Most agribusinesses rely on synthetic fertilizers for rapid plant growth to produce their crops. The same is true for commercial and residential landscape businesses. The mass production of synthetic fertilizers began at the end World War II, after the demand for explosives dramatically decreased.121Prior to that time, cow and horse manure were the main sources of fertilizers.122Today, the #1 cost of farming is the import of synthetic fertilizers.123
Below is a chart124 that compares organic and synthetic fertilizers.
Organic FertilizersSynthetic Fertilizers
Diluted in strength - low danger of applying too much to the soil.
Concentrated in strength – high danger of applying too much and harming plant materials.
Slow release of nutrients to the soil.
Fast acting nutrient supply for the soil.
Application can be approximated.
Specifically formulated and exact amounts are recommended to be applied to the soil.
Unstable, water soluble material.
Do we have to rely on synthetic fertilizers Consider this these facts. An average mature cow can produce 17.67 lbs. of solid waste per day.125 There are 41.0 million cows and heifers in the United States as of January 30, 2009.126 If all of the manure could be harvested each day from all cows and heifers, we would have 724,470,000 lbs. (41.0 million x 17.67 lbs) per day of manure or 264,431,550,000 lbs. (724,470,000 lbs. x 365 days) of manure each year available to be used as organic fertilizer. Moreover, usually at the time it is applied to soil, manure has a 46% moisture content.127 Even if the manure were dried to a powder, we would still have 121,638,513,000 lbs. of manure each year.
This does not even account for all of the horses and their manure production rates. You decide.
Indoor Composting or Worm (Vermi) Composting
Indoor composting or worm (vermi) composting is a fun activity you can do with your children. It will help them learn about taking better care of the earth and could be used as a science project for school.
Almost all indoor composters use red wigglers or red worms (Lumbricus rubellus) or brandling worms (Einsenia foetida), which are the worms most commonly sold by breeders.128 Indoor composting is an eco-friendly way to dispose of fruit and vegetable food scraps that avoids sending more organic waste to the landfill. It produces organic or natural fertilizer that is great for potted plants, vegetable gardens and other landscape applications. When the worms eat the fruits and vegetables, their stomach secretions create rich castings (worm stool) that make nutrients more easily absorbed by plants.129 Organic fertilizers also make soil more resistant to weed growth.130
Now that we know how beneficial it is to compost, let’s see what you will need to keep the worms happy and to get started on your vermicomposting system.
There are some general principles you should know about worms. They are usually sold by the pound. Normally, the minimum amount you can order is pound or about 500 worms. Though they can survive in a broad range of temperatures, worms usually thrive best in temperatures ranging between 59 F and 77 F.131 If you are going to place your compost bin in a garage, make sure that the temperature does not drop below freezing because that will normally kill the worms.132 They also breathe through there skin, so their environment must remain moist.133 Finally, use an opaque or dark container for composting and keep it away from direct sunlight because worms do not like light.134
It is usually better to start your worm bin on a small scale until you get the hang of it. First, you need to determine the size and type of container to use. You can use a wood or plastic bin. As mentioned above, worms need air to breathe. Your container should have at least a half a dozen 1/8 size holes on the sides and possibly at the bottom of the bin to allow aeration, but keep flies out.135 You can even drill larger holes and hot glue pieces of mesh over the holes to achieve the same affect.136 If you are going to use a wood container or drill holes in the bottom of a plastic container, make sure that you have a plastic cover at the bottom to keep in the worm bedding and to protect your flooring from water or moisture damage. If you are reusing a container, be careful not to use a container that previously stored chemicals like bleach or pesticides that are likely to kill worms or contaminate their castings.137 It’s always a good idea to thoroughly wash your container before starting your bin.
