Easy Composting for Your Organic Garden

That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.

Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.

Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.

I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.

To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.

Easy Compost

Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.

There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.

Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.

Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.

Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.

  1. Organic Matter
  2. Appropriate Moisture
  3. Airflow
  4. Time

This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.

I’ve also already covered vermicompost, bokashi, and compost calculations in other posts. So, if you are just joining me on this post, you may want to look back at those posts too.

How to Compost

Now, here’s how I make basic compost.

Step 1: Create Drainage

Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.

Step 2: Add Browns

You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.

For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.

Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns

Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.

Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.

If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).

Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.

Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water

Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.

When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.

Step 5: Cover and Wait

After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.

If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.

Step 6: Turn and Burn

Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.

Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.

Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.

Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.

Step 7: Have Patience

Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.

That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.

Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations

Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.

When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.

A Few More Thoughts on Composting

Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.

Turning The Pile

If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.

I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.

Sifting

I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.

I don’t sift my compost. Ever.

Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.

Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.

Precision

You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.

By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.

– Compost Thermometer

Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.

– Moisture Meter

If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.

Bins

Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.

If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.

Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.

Conclusion

I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.

Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!

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Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love

I hate to take out the trash. It actually makes me sad when I see all the stuff I send (or used to send) to the landfill. That’s because I know the place I send my trash is in the middle of a rural, residential zone.

Property is cheaper over there. I suspect that’s because most people don’t want to live near a landfill. So, there tends to be a lot of young families just starting out and retired folks on fixed incomes in that area. Sending my garbage off  to their neighborhood just feels inconsiderate.

Luckily, homesteading is a way of life that can lead to zero waste in the long-term.

Making compost is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to immediately reduce your landfill load. Starting a vermicompost bin and using that to grow a compost-driven  garden, is something you can do in just a few simple steps.

Unfortunately, people who are new to composting are often told to only compost certain things. In particular, they are warned to keep dairy, fish, meats, oils, fats, and prepared or processed foods out of their compost bucket.

Doing this cuts down on potential problems like bad smells or houseflies invading your compost bucket. However, it also severely limits the amount of compost you can make. Plus, you still end up sending a lot of unnecessary waste into other people’s backyards.

Overcoming the Limited Approach to Composting

Quite frankly, you don’t have to limit what you compost – indoors or out – as long as you use compost methods designed to deal with potentially stinkier and more pathogenic compost materials.

We’ll get into outdoor methods of composting everything in future posts. Today though, I want to tell you about a simple tool called “bokashi”. This process allows you to prepare all your food waste so that you can safely compost it using your indoor vermicompost bin.

Benefits of Bokashi

The word bokashi is Japanese for “fermented organic matter”. This fermentation process minimizes harmful bacteria in higher risk foods like meat and dairy. It also fast tracks the growth of beneficial bacteria to expedite composting later.

It can even improve the rate at which your worms generate compost because it makes your raw compost materials even healthier for them to eat. Like humans who enjoy lacto-fermented sauerkraut, worms who eat bokashi materials may be better able to digest those fermented foods. They also ingest beneficial bacteria which may improve their health and productivity.

Bokashi is done “anaerobically” which means without air. So, it limits the potential for bad smells in the early processing. Also, flies, gnats, and such can’t survive airtight containers. So, even if they get in, they don’t get out!

How to Make Bokashi at Home

Bokashi is very simple process. Well…it is once you establish a simple system for doing it. Here are the basics.

1. Fill Your Bokashi Bucket with Layers

Bokashi involves putting a few inches of compost materials (e.g. kitchen scraps and leftovers) in a container, covering them with a light dusting of inoculated bokashi bran or splash of bokashi liquid.

Then you add a few more inches of compost material with another sprinkle or splash of bokashi inoculant. You repeat this layering processing until you have filled your container.

2. Compress Your Materials and Limit Air Flow

Because this process is anaerobic, you also need to compress your scraps to push out the air between your layers.  I use the bottom of a mason jar as a tamper to squish everything down.

You keep your container tightly closed between each application of compost materials. Then, once your container is full, you close it up tight for 2-3 weeks to keep all air out while the fermentation happens.

