Observations from the Composting workshop

By Brian Camplin

On Saturday morning 20/05/17 a diverse crew assembled at CBEC for a workshop presented by Darlene Baldwin, as organised by Cheryl Toka (Kaitaia KaiBOX).

I attended because I had recently put down 6 x 1 cu metre bins of compost and had no frame of reference as to how correctly I had constructed it. Patrick Mason got a few calls from me and put me in the right direction, leaving me with the NorthTec Advanced Composting booklet that in quick time had become well thumbed and discoloured.

Subsequently I noticed that when sourcing other bits and pieces of advice and tips on compost from those forthcoming folk who claimed to know, the advice was as diverse as the people I spoke to. I suppose I was looking for a prescription of sorts, and was a bit out of my comfort zone when realizing that this was no exact science.

That realization was made comfortable when considering that there would be no nuclear melt down if I didn’t get it right, but that I was looking for a bit more heat and melt down than was I was getting in my 6 bins which got very hot for 7-10 days after layers up the bins, then seemed to cook itself out.

The random pre-workshop advice was so diverse so as to be bordering on contradictory. So what would Darlene have to say?

Darlene put a small box of compost on the table, informing it was produced by her 94 yr old neighbour. It appeared to be 5-star compost which of course would be something of an oxymoron to any one not prone to being effusive over the wonderful wholesome dark crumbling mass that massaged its way down through my fingers. I immediately commenced slipping into the old mode of wanting to objectify that compost. There must be a recipe for this? I managed to check that inclination , proceeding to go with the flow and keep my inclinations on a more subjective track.

A lot of tips were picked up with across-the-floor chat and quite a few mental lightbulbs switched on. So much of the previously attained discrepant advice started to slip into context, and a lot got filtered out. I realized I needed to be gaining a ‘sense’ of what comprised good compost rather than any ABC.

It soon became clear that one attendee, Patricia, had many years of worm-farm expertise and offered to take a worm-farm workshop. That must be on the list for another workshop. Patricia did offer.

Their was interesting discussion re using ‘biomass’, and variety of input was discussed, assuring a better range of nutrient and trace elements available to plants. This made me wonder if my predominantly seagrass-based effort might only end up as soil conditioner rather than good compost.

It could be worse I suppose. At least I had got plenty of aeration potential in my compost with fine wood chip to ensure aerobic compost instead of an anaerobic silage-like sludge.

We discussed how often that compost should be turned over. Before the workshop I had versions extending from every 3 days through to months. The time it took for compost to be ready, varied from 2 months to 12 months. Indeed, not a strict discipline. Darlene mentioned she turns her compost over annually.

Darlene explained layering with carbon and nitrogen based vegetation inputs, also known as ‘browns’ and ‘greens’… but that some of the browns were coloured green and some of the greens were brown. I managed to offset any headspin by reminding myself to “let it flow”.

We learnt of that one necessary objective is to reach the ‘thermophyllic’ stage of composting when the temperature gets to at least 56 degrees to ensure that seeds of weeds get destroyed, except for, upon advise from cross-floor chat, the indestructible gorse seed.

That thermophyllic 56 degrees was a bit short of the 75 degrees needed for what the NorthTec booklet advised as necessary for the next stage up, which is “hot composting” where pathogens are destroyed and undesirables for organic gardening such as hormones, antibiotics, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides are broken down and made safe.

Apparently heavy metal residue will remain intact even at 75 degrees.

As you can see, the workshop was populated by a lot of valuable cross-floor chat which I must commend Darlene for facilitating, beyond the core syllabus that she delivered..

So it seems that compost is ready when it is ready, and the broadly subjective test of that is when it smells earthy and ‘composty’ which was amusing circular logic in itself. I will stick with aiming high, and measuring my compost up against the apparent & optimum benchmark, being that compost produced by Darlene’s elderly neighbour.

After a lunch break we made a hands-on compost pile at the Te Hiku gardens where there was much variety of greens and browns on hand and the layering was finely graduated. It will be informative to get a peek at that pile again in a couple of months time.

While attended finished off the building of the fresh compost bin. I had a brief chat with Patrick as to what Darlene meant when she said she “turns over compost annually”. Did that mean physically flipping it over after 12 months and resetting it…or was it 12 months for the turnover/turnaround time for usage of the old pile and resetting a completely new one. We mused that it was likely the latter(?) or else it was going to take a veeery long time to get the compost into the garden… but we did not conclude either way, choosing to remain with “the flow”….

UPDATE: The worm farm workshop will take place in early August – keep an eye on here for further details!

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