Whatever size container you use, it’s helpful to know that it is better to have a container that is shallow or about 12-18 inches deep because worms normally feed upward near the surface.138 Also, the more surface area you have, the more space you will have to put in your fruit and vegetable wastes and the better aeration you will have for the worms.139 A box that is 2 square feet wide and 1 foot deep will easily accommodate 1 pound or about 1,000 adult worms.140
Once you have your container, you will need bedding or a friendly environment for the worms. You can make bedding out of shredded or thin strips of newspaper, cardboard and paper towels.141 You can use some shredded office paper, but use it sparingly, particularly if it has color ink, because if the worms consume too much of the ink from the paper, it could be toxic to the worms.142 Do not use carbonless form paper (used to make duplicate copies) because it is also toxic to the worms.143 Color inserts that are in newspapers are okay because they are printed with soy based ink. The paper not only provides a good environment for the worms, it is also a food source and a covering for the food scraps. Isn’t God wonderful !!
In addition to the paper products, you also need about a handful of soil or sand, enough to cover most of the bottom of the container.144 You can mix in leaves and other yard trimmings as a part of the bedding.145 Since worms need moisture, you will need to take the strips of newspaper, paper towels, leaves, etc., and wet them in a sink or bucket. Then wring them out to the consistency of a damp sponge. Too much water (collecting at the bottom of the container) will drown the worms.146
Now, you are ready to make your compost bin “sandwich”. Take your clean, empty bin and put the soil or sand inside. Then place your damp strips of paper and any other bedding materials loosely in the container and put the worms on top. It takes about a week or so before the worms have adjusted to their new environment, so it’s probably a good idea to wait until the second week before you put food scraps into the bin.147
If you have a pound of worms, you can safely put 1 pound of food scraps for the week.148 What can you use for food scraps Worms like fruit, as long as it is not primarily citrus because too much acid will also kill them.149 They can also eat vegetables (even the peels), tea leaves, coffee grounds, and egg shells (it is best to pulverize the shells because they take a long time to decompose).150
It is important to add the food scraps in small amounts when you first begin your bin because it could heat up from the bacteria and kill the worms.151 Do not add pet waste because it can spread disease.152 You should also avoid meat and fat scraps, bones, fish and oil because of the potential to attract pests and create an unpleasant odor.153
Check your worms once week. They don’t like to be disturbed too often. Remember to keep the bedding and food scraps spread as loosely as possible for aeration. Worm populations usually double in 3 to 4 months. So, you might want to split the population and start another bin at that time. It also at about 3 to 4 months, depending on the size of the bin, that the worm castings start to take over the bin. If the bin is overrun with castings, this could also be detrimental to the worms.
Therefore, you should harvest the nutrient rich castings for your landscape use. Perhaps the easiest way to harvest the castings is it get a separate bin, put a mesh screen (you can get from any hardware store), such as a replacement window screen, over the empty bin and gently sift the contents of the worm bin into the new bin. It is always important to wash your hands thoroughly after handling the bins, the worms or their castings.
Most important thing to remember is to have fun!
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Composting outdoors can require a lot of effort or very little effort, depending on your goals. If you want nutrient rich organic fertilizer within 6 – 8 weeks, you will normally turn your compost once or twice a week. If you want to have completed compost only once a year or once every other year, you won’t have to turn it at all.
What is the final result of composting and why is it so beneficial to agriculture? The answer is humus! It is the end product of composting that contains nutrients and organic matter that is beneficial to plants and soil.154 Humus has the appearance and texture of chocolate cake. Research shows that when humus is added to soil, the soil retains water, resists erosion, promotes aeration, and contains, stores and promotes absorption of beneficial nutrients for plant materials.155 God is so awesome!
How does it happen Microorganisms, which are attracted to and multiply in the compost, use enzymes to digest plant and animal materials that cause decomposition of the compost pile.156 The digestive action in the pile generates heat that accelerate the breakdown of the components in the pile to humus.157
Carbon and Nitrogen
What do you need to start You need carbon and nitrogen components to start your compost. Microorganisms, like all other microbes, need access to the components that constitute their cell structure to survive, such as carbon from carbohydrates and nitrogen from proteins.158 Organic materials contain various amounts or ratios of carbon and nitrogen in them.159 The general rule is that brown materials, like wood, usually have a high carbon content and green materials, like fresh grass clippings, have a high nitrogen content.160 The clippings should be fresh because brown clippings will have a much lower nitrogen content and grass does not store well, particularly in plastic bags, as a result of it’s high water content (it gets slimy) and potential odor.161
The ideal ratio for compost decomposition is a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen mixture.162 Remember that this ratio is a guide. If your ratios are a bit off, it will still work, but just a little less efficiently.163 The easiest way to get as close as possible to the 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ration is to put in of tree leaves and of fresh grass clippings into your bin.164 If you don’t have any tree leaves or fresh grass clippings, you can do an internet search for other carbon and nitrogen sources. There are several books on composting that are an excellent source of information for compost methods and materials, too.
