Category Archives: compost

compost update

y’all may remember this post from some time ago – when i wrote about this “rat resistant compost” method.  there was some skepticism amongst readers.  rightly so, considering what i have seen rats do to a trash can, but i was willing to give it a try.  after eight months of adding my kitchen scarps to this pit composting system i dug them up, and this is what i found.  compost updatenot fully finished compost – but something that could be added to worm bins – or in my case my regular compost pile without fear that rats would be interested.  no rats gnawed though the bin, so i would call it a success. i’m still looking at methods that are much faster than this for helping out with initial composting in urban areas.  if you have any recommendations, let me know.


low cost rat resistant home composting

i teach composting and often get questions about keeping rats out of compost piles.  i’d had the good fortune of not having too many problems with rats in the past, and would often smugly answer that all one needed to do was to bury food waste deeply in the pile and you were ok.

in this last year the rats started finding our compost pile at the old house, and it turned into a rat buffet.  despite putting scrapes deep in the pile, despite not using any post consumer food waste, those rats would just bury though and rip it open.  coming home at night, when they were most active, i could see at least a half dozen, and i can only assume more were lurking about where i couldn’t see them.

i’m determined not to let the situation arise again in this house hold, but still feel the need to compost kitchen scrapes.  good friends recommended using trashcans sunk in the ground for a rat resistant kitchen scrap composting solution.

first thing that needed to be done was to dig a hole.

IMG_2342the soil in this photo makes it look like i’m dealing with better quality soil than i think we are.  while it’s not bad, this spot appears to have been a dumping spot for the household, and at least a good portion of the darkness in the soil is from old coal and other junk.  i pulled out all sorts of pottery etc.  i also was able to find the old slab of what i assume to be the garage.  i didn’t explore too far as to how big it is, but at some point i may find my self with a sledge breaking up concrete.

with the hole dug, i just needed a trash can.  holesdrilledi’d been toting this trash can around for years, it had mainly been used for sanitizing beer bottles for home brew.  since i haven’t been  brewing too much, the current needs out weighed the possible needs.  with a large drill bit and cordless drill, in a minute or two it was full of holes, to allow excess moisture out and microbes in.

barrelsetsunk into the ground, and then covered with a lid lidit doesn’t look too bad.  certainly less unsightly than a bunch of rats chowing down, and it costs a lot less than some of the those fancy compost machines that you can buy.  i plan to use this one mostly for food scrapes, throwing in some leaves and straw to absorb liquid and balance carbon  and perhaps some worms.  i’ll still use am open pile for other organic matter that’s not so tempting to the rats.  once this can is filled up, i’ll dig another hole and sink another trash can next to this one.

while i fill up the other can the first one can do it’s decomposing thing, and when both cans are filled up, i’m thinking can number one will be finished with the decomposition process and can be spread on the garden.


creating an epic stench

i’ve posted about composting spent brewer’s grain before.  it’s hard stuff to work with.  it’s wet, it likes to mat down, and full of nitrogen.  if not handled with great care it goes anaerobic very quickly.  before we worked out the kinks and figured out how to handle it, we had already picked up at least 200,000 pounds of the stuff.  which leaves us with a situation, hundreds of cubic yards of poorly constructed compost piles.

taking a shovel into them reveals almost no break down.  they look like they were just built a week ago, and we are quickly running out of room to do anything else because they don’t break down.
we have no choice, but to flip the piles and mix them up and get more air into them.  certainly doing it by hand is out of the question, it’s over 275 cubic yards of material!  we have to call in the big guns, and borrow a bobcat.  after much searching brother nature is kind enough to provide a couple of days of bobcat use.

once we start flipping the pile we have to do it fast, both so we could return the bobcat, and so we would not make the epic stench last any longer than necessary.  the stench does prove to be pretty amazing, but working near it one quickly gets used to the smell.  everyone that visits is just dramatically overwhelmed by the smell, recoiling in disgust.  i woke in the middle of the night after the first  day with a panic attack imagining the neighbors to be extremely angry.  i crafted a letter of apology, and ask my coworker shane to deliver it along with honey, jam and collards.  i follow-up with personal apologies when i have time, and am shocked that no one is angry.

i think coworker rachel may have found her calling, she took to the bobcat pretty quick, and spent more time working behind its controls than anyone else.  after two and a half days of flipping the pile is reconstructed.

