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Compost – What to Use & What to Avoid


Compost, which in its most basic form is simply the process of decomposition, began long before we humans ever took it upon ourselves to make it an organized activity. Given enough time and the proper conditions, organic material breaks down. Composting, as we use the term today, is a system for enhancing, and thus accelerating, the natural process of decomposition. Since composting is going to take place with or without us, we can make the process as simple or as complex as we choose and be assured of success every time.

Compost Activators

To get a compost pile working well, it’s essential to have several layers of an activator throughout the pile. An activator is a source of both nitrogen and protein – ingredients that help all the various microorganisms and bacteria break down compost material.

Alfalfa meal is one of the cheapest, quickest-acting activators. If you can’t find it at your garden or feed store, look in the supermarket for Litter Green (a cat littler product that is 100% alfalfa meal).

Every time you add new material to the pile, dust it thoroughly with alfalfa meal and moisten the pile a little. Alfalfa meal is an excellent source of nitrogen and protein. Made from alfalfa hay, it is usually 14% – 16% protein. Other good activators include barnyard manure, bone meal, cottonseed meal or a good, rich garden soil. Any time you add to your compost pile, dust it with a little activator & water.

Leaf Mold

In a hurry-up world, the making of leaf mold is largely forgotten. Because the leaves have little nitrogen, they decompose slowly and do not heat up as they would if high-nitrogen material were added to them.

The 2-year process of decomposition can be hastened by running the leaves through a shredder before piling them. Fence the pile in to prevent them from blowing back on your lawn. Stamp the pile down. Expect to see it half its orginal size when the leaves have truned to leaf mold and are ready for use.

After a year, turn the pile, cutting it and mixing it as much as possible. In this stage it can be used as a mulch, and will be welcomed by earth worms.

What to add to your Compost

Here’s a handy list of what you can use in your pile:

  • Kitchen scraps – vegetable & fruit rinds, egg shells, coffee grinds, filters, tea leaves, etc.
  • bird or pet cage cleanings, animal droppings
  • Pine needles, tree leaves, wood chips, rotten wood, saw dust, wood ash
  • Yard waste, grass clippings, weeds, dead plants, pond weeds
  • Feathers, hair, nail clippings
  • garden waste – leaves, stalks, husks, roots
  • fruit or vegetable bi-product from wine, cider or jam making

What NOT to add to your Compost

Not all organic material is suitable for compost. Animal bones and other animal waste are inappropriate, as are grease and oils because they take a long time to break down and will attract animal pests. Sewage sludge may contain heavy metals that you don’t want to use in your garden.

  • branches or limbs that will take a long time to break down – chip or shred first
  • Eucalyptus – the oil will prevent plant growth in the garden
  • Magnolia leave take years to break down
  • Bermuda grass, nut grass, morning glory, butter cup, English ivy, or other “tough-to-stop” spreading plants.
  • Diseased plants should be burned not composted
  • Coal ash, charcoal contain too much sulfur and iron.
  • Be sure your newspaper uses biodegradable ink, otherwise do not use it in the garden
  • Cat or dog litter can harbour pathogens.

Using your Compost

Your compost is ready when it resembles black, fluffy soil and has a sweet earthy smell. Compost is best used within a few months of being ready – the longer it sits, the more nutrients will decompose and leach away. As the compost continues to breakdown, it’s soil texture-improving qualities diminish as well.

Compost is not a substitute to fertilizer, it is most often used to improve soil quality. Large scale addition of compost to your garden is best done in the fall. It may be spread evenly on the ground. Because we practice Permaculture Farming, we do not till the compost in, but let it over winter on the surface.

Finished compost can also be added a few weeks before planting in the spring. Many gardeners insist that nothing can take the place of a shovelful of compost mixed in planting holes for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and members of the cabbage family. Melons, cucumbers, and squash need composts’ richness to send out strong healthy vines.

Compost is also used to side-dress hungry crops. Screen the compost with a sieve, then mix it into the seedbed, or use it to cover fine seeds during planting. The screened mixture can also be used to top-dress lawns in the spring or fall, or mix 1 part compost and 2 parts potting soil for a rich potting soil mix. Don’t forget to use your compost tea, your plants will love it!!!

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Naturally Knotty Farms
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How To Build an Indoor Worm Farm

Indoor Worm Farm

Worms play an important part in soil construction and recycling of organic waste. They are a part of a network of organisms that turn refuse into nutrient rich soil. These nutrients are one of the benefits of garden worms to plant growth. Worms in gardens also perform cultivation functions that increase soil porosity and allow oxygen to get into roots. Encourage earthworms in soil or even try worm composting to experience the life-giving effects of worm castings.

Worms tunnel in soil and eat organic matter, which they excrete as castings. Worms abound in soils that are around 21 C. Any extremes of cold, heat or moisture are not good for worm activity. Worms in gardens are most active when soil is moderately warm and moist. Their tunneling behavior accentuates the percolation of water into the soil. They also loosen soil so oxygen and aerobic bacteria can get into plant roots. Looser soils also allow plant roots to penetrate deeper and access more resources, which in turn builds bigger, healthier plants. One of the biggest benefits of garden worms is their ability to turn garbage into fertilizer.