Side Note: Incidentally, this process is very similar to making fermented foods like sauerkraut. Instead of compressing compost materials and sprinkling with bokashi bran, you compress shredded veggies or herbs and sprinkle with salt.
I’ll get into more details on fermenting foods later. But, as I explained at the start of this series, homesteading is all about simple skills. Once you know the basics, you’ll start to discover lots of different applications around the homestead!

3. Strain Out Fermentation Liquid Often

Bokashi works best when moisture levels are about 60%. Most of the food scraps we collect have more than 60% moisture. So, there is one more trick to bokashi.

You have to remove the excess moisture during the fermentation process, without letting in air. To do that, you need the right kind of container.

That container is usually called a bokashi bucket. When you buy the pre-made versions, they are about 5 gallons in size with an airtight lid.

The bokashi buckets usually have a spigot at the bottom that allows you to drain the moisture without opening the lid. Better versions also have a strainer over the spigot opening inside the bucket to keep it from clogging up.

I’ll include buying options at the bottom of this post if you are interested.  But you can also make your own bokashi buckets at home for much less than you can buy them.

DIY Bokashi Bucket Systems

Here are some simple container ideas to help you get started making bokashi for very little investment.

– Bucket with a Drain or Spigot

Bokashi Drain

If you have a hole saw or a spade drill bit kit, you can make a hole in the base of your bucket and insert a 3/4″ PVC bulkhead or a  1″ to 3/4″ PVC male adapter as a drain. Then, you’ll also need a threaded PVC end cap to close the drain.

Note: If you use the adapter not the bulkhead, you’ll also need to use silicone caulk to hold the adapter in place and prevent leakage. 

This concept costs about $6 in parts at the hardware store. It takes about 5 minutes of work to make. You’ll also need to buy or free source a bucket with a tight-fitting lid.

You could also use a spigot as a drain. They cost more like $10 for a good one that won’t clog. But they make draining your bokashi liquid easy too.

– The 3-Bucket Systems

If you don’t have a a hole saw or spade drill kit, you can also just drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of a bucket just like you did for the vermicompost bin. Then you can set the bucket with the holes inside another bucket (with no holes) to catch the liquid that drains out.

When using this method, it’s nice to have two buckets for catching the liquid. That way to remove the liquid, you just lift the inner bucket from the outer bucket. Then you immediately put the inner bucket into the second outer bucket.

After that, you can then use the bucket that has the bokashi liquid to make fertilizer (see “Using Bokashi Liquid” below for details).

For this three bucket system to work, the inner bucket must have a very tight fitting lid to create the airless conditions for making bokashi. Also, the other two buckets (that catch the liquid) must fit snugly around your inner bucket. Similar to the lid, the snug fit between the buckets helps maintain an airless environment for bokashi.

Warning: If you don’t have a second outer bucket (e.g. you use 2 not 3 buckets), then you have to put the inner bucket on something else when you empty the catch bucket. Otherwise, your bokashi bucket drips out all over the place until you put the catch bucket back.

Multiple Bokashi Bins

Similar to vermicomposting, you really need at least two bokashi bins for this to be an effective tool on the homestead.  That way while one bin is fermenting, you can be filling up the other.

Using the 3 bucket system, you’ll always need to keep one bucket under your bokashi bin to catch the liquid. However you really only need one extra catch bucket for transfers.  So, if you wanted 3 bokashi bins, you’d need 6 dedicated buckets (3 inner, 3 outer) and 1 extra catch bucket for transferring. In that case, you’d have a 7 bucket system.

Side Note: As you can probably tell by now, buckets are a pretty incredible tool on the homestead.  so free source and stash them whenever you get the chance.

Where to Keep Your Bokashi Bins

Bokashi bins, like your vermicompost bins, should be kept at temperatures suitable for  human comfort, out of direct sunlight, and in a place that is convenient for you to access regularly.

Also, when using a bucket with a drain, you’ll want to elevate it (e.g. sit it in a phone book or stack of old magazines) so you can get a cup under your drain to catch your liquid.

Finished Bokashi

Most bokashi instructions say it takes 2 weeks to ferment your scraps. I am not so great about cutting my scraps up into tiny pieces. Sometimes I put large bones, like poultry drumsticks and pork ribs, into my bokashi bucket. So, I usually just let the bokashi bucket sit for 3 weeks to make sure things are good and fermented.

