Hot composting using a wire mesh container

Wire mesh can make a cheap and portable composting container. We never had much success with this at The Oak Tree farm, probably because the site was very exposed to the wind, but Nigel Griffith at Landews Meadow Farm and Dave Beecher use this technique successfully.

We are trying this again at a new site which is much more enclosed from the wind, and we have the benefit of mains power for pumping. However, we don’t have borehole water, so we had to fill a 220l water butt with mains water1, and leave it to stand for a couple of days to vent the chlorine.

scrounged heap of chipped tree prunings
scrounged heap of chipped tree prunings

Materials were freshly chipped tree prunings scrounged from some guys who were trimming trees for the council and a combination of hedge trimmings, windfall apples and other green material. These were shredded using a domestic rotary garden shredder to this sort of consistency

Continue reading “Hot composting using a wire mesh container”

Making compost tea

We are using 160901 to make compost tea. Although the temperature has fallen to ambient, it’s still a bit early.  This is only seven weeks old, and it’s apparent that while all the green material and plant material has gone and isn’t recognisable for what it is, the woodchip takes longer to break down. As such it will be mainly bacterial, the fungi take longer to develop. Fungi are better at decomposing woody material. But sometimes it is not worth letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

compost 160901 after seven weeks
compost 160901 after seven weeks

Looking back at the success we had with the beans there is some latency of a few months between putting the compost organisms out, compared with the more modest results after only a couple of months, so we want to get this out now to do its work over the winter. Continue reading “Making compost tea”

Guest post on Hot Composting from Dave Beecher

An enormous thank you to Dave Beecher this guest post on his experience of hot composting. Dave has been working alongside Zach Wright who himself learned directly from the mighty Elaine Ingham herself! This post includes a very entertaining video of Dave making his compost pile, an activity the clearly fascinated everyone (including Billy the Dog!) at Caerhys Organic Farm in St Davids, Wales! You can contact Dave on (an image to protect him from spam):

So, my first attempt only got as far as turn 3 and would not heat up after that. It became very wet (liquid running out the bottom) once all the green material started to break down. I didn’t have enough high N and my green material contained a lot of internal water.

Pile shrunk down a lot as I did not compact sufficiently when building the initial pile. Using a flat head shovel every 6-12 inches works well. The second pallet was larger than first allowing for a bigger ring and making the pile look really small. Keep the diameter of the ring the same regardless of pallet size. This will allow better control when turning as you will be able to divide you material up evenly to comply with the turning break down as shown below.

I started again and treated the first attempt as 50% and then added 20% brown, 20% green and 10% high N. This worked a treat and i ended up getting 6 turns in as it was still quiet hot after the 5th.

 

Temp
I used a 500kg grain bag with pull cord to cover the pile. This worked well as i could open the top and release excess heat and condensation, preventing the top of the pile from getting soggy. I had to turn two days in a row as it was getting very close to 70c. I made sure to air it out well on the second turn and not compact it down at all. This allowed me to keep the temp 55-59C for 3 days.

Water
After the first pile getting to wet i held back a little on the water when making the second pile. The temp was slow to rise only 18C the following morning. I add 7L of water to the top and sides that evening, it reached temp by the next day. I continued to add water when need and based it on visual and squeeze method.

Flies and Midges
When the pile was covered and slightly damp from condensation there were a few hanging around. Once i removed it and allowed it to dry out they disappeared

Mushroom
Got my first 2 mushroom on day 17 loads on day 19, by day 22 they were gone just some pin heads were visible.

 

Compost Biology
After 1 month i found 5 bacteria feeding nematodes, one predatory, lots of amoeba and one our two fungi spores

Predatory nematode, 400x
Predatory nematode, 400x

 

After 7 weeks i was getting 30-50 nematodes per slide mainly bacteria and 3-5 predatory, a diverse range of amoeba and fungi development.

 

The pile is now 10 weeks old, I will be heading back to Wales next week to see how it’s getting on and will let you.

Happy Composting!

Dave

 

 

How to make Biologically Active Compost Extract In 20 Days

An enormous thank you to Nigel Griffith for this guest post on Farm Scale Composting at Landews Meadow Regenerative Agriculture Center, Challock, Kent in the South East of England. It is full of incredibly helpful, practical advice!

At Landews Meadow one of our main goals is to improve and regenerate our soils.

