A Complete Guide to Composting and Worm Farms

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Start with the Basics

Your garden needs soil that is rich in nutrients in order to thrive. The best way to provide those nutrients is to use compost as the basis of your soil. Compost is organic material that can be added to soil. It enriches the soil and improves it, providing a strong basis for plants to grow. Compost can be purchased from landscape suppliers, but the best compost is one that you make at home.

The Benefits of Composting

In addition to improving your soil, composting has other benefits as well:

  • Reducing waste – composting reduces the amount of household waste that goes to landfill. Composting reduces the methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.
  • Growing your own food with compost gives you the ability to grow organic, healthy food without fertilisers
  • Your plants are healthier and can withstand pest infestations and disease easier
  • You will need less water because the soil is healthier. The soil where I live is very sandy and poor quality. Adding compost to it gives it the nutrients and texture needed to retain moisture, enrich the soil and improve the health of the plants we grow.

Ingredients for a Compost

Your compost needs three main ingredients:

  • Brown: Twigs, branches and dead leaves. Cardboard and newspaper
  • Green: Grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves, vegetable scraps
  • Water

What you can and can’t compost

You can compost:

  • All vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Egg shells
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags, used coffee filters
  • Nut shells
  • Newspaper, shredded office paper
  • Cardboard
  • Grass clippings
  • Dead plants
  • Hay and straw
  • Pet fur and hair clippings
  • Vacuum dust
  • Cloths and rags
  • Ash from fireplaces
  • Wood chips and sawdust
  • Plant trimmings
  • Egg containers and similar containers made out of recycled paper

You can’t compost:

  • Eucalyptus and gum leaves, black walnut leaves, branches
  • Glossy paper and cardboard
  • Cooked food especially meat and fish
  • Diseased plants and weeds
  • Pet faeces and litter tray contents
  • Dairy products
  • Fat, oil
  • Plants treated with pesticides

Making your Compost

The easiest way to make a compost is to buy a bin from a garden supplies store such as Bunnings or you can buy one online here. There are a few different types available commercially, for example the traditional plastic bin or a compost tumbler. Alternatively, you could build one from scratch using wood for the frame and sacks or a tarpaulin to cover it. The bin should be situated in a shady part of your yard. We use two commercial bins made of plastic with lids. We use one continually until it is full, then the other one.

Our dual compost bins. We fill one continually until it is full. Meantime, the other one is breaking the organic material down into usable compost.

It takes time for the compost to break down the material into suitable matter for your garden. Our climate is hot and humid so it takes less time to break down than in a cold climate.

Add green and brown material to the compost in equal amounts, and add water each time. Use a compost stirrer or hay pitching fork to rotate the material regularly – this add oxygen to it and helps it to break down. You can also add lime or a commercial compost conditioner to aid in breaking the material down. When the material in the compost bin is dark and rich in colour it is ready to use on the garden.

Alternatives to Composting – Worm Farms and Bokashis

If you don’t have a garden or produce much green waste, there are alternatives to composting: worm farms and bokashis. We have a worm farm, which takes up a small amount of room on our verandah. Bokashis can fit on your kitchen bench and ferment the food waste into decompostable form that can be buried in the garden or used to enrich the garden. I have never used a Bokashi so I can’t vouch for it, but I love our worm farm – the worm juice that it produces makes the plants in our garden thrive. You can buy one online here.

We set up our worm farm over a year ago with the basic kit and a starter kit of 1000 worms. The worms were tiny when we bought them and now are the size of earthworms and are thriving. I feed them once or twice a week with kitchen scraps – you can give them any vegetable or fruit scraps apart from onions, garlic and citrus. Once a week we water them with a watering can full of water. There is a tap at the bottom of the worm farm that you turn on, and out flows worm juice – the byproduct of the worms’ digestive process. This is then diluted and used on the garden and pot plants. The plants visibly thrive with this fertiliser, which is natural and non toxic.

Our worm farm.

I really enjoy looking after my worm farm and recommend using one when you don’t have space for other types of composting. It feels great to be able to use food scraps in this way to improve our plants – a complete recycling of our waste, and economical as well because the only costs are the initial set-up. It’s much cheaper than buying commercial fertiliser and isn’t harmful to use in any way.

Even in the heat of our Australian summer my worms survived. We put a worm blanket on top of the worms and water them more often. You can also add frozen blocks of water if it’s particularly hot, but we’ve had temperatures in the high 30’s (Celsius) and they survived. They’re more active in cooler, damp weather of course.

How to Care for Your Worm Farm

Feed your worm with enough food scraps to cover 1/3 of surface of worm farm

Feed your worms with enough food scraps from your kitchen to cover 1/3 of the surface of the worm farm. Use vegetable and fruit scraps, cut up or mashed when the worms are small. I use a combination of large and small pieces of food so that the worms can eat the smaller pieces first and still have larger pieces for later in the week. Some take quite a while to break down like potato peels and cabbage leaves.

Close-up of worms and their food

This photo shows a close-up of the worms with some of the more fibrous food – corn husks and egg shells. The worms need this grittier material to aid in digestion.

Cover the food with some commercial compost

Take a handful of commercial compost (if you have some of your own garden compost you can use that as well), and sprinkle it over the food.

Cover the worms with a worm blanket to keep the temperature regulated

 Lay a worm farm mat over the top.(purchase at a garden supplies store such as Bunnings, or online where-ever you buy your worm farm from). Once a week water with approximately 5 liters water, preferably rain water. After an hour or so open the tap at the bottom of the worm farm.