while the structure is not ideal, it’s what space had to allow for.  over all the pile looks much better.  digging into it the mix is more uniform and the smell, while still not the sweet earthy smell it should be, is certainly doing much better that it was before.

after a week we take temperature readings, and i’m pleased to see it heating up nicely.
after all that stinky compost flipping rachel and i felt it was best to give the bob cat a little love, fixing one of the seals on the hydraulic hoses, greaseing all the fittings, wash her up twice and then a solid bleaching to try to kill the smell.

rachel seemed a little sad to see her new friend leaving, and i’m glad she wasn’t here to see it loaded on the truck and taken away.

i’ll keep taking temperature readings on the pile and watch to see it start dropping.  if after they start dropping it looks well finished, then it’s time we start sifting and laying it out.  if it still needs to break down more, then we may be in need of borrowing a bobcat again!

elderberries in bloom

the compost pile doesn’t smell good at all. a giant mass of rotten clementines that is buried deep inside of it is constantly emitting its fetid juice.  combine this with the pockets of putrid brew waste and you have a pretty funky smell.  we have learned a lot about working with brew waste in the less than a year we have been picking it up from the brewery, and one of the most important lessons is that you have to mix it really well with leaves or other carbon sources.  if you don’t mix it well it just sits and stinks.  too bad we have a whole lot we didn’t mix well that now we have to uncover and mix, and has been sitting and rotting.

as though i knew how stinky the compost pile would be – we had the great foresight to plant flowers on the berm which have great smells – starting with the roses which are just finishing up and are setting nice hips, and now starting with the elder flowers which are starting to smell absolutely amazing.  it helps to cover up the smell, like a giant incense stick.

elder flowers

elder is better known for its berries – which are certainly awesome – but the elder flowers are also useful.  i’ve got some big plans for the elder flowers this year – fried flowers, elder flower infused mead, and elder cordial.  of course the only thing better in my mind than cultivated food is wild food, and while out on a walk of the neighborhood last night i found a stand of wild elder flowers that i was able to gather from.  i’ll keep you posted.  though posts maybe a while as i need to get a new camera – as mine finally died.  if anyone could recommend a good camera that would be very helpful.

feed the beast

for what ever reason the artists love us at work.  i’d like to think it’s cause i’m an artist too, and they can see the artist’s hand at work in everything we do.  but i lost my cred long ago when i started doing community based work.  still i’m thankful for the energy they have brought and share.  charlie a student of nick tobier,  who you may remember from the production of this film, came last year to ” intern”.  i use the term intern in quotes cause most folks who intern are there to learn from you.  he just came and hung out and did what he felt like and painted a bunch of signs and brought positive energy to the space.  he is super busy now with grad school but i managed to entice him to work on a little project.

we have very serious problems getting folks to dump compost right where we want it.  it’s  a blessing that people bring us their kitchen scraps, but it’s really frustrating when they dump right on a section of the pile that is finished compost that we were about to use in the field.  in order to solve this problem, i wanted a big sign stating where new compost goes, something they could not miss.  something like a giant compost beast or dragon.  and while we are at it, why not make it something fun, something that the kids will beg their parents to visit, so they can “feed the beast” their kitchen scrapes.

with charlie on the project and an open time line – the beast finally arrived now that he has a summer break.  seen from afar.

the compost beast lurking in the pile

this is take from the top of the berm close to the street.  seen closer up.

compost beast

he/she has a banana peel on it’s nose and some carrots hanging out of it’s mouth.  the delicata, charlie and i just stood around and laughed in amusement for about fifteen minutes.  i was super thankful, and look forward to throwing all kinds of rotten food though it’s mouth.

later that night one of the youth programs was assigned the task of naming the beast.  a couple of ideas were thrown out, bob, charlie, apple core, shooter, and compostsaurus.  compostsaurus seemed a little too obvious but was quickly getting a lot support.  though deceit and deception i was able to sway support toward apple core, but then the supporters for compostsaurus were so adamant about the name i thought they were gonna have  a meltdown.  i’m not sure it was ever decided.  maybe next week we can poll them again and they will have long since forgotten about compostsaurus.  i do like the idea of naming it charlie too.

