Category Archives: Compost

The Beauty of Biochar

backyard biochar

Clockwise from the top: biochar made from cardoon seed head, apple tree prunings, corn cobs, bone, bamboo, lumber ends, rabbit droppings in center. Click through photo to see larger image.

As part of our month-long focus on soil-building, today we explore biochar.

Biochar is charcoal that you bury in your garden. It does many of the cool things that compost does – it holds water and nutrients like a sponge, it encourages crazy fungal growth. But unlike compost, it cannot be eaten by soil micro-organisms. It lasts just about forever. Spend a winter making it, then enjoy the benefits for the rest of your life. And if you’re an environmentalist, there’s a side benefit: that carbon won’t go into the atmosphere, which helps offset global warming.


biochar beef bone

I learned how to make biochar at a SeaChar workshop. I was doing a story on biochar for public radio. One visual caught my attention and has stayed with me ever since – a blackened piece of charcoal in the shape of a corn cob. There was something about seeing an everyday object, rendered perfectly in total blackness, that took my breath away. As if the soul had departed this object, leaving behind a porous, blackened skeleton.


biochar rabbit poo

As we were shooting a biochar-making sequence for our book (we show you how to make biochar from garden waste in your backyard) photographer Harley Soltes became equally infatuated by the sculptural shape of biochar. He disappeared for nearly a half hour in the makeshift studio he set up in the back of my garage, arranging little piles of biochar. Someday, an artist will discover biochar and create an entire show based on biochar versions of familiar objects.


biochar prunings from my espalier apple tree

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about biochar, how to make it, how it works. But the fact is, it’s a novelty, a useful tool that’s too much effort for most gardeners. Someday you may be able to buy it in bags as a soil amendment, but for now, it’s a hobby for a rare group of enthusiasts, for whom those perfect black shapes become an obsession. It’s about achieving the perfect use of your garden’s waste products, and building the best soil you possibly can. It’s about the thrill of becoming carbon negative. And the thrill of playing with fire. I hate gender stereotypes, but I have to say: if you want to get a man interested in soil-building, and if that man likes to grill, introduce that guy to biochar. And show him this post, so he can enjoy Harley’s biochar porn.


biochar detail

If you live in the Seattle area, and you want to learn how to make biochar, respond below for a chance to win a free spot in one of SeaChar’s upcoming weekend workshops. Basically you’ll get a gift certificate to cover the tuition and materials, which you can redeem when a class fits your schedule. In class, you’ll make a “Garden Master” biochar stove in a metal shop. You’ll bring that stove home, along with the knowledge of how to make your own biochar from garden waste. SeaChar hosts a few workshops per year, usually on Saturdays. You can wait for dates to appear on the SeaChar blog or contact SeaChar for more information on future workshops.

Seriously, this workshop is awesome, like some kind of steam punk dream. The class participants work with metal and fire, and they’ve got soot on their faces, and they’re convinced they’re building something that will change the world. I loved every minute of it.

Update: Lauriel of - you are the winner of the random drawing for a free slot in the Biochar Class! You’ve been randomly selected from all the comments on this post.

Diary of an Urban Soil

By Joshua McNichols

Photo shared by erix! via flickr

April 5

Yesterday, I woke up for the first time.

I can’t remember what I felt like before. There was only a dream, a dream of wetness, followed by dryness, repeating in a pattern for… for how long? Maybe forever. Certainly as long as the concrete that covered me and kept me safe. The concrete that disappeared yesterday, when a man with a sledgehammer cracked it up and took it away. At first, I was scared. I’d never seen light before, at least not that I can remember. Then, the man sprinkled something on me. He called it compost, and dug it into me with a shovel, filling me with air, giving me breath to speak to you now.

April 14

I’m getting used to the sensation of veins of compost running through me. There’s life in there, something tickling me, a family of red worms, a nest of nemotodes. They eat and shit in there, they line my cracks with their excrement. When it rains, water seeps through the compost veins, carrying flavors I don’t recognize deep into my clay subsoil, where I hold onto them.