When you open the bucket, if it is finished, it should have a slight vinegary, almost sweet smell. It may also smell a bit musty and sour. However, it shouldn’t smell like rancid, rotted meat. If it does, add a lot more bokashi inoculant and close that sucker up for another 3 weeks!

Using Your Bokashi Liquid

The bokashi liquid that comes out during fermentation can be diluted at a rate of 100 parts water to 1 part bokashi juice. Then you can apply it to house plants, non-edible flowers, your lawn, or mature perennial plants as a short-term fertilizer.

If you use the 3 bucket method, then just add the water to your bucket and use a jar or cup to dip out what you need for plants. I usually go for about a cup of diluted liquid per square foot of soil around the roots.

Avoid using this liquid directly in the vegetable garden as it may still contain some food-borne pathogens.

Vermicomposting Bokashi Solids

Once your bokashi is fermented, then you can add those solids from your bokashi bucket to your vermicompost bins and let your worms convert it to compost for you.

Feed your bokashi-ed goodies to your worms just like you do your un-fermented composting materials. Add a few inches to your vermicompost bin to start. When your worms eat most of that, replenish it with more bokashi solids.

Make sure you never overload your worm bin or you can suffocate your worms by creating an airless environment like your bokashi bucket!

Bokashi Inoculant

Now, that you have the basics down, we must talk about the all-important bokashi inoculant.  This stuff is basically like adding yeast to bread dough or wine must, except instead of yeast, it adds the bacteria that ferment organic matter in airless conditions.

Just to get started, I recommend you buy your dry bokashi bran ready-made. This will give you a chance to see how the inoculant is supposed to work. However, this stuff is pretty expensive to buy.

So, just a little further down the homesteading road, you’ll want to make your own bokashi starter. (I’ll cover that in a later post, too.) By then, you’ll have made a few batches of bokashi using the commercial bran. You’ll know what the process is supposed to look like. And that will make it easy for you to confirm that your homemade bokashi is working equally well.

In the meantime though, you don’t have to bokashi everything. You can continue to put your “limited list” compost materials into your worm bins fresh. Then you can use your bokashi bran just for your meat, dairy, fats, prepared, and cooked foods.  That way you won’t burn through your bran in a week.

Bokashi Pointers

Different bokashi inoculants have different application rates. So, I can’t tell you exactly how much to apply.  You’ll need to read the instructions on your bokashi inoculant for exact measurements.

Personally, though, when I buy bokashi inoculant, I prefer to use dry bran. It’s easier to store and holds up longer on my shelf.

– Compost Base

I start my bokashi by putting some finished compost in the bottom of my bokashi bucket (about an inch). This helps keep my drain from clogging and acts as a kind of biofilter for the liquid that comes out at the start of the fermentation cycle. (It tends to be stinkier than the stuff that comes out later.)

-Extra Bran for Bigger Bits and Bones

I sprinkle on about a tablespoon of dry bokashi bran over the compost. Then, I add 2-3 inches of food scraps. I add another tablespoon or so of bokashi bran, and repeat. If I am adding primarily meat or lots of bones, I add 2 tablespoons of bran instead of just 1.

Also if I am putting in large chunks of stuff, I also up my bran input. It takes longer for the bacteria to work their way through bigger bits.  So I figure by adding more of them, many bacterial buddies will make lighter work.

– Bone Meal Beginnings

Because I do put bones, large and small,  in my bokashi, later after my worms have composted my bokashi solids, I pick those bones out of the worm castings. The worms eat up all the meat residue and leave me with just bones. Then, I air dry those bones and save them to use for bone meal fertilizer (more on that in later posts).

– Lacking in Liquid

Also, since I don’t bokashi all of my kitchen scraps, sometimes I even have to add some water to my bokashi to get to the 60% moisture level that is necessary for the bacteria to be active.  If you aren’t getting any liquid run-off from your bokashi bucket, open it up and make sure your bokashi solids feel squishy but not oozy.

Bokashi is Love

We all learn to sort our recyclables, to flush the toilet, to put the seat up or down, to wrap up stinky stuff or take it direct to the outside trash bins, and so on. We take out the trash, haul it to the curb, etc.  These are all habits that we have normalized in our society to keep things nice.

