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Sunday, 15 July 2007

Composting tragedy: a cautionary tale

This is going to be a difficult post to write. It has the potential to be quite disturbing to some people - you probably wouldn't let your kids read this. But it contains an important lesson for anybody interested in composting as a waste reduction strategy.

I wrote yesterday about a couple of different options for suburban composting. I described briefly the open-bottomed black plastic bin which I've been using in my first foray into managed decomposition.

Prompted into effort through the act of blogging (as I tend to be), late this afternoon I set about tending to the pile: turning it, then adding some new material and a bit of water. It's probably not the "right" way to go about things but I'm new to this.

The easiest way to turn a pile that's in a bin like mine is to lift the bin off the top, put it down next to the pile and start putting the pile back into it so that what was on the top ends up on the bottom and vise versa. So far, my compost pile is a mixed bag in terms of original material and current condition. Some of it looks really rich and vital, some is dry or woody. Not surprisingly the earth right at the bottom tends to be dark, moist and rich-looking. Since I'm transferring the pile between the same two locations each time I turn it, I have a habit of digging the shovel in a bit and moving some of that rich soil/compost into the active bin.

Today, that underlying soil was a lot more alive than I'd reckoned on. My shovel's blade went straight into a nest full of young mice.

I had read about the risk of mice or rats being attracted to compost bins. Prior to today I'd not seen any here, but while I was turning the top parts of the pile over two or three had dashed out to safety. I'd felt disappointed but somewhat resigned, and suddenly the neighbour's cat's recent tendency to camp out in this corner of my yard made a lot of sense. With those few out of the way I hadn't for a moment considered there'd be more beneath the ground.

Startled by a nest of vermin, and with some awful injuries already inflicted, my immediate reaction was to end the matter as quickly as possible. I don't know whether it was the right thing to do, and I'm not going to use this post to try and argue it either way, but I hated doing it and have felt sickened by it ever since.

The point of posting about it is to remind you of the obvious: human "wastes" are a rodent's "dinner", and wherever you find people you will also find rats and mice. Recycling our kitchen refuse in a compost bin is a brilliant idea in terms of resource utilisation and efficiency but we're not the only ones interested in those nutrients.

Maybe one of those fancy compost bins I linked to in my earlier post is not such an extravagant idea after all.


Crazy Mumma said...

Ergh! My husband tends to just slap the lids back on mine and I recently encountered the most enormously fat mouse I've ever seen, strugging to get out of my way when I lifted the lid! Gross. My bins work very poorly in winter as it's just too cold for them this far south, so I tend to stockpile the material for use in summer, and I am going to set up a worm farm for the kitchen scraps as soon as I get over my paranoia about the possibility of accidentally killing them ;-) You need to bury the bottom of the plastic bins a few inches into the ground and make sure that the lids are on really tight to prevent rodents from getting in. I'm sure you already know this, but meat scraps and dairy are a no-no too for the same reason. Cheers, Julie.

TB said...

Hi Julie,

We've kept meat and dairy content to a minimum more for the sake of avoiding putrid smells and reducing disease risk. I suspect bread might have been part of the attraction.

As for burying the bottom of the bin, I have two problems with that. Firstly it would make turning the pile impossible. And second...

I discovered this morning that the buggers had actually chewed a hole right through the wall of the bin a few inches above ground level.

The way it looks to me, these bins are best suited to large amounts of leafy garden material. Kitchen scraps should probably go to the worms or into a more tightly managed compost system.

Want to start a simultaneous worm farm experiment with me?


Crazy Mumma said...

Hmmm, the thought of being responsible for health and wellbeing of hundreds of worms kinds freaks me out! Hence no worm farm yet. I'm totally paranoid I'll flood them out or accidentally cook them in summer, or some other horrible end. BUT, if you're game then maybe I can work myself up to an experiment!

TB said...

I'm keen on trying the worms, except that I don't want to go and buy yet another plastic thing. Even the DIY designs I've seen have been based on plastic buckets or drums.

Maybe the first step is to do some research and ask some advice about the best kind of worm farm to use and whether there's a way to make one from recyclable materials. I suspect you get a lot more traffic on your blog than I do here... maybe you could post and ask for some suggestions?

I'll go a-googling and see if I can come up with anything useful.

Crazy Mumma said...

Terry, I belong to a great forum called Aussies Living Simply which has a great section on this sort of thing, and from memory has a thread on creating a worm farm from an old bath tub. I also know some people who have used old foam boxes quite successfully, and would take up heaps less room than a bath tub. Have a look at this post at Greenfoot. It might be the go?

By the way, my email addy is towards-sustainability[at] Cheers, Julie