April 23

The red worms have died, but other worms have moved in. The medium-sized pink worms seem to stick mostly to the compost. Nightcrawlers move through the clay blocks of my original body, nibbling at the edges of the compost veins. They leave large excrement-lined tunnels behind them, which quickly become homes for other creatures, most notably an ant colony, which politely confines all its poop to a single chamber. All this excrement has begun to rot, and the mycelium – the long, transparent tendrils that comprise a fungus’s subterranean body – act as dumbwaiters, ferrying nutrients from one part of my body to another. I’m starting to understand what it means to feel balanced.

fungal hyphae, courtesy of wikipedia

April 30

Something new this week. A plant, which I overheard someone call a clover, has taken up residence in me. I didn’t even notice her there until her roots left the compost and entered my clay. She continued expanding her root system, wrapping whole blocks of my clay. The sensation is overwhelming, as her micro-roots seem to have expanded my surface area infinitely, creating tiny fissures through which I taste the dissolving nutrients the man has dug into my surface – the sour, metallic flavor of dolomite lime, the fresh, bright flavor of kelp, which speaks of the ocean I have never seen.

Root nodules on clover

I notice something curious about the clover. A buzzing about her roots, where she seems to have built blocks of housing for microbes, pink bacteria that feed her nitrogen in exchange for a little of her sugar. The fungi contingent seem to be working out a deal of their own, wrapping her roots in mycelium. All of this activity, which now seems to comprise my entire being, seems drawn to a single point, a point at the apex of her roots, where she grows upward as a single stalk, disappearing into the nothingness above me. Like when your people shot the first human being into space.

May 7

Terror ripped through my body today as SHE, the one who has filled my life with meaning, was torn from me, cast cruelly to callous chickens, so said the man as he spoke to me. I fear I shall never be the same.

May 14

I may have been a little melodramatic in that last entry, please forgive me. Though my beloved clover has disappeared, I now have another love – a tomato plant, a less complex creature, but powerful, as if inside that small, hairy body hides a great root, a root that will surpass that of my previous soul-mate, the clover. Though my clover is gone, I can still sense her. The soil microbes, now increasing in numbers and diversity, buzz with excitement. They travel up and down her decomposing roots. She has become a skeleton of food.

July 24

Much time has passed since I last spoke to you. I’ve been so busy. The tomato has brought with her a project, a project whose breadth and scope I cannot understand but to which I have committed myself completely. And I have a lot to give. The roots have awakened me to the sum of my nature. I now understand the activity of all my creatures to be part of my body, not separate from it. My beetles and bacteria, my compost and my clay – these are to me as your blood and organs are to you. I now bend all of my powers to her singular will. I feel her drawing from me the things she needs. She drinks my moisture, and when it dries out I refresh myself with more from below. I’ve taught her to draw her own water from my subsoil too, and now her roots extend to the limits of my comprehension, far below. She presses her roots into the channels of excrement, from which she draws many flavors, flavors metallic and earthy, mysterious flavors imported by far-reaching mycelium, flavors animal and mineral.

A dream

August 20

We have approached the climax of our project, my tomato and I. She sends word to me from her place in the heavens, sending down a gas that fills the pores at the top of my being. When I taste the gas, it tastes of me, the decaying flesh of my microscopic creatures, the bold acidity reminiscent of my slight negative charge. I heard the man again today. I felt a loss when he picked her fruit, as the minerals left my beloved companion, and my system, forever. But it was worth it, I think, for the praise he heaped upon me. He called me “good soil.”

Then, he urinated on me. At first I didn’t like it, but then I realized he was giving back to me some of what he’d taken away with the fruit. I recognized nitrogen and phosphorous in the stream, and tried to hold on to as much of it as I could. Some of it slipped through my grasp and disappeared far below, perhaps into the subterranean rivers that my beloved roots tells me about in stories.

October 16

After a long and fruitful life, having given everything I had, my love was once again ripped from me. This time, I hear she went to the compost bin. But I have learned from my past relationships, and I know I will love again. The man has covered me up with leaves, and the nightcrawlers now travel to the surface to feed.

November 29

It seems I was mistaken – apparently, I will never love another root system. Parts of me have experienced frost, and this concerns me. The worms seem to have fallen into a deep sleep, and the microbes have almost completely ceased their activity.

December 11

I am dying. I am dying. I am dead.

Texas Tree, by Michael Mazur, turned upside down.

February 28

Yesterday, I woke up for the first time.



Urban Farm Handbook February Challenge – Soil Building

This first challenge is by Urban Farm Handbook co-author, Joshua McNichols.

Happy roots grow in well-built soil.

Every winter, many gardeners resolve to do things right next season. But when the hustle and bustle of spring comes along, sometimes – well, we run out of time. Maybe we don’t have a place to compost, so all those dried up pea vines at the beginning of summer just end up in the yard waste bin. Maybe we never got around to buying fertilizer, and so raced out to the garden center to buy some. And then we saw the price – yikes! We left the box on the shelf. When weeds overtook the undernourished lettuce, we sighed and conceded to getting our salads from the farmers market this year. We’ve all had moments like these.

