I love seeing a pile of “waste” turned into great big piles of beautiful compost.
Meat, paper, bones, oils… whatever. And it makes wonderful compost.
This is still more complicated than much of my own composting, but when you’re running a community gardening project you do need to get that fine compost going for regular vegetable production. He’s getting it hot and turning it, which makes the process faster, but for you and I in a backyard situation… it’s not necessary.
I like his sifter, incidentally.
It would be really nice to have a sifter like that over a concrete slap so you couldjust scrape up the compost as it falls.
Winter is a great time to compost. If you’re not composting right now or if the rules have been holding you back, break free – throw it on the ground – it will rot!
Paul Gautschi of Back to Eden fame has a method of composting where he throws food scraps and garden waste into his chicken run and lets the birds eat and till and manure it down. Then he takes a wheelbarrow and sifter out and harvests the rich compost/soil in his chicken run and throws it on his gardens.
I have done the same for the last few years and find it works wonderfully.
In a video I posted this morning you can see how I’m using this Back to Eden garden method to make plenty of the good stuff.
It’s really simple and doesn’t take much thought. I’ll share how I do it, then you can tweak in your own gardens however you like.
Back to Eden Chicken Run Composting
The basic idea: throw everything out in the chicken run (or inside the coop, if it has a dirt floor like ours does) and let the chickens turn it into compost.
If you have free-range birds without a dirt-floor chicken coop, this method is a non-starter. I have found that letting birds totally free range is more trouble than it’s worth, as I’ve lost many birds to predators, plus finding where they lay the eggs is a total pain.
Ideally you can balance “outside time” with safety, as keeping birds locked up in a coop all the time is sad… but finding eviscerated corpses of birds dragged behind the barn is also sad.
Currently we keep our setting hens locked up in the coop for the safety of their eggs. Mothers with young chicks are also kept inside. The other birds are free to wander during the day, but if they start sleeping in the trees and not coming back to the coop, we lock them up for a few days to reset them.
But… back to chicken run composting.
Here’s step 1:
Throw Compostable Items to the Birds!
Yard “waste”, weeds, kitchen scraps, picnic remains… if it’s organic and will break down in a reasonable amount of time, throw it to your hens.
When you prune trees you can take the entire pruned branches and toss them into the chicken run. When all the leaves fall off, pull the branches out again and throw them into a hugelkultur mound, turn them into biochar, or use them for rocket stove fuel.
The leaves will be turned into compost by your birds, and then you can use that compost in your garden.
This mother hen and her chick started tearing into the leaves and garden “waste” as soon as I dropped it in the coop:
Chickens want to work for you if you give them a chance.
Make a Compost Sifter and Start Sifting
I used to have a compost sifter made from pressure treated wood with hardware cloth nailed on it. Now I just use a bent piece of hardware cloth. Redneck, but it works.
Throw the dirt and compost from the floor of your coop or chicken run onto the hardware cloth and sift it through. This keeps the rocks and big pieces of junk out of your garden, though if you were going to use this chicken run compost for fruit trees you could just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and skip the sifting.
I love handling dirt so I enjoy sifting.
You can see various twigs and debris left behind by the birds. Eventually everything woody will break down, so I don’t take the little twigs out of the run – I just leave them to be turned and manured by the chickens until they’re compost.
Wrapping It All Up
The compost I harvested from the chicken coop in today’s video was the remains of a thick layer of leaves and grass we raked up during a yard clean-up day. The inside of the coop was mostly 6″ deep in it and you can see how thin the layer is now.
I harvested a total of two five-gallon buckets of compost from the coop when all was said and done.
Five gallons of compost was spread across my garden beds and the remaining five gallons I set aside to make potting soil.
The Back to Eden garden method, in its whole, works best when you have access to lots of cheap or free wood chips. I do not, so, like most of my gardening, I borrow the pieces that work for me and throw out the pieces that don’t.
Heck, I can’t even follow a recipe in the kitchen without changing it, let alone do so in my garden.
