Month: February 2010

Independence Days: Mountain Bike Races and Snow in the Mountains

Yesterday was another rainy day here in San Diego. After two years of drought, all this rain is a pleasant change. The vegetables are thriving and I only need to hand water the seedlings. I expect our water usage has gone down this year since we haven’t needed to use the drip watering system for at least 6 weeks.

Today has been a beautiful sunny one, so we headed inland to watch the first stage of the US Cup Mountain Bike Race series. Brendan used to race mountain bikes in Australia, but these days he’s just happy to watch and cheer on the one Aussie in the race. Afterwards, we drove up into the mountains to see if there was still some snow remaining. Snow is not common here, so I was keen to experience it before it melted. I needn’t have worried because there is still an inch or two coating the ground. Just enough to give everything a lovely white coating and give the local kids an opportunity make snow-men in Southern California, but not too much that we couldn’t hike through it.

Ok…onto this weeks roundup of Independence Days activities based on my post on self-sufficiency, independence and lifestyle planning.

Preparedness

  • After yet another massive earthquake this weekend (this time in Chile), I’ve done some more work on my short term preparedness planning. I’ll post more on that later this week.
  • I’ve finished week 7 of my exercise program and I’m feeling strong. I think I hit the wall during week 6 because I injured myself. I was worried that I wouldn’t get back into it again, but this week has been fine. One more week until the routine changes again.
  • Yesterday we were talking to our friends in Alaska about visiting them in the summer. Alaska is a beautiful place, and this trip will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time in the outdoors. I had better get a move on to get fit enough to go backpacking while we are up there (not to mention kayaking and maybe even mountain-biking). Can’t wait!

Getting Off the Economic Grid

  • Brendan’s all set up now for operating his home-based bicycle repair business. He’s just finished overhauling two bikes for his first customers and has been handing out business cards all over town. Hopefully he’ll get some more clientele soon, but even if he doesn’t it’s been a good learning experience for him. It’s good to know we now have a barter-able skill at our disposal.

Grow some food

  • Plenty of greens this week. The snow peas are coming thick and fast and are oh-so-delicious. I’ve planted four more seedlings so we’ll hopefully have a constant supply for the next few months.
  • We can’t keep up with the Collards. I’m almost to the point of offloading some of them onto the neighbours. It’s the same problem I had with squash in the summer, but at least I could freeze them. Anyone know how to preserve collards, or do we just keep eating them until we are completely fed up?
  • Our oranges are ripe and delicious. I’m tempted to try some more orange preserves. The marmalade I tried last year was a bit tangy for us, but we are nearly out of relish. I wonder if there is such a thing as orange relish? I made some from our apples last year and we loved it. Why not oranges? Hmmm…I might go search the internet.

Reducing Energy Dependence

  • This weekend I’m trying something new in the laundry: Strip washing. It sounds saucy, but it’s not. It’s simply a technique used to rid clothes of any unwanted odors. After washing only in cold water, some of our gym clothes were a little on the nose, so today I’ve been washing in hot water with no detergent – repeatedly – until no suds are visible. Apparently it removes oil and detergent residue from clothes and does a great job of freshening them up. I’m about to hang the clothes out so the verdict will be in next week I guess. If we can revive these clothes then we won’t have to buy new ones.

Photo by: Temari 09

Links – Week 8, 2010

Photo by: Christolakis

Blogs

This week I want to feature the blogs of some fantastic urban homesteads. It’s inspiring to see what amazing things can be done on a smallish city or suburban block.

Little Homestead in the City

Eco-pioneers living a homegrown revolution on a sustainable, real-life original urban homestead in Pasadena, California.

Happy Earth

At Happy Earth, we’re on an adventure in urban sustainability, exploring how we can retrofit a typical house and lawn into a healthy, efficient home with an abundant food garden. For us being sustainable is really about living happier, healthier lives and feeling good about doing things that are good for us, the planet and our community. It’s about wholesome food and lower bills, meaning more time for family and friends, and less time working. Happy Earth is also about sharing stories and providing practical, independent information about sustainable living in Wollongong, Australia.

Down to Earth

I write about my ordinary day to day life of working in the home, vegetable and fruit gardening, slowing down and being mindful, cooking simple food, keeping chickens and worms, composting, green cleaning, stockpiling and preserving. I hope what I write about encourages and supports you towards your own changes.