Our farm is just under 56 acres of very open land on the top of the North Kent Downs, we can see the North Sea from one field and a short walk away and we can see the English channel, so we have a very exposed site. Our soil is a heavy clay with lots of flints in and 8 feet down you hit the chalk downs. The soil gets boggy in winter and bakes hard in the summer and suffers from compaction, wind erosion and water erosion. For the past 30 plus years the fields had been used for set stocking sheep or cut for hay. The previous management system had been spraying nitrogen fertilisers and weed killers on the pasture.

We have implemented systems (swales, keyline ploughing and tree planting) to reduce the run off, increase filtration and water retention and reduce wind burn. Our initial tests on the soil showed that whilst it has a good mineral content but the only soil biology to be found was bacterial. With only bacteria in soil it will become more compacted and more acidic.

For the past 2 years we have been researching and trialling compost and compost teas to find a workable solution to kick starting the life in our soil. As the vast majority of our livestock lives outside 365 days a year we don’t generate lots of soiled bedding so we don’t have vast supplies of materials for making compost.

In April of 2016 we attended a course with Zach Wright of www.livingsoil.net who is one of a very few people certified and approved by Elaine Ingham. Zach describes himself as a Decompiculturalist and has spent most of his adult life making compost.  He has refined the process and his course taught us not just how to make quality compost, but how to make quality compost that was full of soil life and how to test it with a microscope.

In this blog I want to share with you the basics of making ‘Biologicaly alive beneficial compost’ and how we apply this to our land. Field trials conducted by Zach and Elaine and trials sponsored by The Duchy of Cornwall are starting to show huge benefits for both pasture and crops when the soil is brought back to life, this soil food web breaks down available matter in the soil, making the the nutrients soluble and available to the  plant, so that no artificial fertilsers are required. Once you have re-established this lost biology in your soil all you have to ensure is that you are feeding the soil food web and not damaging it by pouring on chemicals,  we feed our microbes with holistically grazed animals (Cattle, chickens and ducks), the cattle trample grass and manure and the chickens scrape and manure as they go providing food for the soil food web.

Tools required

Compost making tools
Compost making tools
  • Square mesh wire with 2 inch mesh, 4ft wide or higher
  • A pitch fork
  • A shovel
  • 2 pallets
  • Some fine mesh or landscape cloth
  • A thermometer (12 inches long minimum)
  • A hose pipe

Raw Materials

The main constituent parts of any compost fit in to 3 categories:

  1. High Nitrogen (Hot): Manure, Soiled hay bedding, used brewers grains, coffee grinds
  2. Browns: Straw, Wood chips, leaves
  3. Greens: grass cuttings, hay, green hedge cuttings, green kitchen waste

The more local diversity you can add the better, you are looking to create environments for a huge variety of microbial life. We do a walk around the farm and find other things to throw in, feathers, mushrooms (No shelf or conch type) and whatever else we can find that will decompose.

We also add ground seaweed meal and crushed up bio char.

The process

Completed heap
Completed heap
  1. Put your fine mesh or cloth on your pallet then roll out your mesh in to a tube that will fit on top of the pallet (see pictures)
  2. Collect sufficient quantities of all your 3 ingredients, this is the longest part of the process, we get wood chips delivered to site and save the small amounts of bedding or spoiled straw. We usually have to mow a lawn to get the greens or cut our hedge or reeds in the lake. A bale of hay soaked in water is our last (lazy) resort.
  3. Building the Pile: Have all your materials placed in piles around your pallet and mesh, place a few forks of straw in the bottom to aid aeration then start adding materials in the ratio of 2 Browns, 2 Greens 1 Hot, work round the pile adding material, mix it all in, you want as much cross contact as possible and water well as you go.
    Critical Tip : I had never seen as much water used before in building a pile, I was always under the impression you did not want water or it would become anaerobic, but Zach’s method you keep spraying the pile as you go and keep it all moist. To test the moisture level (when building and each day after) pull out a handful of material and squeeze it tightly, at the correct moisture level you should get a few drips of water coming out between your fingers, if you don’t get anything, it is too dry, if it is like wringing out a wet cloth then it is too wet.
  4. Keep building, mixing and watering, adding your extra bits for diversity along the way until the mesh is full.

Your pile will be impacted by the elements depending on the time of year and its position, if it is exposed to rain and wind you may want to cover it with a tarp or it could get too dry or too wet, we leave ours open for the first few days to get the aeration of the wind but cover it if we are due torrential rain and after 7 days to stop it drying out.

Managing your Pile

Check both the moisture and temperature daily and record them in a table like this:

Nigel’s Record sheet (links to PDF version)

If your pile is too dry, water it, as soon as your pile is over 70 degrees it needs to be turned.

