To broaden your scope of why you should home garden, and for a digest of soil enhancement methods available to you, you will find no better overview than in Harvey Ussery’s “Achieving food independence on the modern homestead, Part 1,” (Countryside, Sept./Oct. 2006).
I, for one, am more appreciative of the produce bounty I am reaping from my own garden after reading Mr. Ussery’s list of reasons why we should grow our own. Although this article was targeted toward those with ample tillable space and a variety of soil improvement options, understanding the dynamics of organic recycling is of primary importance to any gardener seeking a maximum quality and quantity yield, even if we garden in containers.
There are many urban homesteaders seeking self-sufficiency and food independence. Urban gardeners just don’t have the luxury of space that rural homesteaders usually have. We home garden, but composting in open heaps or pits is not possible because we do not have the room. Also, local ordinances prohibit it. The only raw organic matter able to be incorporated into the garden is generated in the fall, after the harvest. For the rest of the season, all organic matter must go with the trash to the landfill. Unless it is decomposed to 1/10th of its original volume in containers-and stored in containers-it can’t be used. Even homesteaders that have the space for a compost heap have given up composting due to the backbreaking chore of frequent heap turning and having to dig out the finished product.
Industry, aware of our plight, jumped into this market void with unique or attractive composters that include promises of “compost in 14 days,” or “Easiest mixing and aerating, just turn the crank,” or, “Continuous compost. Dump debris in top, insert fork through side slot and fluff to aerate, open door in bottom to remove humus,” etc. We purchase these marvels at no small expense, and they fall short of our expectations. We are now “disillusioned composters,” while out back, the units have become ideal hornet nurseries.
Tunnel vision trapped me into this scenario. I focused on improving my soil for better crop production and trusted in the sales pitch, without considering the parameters within which I must work. I was able to make compost in 14 days as the manufacturer claimed, but it could not handle the volume nor variety of material our yard and kitchen generated, and it became quickly obvious that there was no way this-nor any other manufactured composter-could keep up. I hated the waste and labor of hauling our debris to the dump; I had to find a workable solution.
As the author of Tirecrafting, and Super Productive Gardening Thru Recycling, once I analyzed what I wanted from a composter, I was able to solve this challenge.
What are the requirements for an acceptable composter?
The value of a composter should not be judged solely on the merits of the composter, such as how good-looking or unique it is, or how fast it makes humus, or how easy it is to load.
A composter’s value is in how best it can serve me in its ability to decompose the volume and variety of debris that I generate, at the time I generate it, how convenient it is to use, and the ease with which I am able to mix and aerate the compost and retrieve and store or use the finished product. Also it should occupy minimal space and be able to be kept clean and varmint free.
Earth’s most user-friendly composter
This composter can satisfy all of your requirements, plus, being made of discarded tires, you are recycling industrial waste as well as organic waste. It is actually a combination of composting and storage containers, depending on your requirements. It can be as little as one small three-unit vermin-composting container, or as many large composters and storage containers as you require.
Versatility: Each solar heat collecting, moisture-retaining container is created from stacked, unconnected units, made from discarded tires. This complex can be modified to accept any volume of organic matter by simply adding or removing a unit, or stack of units, or by changing container size. The composter excels at making compost by one of three methods: Vermi-composting (harvest castings once or twice a year); modified casual (mix/aerate from once a week to twice a month for humus in four to eight weeks); and accelerated (14-day humus requires selected debris and mixing every three days).
Affordability and availability: This composting complex is made from free discarded tires that are available practically everywhere on earth.
Construction simplicity: With just a knife, tires are easy to modify into composters and hums storage containers.
User friendly: Success is due to removable container units, enabling you to divide compost material into small accessible portions for easy mixing/aerating, and retrieving the completed humus.
Durability: These safe, comfortable to handle containers will last indefinitely even with excessive abuse.
Master Gardener’s testimony
My wife Jo and I were invited to demonstrate Tirecrafting at a booth sponsored by the Lewis County Master Gardeners at the Lewis County Fair in Washington. Included in our program was how to make and use a composter. At this fairground was a composter testing facility where every type of composter-manufactured and homemade-was tested by Master Gardener volunteers for Washington State University. We donated a tire composter and the book Tirecrafting How-To Book, which includes instructions on how to use it.
