A Recycling Journey

Composting Competition – Autumn 2014

We asked people to send us their stories about Composting, Organic Recycling, Organic Gardening, Worm Farming or any other related Sustainability topic.

By Kelly Wade

About Kelly: I live in a rural village about an hour from Canberra. I have bachelor, honours and PhD degrees in science but having realised (after moving into my current house) that I like gardening, I now want to spend my time gardening and helping other people to garden more productively and more easily.

Nearly three years ago, I moved into a new house and started building a new garden pretty much from scratch. As part of this process I investigated a variety of different recycling options.

Initially we built a compost bay with the intention of building two additional bays when the first was full of compost materials. The reason for this was that I wanted to have a bay that we would actively fill with materials as they became available, a bay for material that was actively decomposing (composting) and a bay to store the final product until we had distributed it around my garden. This is a common system and I thought it was a great idea.

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For us though, there were a number of problems with this system. We had too much ‘green’ material (copious amounts of grass clippings) for the size of my compost system and we had way too little ‘brown’ material. This meant that our compost was slow and inefficient and probably lost a fair amount of nitrogen to the atmosphere. Also, I’m a lazy composter. I started out with good intentions but never managed to turn our piles as often as they needed.

Then we got three gorgeous chickens. Some of the grass clippings became material for the chickens to scratch around in when we weren’t home to put them in their ‘tractor’ or free range them (we get lots of foxes and predatory birds in our area so we can’t free range them when we’re not around – at least not the way our garden is currently structured) and this somewhat evened the amount of green and brown material in our compost heap. This didn’t solve the problem with my laziness – the compost still decomposed slowly because I didn’t turn it regularly.

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Next we built a large worm farm that was situated on the ground. The reason for this is that we get very cold winters and we were worried that the worms would die, even in the shed, if they couldn’t burrow into the ground for shelter when required. Our food scraps then started going to the worms. This meant less material for our compost heap.

By this stage we had also replaced a lot of our lawn with garden beds so most of our grass clippings were going to the chickens rather than the compost. We also bought another three chickens. So we stopped using the compost heaps altogether.

By now, mowing was a chore. Well it was always a chore but in the beginning the lawn areas were relatively normal in shape (rectangles) though the steps at the bottom of the garden and the steep slope of the yard did give my partner a bit of a work out (mowing grass affects my hay fever so I am confined to the house when it’s going on). Once we started building garden beds tho
ugh, lots of grass-filled nooks and crannies developed and mowing these areas became significantly more difficult.

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Then we bought two cavies (guinea pigs) to keep the grass down. We built them a mobile home which similar to a chicken tractor except that their house is mobile as well. This enables us to confine them in to spots that are difficult to mow and they nibble on the grass instead. We move them whenever the grass gets sufficiently short (usually every two to three days – it could easily be longer if we built a larger tractor) and they are mostly guaranteed a fresh supply of juicy grass (grass was a bit scarce this summer due to a lack of rain but they enjoyed lots of supplemental carrots). We haven’t mowed since we got them nearly a year ago. They provide other benefits too. They eat many kitchen scraps that the chickens don’t and their bedding straw is a great source of fertiliser and organic matter in the same way that the chicken’s straw is.

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Most recently we decided that our worm bin wasn’t quite cutting it. The worms still aren’t keeping up with the food we give them (anything that we can’t feed to the chickens or the cavies plus all our paper waste) and the design we came up with didn’t really allow enough ventilation or collection of worm juice (we did attempt to install a tray with some mesh to keep the vermicast out but the vermicast was too heavy for the mesh so the tray was hard to move in and out when required). It was also hard to harvest the vermicast. We intended to just feed the worms on one side of the bin so that they would vacate the other side but we had too much waste. So we bought two cheap, small rubbish bins, sawed off the bottoms and drilled holes in the to top. We transferred the worms to both bins and hopefully they will multiply enough to keep up with demand. Once they do, we should be able to stop filling one bin so that all the worms migrate to the other and then we can harvest vermicast. These bins are also located in a spot where the juice that washes into the soil can migrate to downhill garden beds.

At the same time as this occurred, a friend gave us her old (purchased) worm farm and we transferred some worms to that system so that we can start to collect some juice. This winter I will finally know whether worms will survive in our cold winters.

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Finally, to complement our system, we have be using old newspapers and cardboard boxes to sheet mulch our garden paths. Whenever we have enough for one section we allow the cavies to mow the lawn really short and then cover it with newspaper and cardboard. Then we cover that material with prunings from bushes around our garden. This helps keep weeds from invading our garden beds, allows us to recycle more material than what we can use in the rest of our recycling system and attracts worms and other beneficial organisms. Ideally we would put manure in between the newspaper/cardboard and prunings but we don’t generate enough on site. One day we’ll have to get some more animals!

There are still improvements to be made to our system (for instance, I would like to have a proper, small compost system at some point as I might actually regularly turn something like that and one of those compost aerating tools would also help) and we could do with some more worm farms. I would also like to get a bokashi system one day so I can compost meat scraps without attracting rats. Then the only waste leaving our property would be metal, glass and plastic (all things I try to minimise anyway). All in all though, I’m pleased with the evolution of our recycling system and I’m pretty proud of the progress we have made. I hope others find this storey useful and perhaps pick up some ideas or inspiration that they can use in their own garden.