Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Composting Methods

Being something of a geek, composting has always made me feel like a necromancer. You take something dead, perform a special kind of magic on it, and end up with something so very alive and so very black. Of course those fantasy stories tend to see life as a big conveyor belt moving us inexorably toward death. But nature doesn't see life that way. Nature, the ultimate recycler, sees life as a cycle, more like the phoenix rising reborn from its own ashes.

For those of you not familiar with the different methods of composting, there are three widely accepted methods of composting: hot composting, cold composting, and vermicomposting. There is enough information out there on the internet and in books that I won't go into heavy details here, but I will give a brief description. Hot composting is what most people think of when they think of composting. It uses a number of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria and fungus to rapidly break down organic matter. As an added benefit, it gets hot enough to kill most weed seeds and pathogens. The disadvantage is that you need to get the right combination of materials and turn the pile frequently to get the pile hot enough and keep it so.

If you don't bother with specific pile composition or regular turning, you are cold composting. While cold composting is a lot less work than hot composting, it is also a lot slower.

Vermicomposting brings an new player to the party: worms. Specifically, red wigglers are used. These little guys consume their weight in compost every day, turning it into rich worm castings. They also do the aeration for you, so there is less turning involved. They just need a steady supply of food and a protected location.

Mycologist Paul Stamets proposed a fourth kind of composting: mycocomposting. Mycocomposting uses any of a number of mushroom-producing fungi to break down organic matter, especially woody matter, rapidly. The advantage of this system is that you can use your compost to generate food. It also takes very little work once you get it going. The disadvantage of mycocomposting is that the materials can be pricey, especially over time. Also, the conditions (moisture, temperature, etc.) have to be right for the mushrooms to establish and grow. I'll get into more detail on mushrooms in general and mushroom composting specifically in later posts.

Over the last couple of years, I have been experimenting with myco-vermicomposting, with mixed success. My outdoor compost bin has had trouble getting mushrooms established. It probably has something to do with my lack of a watering schedule and the fact that I live in northern Arizona. It's not too hot here, but it's very dry. On the other hand, my indoor experiments with myco-vermicomposting have been a resounding success. I'll discuss that in detail in my next post.

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