The tap at the base of the worm farm allows you to drain the worm juice off after you have watered the worms. The worm juice is then diluted and spread on your garden and pot plants.

After the worm juice is drained out, close the tap again. Dilute the worm juice 1 part worm juice to 10 parts water. This creates a nutritious tonic that can be added directly to your garden and pot plants. Use on any plants over two weeks old, and as a fertiliser at any time. The benefits are that it improves your garden without chemicals, and is non-toxic to your pets, children or yourselves.

Our worm farm is a Tumbleweed product – their website is a great resource for starting and maintaining your worm farm and compost. There are some great video tutorials as well.

I recommend learning about the different types of composting in Compost Revolution’s Compost Tutorial. There is a guide to help you select which composting method suits you, and if you live in Australia, you can buy their products at a discount. Some city councils also give you a discount for composting because it helps them to reduce the waste going to landfills.

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The Skills I Learned from my Parents That I Still Use Today

How Old-Fashioned Skills are Helping Me Now

In my previous post, I explained that I am investigating self-sufficiency as a prospect for a sustainable future. We plan to supply most of our own basic needs, including growing our own food. My parents taught me some important skills as I was growing up, most of which I took for granted and have not used in my adult life. As I am heading into my later years, I am realising that those old-fashioned skills are relevant now.

If we are to supply our own food, we will need to be able to preserve food that we have grown ourselves, so that we have a steady supply during the months that our garden isn’t producing. Plants grown in season are more easily grown – you don’t need to provide an artificial environment (such as a green-house or water sprinkling system) to keep them alive. This means you harvest a large quantity at one time. Learning how to preserve some of the crop is essential.

My sister and I in 1977 with our mum – holding a 9 lb trout. Our love of fishing and the outdoors stems from our parents. We always had a boat for fishing on the many lakes around Rotorua, New Zealand

My mother was a down-to-earth, practical and savvy woman. She was a stay-at-home mum of four kids under 5. The skills I learned from her were:

  • Budgeting – she took full advantage of using discount coupons, bought in bulk, never racked up a debt, and seemed to be able to stretch her money so that we never went without;
  • Sewing – mum made all her own clothes. She taught my sister and I to sew and knit. Mum also had a spinning wheel and made her own wool out of sheeps’ fleece;
  • Gardening – my parents were avid gardeners and grew most of our vegetables. They researched alternative growing methods and put them to use through having a greenhouse and hydroponic set-up which could produce out-of-season food in a cold climate. We also learned composting from them. Their green thumb has passed on to the rest of the family and we all enjoy growing our own produce;
  • Cooking – we rarely ate out, and mum cooked all our food. She baked cakes and biscuits, made icecream and other desserts. My dad cooked every Sunday for a house full of guests – he loved to experiment with food and entertain our guests. We all love cooking, and especially love to experiment with new flavours and techniques.
  • Preserving food – My mum used to make chutneys, jam, and preserved fruit. Dad made brawn – preserved meat. These skills are ones I now want to learn as a skill that will be needed for self-sufficiency. I have made pickles and chutneys, but only in small quantities. I am going to learn about bottling food so that it can be stored safely for future use;
  • Smoking food – we have a smoker so we can make smoked fish and meat. I know this has been used successfully to preserve food so we will learn how to do this as well;
  • Fishing – my husband and I both grew up in families that loved fishing. My parents owned a boat and we used to go trout fishing on one of the many fresh water lakes around our city. My husband’s father took him sea fishing and they still enjoy that now on their boat.
  • Health promotion- my mum was into natural therapies throughout her life. She knew every natural remedy known to man! She preferred to promote health by having a healthy diet and supplements. She practiced yoga and meditation as part of her philosophy of self-care.
  • Housekeeping and house maintenance – my parents did all their own cleaning, yard work and maintenance. I learned many skills from them and still struggle to hand those tasks over to anyone else. I prefer to do all my own cleaning, and my husband does everything he can in the garden and around the house. We are only able to hire someone else when we acknowledge that the skill required is outside our limits, or would take us too long to finish. As we get older we are realising our bodies aren’t up to doing hard work and sometimes it’s better to hire someone to do it;
  • Researching – my parents passed on their love of reading. They used to research all different things, and that love has passed on to me. My other hobby was genealogy which I learned from my mother – I was able to use her research as a basis for my own. I have another blog, This Is Who We Are about our family history
My father and his tomatoes – grown in New Zealand during the winter in a greenhouse.

I guess I was like any other teenager and did not really appreciate my parents until I left home and had my own family. My mum passed away when I was 24. I really missed her presence in my life – it was very hard bringing up my sons without my mother to advise and help me. I was lucky that she was such a wonderful parent and I learned so many skills from her as I was growing up. I was able to draw on that knowledge throughout my life. I certainly don’t take it for granted – I really appreciate everything my parents taught me.

My sister working in the hydroponic greenhouse my father set up in the mid-80s. It was the first hydroponic garden in New Zealand and used to attract tourists from all over the world

Many of the skills I learned like preserving food will be necessary as we aim towards self-sufficiency. In the next few years I will be researching different skills in order to be able to live a self-sufficient lifestyle.

10 Skills my Parents Taught Me that I Still Use Today
10 Skills I Learned from my Parents that I still use Today
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