Economy

There’s nothing quite like The Onion to add  some humour to the big issues:

U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion

WASHINGTON—The U.S. economy ceased to function this week after unexpected existential remarks by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke shocked Americans into realizing that money is, in fact, just a meaningless and intangible social construct.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter. None of this—this so-called ‘money’—really matters at all.”

“It’s just an illusion,” a wide-eyed Bernanke added as he removed bills from his wallet and slowly spread them out before him. “Just look at it: Meaningless pieces of paper with numbers printed on them. Worthless.”

According to witnesses, Finance Committee members sat in thunderstruck silence for several moments until Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) finally shouted out, “Oh my God, he’s right. It’s all a mirage. All of it—the money, our whole economy—it’s all a lie!”

Ok….back to real news:

The Sovereign Debt Disaster

Wherever we look at the world economy today, we see a wall of risk…and potential financial catastrophe. We see a large number of virtually bankrupt major sovereign states (US, UK, Spain, Italy, Greece, Japan and many more) teetering atop a financial system that is bankrupt, but is temporarily kept alive with phony valuations and unlimited money printing.

Energy

The peak oil crisis: Some perils of 2010

Last week we discussed a new report outlining the outlook for global oil production and noted that the conventional wisdom in the peak oil community now says that global oil production will start its inexorable fall circa 2014. After that supplies will inevitably get shorter and oil prices higher unless the global economy has collapsed so far that the amount of oil that can be produced is no longer relevant.

This does not, however, mean that we will have smooth sailing with respect to oil prices during the next few years, as there are many geopolitical and economic events that could occur as early as this year. Most of these potential developments are likely to drive oil prices higher, but one or two could drive prices lower.

Peak Oil: Looking for the Wrong Symptoms?

If I were to ask 10 random people what they would expect would be a sign of the arrival of “peak oil”, I would expect that all 10 would say “high oil prices”. Let me tell you what I think the symptoms of the arrival of peak oil are

1. Higher default rates on loans
2. Recession

Furthermore, I expect that as the supply of oil declines over time, these symptoms will get worse and worse—even though people may call the cause of the decline in oil use “Peak Demand” rather than “Peak Supply”.

Preparing for 2014-15 “Oil Crunch” Forecast by UK Industry Group

What can cities, businesses and individuals do to prepare for such energy price volatility, buy hybrids? Actually, the report asserts, “there is real danger that the focus on technological advances in cars is making consumers and government complacent.” More urgent steps need to be taken by policymakers in particular to avert this impending crisis. 

What the Olympics Can Teach Us About the Price of Gas

This is the first Olympic Winter Games conducted on snow that was brought to the slopes by diesel trucks and helicopters — because not enough fell in British Columbia in the year of “Snowmageddon.” It’s also the first Winter Olympics that has featured athletes protesting the energy policies of the host nation — i.e. Canada’s increasing emphasis on the incredibly polluting process of producing crude oil from tar sands.

Environment

Avatar: The Prequel

The movie I have in mind (set in a world that Avatar hints at) would lack the blue-skinned Na’vi people, but it would still feature Jake Scully, this time in his real body, on the most intriguing planet of all: Earth. And given a global audience that can’t get enough of Cameron’s work, how many wouldn’t pay big bucks for a chance to take a Pandora-style, sensory-expanding guided tour of our own planet? It would be part of a harrowing tale of environmental degradation, resource scarcity, and perennial conflict in the twilight years of humanity’s decline. Think of it as Avatar: Earth’s Last Stand.

Green Roofs Are So Last Year; Rooftop Farms Are The Growing Thing

Green roofs are wonderful things, keeping buildings cool and reducing heat island effects. But you usually can’t eat them. Now, rooftops around the world are being put to productive use as sources of food.

What to do with the money? Spend it?

With Governments around the world so eager to shift the burden of this financial crisis onto society through bailouts and quantitative easing, there are more and more people realising that paper money (or more realistically data entered into a computer) has no intrinsic value. All money is created by the issuance of debt, so one begins to question whether money really is the same as wealth. Once we realise that it is not, the next natural question then is how to invest any surplus money we have into real, tangible assets.  

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about now that I’m out of debt, so a recent discussion on What should you do with the money you have available? – Part 1 on the The Oil Drum was very timely.