It’s not that we don’t know better. As gardeners, we know the importance of compost and fertilizer. Compost mellows the soil, evening out wild fluctuations in water and nutrient availability. When we combine compost with organic fertilizer, our plants are stronger, more nutritious and flavorful. The problem is – when spring finally takes off, when we need a place to compost, when we need quick access to affordable organic fertilizers – we’re just too busy.


Let’s all plan ahead this year, so we can all have the best gardening season ever. So here’s the challenge: This February, plan for compost now, by dedicating a space in your yard. And buy fertilizer in bulk, or make it from scratch. The first of these challenges will help newbies get over that first hurdle. The second challenge should appeal more to soil building veterans.

Soil Building Challenge 1: Plan for Compost

Find an out of the way corner of the yard for your compost pile. The ideal spot should be accessible by wheelbarrow, so you can haul materials in and out.

After you’ve decided on a spot, build or buy a compost bin. You can get by without an actual bin – your compost can simply be a pile. But there’s something about having an actual bin that helps get us composting. Plus, it keeps things tidy. Whether you intend to keep a loose pile, or a formal bin, for this challenge we want you to get things ready. The goal is this: when you pull that first bucket of garden thinnings from your garden this spring, we want you to have a place to toss them. Without thinking.

My 3-bin compost system. Functional and built to last - but a lot of work to build. If you're new, start with a one bin system, then expand as you get deeper and deeper into it.

While the ideal compost bin has three chambers, you can get by with just one. Three chambers lets you turn the compost more easily from bin to bin. But the goal here is to get you started. Besides, on a small urban lot, you rarely generate enough materials to fill multiple bins.

Really, a compost bin can be anything that will contain the mess.

If you’re inclined to build your own, wooden pallets make a fine and inexpensive building material (use domestic pallets to avoid chemicals).

A simple wire bin

You can build one out of a simple cylinder of chicken wire or hogwire,or you can  buy a premanufactured plastic bin. The ideal size is at least a 3 foot cube. That’s big enough for a well-built pile to get hot. And when a pile gets hot – that’s when the whole process of making compost really speeds up!

Of plastic bins, there are many designs, some very expensive. I like those that give you the option of allowing the compost to have contact with the ground – which helps keep things moist. If your material gets dry, it will never break down. That’s why I dislike compost tumblers – they tend to dry out.

Avoid Compost Tumblers

One of the compost bins available from the city of Seattle. You can make one for much less money by drilling a plastic garbage can full of holes. Including the bottom.

If you want to go further, you can also pick up a green cone, which allows you to compost food waste – table scraps for example – without attracting rats. Green cones are very expensive. Seattle used to subsidize them – no longer. Now, I recommend building your own by drilling a small galvanized garbage pail full of holes and burying it 2/3 of the way into the soil. All the holes should be underground.

A green cone just outside my front door. You can build something similar using an old metal garbage pail. Unlike with a compost bin, you don't turn this material - just leave it until it's thoroughly rotted. I have two - I fill one while the other rots.

And finally, you’ll need the right tools. For turning compost, you’ll need a pitchfork. A machete and a log is optional (you can chop large items on top of the log before putting them in the compost, to make things break down faster). And you may want a small wheelbarrow, or even just a bucket for hauling things back and forth.

When you’ve planned a space for compost and assembled the right tools, when you’ll be able to toss the first spring thinnings in there without thinking, post a photo – and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win our modest soil-building prize package. More entry details at the bottom of this post.

Backyard Compost – Something To Be Proud Of

A backyard pile, if well-built (chopped, moistened, aerated, proper mix of greens and browns) will hit at least 150 degrees on the third day, then the  temperature will go down. Then you turn it again, bringing material that was on the outside into the hot center. In a few days, it peaks again. You repeat this process over and over again, leaving longer breaks between each turning as the peak temperature gets lower and the process slows down. Though hot composting can destroy seeds and plant diseases, many of them will survive. That’s because even when you mix the pile, not everything gets into the hot center.

Soil health affects plant vigor and nutrition. From The Small Grains by Mark Alfred Carleton, 1916. Older texts like this that predate the ubiquity of chemically-based agriculture offer insight for organic gardeners.

I don’t really expect a backyard pile to consistently kill weeds and pests. To be honest, I don’t care that much about these pests. Our city plot is small enough that dealing with weeds is not a major problem for me ( I just hoe them away), and pests and diseases are only as far away as my neighbor’s yard. Instead, I focus on building up the soil using compost and fertilizer, growing the healthiest plants I can so they can withstand the widest variety of stressors.