Bokashi and vermicomposting are no different. You are simply sorting a different way.  Then instead of taking out the trash and sending it to someone else’s backyard, you are turning it into compost for your own.

Bokashi to me is an act of love. It’s love for my community because I am not sending my stinky mess away for someone else to live next door to. It’s love for my soil because the ultimate end product — more compost — will increase fertility for growing plants. It’s love for myself and my family because that compost ultimately grows things that nourish us and our planet.

Don’t let anyone tell you this is too hard, or too much work, or any other iteration of poo-pooing your efforts to do the right thing. This is easy, basic stuff that you can do with the same amount of effort as sending your garbage off for someone else to deal with. Yet, it is profoundly better for you, your family, our society, and our planet.

Also if you have cats or dogs, bokashi can make their poop useful for non-edible plants too. I’ll cover that in more detail in future posts. But, wouldn’t you love to not have to use toxic kitty litter? Or put your pup’s poop to good use making your homestead beautiful?

Buying Options

Just in case you need to buy some things to get your bokashi started,  if you click the images below to buy, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase price at no extra charge to you.

This is how I support this website. However, I totally understand if you prefer to make your own or find different suppliers.

Here is an easy to use dry bokashi bran. It costs $13 for 2.2 pounds. You can also buy larger batches if you want to have a supply for a while.

If you prefer a pre-made bokashi bucket, instead of making your own, you can get one that includes 2.2 pounds of dry bokashi bran for about $47 (first image).  You can get also fancier version that includes a counter top compost bucket and cup for the liquid for $55 (second image).

 

Also note, your purchases will likely come in packaging. Save your cardboard for the garden or your worm bins as extra browns. Hang on to your plastic bags for use later to make a plastic quilt to use in the garden.

Also, if they happen to send you those puffy air pillows or Styrofoam, those are great insulation around plant containers. More on these ideas in later posts too!

Simple Vermicomposting

All organic gardens start with compost. That’s why, in our last post, we started saving materials to make compost in a 5 gallon bucket. In this post, we’ll take a few more simple steps in the compost-making process.

There are many different ways of making compost ranging from easy to elaborate. I am going to explain a few simple options in this series. But, regardless of which methods you ultimately end up using, I recommend that all new gardeners start by making vermicompost!

Vermicomposting makes great humus which is magical stuff that helps everything in your garden grow better. Plus it also makes “plant perfect” fertilizer that you can start using almost immediately.

What is Vermicompost?

worm-castings.png

Vermicompost is made primarily by red wriggler worms. Red wrigglers are very small worms that can eat half their body weight, each day, of all those fresh materials you’ve been saving in your 5 gallon bucket.

In reality, you’ll get a lot of ebb and flow in compost production depending on what you’ve got in your bucket. Still, with very minimal work, you can accumulate quite a bit of the highest quality, least work compost possible using these amazing worms.

Also, if you plan to keep other livestock later, your ability to take care of these worms is both good practice and an excellent test of your readiness for more complex life forms (e.g. chickens).

How Do You Care For Worms?

To take care of your worms, you’ll need to provide them proper shelter and bedding, nutritious food and sufficient water, occasionally clean their living area, and make adjustments in their care as required for their continued good health. (Incidentally, that’s also what you need to do for all other livestock.)

– Shelter and Bedding

For your first round of worms, their shelter will be a plastic container.  Their bedding will be compost or top soil.

– Food and Water

Their food will be the materials you have been saving in your 5-gallon bucket, plus some loose brown matter that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Generally the food materials from your bucket will have sufficient water to hydrate your worms. Although, you may occasionally need to moisten your feed materials if they start to dry out.

Like us, worms don’t want to open the metaphorical fridge and find that the only thing to eat is ketchup. So, make sure to feed them before they run out of food. That way they can pick and choose what to eat and don’t end up living on nothing but onions and coffee grounds for a month.

Similar to making compost, some people say you shouldn’t give worms certain things. Well, smells and insects can be a problem in indoor worm bins.  So I recommend you do one of two things.