Gail suggests four possible courses of action: Spend Money Now; Give it away; Pay down debt; Invest it using conventional approaches. Since I’ve already paid down my debt and for reasons I’ll cover another day I choose not to invest conventionally, today I want to talk about the option of spending my paper money now. Here are some of the options Gail suggested, followed by some discussion on my plans for the next couple of years.

1. See the world, while you still can.

Experiencing different places and cultures is really important to me. In fact, other than servicing debt, travelling has been my biggest expenditure over the last few years. As the financial crisis deepens and energy becomes more expensive, I imagine travelling will never be as cheap and easy as it is now.

2. Visit friends or relatives you have wanted to visit, but put off.

Last Christmas we spent a few days in London with an old friend of mine. It was really great to catch up with her now because I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again (other than on a Skype call). This summer we plan to visit our good friends in Alaska and other than that, we’ll get to see our families when we return to Australia later this year.

3. Take care of health or dental issues that need to be taken care of.

Brendan and I both had some elective surgeries prior to moving to the U.S. We had heard horror stories about the American health care system, so we wanted these things taken care of before leaving Australia. I had laser-eye surgery which has been money extremely well-spent in my opinion.

4. Take a course that might be helpful long term.

This is an important one. We’ve already seen so many jobs in certain industries (construction, manufacturing, auto) disappear or be outsourced. This trend is likely to continue in the coming decade. Investing in skills that are going to be needed long-term is a no-brainer.

5. Buy extra canned goods or other non-perishables.

The price of food keeps going up. I therefore think investing in some non-perishables is a very wise strategy. If food prices rise 15% this year (it could happen if there is another oil price shock) and you’ve locked in prices early, you’ve essentially earned a 15% return on your investment. Try doing that in the stock market! It also makes a lot of sense to store some extra food in case of emergency.

6. Buy property where you can farm (if you have the skills to do this).

Ultimately this is what we’d really like to be spending our excess cash on. Unfortunately for now, the Australian property market is still inflating into a huge bubble. We won’t be buying until prices become more realistic.

7. Buy gardening related equipment, or soil amendments.

This year we plan to buy all the garden tools we are likely to need for the next 10 years.

8. Buy books about specific skills you may need.

I have already started a library of books which contain useful information, but I will continue to add to it this year as I come across more good recommendations.

9. Buy goods to trade.

Brendan has been stocking up on spare bicycle parts. They are items he can use himself down the track, use in his bike repair business or barter if needed. I’m reluctant to spend money on items we won’t use ourselves as I don’t want a bunch of useless items in storage forever, but bike parts are usuful purchases.

10. Buy a dog that can be trained as a guard dog/helper.

Zoe is already a pretty good guard dog. Being a German Shepherd, it’s in her genes. As far as her being a helper…. does collecting socks count?

11. Insulate your house, make it tighter, and/or add some sort of passive solar heating.

Since we are currently renting, there is little we can do here. We have been encouraging our family to take advantage of Government grants to improve efficiency.

12. Buy a solar thermal hot water heater, solar voltaic panels, or wind generating capacity.

As for #11. Brendan’s parents have recently installed solar hot water and I’ve been encouraging my Mum to do the same. In Australia, with ample sun, these system work fantastically.

13. Install a water collection system. (If water is to be used for drinking, you will need to have the right kind of roof and will need to take proper precautions. It still may not be legal.)

As for #11 and #12. Brendan’s parents and my sister have water collection systems. I think Mum is also putting one in.

14. Buy tools for a new trade. (For example, wood working or making leather goods)

Brendan has been purchasing most of the tools he needs for a bicycle repair business. I’m yet to decide on a trade that is interesting to me and would be useful in the future, although I have a collection of crochet hooks now. Does that count?

15. Buy a gun and ammunition (For catching rabbits, if nothing else).

Nope. Not legal in Australia (unless on property), so we’ll be giving this one a miss.

16. Buy a more fuel efficient car.

Upon return to Australia we have plans for a very fuel-efficient diesel vehicle. We aren’t sure what yet, but efficiency is paramount in my mind.

Does anyone have any more ideas about things worth investing in now?