There are also advantages to a pile that doesn’t get that hot. The big contractor that composts Seattle’s municipal yardwaste – Cedar Grove Compost – their piles get super hot – about 180.  Recognize that temperature from yogurt making? Or from conservative USDA poultry cooking temperature charts? They keep temperatures high by pumping oxygen through the pile using underground pipes. In compost, that kind of heat kills things that are good too.

Commercially produced compost is great for building soil structure. The process is perfect but the product is sterile. Backyard compost is more like a human gut. Alive with competing organisms, some good, some bad. Often, the worst are kept in check by the larger ecosystem of organisms.

So don’t worry too much about the imperfections of backyard compost. The best preventative medicine with plants, as with humans, is good health. And the best way to have healthy plants is to feed them right – using compost and fertilizers.

Okay, end of rant. On with the challenge.

 Soil Building Challenge #2: Buy fertilizer in bulk or make it from scratch.

Compost is important, but it can only give your plants those nutrients already found in your soil. Composting recycles those nutrients, and that’s important. But few soils include every nutrient a plant needs – there may be only a couple regions in the world with such soils. And plants grown without enough nutrients will be stunted and more prone to diseases and insect pests. Not only are plants grown in healthy soil more robust, they taste better and offer better nutrition.

The health of your soil MATTERS. From Soil Fertility and Animal Health by William Albrecht, 1958.

Organic fertilizers are best, as they eke out nutrients gradually as they’re digested by micro-organisms in the soil. If you have compost in your soil, the tiny holes and slight negative charge of compost will actually cling tightly to nutrients from fertilizer as they become available. In other words, compost helps keep your fertilizers from being washed out to sea.

That’s important because organic fertilizers are expensive! If you garden in anything larger than a window box, you might want to consider saving some money by buying in bulk. Even if you need just a bit, you can buy in bulk and split it up with friends.

Buy in Bulk

Fertilizer becomes a little more affordable when you purchase it in bulk. What you can buy in your region will vary, but chances are you can get bulk discounts if you order in large enough quantities. For example, around Seattle a 40# bag of Walt’s Rainy Pacific NW Fertilizer is $65.50. But if you band together with 4 friends and purchase 4 bags, you can get them for $49.50 each. If you live in a rainy climate like we do, you’ll probably also need a bag of agricultural or dolomitic lime.

Walt's - where Seattlites can buy organic fertilizers in bulk. Many large cities have similar places catering to urban organic gardeners. If there's nothing like Walt's where you live, you probably have feed stores and can make your own fertilizer. Read on. Image by Google Street View.

Make your own

Fertilizer becomes cheaper still, and better, when you make it yourself. For example, Walt’s blend is simply fish meal, fish bone meal, crab meal, kelp meal and mined gypsum. That’s a good recipe, but not perfect. When I make my own fertilizer, I prefer to use a variant on Steve Solomon’s complete organic fertilizer recipe. It’s formulated for the Pacific Northwest and other somewhat rainy climates (we get 32 inches of rain a year). In desert regions, you’ll want to reduce or eliminate the lime (Rainy weather tends to acidify the soil. Lime counteracts this).

Complete Organic Fertilizer. I store mine in a galvanized garbage can in my garage.

To make Solomon’s recipe, you’ll want to head up to a feed store. Here in Seattle, I make the drive out to DeYoung’s Farm and Garden in Woodinville, one of the closest suburbs where there’s still a remnant of farmland. I suggest going together on this with friends, as most items are sold in large bags, whereas you will only need a little.

Fertilizer matters. From The Small Grains by Carelton, 1916.

Here’s your shopping list.

  • (1) 50# bags Alfalfa Seed Meal ($19.98 each) for every two people participating in this purchase. Four participants would be best. You can also use cottonseed meal, but at least in our region, alfalfa meal is much less expensive.
  • (1) 35# bag Agricultural Lime 35 lbs ($9.69 each) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 50# bag Gypsum 50 lbs ($16.69 each) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 40# bag Dolomitic Lime ($5.98) – you will have leftovers
  • (1) 50# bag Fish Bone Meal ($31.98). In our region, this is cheaper than bone meal. But bone meal, a slaughterhouse byproduct, is also fine to use.
  • (1) 50# bag Cal Phos (a substitute for rock phosphate) ($22.98) In other regions, you may be able to find rock phosphate or high phosphate guano, worthy substitutes both.
  • 25# of Kelp meal ($35.00) (normally this comes in 50# bags but they’ve sold me 25# quantities in an open paper bag from their bulk supply) – you will have leftovers. You can substitute basalt dust if this is more available in your region.