What size bin should you use You should know that you need a minimum of 3 ft. by 3 ft. mass or surface area in order for your compost pile to “heat up”.165 Most people start with a “Shepherd’s Bin”, which you can find at some feed or gardening stores or on the internet. They are collapsible and easily transported to your home or garden. The average cost of a Shepherd’s Bin is about $69 - $79 each. You can really go low tech and use some chicken wire and wooden or metal posts to make your bin. There are also other different kinds bins you can find on the internet that range in price from about $39 - $375.
Starting Your Pile
Now that you have the materials, you can make your compost. If you starting a pile in your backyard, try to keep the pile away from the house for better aeration of the pile and to keep the damp leaves and grass off of the side of your home. Moreover, if you make the pile too wet, it might attract ants that are likely to find a way to gain access into your home.
Start with a few inches of carbon or leaves and add water as you are shoveling the leaves into the bin.166 The leaves should be as moist as a damp sponge.167 Water helps the microorganisms grow and thrive in the compost.168 Then add a few inches of grass and water the grass as you did for the leaves, making it the consistency of a damp sponge.169 Continue doing the same until you have filled the bin. Make sure that you begin and end with your carbon source. This is important to protect against attracting pests.
You can also put in a moderate amount of food scraps, just as you do for indoor composting, avoiding meat, oil, fish, etc.170 If you do use food scraps in the outdoor compost bin, you should place it in the middle of the center layer and away from the sides because that will also attract unwanted critters.171 You can add food scraps up until the second week after you make your initial pile, but noting else after that to ensure that all of the components of the compost pile decompose at the same rate.
The Finish Line
Usually within 48 hours of you making your compost pile, the microorganisms will “get to work” and heat the pile. You can use a thermometer with a long probe (such as a turkey fryer thermometer that has a minimum of a 12 inch probe) to check the temperature, which you want to read at a minimum of 140 degrees.172 After that, you can turn the pile once or twice a week. Each time that you turn it, you should be adding water as you are shoveling the pile so that it remains the consistency of a damp sponge. You will have nutrient rich humus in approximately 6 – 8 weeks.
Rain Water Harvesting
Rain water harvesting is probably the easiest thing you can do to conserve drinking water and save money on your water bill. There are outdoor and indoor applications, depending on your budget.
Outdoor system can be as simple as attaching 55 gallon barrels to your gutter down spouts. You will have to cut the down spouts to the height of the barrel and add a 90 elbow to direct the water into the rain barrel.173 The barrels should be new or food grade and come with an inlet (a mesh covered lit to allow water in and keep mosquitoes and flies out) and a spigot (outlet) located near the bottom of the barrel.174The barrel should be elevated a few inches off of the ground (usually by cinder blocks) to allow for access to the spigot at the bottom of the barrel.
Note that if you are going to use a used barrel, make sure that the barrel was not previously used to store dangerous chemicals that could harm animals or contaminate the soil. You can find rain barrel retailers on the internet or your local telephone business directory. The cost usually ranges from $75 - $250.
One square foot of surface area will yield approximately .6 gallons of water.175 Stated another way, a home with a 1,000 square foot roof can harvest 600 gallons of water for every inch of rainfall.176 You can use this water for gardens, shrubs, lawns, pets, and livestock.177 It is particularly affective when attached to a drip or soaker hose.
More elaborate systems located under the house, driveway or lawn can be applied for indoor use. These systems usually include pumps, filters, a pressure tank and a sanitizing mechanism that will produce drinking quality water for several months at a time.178
Whatever size system you install, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to save one of God’s most precious provisions for us.