Photo by: alles-schlumpf

Creating a New Future Worth Living

Yesterday at lunch I was talking to a friend who reads this blog. We were talking about hope and how he thinks I have none because of the gloomy things I write about. I told him that wasn’t true in the slightest. In fact, apart from the occasional slip into doom-mode I am usually a very happy person. Yes, I can see the predicament we are in and I choose not to stick my head in the sand, but that doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic and hold no hope for my future.

I’ll admit that when I first started learning about the confluence of the triple threats of Economic collapse, Energy depletion and Environmental devastation I was a little panicked. OK…I was a lot panicked. Most people who discover these issues will probably have a similar experience and more than likely will continue to cycle back to these feelings on occasion. However, everyone who confronts these issues has to work out for themselves how to stay motivated, while not panicking or agonising over the future.

We’ve all had expectations about what the future would hold for us, and have made plans based on what we thought we knew about the world. When we discover that we will likely be living a very different future it can be disconcerting to say the least. 

I’ve found the best way to deal with this is to transform my relationship to the future; to use this time as an opportunity to reassess my values and determine how I really want to be living my life.  While I have very little control over what the world will become in the next decade, I have a lot of control over the role I will play in it.  For this reason it’s important for me to create a new future worth living.

Sure, many of the roles I play in my current life will disappear. I’ll probably not be an aerospace engineer or frequent world traveller in the decades to come. However there are new roles which I will step into. I think about these often and while I have no concrete idea of what my life will look like in ten years time I can imagine some of the things I’ll be spending my time on. Perhaps I’ll be a mother, most likely I’ll be supporting aging parents, I hope I’m helping my community to prepare for energy descent.  I imagine I am living a simple, frugal life filled with nature, relationships and rich experiences.

I encourage you to start thinking about what future you think will be worth living.  Yes, you’ll have to let go of the future you thought was ahead of you, but designing a new future for you and your family can be an exciting exercise. Designing your own future rather than just letting it happen to you can be very empowering. I urge everyone to make the most of this opportunity.

Photo by: alicepopkorn

Where in the World? Sequoia National Park, California, USA

We were watching a documentary the other night which featured giant Sequoia trees, so I was prompted to go and find my photos of a visit we made in late 2008. These beautiful giants are the world’s largest trees in terms of total volume. The oldest known Giant Sequoia is 3,500 years old! This tree was alive well before the peak of the Roman Empire. Isn’t it incredible to think how much human history has passed in the lifetime of one tree!

While in this National Park I saw my first coyote. They are much smaller than I was imagining, about the size of a slim labrador retriever. I guess my only reference was the old coyote and road runner cartoons I watched as a kid. This one was wary of us, but did not seem to be overly concerned about our presence.

Mum also enjoyed visiting the giant trees, and took the opportunity to be a tree-hugger.

Check out more photos from my travels

The journey of 100 posts starts with a single line!

Today marks a milestone. 100 posts! I thought I should celebrate with a little look back at my journey since last July, when I started this blog.

This blog was conceived because I had a mind full of thoughts that needed writing down. I’ve found the process cathartic and illuminating at the same time. Usually, as I go about my day I’ll have a swirl of thoughts and emotions running through my head. If I grab onto one of those thoughts and start to write it down, the process of making it legible for others forces me to work through the issue myself. For that moment in time I am focussed on the issue and can give it my undivided attention. I have enjoyed the process and I love the journey this blog has taken me on over the last seven months. 

Along the way, people have come along and read what I have to say. I wasn’t really expecting that and didn’t set out to get an audience, but I’m richer for it. The little blog community I have become part of enriches me in a way I can’t fully articulate. Every day I learn something new, see things in a different way or get inspired to take on new challenges. I thank all of you for that.

The blog started out as a place to share my thoughts on voluntary simplicity, sustainable living and my gardening efforts.

It then morphed into an exploration of the triple crises confronting us: Economy, Energy & Environment. I started my World Changing Wednesday series to help myself better understand the predicaments confronting us in this most historic of times. I will continue writing these types of articles as the mood takes me. A get a lot of visitors to my site who are obviously looking for this type of information. I hope I can help people understand how all these issues are interconnected and how together they will make the next couple of decades very challenging times for us all.

Towards the end of last year I was away a lot with my job and I lost my blogging mojo for a while. I gave myself permission to have a break which was a good thing. The last thing I want is for this blog to become a chore.