I love the Back to Eden chicken run compost method… it’s amazingly easy and creates rich compost in only a couple of months. I like it so much that I’m going out this afternoon to load up the bottom of my chicken run with a bunch of fresh organic matter.
The chickens enjoy it and I don’t have to spend any time measuring C/N ratios or turning a pile. Win, win, win!
Finally – I posted a video of Paul Gautchi using this method a few years back. You can see that post here.
I’ve been making anaerobic liquid fertilizer for years now.
It’s become such a normal part of my gardening that I sometimes forget how rabid people get about aerobic compost tea and composting with “good” bacteria as opposed to “bad” bacteria.
My experiments with anaerobic composting in barrels of water started with weed and manure tea left to steep, then kept expanding from there until they hit the fully fledged corn-feeding uber-corn-boosting method I describe in Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.
For a long time I felt like I was standing alone on a high and solitary peak of knowledge, isolated from the rest of the gardening and farming world… until I came across JADAM Organic Farming, also known as Korean Natural Farming.
“After pulling up those tillage radishes, and seeing several other plants in the garden that could be pulled and tossed into my compost pile, it occurred to me that I should try composting some of the garden waste in a minibed. This isn’t an original idea with me. I saw it mentioned recently in a YouTube video by my gardening friend, David The Good.
David and his family are living (and gardening) among the natives in a mysterious undisclosed Caribbean location. You can subscribe to David’s YouTube Channel and follow the adventure. Every so often, you’ll see him sporting a Planet Whizbang hat in his videos. That always puts a smile on my face.
It seems like a good and logical idea to pile garden waste in a minibed and let it compost down. But I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that a compost pile will not “work” unless it is at least a 36″ square cube in size. The minibeds are only 30″ square, and the bed frame is only 3-1/2″ high. That’s hardly big enough.
But I don’t call it a Minibeds-on-Plastic experimental garden for nothing.
I rounded up a variety of old and mostly mushy vegetation from my garden and made a pile in Minibed E7 (please refer now to your copy of The Report to locate minibed E7). Into the pile I put the tillage radishes, along with beet tops, kale tops, carrot tops, chard tops, broccoli tops, buckwheat straw (from a cover crop I planted last year), and some odd tree leaves.
I cut up some of the bigger pieces of vegetation with a knife before adding it to the pile. Here’s a picture…
That’s quite a pile, but it will settle down considerably in time. It is best to cover a compost pile in order to maintain a steady moisture level, so I put a piece of 1mil black plastic over the top…
One tire sidewall on top, four on the sides, and the plastic will stay in place. I’ll push my compost thermometer into the pile in the spring and see if it has any heat to it. It might not, and if not, I think I will redistribute the contents into bed E6, while mixing in some high-nitrogen feathermeal.
The feathermeal is vile-smelling, but it does a fine job of getting a compost pile hot (and I just happen to have half a 55-gallon drum of the stuff).
As I contemplate this minibed compost pile, I think it might be a good idea to make some sort of frame extensions and stack them up so I have a compost bin that is more of a 30″ cube in size. Perhaps something along the lines of my Lee Reich compost bins would work.”
I think this compost pile will work fine. It may not get that hot, but it will break down and feed that soil. I also believe that colder piles make better compost – or at least, more compost.
“Hot composting usually only yields about 25% to 33% cured compost per unit of built material volume. In contrast, Ecology Action (EA) has found that cold compost can yield about 35% more cured compost per unit of built material.”
That said, I think you could still get a pretty hot compost pile even if it’s smaller than the oft-cited hot composting magic size of one cubic yard.
Have you ever cut grass and then waited a day or so to rake up the piles? Even small piles – we’re talking less than 12″ thick – of grass can get warm inside. I think that feather meal is going to do the trick.
We are regularly assured by composting experts that hot composting destroys seeds… yet I have some pumpkins that beg to differ:
Those pumpkins grew as volunteers from one of my compost piles a few years ago. Granted, it wasn’t a regularly turned pile, meaning that they probably missed the hottest part of the compost… but how many of you have turned your compost regularly and still had little tomatoes or weeds pop up in it?
