We’ve known since moving here that we would be needing all the separate inputs required for a working Aquaponics farm. Browse around on my site in the next few months and see the big project unfold: our backyard greenhouse is turning into a vegetable and fish factory! You can catch the videos on our Youtube channel too. We will post the premiere date on this blog soon!
One of the treasured inputs is compost. Even though Aquaponics is essentially soil-less, the wicking beds will require it. These are shallow soil beds with plumbing running underneath the soil that then trickles the water up to the roots of the plants. All technical and all Waldemar’s field of expertise. Luckily.
My expertise is dirt. And rotten banana peels. So let’s dig!
Choosing your Compost Site
When deciding where to place your compost system, keep a few things in mind. You don’t want it too far from your kitchen as you could potentially be taking out a little bucket of kitchen scraps every day. We’ve got a 3-litre Ikea compost bin in the kitchen and if we’re eating healthy enough, it is usually full every day. Take all that walking, sometimes in rain or cold, into account and decide what length dash you’d be willing to cover in a squall.
We have made the “take out the compost” task part of the chore list for our boys. Ideally, it should play out like this. Daily, each big boy should fetch one bucket of firewood from outside, let out/in and feed the chickens once and then take out a load of kitchen scraps to the compost. If a boy can successfully check off all three missions, they receive 50 Euro cents. The idea is that in ten days they should’ve earned their 5 Euros to go to the cheap toy store and scout out their reward. This is how we ended up having a “weapons drawer”, all Made in China.
We chose a corner along our border wall with the neighbours’ rubbish bin alley about halfway across the length of our yard. We had to transplant two or three rhubarb shrubs but we have yet to see if they made it in the spring. You need to level the soil and check that the area drains well.
Sourcing the Materials
A cheaper alternative to buying wood is using old pallets to create the compost bins. We used the “wing it” method to building but there are so many tutorials out there, including this one at kitchenplot.com, if you’re looking for inspiration. We were lucky to find someone in our town with a huge heap of pallets that he planned to chop up for firewood and was happy to share seven of them with us. Waldemar leveled them perpendicular to each other and secured with “L” brackets. He lined them with chicken wire and created a cool slat system to pack removable wooden planks for the front door.
You’ll have to makeshift a cover for the bins out of whatever materials you have available so that you can control the moisture level. Too dry and you’ll have an ant colony move in. Too wet and it can get smelly. We used corrugated plastic screwed into a wooden frame and hinged onto the pallet structure.
Single or Multiple Bin Systems?
You can decide how many bins you would like, but we chose three so that we could have a steady stream of compost. You start loading up the first one for about three months, then transfer it to the middle and restart the first one. Then, after three months, you again transfer the middle to the end and restart the first one. For those mathematicians out there, this means your first compost is ready in nine months and you have a continuous cycle of new product every three months.
Layering the Compost
The whole ethos of composting is alternating brown and green. I agree, to any mom of a newborn baby, this sounds like a familiar nightmare combination, but it’s actually less scary. You’re trying to mix the carbon (brown) and nitrogen (green) to get the best result.
Think of brown as hay, dried leaves, twigs, sawdust, wood ash and plain shredded paper. For green, you’ll mostly have kitchen scraps but also eggshells, grass and plant clippings. Some weird items to add include hair (is there a grey category?), toilet paper rolls and chicken manure.
I like to remember the rule of
thumb hand that any item should not be bigger than my hand so that it doesn’t take all of eternity to break down. My boys enjoy this the most: rip it up, shred it, tear it, break it smaller.
Don’t Poison your Pile!
Despite what some of the cute Pinterest infographics said should go into the compost, they weren’t super clear on some important points. We had to go back and remove some items you should avoid, especially if you’re aiming for a very pure and organic Aquaponics farm:
|Citrus peels & onions||Too acidic (also kills off the earthworms but more on them later)|
|Rhubarb||Takes SO long to decompose|
|Animal products: meat, bones, dairy, butter, milk, fish skins||Call the stink patrol!|
|Tea bags and coffee filters||Can include plastic|
|Stickers on some fruit peels||Also plastic|
These are a few that we learned the hard way, but there are more comprehensive lists if you’re unsure, including this one at Ocean Pledge.
Turning the Pile
I must have read it somewhere because I have this inner voice that screams, “don’t turn the pile!” whenever I walk outside. But, you do want to aerate your pile every now and then so that it doesn’t become wet and soggy. There’s definitely a sweet spot with how often (please comment if you’ve discovered the gem!). I’ve heard every 4-6 days and then others do it once a month.
Our M.O. is every Friday on the first bin so that the green and brown layers can mix evenly and we can keep an eye on the moisture levels. Then, once its been transferred to the middle bin, we go down to once a month so that it gets a chance to brew.
Three Months Later…
After loading the first bin for three months, my back was starting to feel it on aeration day. I just tossed the junk about with a pitch fork every Friday, but I could hear my well-postured sister-in-law in my ear reminding me that this heavy lifting will eventually come back to haunt me all the way from my midlife crisis until that age where you start using a walker.
Logically, I thought that we could fill the first bin after the autumn had left our entire garden covered in leaves. But compost has this way of settling that you reach about the midway height and it sort of stays there, no matter how much you add after that. So, instead of waiting for the bin to be full, we are going on the timeframe. Its been three months, time to transfer to the middle bin!
Honestly, if I did this alone (and with a spade) it could probably take about half the time to transfer the compost from the first bin to the middle bin. Alas! I had help from Arend and his cute little rake so this became an entire morning adventure with snack break included.
Here’s a fast motion video of the process of transferring between the compost bins. See it as one of those monotonous, relaxing videos you find…except cuter.
That’s a Wrap, Folks
Aaaand done. Now, we leave the compost in the middle bin to stew. We’ve built a roof for the new bin and just need to fill in the gaps with some extra wooden planks for the front door. We’ll be turning it every month and transferring it to the last bin in three months’ time. We start layering the first bin all over again, but this time we’ve learnt some good lessons and hope to improve the quality of the compost on the next round.