For all these items, you’ll invest a whopping $122.32 plus $19.98 for every person. That may seem like a lot – until you calculate the cost of the finished fertilizer. I haven’t performed the calculation with precision, but it comes out to less than half the wholesale cost of premixed fertilizer such as Walt’s. If you got together with three other friends, you could use up each and every scrap of Cal Phos and avoid having to store half-empty bags in your garage. You’d pay around $50 each for more than twice as much fertilizer. And this stuff contains a more complete source of nutrients, too.

If you make just a single batch of fertilizer, you're likely to store leftover ingredients in your garage for years. Still, it's much cheaper, and better, than buying premixed fertilizers.

Here’s the recipe, based on Solomon’s. Keep in mind these items may be sold by weight, but our recipe is measured by volume:

  • 4 parts alfalfa seed meal
  • 1/4 part agricultural lime
  • 1/4 part gypsum
  • 1/2 part dolomite lime
  • 1 part fish bone meal
  • 1 part Cal Phos (substitute for rock phosphate)
  • 1 part kelp meal

I start by measuring the volume of the alfalfa seed meal. A rare 4 gallon bucket is perfect for this measurement, but you can do it with 1-gallon containers, albeit more slowly. Then, following the recipe above, I add a quart each of the 1/4 part ingredients, 2 quarts of the 1/2 part ingredients and 1 gallon of the 1 part ingredients.

I apply 4-6 quarts of this fertilizer per 100 square feet of garden – every time I plant a new crop. A single batch using one bag of alfalfa meal will last the average urban farmer for years.

Soil Building Challenge #3:  Build a Worm Bin

You don’t need tools to do this (although you could build a beautiful wooden one yourself or buy one and the worms from the Seattle Farm Coop).  Annette posted directions for making one using plastic storage bins in this post.

Take The Urban Farm Handbook Soil Building Challenge!

Whether you’re a newbie preparing to compost for the first time, a veteran purchasing organic fertilizer in bulk or mixing your own from scratch, or someone who thought worms were just for fishing we want to know about it!

If you have a blog, do a post about it.  If you don’t have a blog that’s ok.  We’d like everyone to come back to this post when you complete the challenge and let us know what you did, including a link to your blog post if you made one.  That way we can see everyone’s project in one place.

Did we mention there will be giveaways? 
We’ve got things like rain barrels, Seattle Tilth’s Maritime Guide, an annual membership to Seattle Tilth, red wigglers to get your very own worm bin started, and a copy of the Urban Farm Handbook.  So what are you waiting for?  Go build some soil already!

Thanks to erix! on flickr for the amazing photo of roots at the top of this post.

Integrating Small Animals Into the Garden (In Other Words, How to Let Animals Do All the Work)

There is one last post that I need to get up before we kick off the soil building challenge. This is based on a workshop I gave ten days ago at the Country Living Expo but it’s been on my mind for about a year now.

It’s All About the Soil
When I first started gardening I put my back into it. I worked my tail off and enjoyed it, but as time went on and I added animals to the system I noticed some big changes. Sometimes that meant the chickens completely took out an entire winter’s worth of seedlings that I had forgotten to cover, or that the ducks got into the hoop house and did the same thing. But as I learned to remember to fence off critical garden areas, my animals and foul have actually decreased the amount of work that I do in the garden.

Because in the end the most important thing in your garden is not the plants – it’s the soil. If your soil is healthy with good structure, you can eke heaps of the most nutritious, flavorful, gorgeous vegetables imaginable. If your soil is not healthy, your plants may be stunted, diseased, bland and minimal. It’s not about your thumb, it’s about your soil.

Understanding Plant Needs
Healthy plants need water, air and minerals, which are all absorbed by the plant through its root system. Adding decayed (or decaying) organic matter to the soil creates a perforated structure that absorbs water without becoming waterlogged, and creates good airflow. This soil structure not only allows plants to develop healthy root systems, but provides decomposers like fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other critters (the web of soil life) with their favorite food. It’s the waste product of this web of life that feeds the plants. So the goal of the organic gardener is to create a soil structure that feeds the web of life.

A good way to create organic matter is to compost both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) things, keeping them aerated and moist. A great way to compost is to let small livestock do it for you.

Good = you scrounging for things to compost and doing all the work
Better = animals providing you with valuable inputs and you doing all the work
Best = animals providing you with inputs and doing all the work


Small animals like chickens or ducks will require some amount of bedding in coops or runs. If you have dairy goats, multiply that amount by fifty. The beauty of bedding is that it already contains valuable manure and urine and counts as a “brown”. “Browns” are hard to come by unless it’s autumn and your neighbors are lining up sacks of raked leaves, or you just shucked an entire garden bed full of corn and have the cobs and papery outer leaves to dispose of.