“The composting process also naturally kills weed seeds. Properly managed, a compost pile should easily reach 140°F, which breaks down all organic matter, including weed seeds.”
They recognize the difficulty, though, as the next line reads:
“The key word is properly.”
My bet is that few gardeners reach that lofty, “proper” goal.
Why Our Backyard Compost Doesn’t Kill Weed Seeds
A typical backyard compost heap isn’t insulated or turned often enough to maintain heat and rotate all the viable seeds in the compost through the hot center of the pile.
Yes, the heat generated by thermophilic bacteria in a hot compost pile is high enough to destroy seeds, but getting every bit of your compostable materials hot enough to kill the seeds takes very good compost management.
My old pile didn’t do it. It was built from reclaimed landscape logs with too many gaps to get everything hot. Plus, turning it was a pain.
I imagine if you owned a cement truck and packed the barrel of it with a proper mix of carboniferous and nitrogenous materials, then rotated it every day or so, and perhaps insulated the inside with foam, you could get that compost to heat up perfectly.
I’m joking. A bit.
My composting methods have gone from complicated to simple over the years as I’ve realized creating perfect compost doesn’t really matter.
Nature doesn’t create perfectly sifted, totally rotten-down brown humus. No, she throws logs and leaves on the ground. There’s always some finished material and some fresh material, some fungi eating at this and some insect boring away at that.
But let me back up. What prompted today’s post?
This Viewer Asked a Question
There was a comment that prompted today’s great big post on weed seeds in compost. Four words that led to 1145 words:
Martha asked this question on this anaerobic compost tea video I posted back in the summer:
My answer was:
“Good question. I try to avoid throwing plants with mature seeds into the tea. They never seem to get completely killed in hot compost piles, either, though, even though we hear all the time that “hot composting kills weed seeds!” It’s probably true for the ones in the middle of the pile, but I’m always getting volunteer tomatoes, wheat from straw, weeds, and pumpkins popping up even from hot piles. My guess is that this tea method will rot down most of the seeds if it sits long enough but not all of them.”
It takes a lot of faith in your compost-fu to deliberately throw in weedy materials, no matter how you’re composting.
If you have spiny pigweed going to seed in your food forest, do you really think you’ll be able to throw that in your compost bin and then use the resulting compost in your spring gardens?
Do you want to take that risk?
But I Compost the Right Way!
That’s fine – I appreciate the thermometer and sifter brigade.
To those about to compost, I salute you!
I am totally sure that I could destroy weed seeds by hot composting if I thought it out properly. My interest, however, is more in gardening than in the processes that lead up to it. Making “perfect” looking compost isn’t as important to me as growing corn, pumpkins, beans, yams and fruit trees. I also don’t like spending money to make perfect systems.
If you enjoy it, that’s fantastic. I love the smell, look and taste (well, maybe not taste) of finished compost. I made some nice-looking stuff myself this year and just sifted it the other day:
I made that compost with almost no work, though. No thermometers, no turning, no measuring ratios of carbon/nitrogen to get that 25/1 mix. No, I just threw it all on the ground in one of my garden beds.
And – oh YES – LOTS of seeds came up in it! Enough to start my new fruit tree nursery.
I view this as a feature, not a bug. Sometimes I just let compost piles turn into garden beds since there are so many volunteer edibles coming up.
But What About Killing Weed Seeds???
Right – that’s what you all want to know, right? How CAN you compost those pesky weedy plants?
My favorite method is to keep them out of the compost piles and gardens altogether.
In my former food forest I would just chop down weeds and throw them on the ground around my fruit trees and other shrubs. If they self-seeded and came back, I’d chop them down again.
Unlike delicate annual garden plants such as lettuce and cabbage, trees and shrubs don’t need to be perfectly weeded in order to produce. I just knocked down the weeds again and again, and every time I did, guess what?
Those fallen weeds rotted into humus.
Nature does this all the time. The winter freezes come once a year and toast all the weeds, letting them fall down and rot into the soil, improving it. The Bible instructed the children of Israel to let their land go completely fallow one year out of seven. Weeds regenerate the soil, as I’ve written before.
