Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting a wriggle on

This morning, after feeding my little goldfish, Paul, I popped down to the rear of the garden and opened the lid of my compost bin to feed it yet another batch of kitchen scraps. As soon as I opened the bin I could see dozens of little worms greedily, happily wriggling their way through what must seem to them an endless supply of yummy food. "Oh good, we love soybean pods!"

Having just fed Paul, at that moment I wondered whether I also have pet worms? Probably not (calm down!). But I do like and care for the worms with the same enthusiasm that I look after little Paul. 

After I settled down from that little buzz of wormth, it did occur to me that my compost bin is half-way between a compost bin and a worm farm. And my secret ingredient is mulch. I think it's time I did some explaining, with pictures to help.

No, this person doesn't have a name, but all
 I know that s/he has hundreds of relatives
cohabiting in my tumbler compost bin.

I bought this many years ago, and it is still
working fine. They're not cheap, I think
somewhere around the $175-$200 mark.

There's a lid at both ends, so however many times you spin
it, access is easy enough.

This morning's kitchen scraps includes soybean pods, potato
peelings, orchid flowers, spinach and other salad leftovers.
What's wrong with this is that on its own, this stuff is too 'wet'.

Here's my secret ingredient, the bag of sugar
cane mulch in my shed, 10 feet away from the
compost tumbler bin. I use this because it is
plentiful and relatively cheap.

I grab a good-sized fistful of mulch....

... and sprinkle it over the scraps after I add them. Lid back
on, a couple of tumbles (hopefully spun so that this top end of
the bin ends up down at the bottom afterwards). And spinning
the bin is essential, every time you add scraps, and for us that
means at least three or four times a week. The spinning adds
air to the compost, which speeds up the composting process.

I'm not totally fanatical about adding the
handful of mulch every single time I add the
kitchen scraps, but I do add that handful of mulch
a good majority of the time. The worms love it.
You could add dry leaves instead of mulch, but I don't have a big enough supply of them. And you could add shredded paper, but it doesn't break down as quickly or as nicely as mulch does, and shredding all that paper is a remarkably boring chore over the course of several months. I tried that and gave up, and switched to my bag of mulch, and it suits me a lot better.

The final thing I should mention about my tumbler bin is that it does have one fairly important drawback to be aware of. It never gets 'hot' like a proper compost heap is meant to – and that means worms thrive but seeds from kitchen scraps such as tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums etc never cook down. So, the important thing to do with this type of bin is to separate the seeds from the scraps back in the kitchen. We've got into this routine and so it's easy to do. If you don't exclude the seeds, when you spread the mulch you'll get far too many 'volunteer' tomatoes, cucumbers etc sprouting everywhere, and that's more of another weedy pain to remove than anything else.

True compost heaps work on heat to rapidly break down organic matter (and cook all seeds thoroughly). They need to be quite big to do that heat thing properly, about a cubic metre in size – and that's a whopper of a pile of stuff when you think about it.

Here in our small backyard with just the two of us churning out little buckets of scraps daily we're never going to create a cubic metre of stuff to compost down in one go. Very few average backyard gardeners do this. We just add our scraps in dribs and drabs as daily domestic life goes on.

And so our cool little compost tumbler creates beautiful compost, thanks to all that spinning of the bin, plus a mountain of chomping from thousands of worms, but without the dry stuff, the mulch, to balance out the wet scraps, our bin would be an uninhabitable swamp in which few worms could live. With the dry mulch there to balance things out, these worms are like contented cows munching grass in a lush paddock.

Finally, where do the worms come from? The garden. I occasionally add a small spadeful of garden soil to the compost bin. Real garden soil is not just full of worms, it's a whole community of beneficial micro-organisms, and it's a free and fabulous 'compost booster' that is well worth adding to your bin, to get it going well.


Missy Piggy said...

If your compost bin got very hot wouldn't the worms "cook"? I'd love to have a worm farm on our balcony but we face due north and it's VERY hot out there...too hot for worms I think.

Jamie said...

Hi Missy Piggy, my bin is in almost the opposite position to your balcony: it's shaded by an olive tree and hardly gets any sun on it at all, so overheating never happens.

More generally, the tumbler bins generally don't get 'hot' the way proper 1 cubic metre sized heaps get consistently hot and stay hot inside, no matter what the weather. I'm really not sure how worms would go in a tumbler bin that is set out in full blazing sun all day long. I just don't have the experience to know.

You're right about your balcony and the worm farm, though. The poor little worms would cook. They do like the cool shade.

Ngeun said...

My old man has a worm farm, & uses them as bait, river fish loves them. He feeds the worms everything, & tends to them with great care. Saucy Onion has a balcony worm farm but I'm not sure what direction her balcony faces (http://saucyonion.blogspot.com). Best. :)

Lucy said...

Interesting that you rely on ordinary earth worms. Here, we tend to start off compost with brandling or tiger worms - once the colony's got going , you don't need to add any more. They like breeding! Maybe the difference is the tumbler aspect. (Never tried that - only the traditional bin or heap.)

Charlotte said...

Such a timely post for me Jamie, it's wonderful to see you back so actively on the blog (must take a leaf from your book...). I'm becoming obsessed with our new tumbler compost bin. We have a worm farm which couldn't cope with the volume of our kitchen scraps so I'm thinking that we will alternate between the two - the worms get a chance to really work through all the trays of scraps as we focus on the tumbler, and then when it's full it will be back to start from scratch on the worm farm. We hope.

I wonder if it's time we started adding the sugar cane mulch or similar. I've been thrilled to have something to do with the office paper (I have a shredder so it's not a big deal to do, although my husband finds if very amusing that I shred the paper and then stand there cutting up the ribbons with scissors into smaller lengths) and have become obsessed with chasing down every stray leaf that floats into the courtyard and escorting it into the compost. It looks okay, smells fine, has loads of vinegar flies and a bit of activity I think, but I wonder if the paper will take too long to break down.

Anyway - so much fun I don't really care. Amazing to be so engaged and amused by such minutiae! Thanks for your very clear instructions and pictures, SO helpful. XC

Jamie said...

Thanks Charlotte, it was your recent kind tweets about my other compost postings that prompted me to do this update. Thanks, too – every time you mention me in a tweet I get another dozen or two new followers!

With the paper, I'd just keep an eye on how it's breaking down. It's a great way to get rid of office paper, though!

I found shredded paper to be a bit on the slow side in breaking down, while the mulch gets incorporated quickly and also seems to slurp up extra moisture in the mix more readily. But you do have to buy the mulch and the paper is cheap as.

Last idea: scoop some of the worms into the tumbler bin, as I suspect they'll love it there and will multiply rapidly.

Catherine said...

What an inspirational post! I love the sugar cane idea. I had a Tumbleweed years ago but abandoned it at the last house as the lid frequently became so 'glued' on with moisture and grass bits that I just couldn't open either end without calling in the 'XY' cavalry. Have you had that problem?

Jamie said...

Yep, that 'sticky lid' thing can be a problem if the bin is neglected for a couple of weeks (eg, when we go away on holidays... I am sure it would never happen while we're at home!) Being Mr Keen, on a day-to-day basis, being opened three or four times a week, it's not a problem.

The other bit of muscle work that is sometimes needed is when the bin gets half full but has sat around for a couple of weeks without being spun. All of it settles down one end, and that first spin can sometimes take some effort. I don't think Pammy could turn it over at that stage, for example, because I do find it one hell of a heave and, well, I am bigger and stronger (but not wiser or braver) than my darling.

Oddly enough, the fuller a bin becomes the more well balanced it becomes and it spins quite easily.