To keep the ratios right, however, you need equal parts brown to green. Where do you get those greens? Just mowed grass is perfect. But what do you do in the winter when yours and your neighbor’s lawns stop growing? Garden and kitchen scraps are great. And how do you generate enough to match your brown volume?

The Magic Begins
You could find a grocery store that throws away past-prime vegetables and add that directly to your compost. Or you could take those greens, feed them to your chickens, get eggs and then compost the parts the chickens don’t eat. You could also do this with your lawn trimmings. And then your chickens can scratch through to turn the pile (aka their bedding, unwanted food scraps and manure) into compost for you. Are you starting to see the magic?

A Shortcut
If you aren’t a composter (or even if you are) you might instead use green manure. This is where you plant cover crops directly in your garden beds, then before the cover crop goes to seed you “chop and drop” or hoe it in. Some manures that winterkill, like oats, will naturally die when the first frosts hit and then decompose on their own requiring no work on your part. Taking this idea one step farther you could plant cover crops that your chickens love to eat, like wheat, barley, oats, kales, lettuce. Build a “tractor” or cover that protects the chickens from wandering dogs or overhead predators and keeps them in the exact garden bed you need worked. The chickens will eat some of the cover crop, scratch (think till) it in for you and leave their valuable manure behind. And all you had to do was scatter some cover crop seeds!

More Magic
Now imagine an elevated rabbit hutch above a compost pile. The ideal rabbit diet is alfalfa (a green chock-full of nutrients and organic matter), hay (a brown), black oil sunflower seeds (essential fats), some form of protein like cracked peas, and oats or barley. Rabbits tend to spill a fair bit of food. Alone, that food would simply go to waste and possibly attract rodents. However, with chickens, that spilled alfalfa moistened by a waiting compost pile suddenly becomes a green – something difficult for chickens to come by in the winter.

Alfalfa, as a plant, is a nitrogen fixer with long tap roots that allow it to draw deep nutrients from soils. For this reason it’s highly sought after as a garden amendment. In your compost, it imparts great fertility. In your eggs, it imparts dark orange yolks.

Another thing that imparts dark orange yolks? Worms, centipedes and pill bugs that are also attracted to that compost pile. Thanks to the decaying matter but also thanks to the rabbit and chicken manure that essentially predigests the plant matter and makes it especially attractive to decomposers – which are what your chickens really want to eat, and what makes their eggs particularly healthful compared to purely grain fed eggs.

Other things your rabbits spill are hay (a brown which you frequently must add to a compost pile that is constantly “moistened” by rabbits), seeds and grains. Instead of attracting rodents, the seeds and grains will attract your chickens which will happily clean up what would otherwise become a rodent-attracting mess and they will pick through the rabbit manure for any fly larvae.

Now we are turning liabilities (wasted, rat-enticing food and fly larvae, soiled animal bedding, yard waste) into assets (compost, healthy chickens and eggs). This is the beauty of a guild – a combination of things that work better together than they do their own. Sometimes guilds are groupings of plants. In this case it’s a grouping of small animals and compost that helps you feed the web of life. And in return for that (if you so choose), you get the occasional meat and eggs (and dairy if you have mini goats) and valuable compost for your garden.

Now we are really strengthening the relationships between the garden [growing food for] you [and] chickens [and] rabbits, [who work and amend] the compost [which feeds] the soil structure [while increasing] nutrients [which improve health in] the crops, you, and the animals.

The Voodoo of Doo Doo
The compost this guild provides is truly magical but you can take it one step further with the addition of a vermicompost tea brewer. You can make one yourself using a drill, two matching rubber storage tubs, and a piece of hardware cloth.

To make a vermicompost tea brewer:

  • Take one rubber storage bin.
  • Place some bricks or overturned pots inside it to act as spacers.
  • Take the other matching rubber storage bin and drill holes in the bottom and the lower third of the sides.
  • Line the bottom of the bin you just drilled holes into with hardware cloth.
  • Add six inches of well-moistened leaves or well-moistened, shredded junk mail (no shiny paper please).
  • Add several inches of garden soil or compost.
  • Add red wiggler worms. (You can obtain these online or through the Seattle Farm Coop, in Lake Stevens, Seattle Tilth, or in Chehalis.)
  • Add kitchen scraps and top with a final few inches of moistened junk mail or leaves to discourage fruit flies and trap any odors and snap on the lid.
  • Nestle the filled and drilled rubber storage bin into the one with spacers.
  • Continue adding kitchen scraps by burying them below the top layer and be sure the bedding remains really moist. This will encourage your vermicompost tea to brew (as moisture drips down through the vermicompost and into the waiting container below).