bees on maples

spending the day feeding the compost pile with the all the disgusting leftovers from the fridge today, i got to enjoy several trips outside.  of the things that we are good at certainly keeping the fridge well-organized and free of rotting leftovers is not one of them.  on the other hand i do feel as though all those containers filled with mold and bacteria added to the compost pile makes for robust compost.  lets call it inoculating the compost pile with cultures.  always good to know i’m developing culture in my fridge.

while out putting slime in the compost i couldn’t help but notice the massive numbers of bees out and on those maples that were in bloom.  part of the reason that there were so many bees out is that we moved 3 hives over from work temporarily.  the location we had them at was deemed too shady, and so we moved them over to our house, and will move them back to work in  a few weeks.  the reason for this is that if you move bees anywhere within about 2 miles of their old location the foraging bees will just return to that spot.  if you move them far enough away they have to get used to the new location.

the bees were mostly collecting pollen as the maples are pretty low on nectar.

bee on maple

you can see the bees pulling in pollen, the pollen collected in their baskets like leg warmers.  so many were out and running in so many directions they kept buzzing into me as i tried to take these photos.

pollen being brought into the hive

brewery waste

anyone who has been reading this blog for any amount of time will be well aware of my love of most things fermented, and certainly beer ranks pretty high on my list of favorite ferments.  not far from work is one of detroit’s fine breweries, atwater.  a couple of weeks ago i wrote about picking up bags of hops, but my intent when i wrote that post was to pick up the spent grain from making beer.  this week the stars aligned, and i was able to accompany the delicata on her daily trip to pick up grain.

i had been trying to convince the staff and brewers at atwater for years to allow me to pick up their spent brew waste.  i’d had little luck getting them to go for it.  they had not said no – they just didn’t really say yes.  when my coworker who happens to be a young woman approached them they said, “of course” and gave her their number and told them we could start next week.  it wasn’t as easy as that, but in a matter of weeks we were picking up compost every week.

we have been able to pick up brew waste most weeks at least 4 days a week.  the brewery is only about a mile from work and we talk with the brewer at the beginning of the week to make sure he is brewing each day.  then we just show up when they are emptying out the spent grain.

hazen driving the forklift

the brewer -hazen unloads all the grain into this big rolling rubbermaid bin that he can fit half of the brew waste in.  then he uses the folk lift to lift it and move it and dump it into the back of the truck.  for years they had been dumping this stuff into the dumpster, so when we came along it as just a matter of dumping it into the back of the truck.

while hazen is no hippie crunchy type he does love that we are picking up brew waste – i think he really likes that it’s not just getting dumped in the landfill, and his boss is starting to like the fact that our picking up of the waste saves him money

the delicata unloading brew waste into the truck

once it’s lifted up to the hight of the pick up, the bin gets tipped over using a steel bar (this is the process that caused me to sprain my wrist last fall), and the brew waste come tumbling in.  then we just have to guide it out, this only takes a couple of minutes.

the pick-up bed full of brew waste

because the rubbermade bin can only hold about half of the brew waste from one batch and because the whole batch wouldn’t really fit in the back of the pick up, we do it in two loads.  while we are moving the first batch hazen is filling up the rubbermade bin and by the time we get back he is ready to dump again.

the delicata unloading the pickup

if you get the impression the delicata does all the work you would be right.  you can see the steam coming off the brew waste – and this is one of the main reasons that i am so excited about picking up brew waste – it’s hot.  most of the time our compost piles have come to a screeching halt during the winter since all we had building them with was frozen leaves and frozen kitchen scraps.  but with this steaming hot brew waste that has just come out of the kettle we are able to add a significant amount of heat, and make an enviroment in which the bacteria and other critters can really get to work.  even on the coldest of days in the winter our temperature readings of the compost pile have all stayed above 115 degrees.

one of the main issues with using brew waste is that it gets extremely putrid extremely fast.  within 24 hours left by itself it smells about a bad as anything you have experienced.  for this reason it is crucial that you mix it with a high carbon source.  in our case a generous helping of leaves in between each layer of brew waste and covering the whole thing.  this also help to insulate it and keep the heat in so the bacteria can get to work.

in addition to building a huge amount of compost for our gardens, the other thing that really excites me is how much waste we are diverting from the landfill, at current rate it will be over 250,000 pounds of spend grain we add to our gardn and not the landfill.  pretty cool huh.