Anyway I’m back into the new year and my focus has moved more towards personal preparedness for likely changes in the coming decades. I’m focussing on Self Sufficiency, Independence and Lifestyle Planning. Less talk, more action! I got myself out of debt and we have been considering our options for where best to adapt to a world of less complexity and expensive energy. I’m learning new skills.

Who knows where this blog will go in the future. I haven’t set any boundaries around it, so it’s free to become whatever I need it to be at the time. I’m also keen to provide information that people want to read about. If you can think of any topics I should cover, please feel free to leave me a comment.

Here’s to another 100 posts sometime down the track. I wonder what I’ll be talking about in another six months times?

Independence Days – Quiet times and the Fungus Fair

I’ve had another quiet week at home this week. Nearly two months at home without travelling has to be some sort of record for me. I’ve managed to cut way back on my work trips this year, and so far it looks like I’ll only need to travel once in the first six months of the year. Woo Hoo!

Having said that, I feel like I’m in a bit of a rut. The garden is going well and doesn’t take much of my time anymore. I’ve been consolidating my crochet skills and feel like I have that under control. My exercise routine is just that….a routine. I’m the sort of person that loves starting something new and without something new and exciting, I feel lost. I need some inspiration!

This morning, Brendan and I went to the Fungus Fair. It wasn’t as big as I was expecting, but we learned some interesting things nonetheless. I particularly enjoying seeing how certain mushrooms can be used to dye natural fibers. The range of colours were wonderful.

On the way home from the fair we went past the Convention Center to give our support to the various groups protesting Monsanto who was in town for a science convention. It was great to see the crowd out with their signs and banners despite the wet weather. Hopefully they achieved their purpose of educating the public about some of Monsanto’s practices.

OK, onto this week’s update.

Getting off the Economic Grid

  • In the long term, both Brendan and I envisage operating a number of home based businesses. It’s important for us to do things we are passionate about and which allow us the flexibility of working hours that suit us. We want out of the rat race and being our own boss is how we plan to achieve that. To that end, Brendan has been working hard this week to get his home-based bike repair and service business up and running. The shed is all tricked out with new tools and looks very professional. I’ll take some photos later this week for his website. He might even write a guest post about it if I ask him nicely.
  • Another important goal is to remove ourselves as much as possible from the consumer economy. Where possible, we buy used or homemade, so for our friend’s baby shower last night I didn’t just want to go out and buy a gift from the registry. I decided to give the gift of a family photography session when the little one arrives and I also crocheted him a little beanie (below). The parents to be were so happy that they get the photo session they really wanted, and I got to remain true to my values.

Grow some food

  • We’ve had a slug invasion this week. They chomped through my collard and broccoli seedlings overnight so I had to do something about it ASAP. I usually just go slug hunting late at night or early in the morning. My eye is fine tuned to finding their slimy trails on my plants. I probably should do some research on deterrents to keep my seedlings safe until they are big enough to cope.
  • I harvested our first spinach. It was delicious. I pulled one out at the roots and now the half we didn’t eat is in the fridge in a cup of water. It’s keeping well this way so we’ll be able to eat the rest of it tonight.
  • We’ve had more rain this week. In the last couple of months I’ve only needed to hand water the seedlings. All the mature vegetables are coping quite well with just the natural rainfall, which is a nice change from drip irrigating every second day.

Reduce Energy Dependence

  • My lack of travelling this year has done wonders for reducing my energy use. It’s a nice change to the usual feelings of guilt about all the air miles I accrue.

Plan to own some productive land

  • A friend from Australia has been visiting this week. We’ve been discussing the extremely high property prices in Oz and bemoaning the fact that it’s too expensive to buy anything without becoming a complete debt slave. He has dreams of living a sustainable lifestyle on 40 acres, so we’ve been sharing stories about our future plans. It’s amazing how many people are on this same wavelength. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the last month to find like-minded people where I least expected them to be.

Links – Week 7, 2010

Photo by: Brandon Warren

Lot’s of gloomy stuff on the interwebs this week. I had quite a few links planned, but I decided to cut back to just a few for my own sanity. Be sure to check out the bloglinks at the bottom of this post. They are all a sure cure for gloominess.

Economy

What is Collapse, Anyway?

