My Small Compost Project

This time I talk about one of my small home projects. A compost, the compost is small, but its working and it was a cool project to complete. Now I just have to baby it every once in a while and after a few months I should have really good fertilizer for all my plants.

I'm sorry it's been so quiet lately around here, hopefully I can bring you in the loop and show you some of the stuff I've been doing. Soon after my birthday I got extremely busy with several projects. I've had little or no time to blog about them, or even keep some notes. But one that is easy to get out of the way and just tell you is my new compost.

When I lived in Mexico, my Mother always tried to keep me involved in interesting projects, whether it was through local cultural events, or by enrolling me in "oddball schools" as I call them. It was a good thing as far as I am concerned. Maybe I'll go into that another time. One of the schools that I attended, I think it was 5th - 6th or 7th grade, was a "green" school. At the time, it was the only one of its kind in the country.

The school was green, in the sense that its focus was to teach about sustainable living, conservation, and other ecology topics. As a growing kid, it was amazing. We got to raise farm animals, tend horses & work animals. We grew plants throughout the year and ate the edible ones to "complete" the project. We also tried to get the community involved in maintaining our environment. One time we spent a few weekends painting a mural all around a sports park, our section was about 30 meters! The mural depicted a scene that moved you across major ecosystems, and our section connected to other schools' sections and eventually made its way around the whole park. Besides all these activities, there was of course all the regular academics like math, history, science, art, and English.

I've searched the web for information about this school, but I can't find any. We used to call it the "ecological school" and frankly, I remember this name and not the real name. About 4 years ago, when I went to visit Puerto Vallarta, I rented a scooter and drove to where the school was; it was gone. The Principal's house was literally across the street, but nobody answered the door when I knocked. Immediately to the side of the school, was a large ranch-style home, one of my favorite teachers and his family, including friends of mine used to live there; they were gone as well. The idea of  "la escuela ecologica" doesn't seem to have caught on. They were definitely ahead of their time, I imagine that they would be successful now; especially with all the media attention to the global climate issues.

As a student there, one of the coolest projects I got to work on was our compost. The Principal, and founder of the school had a lot of land in her property. We took one section where an old pool used to be and made it into a massive compost. As we grow up, I think we remember things to be bigger than they really were... but if I think about it and try to remember it carefully I'd say that it was about 20-25 feet by 10-15 feet wide, and about 3 feet deep. Yeah, that's huge. But remember we had a small farm area, so we could  use the output of this compost.

We fed this behemoth by bringing our leftovers everyday.  For the first term, it was part of our homework to bring something to add. All and every grades had to participate, once the compost got underway the addition of new material became subject of extra-credit. Maintenance of the compost was similar, but it was limited to the "upper" grades  like 5th and up. I suppose that shoveling dirt and rotting food may not be a suitable task for 1st graders. After a year or so, only a few students remained constantly involved with the compost. The rest of the school simply used it as a tool to educate. The few of us that stayed involved with the compost, would go out there and the three or four of us would flip the stuff, with shovels. It would still take us a good hour or so to flip it all, then we would water it if it needed to.

I think I really enjoyed this project because it brought theoretical concepts down to our level. Before this, we just knew about these kind of things because someone told us, or because we read a book, or had to draw a little picture as homework. This made all that tangible, real. We understood what happens when food breaks down. We learned that after the compost was in processing mode, if you let it sit for a week or more, it would get hot, like pretty damn hot actually. We learned of gases, bacteria, ph levels, and other related science topics.

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For years I've been wanting to create a compost. A few weeks ago I finally got around to doing it. During a trip to Lowes, to buy some stuff I realized that the fertilizer and potting soil that were in my cart were simply not worth the $20+ that I had just paid. I was going to return them... but...I went home with the bag of fertilizer and potting soil because I needed them right away. Got home and used the fertilizer and potting soil... but as soon as I finished using them I took the little that was left over and started my compost.

It was quite simple and easy to do, and after a few weeks I'm finally seeing some of the stuff I've been adding begin to "disappear". This is the first time I do this since I was 14, and I live in a small place so I wanted to keep it relatively small. Here are a few more details about the new compost!

I first thought about buying a compost tumbler, and all the tools and stuff to be "on top of it" but then I realized that I had all the stuff I really needed already in the house somewhere.

I used a medium sized container that I had in the garage. It had old paint & tiling supplies that I reorganized, gave away or resold on craigslist. The container is made of clear plastic, so it won't leak, and I can see through it which is very helpful.  It also has lid that I can put on and lock in place to move the container around.

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I took a fat drill bit and made three holes on the lid so it could stay on always and still allow for oxygen to get to the compost.  I keep it in the back patio in a corner, it gets some sun throughout the day, but I wish it got more. I chose to keep it back there because of convenience; there is a hose close by so I can add water as needed. My back patio has a large tree that sheds leaves like crazy, so it makes it easy for me to collect them and add some to the compost to keep moisture levels at bay.

There are things I won't add, for example meat leftovers, cooked eggs, greasy or oily leftovers, bones, butter. Some of the undesirable items can make the compost take longer to break down, some other items will break down quickly but can add some strong odors. Here's a more specific list of the stuff I've actually added:

  • crushed egg shells
  • veggetable ends and butts, (carrots, broccolli, bellpeppers, garlic & onion skins, herbs)
  • veggetable peels ( potatoes, carrots, ginger)
  • lettuce, spinach & other greens
  • leftover rice and other grains and beans
  • leftover or old bread (not if it's cheesy)
  • nut shells (peanuts mostly)
  • dry leaves

It took me about 30 minutes to set it all up.

  • find the container
  • clear the crap in it -- I ended up using some of this for my office painting project, the rest went away on Craigslist in less than 20 min.
  • Hose it down
  • Drill 3 holes on the lid
  • Dump the leftover fertilizer and soil into it
  • Tell my significant other about the compost, and the freezer bag.

Since I set it up, I spend about 5 minutes each week working on it. When I work on it, it means I check the freezer for my "add to compost" bag, and add it to the compost.  I also check the moisture level and make sure there aren't any other obvious problems with the compost, like a bad smell, or bugs. The lid helps with bugs, and if there was any smell then it would help for that as well but so far, it just smells like earth.

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Oh yeah, the freezer bag is a bag that comes out of the freezer whenever we cook and in it go all the leftovers I mentioned above. So even if we only make a sandwich and only got maybe a small piece of a lettuce leaf, it simply goes in the bag. After a week or so we usually have about a pound of this stuff. A used produce bag, or a gallon sized ziploc bag do the trick nicely.

Every couple of weeks I use a gardening hand shovel to mix all the stuff and flip it to make sure all of it is getting some oxygen, and all the stuff gets to rotate throughout the different layers.

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Overall, a compost is pretty cool I think. It helps us keep less waste out of the trash system and ultimately out of landfills. Also, I don't want to pay $20 or so each time I need fertilizer --which is about 2 or 3 times a year, sometimes more... especially when all this "trash" is great fertilizer. I will be using the compost material to top off my plants around the house, in the house, in the atrium and near our entrance. I have a growing collection of plants, and I hope to keep these healthy and growing indefinitely and this should help.

I've been thinking about adding a spout to the container, to collect what people refer to as compost juice. Not sure if I want to add this complexity to it yet, so far 5 minutes each 7-10 days is great, and I don't want leaks. Anyway, that's about it for now.