Archive for the ‘Composting toilets’ Category

October update

November 6, 2015

I was expecting to begin this post by saying we’d not had one drop of rainfall for the month…the first totally dry October since I began keeping records when we moved here 16 years ago, but lo and behold we had a thunderstorm on the last day of the month that delivered 14 mm. Melbourne’s average for October is 65 mm, so it was still well below that, but I got a useful 2000 litres in the big tank and all the swales filled so I was happy, even if it did wreck my plans to burn off. With tiny fruits swelling on all the trees, this is the time when moisture in the ground is really needed. Even better was yesterday’s fall—22 mm—a bit less than half November’s average. So things are a bit rosier on the rainfall front.

The dwarf Stella cherry is in its second year and is being well-watered and netted. There are many more fruits than last year. I counted at least thirty tucked in amongst the leaves. I want to get all of them! :

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My new thornless blackberries surprised me by producing pink flowers instead of the familiar white of the wild blackberries :

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I scored a useful compost bin from a friend and I’m going to use it for food scraps and the stuff from the composting toilet. I’m hoping the contents won’t dry out so much over the summer like they do just sitting in an open wire cage. I have 2 worm farms under the house, but I want to de-commission one and so I’ll have extra food scraps to deal with. This new bin has come at just the right time :

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I’ve had problems with introduced black rats eating tomato seedlings planted in wicking tubs and boxes near the house. Never before has anything ever touched a tomato seedling here, so I was gob-smacked, not to mention furious, to find just leafless sticks the day after I planted them. I’ve managed to get some planted in other spots well away from the house, but planting in Zone 1, near the house, is temporarily on hold. I’ve baited and 6 rats have gone to god so far and the scuffling noises in the ceiling have gone too.

I’ve established a bed of nettles under my plant benches (these are the stands that hold over 600 tubed plants). The nettles don’t invade the path beside the benches, because the soil is more compacted there and they get water and fertiliser runoff when I water the tubes. I just have to remember not to get too close in summer when I’m wearing shorts :

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A classic example of permaculture design where the outputs from one part of the system become the inputs for another part of the system.

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The foliage in the strawberry wicking buckets died right back over winter and I was afraid I’d lost them, but they’ve burst into new growth and flowers and fruits. I topped the buckets with chook poo compost which has obviously helped :

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I’ve written before about mini tomato cuttings using plants thinned from pots where I’ve sown 2 or 3 seeds. I snipped off a few seedlings at the base and stuck them in some water till I could get round to putting them in as cuttings. I was busy and they sat there for a couple of days. They couldn’t wait and started growing roots in the water :

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Tomatoes definitely have a will to live!

This beautiful ferny foliage belongs to the tomato variety Silvery Fir Tree :

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It’s a determinate variety, so doesn’t need staking, and is one of the earliest varieties to bear fruit. I’ve been growing it for about 4 years now. The fruits are large and slightly flattened and have a good flavour.

Looks like I might get a good crop of dill seed this year. I use a lot of it in pickling cucumbers and my local supermarket doesn’t carry it, so I like to have a crop of my own each year. This is in a wicking box :

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I’ve been eating asparagus almost every second day. The trouble with asparagus is that if you don’t check the bed every day they have an inordinate desire to reach the moon :

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The two small ones in front are about the size you’d get in a bunch at the supermarket. It’s not a lost cause, however. Snapping up from the bottom, to remove the woody bits, still leaves two-thirds of edible stem and I can chop up the woody bits in the Thermomix, blanch and freeze them for winter soups. Valuable fibre shouldn’t be discarded!

These 6 little seedlings are worth more than gold! :

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They’re blueberries. I’m indebted to rabidlittlehippy for showing how to propagate them from seed. She put the berries in the freezer….actually no, I think she used purchased frozen blueberries. Anyway, I put berries from my own plant in the freezer. I didn’t record how long they were in there, but I took them out in March (at the equinox actually), extracted the seeds from the fruits and sowed them. They took nearly 60 days to germinate and then sat there all winter doing nothing. They started to grow in early spring and I potted them up at the beginning of October. There were 8 but 2 died. In the environment where they grow naturally, they probably drop from the bushes in late summer or autumn, then sit on the (?frozen/snow-covered) ground  until spring and then germinate. Which makes me think they took so long to germinate for me because I should have had them in the freezer over winter and sown them in spring. So I’ll try that next time. It has been a real thrill to succeed in growing blueberries from seed as plants are expensive to buy. Thanks RLH!