“collapse” is actually an extremely common phenomenon in nations and societies – societies rise to a particular level of function, they run into hard limits, often ecological limits, <…> and they fall to a much lower level of functioning. How low is up for grabs, and depends on the kind of response the society makes. At times this level can be extremely low – there’s Easter Island for example. More recently Rwanda and Burundi have collapsed into untenable violence and endless civil war, with horrifyingly bloody consequences for the people, ones that don’t look that far off of Mad Max.

On the other hand, we could look at the most recent society that has collapsed – Iceland. In 2008 and into 2009, Iceland which had become enormously wealthy and prosperous underwent an economic collapse, the effects of which are still playing out. The banking collapse in Iceland was the largest ever suffered, relative to the nation’s size, in economic history.

What happened in Iceland is probably very reassuring for people who are worried about collapse – the situation wasn’t at all pleasant for people, but compared to Rwanda, it was a walk in the park. There was rioting and the government was broadly speaking, changed, some suicides and emigrations. The costs of dealing with the crisis were enormous, there was widespread unemployment, interest rates shot up and imports stalled, there was a foreclosure crisis, many formerly high paying professionals had to go back to the fishing industry which promptly began to see fish stock collapses, imported goods became expensive, and people got a lot poorer. On the other hand, one’s pickled kale was comparatively safe.

So the first thing we can say about collapse is that it is highly variable – you can have economic collapse, you can have an energy supply related collapse, a political collapse, collapse into civil war – and that some collapses are better than others.

Environment

Is There Enough Food Out There For Nine Billion People ?

A threefold challenge now faces the world: Match the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent population to its supply; do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry. This challenge requires changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th- and 19th-century Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the 20th-century Green Revolution. Increases in production will have an important part to play, but they will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere. …

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050. In this article, major strategies for contributing to the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, including the most disadvantaged, are explored. Particular emphasis is given to sustainability, as well as to the combined role of the natural and social sciences in analyzing and addressing the challenge.

TED 2010: David Cameron Shows How All Electric Bills Should Be

Blogs

Here are a few blogs I love to read and imagine I am living an alternate life. Beautiful photos accompany these beautiful lifestyles. I hope you are as inspired as I am.

A House Called Nut

This blog is about the adventures of three urbanites (one American, one Finn, one dog of no fixed nationality) displaced to the Finnish countryside. In December 2008, we took up residence in Pähkinä (Finnish for “nut”) after a little joke about moving into our friend’s pretty, yellow cottage suddenly became a reality. If years of London living made our previous move to Helsinki seem like walking through a revolving door into a pasture of cows, what will become of this little walk in the woods? Join us as we explore the nature around us, attempt to grow our own vegetables on a steep, rocky hill in a northern climate, compost all our organic waste, go foraging for mushrooms, berries and other wild foods in the Finnish forest, bake pies, and knit our own socks.

FuoriBorgo

Family life at the edge of an ancient rural community near the Mediterranean.

Beauty that Moves

art; book talk; etsy; Handmade; Homeschooling; moments; morning and night; morning, Natural Goodness; simple green frugal; summer unschooling; Sweet Family; Taste; thrifted; Vermont; Yoga

Little Eco Footprints

I’m Tricia. I live on a small urban block in Newcastle (Australia). I once dreamed of living closer to nature; having space to grow food; having a teeny little ecological footprint; and being part of a community. I thought that meant leaving the city, but now I know I can try to live that dream right here. We don’t have Little eco footprints yet – but we’re having fun trying.

How to make Compost

Last night I was talking to Mum on Skype about composting. She was frustrated that none of her food scraps were breaking down in the bin she was using. I started to explain that there is more to composting than just throwing all your scraps in a pile and waiting for them to magically turn to compost. I told her I’d send a link to my post on composting and then I realised I never actually wrote that post! So here it is. How to compost….for my Mum.

Composting involves mixing yard and household organic waste in a pile or bin and providing conditions that encourage decomposition. The decomposition process is fueled by millions of microscopic organisms (bacteria, fungi) that take up residence inside your compost pile, continuously devouring and recycling it to produce a rich organic fertiliser. Once you know a few simple principles it’s pretty easy. Nature does her job beautifully.

The Compost Bin (The Oven)

First things first. You need a proper compost bin. Most people say you need a pile no smaller than 3′ x 3′ x 3′ (1 cubic metre), but I’ve found a large, well aerated rubbish bin does the trick.  In a previous post I explained how Brendan and I made our own Compost Bins for free.