Work to this turning schedule

Temperature Days Before Turn
55 – 59 degrees C 3 days
60- 65 degrees C 2 days
66 – 70 degrees C 1 day
Above 70 degrees C TURN NOW

The target is to keep the pile between 55 degrees and 70 degrees with a minimum of 5 turns so every part of your pile has spent 3 days at the core. This will kill weed seeds and pathogens but allow your beneficials to grow and speeds up the decomposition of the matter . Lower than 55 degrees and pathogens and seeds can survive, above 70 degrees and you are killing everything.
Interestingly the UK regulations for commercial compost require PAS 100 compost to have been kept at a much higher temperature for much longer periods (understandable when they are cleansing all types of waste in their process) but we want our pile to be a breeding ground for our soil life so it is critical that as soon as you go above 70 degrees to turn it. Every commercial compost I have examined under the microscope is devoid of anything but bacteria.

The Turning Process

Partway through turn
Partway through turn
Halfway through turn
Halfway through turn

 

 

  1. Top third goes on to a tarp on the floor
  2. Middle (the hot steaming bit!) goes to the bottom
  3. The top goes back in to make the sides (dig out a hole as best you can)
  4. The sides go in to the middle
  5. Bottom goes on the top.As you are turning the pile you are getting oxygen back in to it and you may need to wet it with your hose pipe. Mix it up as best you can as you go.Check you pile daily, note the temperatures and moisture and anything else , smell, insects fungi and turn and water as required.In under 20 days you should have a well decomposed pile. We examine our compost under the microscope to check we have the beneficials we were after and leave it under a tarp to continue decomposition for another month then start to use it in compost extract or tea.

Visit to Landews Meadow Farm in Kent

Last Tuesday Richard and Joanne headed down to Kent to visit Nigel and Wendy at Landews Meadow Farm who very kindly found some time in their very busy work schedule to show us round. Their farm is a truly impressive place, and I’ve written up a summary of the “non-compost” parts of what we learned on The Oak Tree Farm website here.

Nigel and Wendy of Landews Meadow Farm
The lovely Nigel and Wendy of Landews Meadow Farm

Nigel has been working hard to implement Elaine Ingham’s methods on his farm, and the results are visible and impressive. He hasn’t carried out controlled tests as he is keen to have the benefits of the soil improvements everywhere, something we can understand, and have done ourselves with our 2016 tomato polytunnel, but the number of wormcasts on his pasture surface show very clearly that there is a lot of biology in his soil! Like us, his farm has very low rainfall, particularly in summer, though his soil is clay unlike the sandy loam of The Oak Tree.

One of countless worm casts at Landews Meadow Farm; and promising indicator of good soil life!
One of countless worm casts at Landews Meadow Farm; and promising indicator of good soil life!

Nigel went on Zach Wright’s UK course Spring 2016. We were gutted to have missed this, it looked really excellent, but we understand that Dave Beecher has been working closely with Zach and will be running similar courses in the UK soon – when we hear more we’ll keep you posted!

Nigel and Joanne inspecting an "in progress" compost heap. The tarp used to cover and surround the heap has been pulled off so we could take a look.
Nigel and Joanne inspecting an “in progress” compost heap. The tarp used to cover and surround the heap has been pulled off so we could take a look.

Nigel makes compost in the “hardware cloth” cylinders recommended by both Zach Wright and Elaine Ingham. We’ve found that hardware cloth doesn’t seem to be a British English term, which makes it hard to track down to buy. “Galvanised wire mesh” seems to be similar stuff in the UK. Nigel builds his heaps on pallets covered with woven weed control fabric “mypex” and he wraps a single layer of tarp over and round the heap to keep the heat in.

Nigel’s raw ingredients are

  • 40% green material (cut grass, or, slightly less successful, hay)
  • 40% woodchip
  • 20% nitrogenous stuff. He uses a cow poo mixed with water to a fairly runny consistency: he has plenty of the raw material to hand…
A fine member of the Landews Meadow Farm Herd, and source of nitrogenous manure!

He uses a hose with a finger over the end to spray materials as they are added to the heap (by contrast we have been using a fine spray head). He has had considerable success with this method, managing to match the exacting temperature profile demanded by Elaine Ingham and Zach Wright’s methods, and the resulting material certainly looks excellent.