The next year they invited us back, and Master Gardener instructor leaders, Ellen and Emmett Jorden, invited us to give a hands-on seminar to the class. Ellen told us that their fairground compost studies proved that our tire composter had out-performed every other composter in their tests, and that they now teach composting from our Tirecrafting book because it has more easy-to-understand information than the books they were previously using.
The more often you aerate, the quicker the debris will decompose. If you don’t aerate, the compost will stink. Aerate at least twice a month.
The finer you chop the matter, the faster the decay and the quicker the shrinkage. It will shrink to between 1/5 and 1/10 its original volume.
How to aerate: Grab the top unit of your composter and pull it toward you, raking the top layer of debris on the ground in front of you. Set that unit (tire) to the side of the composter. Fork the dumped debris into that unit. Grab the next tire and follow that same procedure. Do that with each consecutive unit until the composter is in its new location. The debris that was on the top is now on the bottom and the whole stack is mixed and aerated.
Personal composting applications: We live in a housing project on an average size suburban lot. I run a four container composting complex to recycle all of my-plus some of my neighbor’s-organic material. I then share the humus with them. My containers are 2-1/2 feet across and five units high. Two composters work year round, but they collect only kitchen scraps in the winter. One of these is for vermi-composting and the other for modified casual composting. Another acts as an accelerated composter in the summer and a leaf storage unit in the winter. One is a humus storage unit. Their duties are all interchangeable.
Vermi-composting: The vermin-composter is handy to get to from the house and digests all kitchen scraps and some garden refuse. This finished product satisfies the houseplants and container flower gardens. The castings are retrieved once or twice a year.
Modified casual composting: The bulk of my debris is processed in this composter. It is located next to the garden for convenient garden maintenance. It accepts all yard and most garden debris and some lawn clippings. When lawn clippings threaten to overpower this composter, I periodically do a batch of accelerated composting.
My composter is not always five units high. I work with only as many units as I need stacked at the time. I throw mostly greenery directly into the composter and then reach in with limb loppers and chop it up. Most high-carbon materials like fall leaves, grape vines, and corn stalks, I first run over with the lawnmower.
I aerate it once a week, all the time adding new debris on top. Mixing new with old aids in decay. Each time I mix it, the richer and denser it becomes and the less shrinkage there is.
When it is full and mixed for the last time, about the first of August, it will finish on its own and the composter then converts to a storage unit. I start over with a new composter that was formerly a storage unit for last fall’s leaves, but is now empty. By harvest time I must dispose of the humus in both the now-full composter and the storage unit. Fall cleanup occupies both containers, one to store all carbon material for accelerated composting and the other to recycle fall cleanup greenery.
Most of the discarded vegetables go into the vermi-composter.
I compost because I enjoy recycling my own organic refuse. It is easier to toss weeds and garden debris into the composter than it is to gather them up and pack them in the garbage can. I much prefer performing the whole yard and gardening routine, including mixing and aerating compost, than doing a mindless exercise routine. All of our vegetables and most of our flowers are grown in tire crafted retainers and containers filled with homemade compost, providing me a terminal for this superior growing medium.
For anyone who dreads the drudgery of mixing and aerating their compost by hand, this method was created for you. My mom loved to use her tire composter and was 85 years old when she finally had to quit. I hope that this method will inspire Mr. Ussery to try composting again.
How to make containers for composting or humus storage
Tires required: The larges LT grade steel belted tires that you can find that do not have steel in the sidewalls and do not have steel showing in the tread. From three to five matching tires (units) per container, depending on tread width and your desire.
Tools: Work platform to support a tire with the top of the tire at waist height; protective gloves; knife with strong stiff blade and large comfortable handle-keep the blade very sharp.
How to make a composter unit
Remove both sidewalls, leaving a three-inch slip of sidewall around the top and bottom for easy stacking and unit stability.
With a strong sharp knife, cut three inches in from tread, make an accurate and smooth cut around both sidewalls. Cuts are made easier if the knife is held at a 45-degree angle with cutting edge facing up, cut tire on the upstroke (away from you). Spread apart cut with other hand while cutting.
Cutting a tire takes practice, so before you cut into your future units, cut both sidewalls from a couple of tires that you were going to discard anyway. After your practice cuts, to discard the scrap, stand the tread circle up so tread is on the ground. Push down to flatten the tread, roll it up, secure the roll with a three-inch grabber-screw through the tread and drop it and its sidewalls in the garbage can.
Note: Cutting up a tire reduces its landfill volume by half, and it is no longer a tire, it is considered household scrap.