  1. Use the “limited list” compost approach to collecting in your bucket.  This excludes things like meat, dairy, and cooked foods.
  2. If you prefer to compost everything indoors, then you’ll need to ferment your compost materials before you feed them to your worms.  This is done by a very simple process called bokashi. (I will tell you more about that in our next post).

People also say you should chop things up small — not give whole egg shells or wash them first, avoid citrus, limit onions — etc. etc. etc. Personally, I ignore all those special rules. Whatever the worms don’t eat, goes into the garden with the worm castings. There, other life forms end up eating them eventually.

– Cleaning

As far as cleaning goes, I recommend that you make at least two worm bins. When one bucket fills up you can scrape the majority of the worms from the top of your full bucket and transfer them to a new bucket.  Then all you need to do is spread the compost from your first bucket on your garden.  Once your second bucket is full, repeat the same process.

You will also need to empty the liquid, called leachate,  that drains from your worm bin into your second container, regularly. Dilute this liquid to a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate. Use it to water the roots of your more mature plants. (Don’t use this on seedlings, sometimes it can be too strong.)

– Care

Worm care is very simple. Still, I can’t tell you how many people have managed to kill their worms. One lady left them shut up in her greenhouse on a hot day.  A man put them in his garage which was well below freezing, so his worms froze to death. Most people just fail to feed them and those poor, trapped worms die of starvation.

Worms like the same basic climate conditions as we do for best performance. Well, except that they live in a plastic box – which amplifies conditions like sunlight, heat, and cold. Basically, though, if you keep them at the house temperatures you feel comfortable in, out of direct sunlight, and away from vents that will cause them to become too dry, they’ll be happy.

Feed them before they get hungry. Transfer them to a new bin before they run out of space. And remember to treat them like they are living beings, doing amazing work for you, then you’ll do just fine!

Now, that you are primed on the basic needs of worms, here’s what you need to do to start using them at home.

1. Prepare Your Browns

You’ve already started gathering your worm food in your 5 gallon buckets. But now, it’s time to start saving up some separate “browns” to go help create a hospitable environment for worms. Used computer paper, newspaper, junk mail with the plastic windows torn out, paper towels, cardboard, paper egg cartons, tissues boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. are all good options. Crushed, but not composted, fall leaves are also a good option when the season is right.

Shred your paper items if you can. But if you don’t have access to a shredder, you can also do this manually. If you watch any TV or movies, tearing large paper-based materials into small pieces by hand while you watch is relaxing and redeeming. (Personally, I don’t feel guilty about my TV time if I am also doing some homesteading “work” while I watch).

2. Make Your Worm Bin

Extra large cat litter boxes or 5 gallon sized food grade buckets make great worm bins. Ideally you’ll want two containers of the same size that you can nest together.

If you don’t have any containers from your own purchases, ask friends and family to collect these for you. Or check with your favorite restaurants to see if they can save you their large food grade buckets.

– Make Drainage Holes For The Worm Compost Leachate

Drill a few holes in the bottom of one container for drainage. Put some weight on the bucket using your foot to keep it steady. Then hold the drill with two hands to drill the holes.  (Keep your foot away from the drill, though for safety).

Drill a Few Holes

Note: Those cat litter pails have ridged bottoms. Make sure you drill the part that is flush with the bottom — not the inverted ridges — because liquid needs to flow to the low point in the container. This is where your worm compost tea will drain out thanks to gravity.

Look! This is so easy, you can even get your cat involved!

– Make a Vent for Fresh Air

If your container has a lid, you can use a sharp utility knife to make an air vent.  Cut out a small section. Cover it with a few coffee filters, folded to size, and held in place with duct tape. Paper towels also work if you are not a coffee drinker.

Note: Some people worry that the worms might eat through the coffee filters. I have never had it happen. I suspect that’s because there are better food options in the body of the bucket. But, if you are worried about this, you can use a piece of metal screen like you use for your screen door or over windows to keep flies out instead.

– No Lid? No Problem

If you only managed to scavenge containers but no lids, then just cover the whole top with a towel and secure it with a rope or bungee cord. You will be getting in and out of this bucket from time to time. So make sure you secure your towel using something you can untie easily.

