Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Compost 101

My colleague Julia was kind enough to provide these detailed notes on professional compost making...

Hi everyone! On Josh’s latest adventure riding to Burma and back, he missed an exciting day of Compost 101 back at the farm. He asked me, Julia, a comrade in permaculture solidarity and a fellow intern who happened to have a notebook handy on the aforementioned day, to update you folks back home on the ins and outs of compost at Pun Pun. Here it goes…

Jo introduced the first composting technique, something he has practiced on the infertile soils of Pun Pun over the past 3 years and before that as well, on larger scale rice paddies and cornfields in other parts of Thailand. It is called Bocashi (which is perhaps a misspelling)! Originally, people began mixing animal manures and chopped dry leaves or organic matter, which they would cover with straw. They noticed that it decomposed quickly this way and so the Bocashi formula continued to evolve with additions of rice husks, ashes and beloved EM (efficient microorganisms) to more exacting specificities. The compost we made consisted of 2 parts rice husks (short grass clippings or chopped leaves could also be used), 1 part cow manure (or chicken manure), 2 parts ash (we used the ashes from our cook stove), and a water/EM solution mixed 20 parts water to 1 part EM. Jo mentioned that raw food scraps could also be added if so desired and after 27 days (exactly!) would be reduced to rich black soil. We blended the dry ingredients first, hoeing them back and forth until they were fairly well integrated, and then added watering cans full of water and EM until we could form a fist-sized ball that wouldn’t crumble and that wouldn’t drip when squeezed. Once we achieved the right consistency, we spread the compost on a concrete floor (if making on the ground, it is apparently a good idea to water the site first so that the compost doesn’t lose too much moisture). We then covered it completely with large plastic bags and let it sit. It will do its thing for about a week, or until the internal temperature cools down. Once it is ready, it can be spread out over garden beds and covered with a thin layer of dirt and planted into without any further tilling. Jo mentioned that, if applied to the ground once a year for two years, you will have soil so rich by the third year that you won’t have to fertilize it again. He actually had problems in the past with overly-lush rice paddies that he had to thin out: thus is the power of Bocashi!!!

Another tip that Jo gave for fertilizing larger areas of land is to cut all long grasses growing on them (or use straw), and leave them over the soil to trap in the moisture and bacteria in the soil. He also found that banana trees have an amazing ability to hold moisture in the soil in the area surrounding them. He and Peggy have planted all other fruit trees on the property inside clumps of banana trees so that they will flourish. Their experience has been that unless they do so, their fruit trees die or won’t produce fruit!

We learned a second compost technique from Leah, our awesome aussie at Pun Pun. She recently took a permaculture course at Baan Thai where she learned this technique. It is a bit of an everything-in-the-pot method using chopped grass clippings, rice husks, manure, food scraps and enough water for it to start running out the bottom. The basic rule of thumb is to mix 1/3 parts manure to 2/3 parts dry matter, and to not use too many rice husks (although they are cheap and easy here in Thailand and hand-chopping straw can get a bit tedious). The other hard and fast rule is to have a sizable bulk of a pile, not smaller than 1 meter wide and not larger than 3 meters wide. About a meter high is ideal. After mixing all of the above, an activator is needed to start the beautiful decomposition process. Urine, comfrey, yarrow, nettles, fish, animals (dead), or old compost will all work as activators. The advantage of this method is that it produces quick results, 18 days til perfection, but on the downside, it requires a bit of leg-work. Every few days it needs to be physically turned, or flip-flopped to a spot next to it. The first turning should ideally happen on the 4th day, followed by one on the 6th (plus a squeeze test to determine if there is enough water: one drip of liquid is good, 2 drips mean an addition of carbon material is needed). Then day 10, 12, 14, 16 and finally day 18 need turnings. Another thing to keep in the back of your head when creating the mix that goes into the pile is that you ideally want a mix of 30 parts nitrogen to 1 part carbon. This requires a bit of estimating on your part, but some helpful ratios to know are: fish are 7:1, urine 1:1, cow/horse manure 18:1, chicken manure12:1, green weeds 25:1, straw 50:1, paper 250:1, and food scraps 25:1. So far Abooey, our compost pile (named by Than), is cranking right along and smelling a bit strongly (probably a product of not having the proper ratio of nitrogen to carbon). We will update with the results of our 18-Day Wonder in a week or two, along with distribution guidelines.

Hopefully this is enough to get you started in your composting adventures, or enough to satiate your curiosity about the goings-on at Pun Pun on this particular day! We continue to plant seeds, water our fledgling gardens, make bricks, work on the foundation of our building, make amazing food (including pizza) in our newly finished stove and oven, talk, dance, drink EM cocktails, sing badly around campfires, get daily doses of wisdom from our mentors, and miss everyone back home… happy new year!

1 comment:

Judith said...

mmm! - I LOVE mucking round in the compost- nothing smells as good as rich, loamy compost. Looking forward to composting updates- would make for great reality TV!
Your ride to Burma must have been amazing! You need to blog that as well:-) (was it a bicycle ride or motorcycle?)
I just read that in 2006 more bicycles were sold in Australia than new cars! Now that is exciting!