If you want to use weeds to feed your gardens, you’ll have much better luck in a no-till system where you throw a pile of seedy weeds on the ground, then cover them up with mulch… and then DON’T TILL!
If you till, you’ll bring those seeds up to the light and warmth and they’ll go crazy in your eggplants. Beneath a layer of mulch, however, they’ll eventually rot away safely.
That’s my two cents on composting destroying weed seeds. Yes, it can – but most of us aren’t doing it “properly,” so don’t trust too much in the magic of compost to pile-drive your pesky pigweed problems.
Personally, I prefer cold composting anyhow as I believe it keeps more of the good stuff in the pile instead of steaming away into the air. Nature almost always cold composts, and while that process takes longer I think it’s a simpler and gentler method.
I did an open burn and managed to get over 15 gallons of biochar. It’s mostly from fast-burning materials like palm fronds and bamboo, with a big of hardwood and random sticks thrown in.
If you throw charcoal directly into your beds it soaks up the minerals for a time, lowering or even eliminating your yields; however, if you “charge” it first with some minerals and nitrogen, it acts like a reserve in the soil. Or that’s the theory as I understand it.
Being rather insane, I decided to soak the biochar in seawater and Epsom salt. And urine. And some compost. I only soaked it for a couple of hours, though, which may not be enough.
Biochar wasn’t the only amendment I added to the garden beds. I also sifted some compost with my redneck compost sifter, AKA a carefully bent hunk of hardware cloth:
Some of the compost is being reserved for a new batch of potting soil I’m going to make to pot up some of my compost pile fruit trees, but some of it we put in the garden beds along with the biochar. Biochar and compost – what a wonderful combination!
Rachel helped with this part, even after all her vigorous broadforking.
There are few things I enjoy more than working in the garden with my wife.
Having a task in front of us and getting it done together is better than watching a movie or hanging around smoking a hookah. I think. We’ve never actually smoked a hookah together, so that’s just conjecture, really.
Next on the agenda is planting… when we do that, I’ll share it as well.
Stay warm and have a great Sunday. We’ve been unable to make it to church for weeks now due to our car and I really miss it. I hope you are part of a good fellowship… and also have a working vehicle. Eventually we’ll be back to our normal Sabbath routine. Not worried. We have food, gardens, a beach within two miles walk… hard to feel too bad about a busted car.
And we definitely have “two or more gathered together” in the name of Jesus here on our homestead.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.“
Sounds like you made the right choice. Possible outcomes:
1. You get to harvest what you’ve planted, without moving. 2. You have to move, but get to harvest anyway. 3. You have to move, and someone else moves in … you’ve given them quite the potential house-warming present!
Doesn’t sound like there’s any real downside to me.
Heck, I’ve planted fruit trees across multiple previous properties at this point. People are harvesting and enjoying fruit now that they didn’t have to plant. No loss.
On Wednesday after finishing up some office work I took to the gardens and brought the camera with me.
You can see how I use a garden bed as a compost pile for a period of time, then rotate to another bed. I first did this on a lousy, sandy bed back in North Florida. The crops had done horribly in it, so I thought “hey, why not make THIS space the compost pile instead of piling up compost somewhere else?”
I just pile up compostable materials and let them rot down over time.
If you do this in a garden bed, all the good nutrition that seeps out of the compost goes right into the soil beneath where your crops will find it when you later rake away the compost and plant the ground. Worms are also drawn to that area by the delicious rotting kitchen scraps.
Look at this beautiful stuff!
After letting a bed rot down like this for 6 months to a year, you can then plant right on top… or steal some of that compost for another project, making sure to leave a bit behind for the crops to come.
I sifted out about 3+ gallons of good compost from this bed using a piece of hardware cloth. You can still see some eggshell pieces, or as Rachel calls them, “slow-release calcium”:
This finer compost gets used when I prepare beds, make potting soil and as food for my potted fruit trees.
The rougher chunks that don’t make it through the screen get thrown into the new compost/garden bed. I also chopped-and-dropped a self-planted moringa tree I’ve let grow there.