No lid no problem

Again, if you are concerned about worms escaping by eating the towel, then use some screen cut to size instead of a towel.

– Add Your Compost Leachate Catcher

Nest your bucket with holes inside your other container that doesn’t have holes.

Nested Worm Bin

With the cat litter boxes, you can even lean the drilled side forward a bit to help the liquid drain faster.  This doesn’t work with round buckets, but it will still drain fine (just a bit more slowly).

3. Prepare Worm Habitat

Fill the Bin

There are all sorts of formulas out there for what to put in your worm bins. Personally,  after years of raising worms in bins, in beds, and direct in the garden, I have decided that nature knows best.

I add 3 inches of top soil or finished compost to the bottom of my worm bin since this is what the worms live in when they free range. This also helps maintain the moisture in the bin in while acting as a bio-filter for the liquid that drains out the bottom.

Moisten your compost or soil so that it is like a full — but not soppy — sponge.

Side Note For Garden Preparation

You are going to need to get some already-made compost for your garden very soon. So, go ahead and start buying a couple of bags a week in preparation for starting your beds. If you grab a few bags each time you do your normal shopping, it’s not such a hit to your budget or so much heavy lifting for your back! Then you can use some of this in your worm bin too.

You’ll need about 3 cubic feet of well-aged compost for every 10 square feet of garden space you’ve earned based on your estimated compost making ability.  Normally bagged compost is about 1 cubic foot per bag. Double check the label to be sure, though. (Organic compost can sometimes be in smaller bags to make the price seem more similar to the non-organic variety).

4. Move Your Worms into their New Home

You can buy worms online from specialized suppliers. They sell them by the pound or piece count.  A pound of worms is about 1000 worms, and that’s about what you need to get started. Some suppliers only ship in good weather for worm safety. Others charge a lot for shipping because they use foam coolers and insulation to ship year round.

You can often get a batch of worms from other gardeners (if you ask nicely and maybe barter a bit). Bait and tackle shops often carry red wrigglers for fishermen to use as well.

If you have seen red wrigglers in your soil, then you can also just put a couple inches of your compost materials on your soil and wait until the worms crawl up to eat it.  Then you can pick out worms and put them in your bin.  You’ll need to repeat this a few times to get a sufficient population for your bin. But, it saves you up to $40 on the price of worms.

Once you have your worms, spread them out on top of the compost in your new worm bin.  Introduce yourself.  Let them know you’ll be taking care of them. And wish them well in their new home!

5. Feed Your Livestock

Now, add about 3 inches of loose compost materials from your 5 gallon bucket to this new worm bin to get them started. Do not pack this in. You don’t want those worms to suffocate or get crushed!

Cover the fresh materials with about 2 inches of the loose brown matter from step 1 above. The brown stuff will cut down on smells and irritating gnat flies.

If you haven’t collected enough browns yet, then you can also sprinkle just enough of your bagged compost to cover the fresh materials.

6. Get to Know Your Worms

Red Wrigglers

Like any new livestock, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with your worms at first to get to know as much as you can about them. Move aside your browns every day or two and see how much your worms have eaten. Check to see if your materials are still moist. Pay attention to how much black, gummy goodness (a.k.a. worm poop) your power eaters have made.

Each time you visit your worms, add in more fresh food and browns, as needed, to replace what’s missing. Also, give your worms a banana peel now and then. That’s their favorite food!

Actually it’s the potassium in the peels that they are attracted. Potassium can be hard to come by in other forms of organic matter. When you add a banana peel or two to each batch of vermicompost, you also increase the potassium content that will be in the vermicompost and leachate that you feed to your plants.

Conclusion

When you have accomplished the above, you can add “vermicompost manager” to your homesteading resume. You have not only started to make your own compost for the garden. but you have also added your first kind of  livestock to your homestead line-up!

These simple steps, have led to huge progress. This one skill can feed your garden and your family for years to come. And, if you take great care of your worms, they will live long and propagate so you never have to buy them again.

Continue your simple homesteading journey with Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love.

Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations

Are you dreaming of a big, beautiful garden full of lush, tasty vegetables and fruits? Can you image the smell of a ripe tomato or of the earth as you carefully loosen pounds of perfect potatoes from your rich, loamy soil? Do your future beans, corn, and sunflowers climb 12 feet in the air and tower over you like benevolent garden giants?