Indoor Worm Farm

A worm composting bin, known as a vermicomposter, can be fairly inexpensive and easy to maintain. There are several ways to vermicompost. Below are instructions on how to build one kind of worm composting bin designed to be used inside. It is also possible to purchase worm composting bins. You will want to put your bin in an indoor space as you do not want the worms to freeze in the winter or get too warm in the summer. Additionally, you may want to put the bin in a basement or other out-of-the-way space since you will be producing compost and worm “tea” in the composter.

What You Need

First, buy, borrow or repurpose the following items that you will need to start worm composting:

1. Two plastic bins – one must be taller and rest inside the other, shorter bin.

  • The shorter, bottom bin does not need a top. A bin made of rubber or plastic and that is approximately 15 inches deep, 25 inches wide and 5 inches high works great. The extra length allows you to scoop out the extra liquid or “worm tea” for use elsewhere (e.g., in the garden, for plants, shrubs, etc.).
  • The top tub should have a top to keep the worms from finding their way outside the box. It also needs to be somewhat flexible so you can drill holes into it. An 18 gallon tub that is roughly 15 inches deep, 20 inches wide and 15 inches tall works well.

2. A drill – A drill with a one inch diameter and a one-eighth inch diameter drill bit is needed to drill the holes mentioned above.

3. Screening material – The type used for window screens is fine – just be sure NOT to use metal which will rust over time when exposed to the moisture in the bin. You only need about four 4 inch by 4 inch scraps of screen. Why use screening? If you don’t cover the holes, the worms may escape.

 Waterproof glue – To keep the screens in place, even after they get wet.

5. Shredded paper – Enough to fill your bin three inches deep and extra to add each time you feed the worms once a week. Almost any kind of paper works, but avoid heavy, shiny paper and colored paper.

6. A little bit of dirt – A pound will be enough. Just make sure it does not have harmful chemicals in it. If all goes well, the worms will be producing their own dirt (compost) soon.

7. A little bit of water – Some water is needed to moisten the paper and dirt to create a comfortable medium for the worms to thrive. Soak the paper and then drain it before using.

8. Worms – A pound of red wrigglers are recommended because they consume waste quickly, but earthworms also work. Red wrigglers are available online, or from another worm bin owner. Be careful of worms that are invasive species, such as the Asian Jumping Worm, which can be sold as the Alabama Jumper or Georgia Jumper. Worm bins produce more worms as well as great compost.

9. A trowel – Needed to move the compost as needed in the bin.

10. Food scraps container – Use a small container with a tightly fitting top to collect vegetable and fruit scraps.

Why not just put the food straight into the worm bin? Worms do best left alone, so it is best to feed them only once a week. Use the food scraps container to collect scraps for a week and then feed the worms weekly.

Preparing the Bins

Below are the steps to take to prepare the bins:

  • Drill a 1-inch hole about two inches from the top of the taller bin on one side. Drill another hole on the opposite side. Drill four 1/8-inch holes near the bottom near the corners of the bin.
  • Cover each of the holes with vinyl screening and glue the screening in place with the waterproof glue. Be sure the glue is completely dry before continuing to the next step.
  • Place the tall bin inside the short bin. Do NOT drill any holes in the short bin.

Preparing the Paper, Soil, Water Medium and Adding the Worms

Combine shredded paper, soil and just enough water to dampen everything. Put the mixture into the tall bin and fill the bin about three inches deep. Add your worms to the mixture and let them get used to it for a day before feeding them. Make sure the mixture is very moist, but not forming puddles of water.

Feeding the Worms

Collect food scraps, such as vegetables and fruit scraps, bread, tea bags, coffee grounds, and cereal in your food scrap container as you prepare and clean up after meals. Do not include any animal by-products (fat, bone, dairy, meat, waste). Also, it may take the worms longer to process woody or dry items like stems or the outer layer of onions. Worms will eat paper as long as it is thin or cut into small pieces, but they will not eat plastic or fabric tea bags, coffee filters or the labels placed on produce by grocery stores.

Once a week, do the following:

  • Take the scraps to the worm bin.
  • Gently use a trowel to create a hole to put the scraps into.
  • Throw in a small handful of shredded paper.
  • Add all the food scraps on top of the paper.
  • Cover ALL of the food scraps with dirt and moist paper. Exposed food attracts fruit flies, but covered food scraps don’t. Add dirt and moist paper to the bin until the worms have made enough compost to use to cover the food scraps.
  • Notice what the worms are eating and what they are not. Remove any scraps that your worms have not eaten for a while as they may not like that type of food (e.g., some worms will not tackle a whole potato or citrus rind, but may eat them if they are cut up).
  • Put the lid back on the worm bin.
  • Wash out the food scraps container for the coming week.

Maintaining the Bin

Once every few months, scoop the liquid out of the lower container and use it as fertilizer outside on soil near plants, or water it down to use on indoor plants. When the worm bin is full (i.e., when the compost reaches the bottom of the top holes you drilled), do the following:

  • Feed the worms on one side of the bin for a couple of weeks in order to draw the worms to that side.
  • Once all the worms are on one side, harvest the compost on the other side and use it in pots, your garden, or sprinkle it across your yard. You can also scoop compost and worms onto a newspaper and sort them out, but this is a bit messier. Be sure to harvest compost at the end of the week, before you feed the worms again.
  • If there are too many worms in the worm bin, share extras with friends and family or release some with the dirt in your yard.

If you have any questions, please contact us.

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