To harvest the vermicompost tea, simply lift out the top bin and pour or ladle the brew into a recycled glass bottle with a lid (like a vinegar bottle).
It will be as thick and dark as motor oil and so strong that using more than a few drops in a pint of water may burn your plants. Diluted in this fashion, however, it’s pure plant voodoo. You can spray it directly on plant leaves as a foliar or use it to water starts or potted plants. I would never consider starting tomato plants from seed without this voodoo.

Ducks Work Hard (So You Don’t Have To)
Ducks are yet another type of garden helper that love worms and pill bugs. But what ducks love even more than worms are slugs (those dastardly composters that desecrate your garden through spring and summer.) Keeping a few ducks on hand to roam the garden is my favorite form of slug-prevention. So long as there are slugs and bugs for ducks to eat, they ignore your plantings. But once the slugs and bugs are gone they will start helping themselves to your vegetables so keep a watchful eye on them! Ducks produce rich, large eggs prized for baking but unsupervised, they can be more hindrance than help in the garden. Use with caution.

Another Guild
This last magic guild requires substantially more fussing and planning to pull off.
In nature, tilapia eat a wide variety of food including plankton, green leaves, fish larvae and decaying organic matter. You can mimic that in your backyard using rabbit poop (recall that it’s really partially digested, nutrient-dense green matter?)

Tilapia need temperatures near 80 degrees F to grow well. You can achieve this by building a sun porch or small green house attached to the south side of your house to take advantage of escaped heat and sunlight. If you build your winter rabbit housing above the tilapia pool (which could be as simple as 55 gallon drums with aeraters and filters painted black to help absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible), the rabbits will feed the tilapia and help to warm the structure with their body heat. In the summertime when temperatures inside get above 80 degrees F, you’ll want to remove the rabbits since they do best with slightly cooler temperatures. You might even position your rabbit housing so that it’s only partially above the tilapia tanks, then add a compost pile under the remaining section of rabbit housing.

The combination of composting organic matter, rabbits, escaping heat from your house and sunlight may be enough to heat the tilapia water. If that’s not sufficient, a small space heater on a low setting overnight may be all you need.

You may even consider keeping your laying hens (or new chicks) in this greenhouse to benefit from the increased light, warmth, and to speed up the composting process which will generate more heat. More light and warmth will increase winter egg yields. You can use the top of the rabbit housing as a place for early spring starts (so long as the chickens cannot fly up and eat them). The starts will also benefit from the warmth and increased light. If your greenhouse is large enough, you could add some heat loving plants.

Selling backyard eggs, spring salad greens and heirloom tomatoes fresh off the vine (and perhaps grown directly in the compost?) in January might generate enough income to pay for your space heater and then some, thereby subsidizing your tilapia operation.
It’s also possible to add a hydroponic garden into a tilapia setup, and to combine tilapia with a duck pond but the setup becomes much more expensive and complicated as you need to prevent the ducks from eating the fish and the plants as well as filter the fish and duck waste safely (the duck waste presents a problem for the fish and for leafy green edibles).

Ask Master Composter Joshua

A well built compost pile will hit at least 150 degrees. Photo by Scot Nelson, shared via Flickr.

We’re going to start a new series called “Ask Master Composter Joshua.” So throw us your composting questions!

Hello and I hope all is well with you on this raining morning. I have composting issues. I’m the only one I know that can not compost. I had some that I aged for about a year that I added to part of my garden soil this spring and it has pretty much killed everything… Seeds won’t germinate and healthy plants shrivel up and die. There are not even weeds…

I currently have a plastic spinning bin compost container that I am using for all my composting needs. I have been thinking about using two composting areas instead of one. One for yard and chicken manure and one for kitchen scraps. I like the green cone compost containers, but don’t really want to spend $100 on each one. I remember that you have on your blog that you buried garbage cans in your yard for composting.  Is this were you compost your kitchen scraps? Is it the same method as the green cones? Do you have holes on the bottom or also on the sides? How far into the ground do you bury your garbage can. How full do you fill it? How long before you harvest? Can you compost chicken manure and yard waste or just table scraps.

