The Great Compost Adventure

I don’t know why composting is so exciting but it is! We both absolutely love it. There is something magical, alchemical about turning so-called waste into mythical loam! It’s an incredibly satisfying process. I mean if you think about it – waste didn’t exist until we humans invented it. And now we have all these storage and pollution problems with our waste products. I don’t know the statistics but I reckon that 80% of the stuff we call waste can be easily composted or recycled. The rest – well we should stop making it or find a way to recycle it or make people pay to deal with it!

Anyway, off my high-horse and on with the real story – which is that we finally built our own compost bays. We have done compost before in those backyard bins. Never found those systems particularly easy or successful…and always longed to do something more serious, but time and space didn’t allow. Although Rachel once attempted, in our backyard at Bangalow, quite successfully I might add, an 18 day mega-compost heap, based on something she learned in her PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate). So I guess what I am saying, neither of us are super experienced composters! But when we came to live here we felt very committed to taking care of our waste for real, and composting is one way to deal effectively with almost all of it.

It seems like we have been talking about doing it since we arrived – probably because we have. So you can imagine the relief we felt to finally finish them…The plastic humanure buckets had been building in a conspicuous pile outside our dunny area. We kept trying to scratch out time in our diaries to do it. We sketched a few ideas on paper about how we might construct such a thing. We talked it over with everyone we could… We bought more plastic buckets to tide us over til the bays were ready to use….

Eventually, after a lot of failed attempts to get started, we reached a point where we decided we couldn’t live with ourselves if we bought anymore plastic buckets in which to store our poop. We arranged with Rod & Tania to borrow the work truck so we could collect all our materials. And finally we had the time, materials and the good weather to make a start on it… It actually took two days – or really a day and a half day. In the end it all came together quite quickly.

We tossed around a few ideas with everyone at the farm about how to construct them easily, cheaply and effectively. In the end went with Tania’s helpful suggestion of using second-hand corrugated iron and star-pickets. For a start the materials would be a lot cheaper – and the construction would also be a great deal easier than say working with timber or bricks. Rod helped out by digging out an area at the back not far from our toilet area….making quick work of it with his little tractor.

Rod carves out a little spot for our compost bays…

We headed to the local recycling yard and John the owner cut some corrugated iron into the lengths we needed. We basically decided on 3 bays of roughly 1 metre square. To do this we bought one long piece which measured a little over 3 metres and three shorter 1 metre lengths.

We roughly marked out the site and then started by driving in the first star picket. We chose 8 foot pickets and this turned out to be a good choice – for while they took a little longer to bang in with the post basher and they cost a bit more than the 6 foot pickets – they are far more secure and will even allow us to go higher with our bays if we want to in the future.

The backing sheet in place…

We bought some wire to tie the iron sheets to the star pickets, and used a hammer and nail to bang holes into the iron sheets at the right spots to line up with the holes in the pickets. It all worked very well – we surprised ourselves with how well it all came together. The end result is very sturdy.

Michelle ties the iron to the pickets

The bays starting to come together

Remember that before we started we dug a trench in the ground where the bays would be erected (see pic of Rod earlier). This we planned to fill with hay to provide a kind of sponge for the compost pile. The theory is that this will help keep it drier and allow more air to circulate through the pile, helping it to maintain the heat, which is required to kill any pathogens.

With the hay lining the bottom of the first bay…

As you can see we ended up with three bays, which should be more than sufficient for our composting needs. According to the Humanure System, we will use one bay until it is full, then leave it to mature for a year, whilst filling the other bay. We decided on three bays, just to be sure we had enough space for all our compost, as we plan to try to recycle as much of the farm food waste as we can, not just our own personal food scraps.

Our three bays completed

Important ingredients: hay, food scraps & mature compost

We started to fill the first bay that same day. We used the following ingredients:

• 1 x poo bucket (containing humanure & sawdust)
• Vegetable scraps from the farm
• Compost to inoculate with good bacteria and worms
• Leaf litter from around our site
• Sugar Cane mulch
• Water

As with any compost heap, you need to think about your Carbon:Nitrogen ratio and try to get that in the 30:1 vicinity.

Layer of food scraps

Rachel opens our first bucket of toilet material – humanure

We have since done away with the disposable gloves, and just clean the buckets with warm soapy water, which is biodegradable, and add the water to the compost pile. We then spray the buckets with an environmentally friendly, biodegradable germ killer and leave them in the sun for a week to allow the sun to finish off any germs that may remain. As we come to our last new buckets, we will put the old buckets back through the system again.

Emptying the contents into the compost pile

The contents of our bucket, food scraps, ready to be covered with some more hay or sugar cane mulch

We started out just adding one bucket of humanure, but have gotten braver in the few weeks since we started and now are adding 3 buckets at a time, along with a lot of green vegetable waste, leaf litter, water and more sugar cane mulch on top. The buckets that have been sitting for awhile have already started to breakdown with the sawdust in the bucket. The smell upon opening is like sawdust, sweet and woody. No bad odours which is a happy surprise. Although Joe Jenkins always says his system is odour free – but you never know til you try it.

Both looking very pleased with our progress…

In the few weeks the compost pile has been going strong. We have had some pretty heavy rain in that time and still the heap looks good, not too wet. We haven’t had any smells from the pile – so we can literally now say that our shit doesn’t stink! Thankfully no signs of rodent activity either. So far all is going quite well. But any compost heap needs regular care and attention. Its a living thing after all. We need to purchase a compost thermometer asap, so we can keep a check and make sure we reach the temperatures we need to kill pathogens. Even if we don’t manage this straight away, although no reason we shouldn’t, well the maturing process will take care of pathogens anyway. We will be using the compost we make around our site, as our site is mostly clay with no decent top-soil.

It’s a very exciting adventure and we will definitely keep you posted on our progress.


5 thoughts on “The Great Compost Adventure

  1. Hey there
    I have just finished the first week of Cert. in Applied Organics and Biodynamics and I was reminded of a wonderful compost prep called CPP (Cow Pat Pit) manure. It is made out of cow manure that has been inoculated with Biodynamic preparations for 4-6 months. It is powerful and ‘implants’ amazing fungi and organic hormones etc into the compost which help it heat up and break down.
    I am about to convert one of our toilets to a compost (bucket) toilet so it is very cool to see what you have built.


  2. Looking at all of those buckets made me think. If you could spare one or two buckets, you could add bokashi to your mix and dump the fermented garbage into your compost heap.

    • Hey reluctantretiree, that’s a pretty cool suggestion. I haven’t had a lot to do with Bokashi – but have read about it. Something we could definitely look into. Would the fermented garbage be a better addition than just regular garbage/vegetables? can you recommend a website that could instruct us on using the Bokashi system?

      • I don’t think that bokashi is better than other forms of composting, only that it allows one to compost food other than vegetables, i.e., meat scraps, fish, pasta – anything that contains fat. My bucket addition tonight was pork chop bones, corn cobs from buttered corn on the cob, and the remnants of some red beans and rice cooked with olive oil. I covered this with a section of newspaper innoculated with essential microorganisms and put the airtight lid on. When the bucket gets full, let it sit for two weeks, then bury the contents, or, put it in your compost pile.

        Try googling Jenny’s Bokashi blog, bokashislope, or newspaper bokashi. I use kombucha tea. Keep up your good work!

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