Is your imagined garden abuzz with all the pollinating insects and beneficial pest eaters? Do borage, nasturtium, calendula, marigolds, and other companion flowers line your paths and intermix with your vegetables? Do you picture yourself cutting fresh herbs from a stunning array of ever-giving plants?

Oh, I love that dream! There is nothing so soul-moving and life-altering as a growing (or even imagining growing) a vibrant garden. And you can absolutely make that dream a reality using simple steps if you know how to grow a garden.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Besides the basics, like seeds, plus sufficient water, light, and air (to be covered in detail later), there are just two more things you need to grow your very own garden of Eden.

  1. You need soil that is about 2 feet deep, loose in texture, and high in humus content.
  2. Then, you need a way to return nutrients to your soil every time you harvest.

Now, don’t panic! Remember in the pep-talk post, when I said that as long as you do it slowly, methodically, and with careful intention, then homesteading is easy?

Well, I need you to keep that in mind as you start planning your garden. This is important because the garden is where most new homesteaders start to go really wrong.

Here’s why.

You’ve got big dreams, but little skills. And the garden is an excellent teacher. If you start too big, your garden will quickly teach you the limit of your skills. That can be very disheartening to new gardeners. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grow According to Your Skill Level

Starting simple, by right-sizing your garden to your skills, will get you much better and quicker results than overreach. With that said, how big should you make your garden?

Well, here’s a good rule of thumb.

Match your garden size to your finished compost production.

If you are just getting started, you won’t even have finished compost for at least a year from when you start collecting materials. So, you’ll likely be buying compost for your first year of gardening.

In fact, you’ll probably be buying some things for the garden for at least the first 5 years until you get your soil in shape to qualify for point number 1 above. But, if you don’t want to be spending a fortune on your garden for the rest of your homesteading life, then using your ability to produce compost as your garden-size guide is the way to grow.

Why?

Because, if you don’t add enough fresh compost annually to your garden, it will produce less and less each year. Plus your pest, pathogen, and crop failure problems will increase in direct relation to your lack of compost.

Homestead gardens do not grow on dreams alone. The dream is just the seed that gets you started. After that, you must feed the garden dream. For that, you need compost!

How to Start Growing a Compost Driven Garden

Even if you have never composted before in your life and barely know what it is, I will tell you an easy way to estimate your compost capacity.  Then I’ll give you a simple way to get started making compost right away.

Estimate Your Compost Capacity

A 5-gallon bucket works great for estimating your compost capacity. The number of times you can fill that bucket in a year equals the number of square feet you can grow in your garden using your own compost.

Think of it like this. Each time you fill that bucket, you’ve earned a square foot of garden space for one year. So, if you fill that bucket once a month, then in a year, you’ll have enough compost for a 12 foot long by 1 foot wide garden.  If you fill it twice a month, your compost capacity can support twice that amount so you get 2 rows that are 12 feet long.

You can also rearrange those square feet of space anyway you like.  For example, you could have a 6 foot row that is 2 feet wide. Or you could have three square beds that are 4 square feet each.  Maybe you prefer a keyhole bed?  That part is up to you.

Garden Bed Possibilities

If you’ll be container gardening, the bucket calculation still works. You may just need to do a little math to translate the shapes of your containers into square feet.

It’s easier with square and rectangular containers. For round containers, though, you can go back to your high school algebra or just use an online calculator to convert the diameter of your pots to square feet.

Compost Approaches

There are two theories on compost. The first is the theory that you can only compost uncooked vegetable and plant matter. The second theory is that you can compost almost everything that was once living or that came out of something once living.

– The Limited List Compost Approach

Nature composts everything. It just breaks some things down at a slower rate. It also breaks some things down using methods we humans can be a bit squeamish about. For example, cooked meat is often composted by stinky bacteria and maggots.

As such, the primary reasons to limit what you put in your compost piles are to reduce potential unsavory smells and get ready-compost faster.  Many people prefer to use the limited list approach to composing so they don’t offend their neighbors or have to protect their compost piles from pesky pests (or pets).