Landews Meadow Farm is on quite an exposed site (they have a fine wind turbine!) and while the compost area is protected by a hedgerow, it takes a fair bit of incoming weather (the English Channel is visible from the farm on a clear day!) Clearly the use of animal manure slurry is a good way to get compost heaps up to temperature as we found with using poultry manure slurry in our heap 160910. We had struggled to get heaps up to temperature reliably before doing this.  He does five compost heap turns, carefully manipulating the material to ensure that all parts get up to heat in the hot centre at some point.

We were particularly interested to hear the simple “Zach Wright” method of making compost extract. We had attempted to mimic this following a phone conversation with Nigel before the visit, but we had made it more complicated than it needed to be! Nigel simply takes a 30l container, adds compost to it (see the photo below for an idea of how much) and then stirs it with a stick for about 30 seconds. Easy!

The right sort of amount of compost to add to about 30l of water to make compost extract
The right sort of amount of compost to add to about 30l of water to make compost extract

Once stirred he uses the secret ingredient of a jelly bag (the sort you use to strain fruit to make sweet jelly preserves) to strain the mixture before using it in his tractor mounted sprayer – brilliant! It is just these sorts of practical details we wanted to learn – it had never occurred to me to use a jelly bag (though I have one in the loft somewhere!) He then dilutes it into about 200l of water. Apparently Zach Wright dilutes further saying that one hardware cloth/galvanised wire mesh heap can be used to treat 200 acres!

The Landews Meadow Farm tractor mounted sprayer (once again I have tractor envy!!!)
The Landews Meadow Farm tractor mounted sprayer (once again I have tractor envy!!!)

Once again, a huge thank you to Nigel and Wendy for welcoming us to their beautiful, innovative and productive farm!

 

What I learned over a year of growing with Soil Biology

It’s been just over a year that I completed Elaine Ingham’s Life in the Soil classes. It seems a good time to take stock, as we go into the colder part of the year when practical fieldwork winds down. So what have I learned?

The polytunnel with the tomatoes
The polytunnel with the tomatoes

There is certainly promise in the end results – very visibly in the case of the beans, and noticeably in the improved taste and productivity of the tomatoes. We only have one polytunnel for the tomatoes in 2016, but we got almost as much yield this year from this one than from two polytunnels of tomatoes [ref]We have three polytunnels, all of the same size and colocated[/ref] in 2015.

I know of no way of quantitatively analysing taste, but several of our CSA members observed the much better flavour of our tomatoes compared with shop bought ones. However, one other thing we changed across the years was have a dedicated CSA member Ann look after the tomatoes, pinching out all the offshoots and training the stems along the frames. Because we could not afford a control plot with the tomatoes, the almost doubling of yield could be the result of her extra care and attention to detail, or a combination of the her work assisted by the compost extract.

The compost extract was used in the polytunnel with the tomatoes in July 2015 and some of what was left over was also used in polytunnel 1 which was where the beans were planted, with the ribbon tied to the frame to show the extent of the coverage, the left behind compost after extraction also went into the tomatoes in polytunnel 2.

The beans at the back show very noticeably more vigorous growth and had a much higher yield, and this coincided exactly with a ribbon showing the limit of the compost extract.
The beans at the back show very noticeably more vigorous growth and had a much higher yield, and this coincided exactly with a ribbon showing the limit of the compost extract.

Not every attempt showed success – last year we tried some outdoor tests on defined plots in the sweetcorn crop. This crop was lost to the initially wet and dull start to 2015 and not enough manpower for weeding. I felt there was some difference in one of the plots, but not enough to make a clear picture and not enough to redeem the crop.

Continue reading “What I learned over a year of growing with Soil Biology”

Compost reaching thermal equilibrium – temperature chart

Both of our current compost heaps, 160901 and 160910 have now reached stable equilibrium. The two graphs below show the complete “heap lifetime” temperature against time. The tail of each chart is now reasonably steady, suggesting they are now “mature”. It’s between five and six weeks since we first built these heaps.

The complete “lifetime” temperature profile of compost heap 160901 started on the 1st September 2016. The second probe was first at a different level within the heap, and then reallocated to monitoring outside temp at the start of week 37
Temperature profile of the heap using chicken manure slurry, heap number 160910, showing the much faster burn initially

In both of these there seems to be a reasonable evenness through the pile when both temperature probes are active, the temperature recording tips of the probes were set in the centre of the pile horizontally, and at about 1/3 and 2/3 from the top of the compost heap material.

We had a quick look at 160901 compost under the microscope a little while back and it was very exciting!

Fungal hypha in heap 160901
Bacteria and protozoa, magnification 400x in heap number 160901
Another fungal hypha
Another fungal hypha