Compost! An Update on the Mini Bin for the Mini Balcony

Mini Compost Bin

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Can you guess where my most unlikely place of  magical secrets was found this week?  In the dirt at the bottom of a plastic bin!

Lady Nature continues to impress and inspire. It’s been 28 days since the birth of the mini compost container and I’m happy to report that a tiny miracle has occurred. When I last wrote of this project it was the beginning… two bowls of kitchen scraps, two bowls of yard materials and one leftover 3lb. plastic container.

A few shakes, 1/4 cup of water and four weeks later we now have compost…

Well… almost! Since it has been up and down spring weather this past month with lots of rain and cooler temperatures, our compost needs maybe about another week or two of good hot sunny weather to fully break down and then it will be ready to feed the potted plants on the patio. Right now my compost looks like this…dark, moist but still a little chunky…

You’ll know when your compost is ready because you won’t be able to identify the original elements in the mixture. I can still see a little bit of egg shells and sticks in my mix, so there is still a some cooking left to be done.

If you remember from the previous post, I cut down all the elements that originally went into the compost in fairly small pieces, which helps break things down faster. I did leave some of the sticks in bigger chunks however for a little aeration but I think in my next batch they’ll get broken up into tiny pieces too.  The smaller the better in this case!

You can see the size difference in the bulk of the contents from Day 1 to Day 28 to understand just how much material was magically broken down…

The bin went from being 3/4 full to now being about 1/4 full – all entirely tended to by nature. Isn’t that amazing? The only help I offered in this month long experiment was to turn the mixture with an old camping spoon once a week which took about five seconds total. Lady Nature and her team of helpers did all the rest.

One of these helpers was a healthy batch of fruit flies (aka vinegar flies). These guys were naturally attracted to the compost bin through the air holes in the lid and made themselves at home within the first week. Tiny and fast flyers, they are tricky to photograph but the arrows point  to a few here…

Like anyone finding out about a cool new place to hang out, the fruit flies called all their friends, threw a bunch of parties and settled in for the month, which was very wonderful of them because they helped break down material too.  As the bin keeps cooking they will eventually leave when it gets too hot – a signal that the compost is ready at last. But for now they are conscientious little cleaner uppers, quiet merrymakers and very good neighbors. You’d never even know they were there. I’d take a fruit fly over a snake ANY day!

Smelling like the forest after a good, clean rain the compost mixture is earthy and rich and lies somewhere along the aromatic scale between a damp basement and a dusty book (which is what you want) not like old food or strong ammonia (which is what you don’t want).  If a particular odor smells too persistent or too strong than your bin is out of balance. But if you stick with the 50/50 method suggested in the original post then everything should be nicely evened out and pleasantly scented when it comes to kitchen and yard waste.

The forecast is scheduled to be hot and dry over the holiday weekend so that should give the bin some extra energy to breakdown the last of the chunkies. Then our compost will be ready to spread.  I’ll check back in next week with an update on the final consistency. Then it is onto batch two  and batch three and batch four and a regular routine of composting by bin and balcony.

If you missed the post on instagram, the nasturtiums started blooming this week in pretty shades of yellow and red. It’s beginning to feel a lot like like summer around here!

Cheers to finding hidden magic!

 

 

 

Cooking Up A Compost Container: A Mini Bin for A Mini Balcony

Nasturtiums, basil, parsley, succulents, impatiens, rosemary, mint, aloe, avocado – that’s the start to the summer balcony garden. It is a petite space so there is not much room for tall dramas or extravagant experiments which means this summer should be pretty tame in the greenspace department. Since I live so close to the farmers market the vegetable growing is going to be left up to the farmers this year giving me the opportunity to grow herbs to augment summer cooking and flowers to add a little fancy.

I have my heart set on three things in particular this season- a citrus tree, a trail of climbing roses and pots bubbling over with greenery. The first two will be available shortly at our market garden store and the third will be accomplished with a homemade compost container, mighty but mini.

Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947)

We have Sir Albert Howard to thank for our modern day love of organic gardening and make-no-waste composting methods. Of course people have been using compost since the dawn of time but in the early part of the 20th century when chemical fertilizers became all the interest,  Albert was the guy to remind everyone of the common-sense simplicity of nature.

A British botanist born during the last quarter of the 19th century, Albert was a forever student of agricultural science. During a 30 year stay in India, he studied soil effects on garden outcomes and determined that natural compost was the ideal and most beneficial way to create healthy, happy plants in a supportive environment. Healthy people, healthy animals and healthy food all benefited from the effects of recycling earth based materials.

Documenting his research and his observations Albert wrote several books published between the 1920’s and 1940’s helping to draw attention away from manufactured soil amendments and back to the logical evolution of the land. A big fan of the forest floor, Albert marveled at how forests were like one giant compost heap in and of themselves. Materials fell from the trees, layered themselves in seasons and decomposed through the aid of bugs, worms and microorganisms in the dirt. Essentially when we build our modern day compost bins we do the same thing. We act as the trees providing material and shelter and the natural decomposition process contained in our incubated environment breaks down as it normally would.

Compost bins to me have always been a little intimidating. When I lived in the country they meant snakes and red ants, weird bugs and an occasional long-tailed critter.  The  always giant, always garbage can style bin either got too much water or not enough water. Half the time I’d forget to turn it with any sort of regular routine. This year though I’m on a different trajectory.  I’m starting small with kitchen scraps, traditional yard waste and a 3lb container. This snack- size bin will give the balcony plants a little extra nutrition boost mid-season and hopefully, if all goes well,  will be in continual use throughout the fall and winter.

Making a mini compost bin is easy. The trick is finding something that is a good size for your space, so creativity is king here. I used a  leftover  plastic container that once held 3lbs of trail mix and the lid of a plastic takeout soup container.

After poking 4 holes in the bottom for drainage and about 8 holes in the lid for air, I gathered all the compost materials needed for a 50/50 mix between kitchen scraps and yard waste.

Materials on the yard side included: sticks, dead leaves, a paper egg carton, pine straw, a brown paper bag, dead-headed flowers and pine cones. On the kitchen scrap side I used limp spinach, garlic skins, coffee grounds, a month’s worth of crushed up egg shells, lime rind,  some old blueberries and a small bag of pistachio shells. Because my bin is petite, I chopped everything up pretty fine with kitchen scissors so that it would not only fit more easily in the container but also break down faster.

To make sure I had enough of a balance of both sets of materials I filled the same bowl twice with each mixture. I added each bowl to the bin and mixed it up using an old camping spoon (no shovel needed for this little project!). Once it was all stirred the last element to go in was a little bit of water so that the overall consistency was moist but not drippy.

At last, the mighty, mini compost bin was ready and done! With a weekly turn of the ingredients and a little extra water now and then, this compost batch should be ready in about one month.

This size bin will produce a few cupfuls of compost. Just the right amount to replenish soil in the tops of all my pots. Unlike compost bins of the past, this one fits neat and tidy on my mid-century rolling cart and will wait out the month among it’s potted pals.

I’m happy to say that I do not have to worry about snake sightings with this bin. That might just be the very best thing about balcony gardening, no surprise sightings of the slithering kind! Cheers to that! And cheers to Albert, his simple solutions and the important reminder that mother nature knows how to best take care of herself!

More to come on the gardening front all summer long. Interested in learning more about other gardening crusaders like Albert? Read about Hilda Leyel here and Edgar T. Wherry here.