The list below is taken straight from the EPA page on composting.  (Under the don’t compost side, you’ll see the reason why you might not want to compost this stuff.)

Compost

Don’t Compost

Fruits and vegetables Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
Eggshells – Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
Coffee grounds and filters Coal or charcoal ash
Tea bags – Might contain substances harmful to plants
Nut shells Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
Shredded newspaper – Create odor problems and attract pests
Cardboard Diseased or insect-ridden plants
Paper – Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred to new plants
Yard trimmings Fats, grease, lard, or oils
Grass clippings – Create odor problems and attract pests
Houseplants Meat or fish bones and scraps
Hay and straw – Create odor problems and attract pests
Leaves Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
Sawdust – Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses
Wood chips Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
Cotton and Wool Rags – Might kill beneficial composting organisms
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
Hair and fur
Fireplace ashes

Note: Limited list composters may also compost some animal manure. But they often compost manures using different methods than for pure plant matter.

– The Compost Everything Approach

The compost everything approach requires that you have a composting system you can protect from rodents and bigger critters or pets. It also requires that you wait 1 year from the time your pile is 4 x 4 feet tall and wide (large enough to generate heat) to apply the compost to your garden.

The pile size requirement and the waiting period are both necessary to give slower composting materials time to break down and to minimize risk of pathogen reinfection.

What Not To Compost EVER!

Warning! For both composting approaches, there are 3 things to keep out of your pile.

  • Plant matter from walnut trees because these may contain juglone – a naturally occurring plant growth inhibitor.
  • Diseased plant matter because many fungal pathogens can survive composting and persist in the soil for up to 10 years.
  • Chemical-laced organic matter because some herbicides (and other chemicals) can take 2 years or more to decompose in compost. If you want to learn more about this, check out this fact sheet on Understanding Persistent Herbicides from the US Council on Composting.

Which Kind of Composter Are You?

The limited list compost camp is easiest for beginners. It has few risks and doesn’t require any special equipment. You can even just build your pile on some twigs on the ground without using a bin.

The downside of being a limited list composter is that you’ll have a lot less material to compost. Either that or you’ll have to do a lot more work to gather materials to increase your compost capacity.

When you take the compost everything approach, though, it’s hard to switch back to the limited list approach after you start. You’ll already have stuff in your pile that needs time to decompose. So, you’ll need to keep your compost pile protected until it decomposes. Or you’ll need to bag that stuff up and deliver it to the landfill. So, consider this option carefully.

In rural areas, composting everything may make a whole lot of sense. But in a small apartment, when you only plan to grow a few containers, then limited list composting might be the perfect solution.

There is no right or wrong answer here, just the one that makes the most sense for you.

Start Composting Now

I’ve given you a lot to think about. If it doesn’t all make perfect sense now, don’t worry.  it will come.

For now, just start to move in the right direction.  For your next steps do the following.

  1. Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket with a tight fitting lid.
  2. Take a little time to decide what kind of composter you think you want to be. If you are undecided, then start with the limited list approach. You can always start composting more things later when you have more experience.
  3. Start collecting your composting materials in your bucket. Put the bucket under your kitchen sink or next to your trash can. Or, put the bucket elsewhere (e.g. in the garage, in a shed etc.) and then keep a small container on your counter to fill and empty into your bucket.
  4. Be mindful about your new composting habit. Remind yourself to sort your  compostables into your bucket every time you throw something away until this becomes a habit.
  5. Make note of the date you start collecting and the date you fill the bucket. Keep track of this information for several months to get a reliable estimate.

Upcoming Posts

There’s a bit more to learn about composting and gardening before you are ready to plant your first seeds. We’ll be getting deeper into those topics in future posts.

In particular, we’ll look at a few easy methods for turning those 5 gallon buckets of collected material into actual compost. We’ll also look at ways you can increase your compost production by sourcing materials for the purpose of composting.

We’re also going to start preparing a garden together. Yep, I am going to start one from scratch so I can show you how to begin and what to do each step of the way.

Remember,  simple steps are all it takes. Don’t worry about all that other stuff yet. Just start filling your bucket. That is all you need to do to start composting.

Also, take pleasure in knowing that each bucket you fill brings you that much closer to the garden of your dreams!

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Simple Vermicomposting.