got some Californian compost worms from a friend – I didn’t really have much luck with them though… they were slow to reproduce, and when summer came they died 😦 This year I tried again – and I got my hands om some European nightcrawlers. They reproduce even slower than the Californian compost worms, but I figured that if I could only keep them alive long enough, they would not only be good for composting – they could also be a residual income-stream as I would eventually be able to sell the surplus to fishing stores on the coast.

I put them in a BIG planter, and fed them with rabbit-poop (more on the rabbits in a later post) and straw. I figured that the temperature would be more stable in a big planter – I put the planter under a table on the north side of the house and covered it with cardboard, and watered it once a week. This seemed to work for a while, but the compost bin was sitting on concrete and I had no way of catching the worm-tea when I watered the bin, and the water I used was clean tab-water it seemed like a lot of waste… When the temperatures approached 35C in July, I noticed the worms were trying to get out of the bottom of the bin – and I worried that they would die in their attempt to get to somewhere cooler (they’d have to get across the parking lot in front of our house to get to any kind of dirt… So I moved the bin to a small bed i had made underneath a carob tree in front of the house, I buried the bin, so that the temperature would be as cool as possible in the bottom of the bin, or at least the worms could escape to cooler dirt underneath – I was essentially free-ranging the worms (or operating on a “free to leave” philosophy).

In the beginning I would water the worms with gray water from our bathroom, or brown-water from doing dishes. I fed them as much as I thought they could eat – which was still too much… And even if I overfed them I still wasn’t giving them half the waste we have from our kitchen… So I was still using the compost-bins, and they were still not keeping up, so I had to take other buckets into use… At some point at the end of July the worm-bin had suddenly been invaded by what I thought were maggots… at the same time I noticed some flies around the bin that looked like wasps. I looked it up – and I discovered that I had been so lucky as to have attracted Black Soldier-fly Larva (BSFL)! Actually they had already moved in to the compost bins! The bins were hot – even in the sun on a searing hot Andaluzian summer day I could feel the heat rising from the compost bin! And I was worried about my worms – but I quickly learned that if I just stopped feeding them green material, the BSFLs would move away as they don’t eat brown material.

The BSFLs now live in the compost bins – and they can easily keep up with our production of garbage – actually I think one bin would be plenty for us now. I empty our compost-bin in the kitchen every 3 days or so, and by the time I empty the next bin, there is hardly any trace of what I gave them three days ago. I have been separating the green and the brown material, and giving the brown to the worms and the greens to the larvae, but I find that when I do that, the larvae bin tends to smell – and I am figuring that if it smells I am loosing nutrients – so I went back to giving the larvae all of our compost (including most of the rabbit poop and bedding from the rabbit cages): The browns are only partially broken down by the larvae, and is perfect food and bedding for the worms.

BSFL
The black soldier fly larvae bin is alive and kicking

I actually kind of forgot about the worms in August, so I stopped watering them for a long time. I figured, when I got around to them that they would probably be dead… and the bind completely dried out. But when I opened the bin after the first rain this fall, not only did I find that the worms were alive and well – and had multiplied – several trees had germinated in the box too! From now on all seeds go in the worm-bin – it is by far the easiest way to germinate seeds I have ever tried. Actually – we have decided to move the bin around to where we want to plant trees, and then leave the compost in place – and only bring some worms on to the next when we move the bin.

compost-1

One of our problems with the old compost was that we didn’t want to use too much water to compost – but since the BSFL compost the material so fast, the humidity in the food scraps are usually enough. The BSFL also eat everything – including milk and meat. Yesterday I decided to move some of them to our compost toilet bin, so I gave them a small bowl with pieces meat left-over from lunch – the bowl had holes in the bottom, so they could crawl in. This morning the bowl were full of larvae, and there was no trace of the meat. They out-compete any other flies or other vermin because the eat so fast. They do not eat at their mature stadium, nor as mature flies – which means that they don’t spread disease – and their pupae can be fed to dogs or chickens (actually humans can eat them too – I am not personally ready for that, but it is nice to know in a starvation situation…). We do not have a harvesting system set up yet, but I have noticed an increased activity of birds around the bin lately – this summer there was intense activity of wasps, I am hoping that if we attract more birds they will fend off the wasps.

Mango that grew out of the compost bin
Mango that grew out of the compost bin

The rats didn’t disappear with this, so we have now acquired a rat terrier (a Bodeguerro) – I have heard him hunt at night, and I have found a rat tail on the west terrace: He seems a lot more efficient than the cats ever were. This summer we also found a big snake in our garden-beds – I am hoping that the rats are history now… they have destroyed quite a lot of machines around here – including our washing machine #€%!!!&# I hear the dog fighting the rats at night, and one of the next projects will be to move the shed the nest is in, so lets hope we get rid of them completely this year – otherwise we will get another rat terrier.

Avocado trees
Avocados that grew out of the compost bin

The trees were planted out into their permanent spots the weekend after Bill Mollison died – so I regard them as my #plantedforbill contribution. I find it very fitting that the trees that I have planted for him grew out of a worm-bin, from seeds of fruit that we ate in our house. I think he would like that.

The BSFL have slowed down significantly now because of the cold – so I am splitting the food between them and the worms. The worms are much more active for the very same reason. They supplement each other really well.

 

 

 

 

 

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