And that, as far as I can remember, was October. Oh, but I forgot the Girls again. Two eggs a day (and sometimes three), from the four of them. Enough for me and some to share. Self-sufficiency is alive and well.

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The worm farm

December 18, 2014

My worm farm used to live on the south side of the house tucked in behind the water tank, where it was never in direct sun.

After a summer’s day some years ago when the temperature went over 40 C, I discovered all the worms had died. Even though they were in shade, the ambient temperature was apparently just too high. So I installed them under the house where the temperature is lower and doesn’t fluctuate so wildly. It was a good move as 40+ temperatures seem to be the norm in summer now.

There are two worm farms under the house now, both the round, plastic, commercial variety :

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I leave the taps permanently open and the worm juice drips into ice-cream containers. The bucket with the sieve on top is to sieve out any drowned worms or other debris. The worm juice is transferred to a 50 litre plastic drum for storage :

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I use it diluted about 50/50, mainly to water seedlings but will occasionally add a jugful to a wicking box.

The worms work in conjunction with the composting toilet. Each month a bin from the toilet (which has already been sitting in the system composting for 6 months), gets emptied into a compost bay down the back, a tray of worm castings plus worms gets tipped on top and the whole lot is covered in mulched bracken and kept moist. Even though the stuff from the composting toilet is unrecognisable by this stage, the worms go through it and produce a beautiful friable compost.

A worm farm is an essential part of an organic food garden.

September update

October 3, 2014

Good things finally started happening.

For one, the spring equinox occurred on the 21st. That means the sun will speed up on its return to the southern sky and that means more generation from the solar panels (it doesn’t really speed up, what changes is the rate of change. Or something. Don’t worry about it).

And those aforementioned little darlings (the solar panels) turned 1 on the 18th. I forgot to wish them happy birthday or otherwise mark the occasion, because the smart meter wasn’t reconfigured to show solar exports until the 1st of November and all my spreadsheet calculations in regard to solar credits start from there. But I was recording what the panels produced every day up to then, so I know that over the year they produced nearly 4000 kWh and that’s a daily average of 11 kWh. Much more than I would ever use from the grid so it’s not surprising I’m in credit moneywise and expecting to stay there.

It warmed up, too. How nice to be able to shed a few layers of clothing and not have to trek daily to the wood pile for firewood.

The new chook run is finally finished, the coop is ensconced within and all awaits the new occupants :

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The first run had one wall protected by being built against the polyhouse; this new run, although covered with a tarp over the top, was open on both sides. I was really pleased to be able to re-purpose some pine panels (the remains of the original vegetable planter boxes) from down in the back corner and use them to cover one of the sides. They were treated pine which concerned me a bit (the reason for abandoning the original beds), but a neighbour, who’s a vet, said he wouldn’t worry about the chemicals in possible contact with the chooks :

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The various varieties of kale in the big planter boxes suddenly took off. I put a few plastic butterfly look-alikes in amongst them to see if they had any effect on dissuading egg-laying females. I watched as a butterfly hovered near. It flittered and fluttered over the plants, dithered and dathered, hither and thither and finally flew away. Success! I smirked to myself for a couple of hours afterwards until I suddenly thought—maybe it was a male looking for a bit of what you fancy and was so bemused by the multitude of potential lovers that he couldn’t cope with so many to choose from and departed the scene in utter frustration. I haven’t found any butterfly eggs or caterpillars yet, so maybe the phoneys are doing their job :

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Blueberry futures :

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This dark purple variety of kale called Redbor has been in a wicking box on the deck for ages. It’s finally flowering which means I can collect seed :

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The strawberry buckets are covered in flowers. Can’t wait for fresh strawberries on my breakfast cereal :

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I started planting out the first of the tomatoes. Most are going into wicking boxes where I don’t have to worry about constant watering :

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This is Senposai, also called Japanese Greens. It produces huge amounts of foliage which is great for stir fries. Being a brassica, it has the obligatory white butterfly look-alike to guard it :

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The plants in the old wheelbarrow have really taken off. I’m not surprised as I filled it with compost from the bin where I put the stuff from the composting toilet :