Decide on the location of your compost bin based on function and aesthetics. Your neighbours probably don’t want to see it, but you want to keep it away from buildings as the decomposition may cause wood to rot.  From a functional standpoint, you’ll need a place with good air circulation. Partial shade is a good idea so the compost doesn’t get overheated. Also make sure the spot of land where you place your heap gets good drainage.

We decided to place ours in the corner of our small courtyard. It has easy access to the garden and a water source and is easy to get to from the kitchen, but it is out of the way and utilises a space that wouldn’t have been useful for much else.  This photo was taken last summer when we had about 4 hours of full sun per day on that side of the garden. In winter it’s in full shade.

How to build Compost (The Recipe)

I like to think of compost making as a recipe of sorts. There is some science to it, but it’s also an artform. Just remember that you need each of these ‘ingredients’ for your compost to work properly and then you can adjust the recipe to suit your conditions.

Organic Materials

The most obvious ingredient for compost is organic waste. This can come from your garden, your kitchen and from a variety of other sources around the home. In addition to our own organic matter, I collect food waste and coffee grounds from work so I can build my compost pile very quickly. Ingredients that can make good compost include:

Browns = High Carbon

  • Ashes, wood
  • Bark
  • Cardboard, shredded
  • Dried Leaves
  • Newspaper, shredded
  • Peanut shells
  • Peat moss
  • Dried Pine needles
  • Sawdust
  • Stems and twigs, shredded
  • Straw

Green = High Nitrogen

  • Clover
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Food waste
  • Garden waste
  • Green Grass clippings
  • Hops, used
  • Manures (No dog or cat waste)
  • Seaweed
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Weeds (I don’t compost weeds that have gone to seed)

I include roughly a 50:50 mixture of brown ingredients and greens, I tend to layer them and always finish on a brown layer as it stops pests getting into the pile.

To speed up the process of composting, chop or shred larger items so they break down more easily; turn the pile regularly; add big meals to the pile rather than small, regular ‘snacks’; full sun will heat up the pile and speed up the process, but be careful it doesn’t get too hot and catch on fire.

Moisture

The microbes in the compost pile require water for survival. Too much water means your organic waste won’t decompose and you’ll get a slimy and smelly pile but too little water and you’ll kill the bacteria. The more green material you put in, the less water you’ll need to add. In general your compost should be moist, but not sopping wet – think the consistency of a wet sponge that has been rung out.

Aeration

Oxygen is also required by many of the microorganisms responsible for successful composting. Give them adequate ventilation and they will take care of the rest. You can make sure that the bacteria in your compost gets sufficient air by turning the pile often using a pitch fork or spade. We can usually leave ours for a few months without turning and it still breaks down nicely, but if the pile gets too wet we spend more time airing it out.

Temperature

As they eat, the organisms responsible for composting generate large amounts of heat, which raise the temperature of the pile and speeds up decomposition. A compost pile that is working well will produce temperatures of 60-70 degrees C (140-160 degrees F). At these temperatures almost all weed seeds and plant diseases are killed. A “very hot” compost pile will generate temperatures of up to 80 degrees C (170 degrees F) for up to a week or more. You can use a compost thermometer to measure the exact temperature, but we don’t get that technical.

How do you know when it’s cooked?

As organic material in a compost pile heats up it breaks down and takes up less space. A compost pile can shrink up to 70% as it “cooks.”

Compost is finished when it’s a dark, rich color, crumbles easily, and you can’t pick out any of the original ingredients. It should have a sweet, earthy smell. If it’s too stringy or lumpy, it may need more time. We usually sift ours through nursery flats and put any big pieces back in another pile, leaving us with lovely, dark compost. It can take anywhere from three to 12 months to produce compost depending on temperatures, what organic matter you’ve used, how fine the waste material was chopped, how often you’ve turned it etc.

How to enjoy it

We add compost to our soil twice per year, before planting begins each season. We simply spread the compost in a thick layer on top of existing soil, cover with straw and then water it down. Within days earthworms have worked the compost into the soil and the improvement in soil quality can be seen almost immediately.

Here’s what ours looks like before we ‘sift’ it and put it in the garden.