Happy farming! –Jilene

Hi Jilene, I see two big questions in your post. We’ll start with the first:

Why is my compost apparently killing my garden?
Compost is just broken down organic matter, an important component of all soils. In a natural environment, compost is generated naturally as plant and animal detritus decomposes. Once this detritus has been fully decomposed, it represents a stable, steady food source for your plants. But while it’s decomposing, it has the potential to “tie up” important nutrients that your plants need to grow. For example, uncomposted leaves will temporarily tie up nitrogen if dug into the garden. Nitrogen is important to photosynthesis, and plants grown in soil with no available nitrogen will not thrive. Or if you’ve made your compost from chicken manure, the uncomposted manure may be too strong (too high in nitrogen) and can chemically “burn” your plants. Chicken manure (with its bedding) should be combined with an equal volume of carbon-rich brown materials (such as fallen leaves) and will compost fully within a few short months if kept properly moist.

Was your compost fully decomposed? You say you aged it a year, but I see you used one of those elevated rotating bin composting systems.

The tumbler is prone to drying out.

Those systems are famous for drying out, and it could be your organic material simply sat there, inert, for a year and was only finally able to begin composting when you put it on your garden. Compost-in-progress should be kept “as moist as a wrung-out sponge.”

A second scenario is that a broad spectrum herbicide managed to find its way into your compost, and later into your garden. I would not suspect this unless you’d used non-organic (and thus herbicide-treated) straw in your compost. This is a major reason to use organic straw as your chicken bedding. Many such herbicides survive the composting process. And finally, nature sometimes makes its own herbicides. Certain plants, such as laurels, eucalyptus and black walnuts, are allelopathic. That means they create a toxin in their leaves that prevents other plants from growing. Personally, I compost these alleopathic materials without problem and suspect the toxins break down quickly, but there’s a chance alleopathic compounds could have made it into your garden.

And finally, your problem might not be related to compost at all. We’ve had a couple of rainy years, and over time this raininess increases the acidity in our soil (actually a decrease in pH). You have to add agricultural lime, dolomite lime, or gypsum every few years to offset this gradual acidification, at least if you want to grow non-native plants. A proper soil test from a lab would help you identify this problem.

Of all your symptoms, the complete lack of weeds is the most puzzling. There is a weed for every soil type, and homemade compost is usually full of weed seeds that would thrive in any type of soil you could possibly create. For this reason, I suspect herbicides. But I would still expect some grasses to germinate. A more extensive lab test could detect some major pollutants, if this problem persists into next year.

What exactly are green cones?
Your second question concerned green cones and buried garbage cans. These systems are a great way to deal with food waste, which would otherwise attract rats to a compost pile. The holes in the sides of the can – or the “buried laundry basket” type enclosure that lies hidden below a green cone – allow worms to crawl in and out of your food waste, but keep rats out. (In some ratty areas you may have to further predator-proof a green-cone by surrounding its buried basket with 1/2 inch galvanized hardware cloth).

A great way to deal with table scraps

If you choose to use a garbage can, you can bury it all the way if your soil drains freely. But if water accumulates, you’ll want to raise it a bit so worms can climb out of the water (and onto your pile of undigested food) if the container floods. I like to keep two green cones or buried garbage cans. I fill one for six months, then move to the second while the first digests. Then I harvest from the first, and begin refilling it again while the second cone is digested. To fill your green cone or buried garbage can, simply open the lid and scrape food inside. Then close the lid. It’s that simple. Other items, such as chicken manure and yard waste should go into the compost pile. That’s because a well-built compost pile will heat up to 150 degrees – that’s too hot for the worms that populate a green cone.

Where to go from here.
If your problem was related to improper composting, don’t worry, your garden should recover in time for a fall crop. If it’s herbicide related, you may have a longer wait. Start your seeds in trays, to give sensitive seeds an advantage before being transplanted into potentially inhospitable soil. Grow a cover crop if you can and let the garden go fallow for a year. If you haven’t added lime, purchase some from your garden center and apply at the recommended rate.

Compost pile. Photo by Milkwooders, shared via Flickr.

Composting is essentially a simple process, once you get the hang of it. It makes gardening easier, as compost helps protect your plants through droughts and nutrient imbalances. To keep your composting simple, follow these three guidelines:

  1. Build your compost pile by mixing equal volumes of organic green and brown materials. (Bonus points for chopping your material with a machete ahead of time.)
  2. Keep it moist as a wrung out sponge. Some old cardboard on top will help. Let it sit, 3 months if you turn it regularly with a pitchfork, 6 months to a year if you don’t.
  3. Divert table scraps to a separate, rat-proof system such as a green cone or buried garbage can.