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I’ve made a new bed behind one of the rows of wicking boxes. The dwarf nectarine had been there for some time and also some sage and I’ve added some garlic chives and a couple of strawberries. The rabbits don’t usually come this close to the house, but if they do, it’s easy enough to put up a wire fence :

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I’ve planted a Heritage raspberry into one of the hugelkultur beds :

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Down in the food forest, the tamarillos that didn’t ripen earlier are starting to colour up :

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There are a couple of odd coloured ones that look like they’re going to ripen yellow and orange even though all the others on that particular tree are turning from green straight to red. I know a yellow-skinned variety exists; I’ve grown a single plant of it from seed, but it hasn’t flowered yet. I’m wondering if there’s been a gene mutation somewhere in the development of these two fruits. (I’m doing an online genetics course at the moment so my mind is full of mutations…not literally though, I hope) :

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The yacon is starting to appear :

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The comfrey is shooting up again. The Girls will be glad; they love it :

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The basil mint is running rampant. I don’t really like it that much, but I can do the permaculture chop-and-drop thing with it and use it as mulch :

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The redcurrants have come into leaf and there are lots of tiny flower buds forming :

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The cherry is flowering for the first time :

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The Bartlett pear is covered in flowers but its pollinator mate next door doesn’t have a single flower on it, so I’m not sure if it will set fruit  :

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The flowers are so pretty :

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The rabbits love nasturtiums and I can’t grow them unprotected, so I throw a few seeds inside a circle of wire which is protecting a fruit tree. Somewhere in there there’s a Cox’s Orange Pippin apple :

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Yep, there it is :

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Plum futures :

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Apricot futures :

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And possibly, apple futures :

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Chokos sprouting :

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The passionfruit that was hacked to bits to get a new trellis into place around the water tank seems to be none the worse for its ordeal. There won’t be any fruit this year though :

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But there are flower buds on the one over the old chook run :

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And plenty of oranges for a vitamin C hit until the tomatoes ripen :

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The egg situation has been the only flaw in the month. The Girls laid 4 eggs between them at the beginning of the month and haven’t laid since. So I’m buying eggs. Not pleased Girls.

My compost system

December 3, 2012

It seems to be working pretty well now (at least there’s some ‘system’ to it), so I thought I’d share.

It consists of three bins formed from steel mesh panels (90 cm x 70 cm), which I bought at Bunnings (for overseas readers that’s our big-box hardware store). They come in sets of four and were about $25 when I bought them. They’re a lot cheaper and easier than making bins out of timber if you don’t have access to second-hand timber. They come with little corkscrews which you wind around, top and bottom to hold the panels together. I’ve put stakes at each corner as well:


There’s also a compost tumbler…..:


…..and a couple of worm farms under the house, where it’s cool and dark. They get all the kitchen scraps.

…..and also under the house, the composting toilet. Information and photos here.

In the first bin I put the stuff from the composting toilet. For a detailed description of how it works go here.

Every 6 weeks or so, a bin of composted material comes out of the toilet and goes into the left-hand bin of the three. To that I add a tray of worms and worm castings from the worm farm and cover the lot with mulched bracken.  The worms love it and by the time they’ve finished with it, it’s nice and friable with no smell or hint of its origins. I let it sit there for another few months until I’m ready to use it. By that time there might be 3 or 4 month’s worth of toilet compost ready to go.

The second compost bin takes the stuff from the compost tumbler. That consists of lawn clippings from a friend’s garden and the chook poo collected every couple of days from under the night roosts in the coop. All that gets tumbled until it’s too full and heavy to turn and then it’s into the second bin, again with a tray of worms from the worm farm.

The third compost bin takes all the rest of the garden greenery—weeds (no seeds) mulched prunings and bracken and…..more worms.

All three bins are kept moist and covered with plastic sheets, to prevent drying out in summer and leaching of nutrients by rain. If it looks like they’re getting too dry in summer, I give them a spray with the hose.

The compost is used to top up wicking tubs and boxes and the wire rings in the food forest where I grow more annual vegies. I can’t get enough of it. If I had more I’d use it under the fruit trees as well. I’d love to be able to make the cubic metre hot compost heap as it’s taught in permaculture, but I simply can’t amass enough materials all at once.

I make liquid fertiliser in 60 litre plastic rubbish bins by soaking weeds, comfrey, yarrow and anything else green until it rots down. There’s also a supply of worm ‘wee’ from the two worm farms and any excess liquid which is run off from the composting toilet. It’s all working pretty well and I don’t think I’ll ever need to buy bags of manure again. In effect, all the nutrients produced by the system are being continuously recycled through the system.

Global phosphorus security

February 29, 2012

There’s a conference going on in Sydney at the moment addressing issues of phosphorus scarcity and food security. You can read about it here.

Phosphorus supplies are limited and we’re not using it sustainably, in other words we’re not recycling what we use.

Australian soils are low in phosphorus, but this doesn’t bother the native plants, because they’ve evolved all sorts of ways to maximise and recycle what little there is. The plants we grow for food aren’t so adapted—they need good supplies of phosphorus—so in order to grow most crops we need to add superphosphate to agricultural soils.

How can you prepare for ‘peak phosphorus’—the production peak and decline in global phosphorus supplies?

You need to increase phosphorus levels in your food-growing soils to the point where the plants get what they need for healthy growth. Then you need to recycle every bit of food waste and your own body wastes back into that soil. As well as a compost heap, this means, ultimately, a composting toilet. You need to make sure no phosphorus leaves your land.

In the meantime, quietly stash away a few bags of superphosphate in the shed. The price is bound to go up, long before it becomes unavailable (there was an 800 per cent price spike of phosphate commodities in 2008).

In the later stages of collapse it will be valuable to barter with those who didn’t bother to prepare.

There be worms!

January 14, 2008

Today I emptied the bin from the composting toilet. Nothing remarkable in that—I do it once a month. What was remarkable was that there were worms in it. How they got there is a mystery. They were doing a good job though. Already part of the contents was nice and friable.

I should digress here to explain the operation of the system. The composting toilet is a RotaLoo.  It sits below the bathroom floor directly under the toilet. A 10″ diameter pipe (yes, I know we’re metric, but I grew up with feet and inches and I like them) leads from the toilet pedestal into the fully enclosed chamber in which sit, on a rotating turntable, 6 triangular bins, each holding about 30 litres (I know, I know, but I like them better than gallons). As a bin is filled it is covered with organic material, in this case mulched bracken fern, and rotated to the left, thus bringing the next bin into use. The solid material stays in the bin; the liquid filters through holes in the bottom of the bin and into the bottom of the outer chamber. A fan drags air over the system (providing aerobic bacterial breakdown) and evaporates the liquid, leaving a crystalline deposit of urea on the bottom (more on that later). A door on the side of the chamber provides access for changing bins.

The upshot of all this is that it’s physically impossible for any worm to enter the chamber and the bins.

It takes the two of us about a month to fill a bin. The full bin is rotated to the left. Next month, same again. So each full bin stays in the system until it comes round to number one position again, a period of about 6 months, at which time it’s emptied and the empty bin re-enters the system. By that time the contents have composted and the volume has dropped to about 60% of the original. Still doesn’t explain the worms.

In the bathroom, we keep a bowl of organic material with which to cover each ‘deposit’, mainly to provide aeration of the contents. Initially a bale of wood shavings was purchased to do this job. In keeping with the desire to be self-sufficient, I began using mulched bracken fern which grows on the property. It is stored in a large outdoor open bin which also contains compost …….and worms. The bracken sits on top of the compost, acting as a mulch to stop it drying out. There are never any actual worms in the bracken—it’s too dry and open-textured, but there could be worm eggs. That’s the only explanation I can think of. The eggs hatched in the bin and……….there be worms.

On one occasion I actually considered adding worms to a bin as I close it up to be rotated. But I wasn’t sure if they’d survive the contents (pH could be a problem) or the heat that must be produced as breakdown proceeds. I was also worried that they’d get through into the large chamber, drown in the liquid and block up the plastic tube which I use to drain out the liquid.

And this is where I explain “more on that later”. Initially we used the fan all the time. It soon became obvious that it wasn’t evaporating the liquid as fast as we were producing it (probably because the air being dragged over the bins wasn’t warm enough) and liquid was building up in the bottom. So I drilled a small hole in the side of the main chamber and inserted a 5mm plastic tube. I now run off the liquid (nice rich nitrogen fertiliser) and use it diluted 1:10 to water the vegies. (You’ve never seen such green lettuce).  It’s stored in an open bin out in full sunlight. I reckon the UV will dispense with any problematic bacteria. And all the vegies are thoroughly washed before being used.

And the worms seem happy.