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Today I spent about eight hours building a compost heap. That seems like a long time, but, in true permaculture fashion, we never only do one thing, and every element should perform more than one function. So what was the big deal? Well the start point was this.

Compost bins

This picture was taken yesterday. The right bay was finished compost, the center fairly fresh, and the left is still a bit rough, but will be OK for potatoes, squash, and other summer staples.

Compost binsThis is the last of the finished compost. I could have left it in place, and put the new heap in the middle bay, but the lack of rain has left the top of some of the raised beds dry, and adding the compost will help to stop any topsoil from blowing away.

Compost binsThe center bay was fairly empty, and was mainly chicken poop, straw, soil, and some dog poop. Actually, there was quite a bit of dog poop, and it was obvious when moving it across to the right bay, that the worms were really concentrated in the layers where the dog poop was laid against soil. This edge must have been ideal for the worms, as there were lots of baby worms,and coccoons.

Compost binsSo yesterday’s work finished with the finished compost spread, the fresh material moved to the right, and the coarse compost left in place.

Compost Bin

Today was all about experiments. We have been experimenting with keeping our ducks on deep litter since about November, and it needed to be emptied. I also wanted to incorporate some of the Chinese composting techniques that were described in ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’. One of those was the use of canal mud as an additive to compost. The mud contained silt, and nutrients, which helped to maintain the fertility of their fields, despite the intensity of their agriculture. I don’t have any canals, but I do have a duck pond, which is simply a shallow hole dug into a clay subsoil. The ducks wash their beaks in the water, filling it with a clay mud, and particles of food.

Duck pondThis is a picture of the pond, after I emptied most of the water. The water wasn’t wasted, but moved by bucket, and put into a tank close to the compost heaps, so that I could use it to water the heap while I was building it. The really dark stuff is the smelly mess that they make.

Water TankThe picture above is the water tank. It had already been used to soak some straw, which formed the base of the new compost heap. Below is a picture of the ‘tools of the trade’. Note the size of the mug, it was going to be a long day.

Pond Emptying Tools

As well as the duck bedding, and pond muck, I have been ‘drowning’ horse manure for a few months. Again, this is a technique described in ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’.  The Chinese would keep their organic matter, and humanure, in containers/tanks/holes filled with water, and let it rot. It would then be layered with the canal mud, or earth, allowed to dry, and then be powdered for spreading. My version is a little different. I’ve kept the horse manure soaking in three dustbins. Now that my supplier has got her horse back from ‘training’, I’ll need more space to continue this method.

Horse manure soaked in waterThe bulk of the day was spent shifting barrowloads of duck bedding. The pictures  below show the duck house after about a third of the bedding had been shifted.

Duck house with deep beddingDuck house with deep bedding

The picture below shows how deep the bedding was, and how the bottom layers had started to be broken down by microbes, in situ. As the bedding was added to over the Winter, I added layers of soil. This was partly to introduce microbes, but also to help in the humification process.

Duck house with deep beddingThis is what was doing the decomposition.

Fungi in StrawThe middle layers were quite hard to dig out, held together with fungi. The bedding had damp areas, and dry. The fungi have an advantage over bacteria, in that they can transport moisture from the damp areas, through the hyphae, and use it to help digest straw in the dry areas.

The picture below shows the empty duck house. You can see how deep the bedding became, by looking at the ‘tide mark’ that it left. Almost as mucky as my shirt collar after eight hours of hard graft.

Duck house with deep beddingIn all, there were 30 barrow loads of bedding to be shifted.

The heap was built by using 5 barrow loads of straw, then a thin layer of retted horse manure, another five barrow loads of straw, and a layer of mud. Then repeat. When the last load of straw  was added, the heap looked like this.

Compost HeapThe idea was NOT to create a hot heap. Much of the straw had already been partially broken down by the fungi. The horse manure, and the mud, were partly to add a different set of nutrients, but mainly to help hold enough moisture within the heap, to allow the fungi to finish their job. The clay within the soil will also help to create a more stable humus, as the humus binds to the clay particles.

The final part of the process was to add final layer of retted horse manure, and then cap it all with a layer of pond mud. This took the pond from this…

Empty Duck PondTo this..

Empty Duck PondTo give this…

Finished Compost HeapSo in true permaculture fashion, my compost heap building gave me a whole bunch of benefits. A cleaned out duck house. A cleaner, deeper, wider, duck pond. Another 30 barrow loads of straw, 7 barrow loads of retted horse manure, and 10 barrow loads of pond mud, added to a new compost heap. Finally, a compost experiment, to see how the materials react together, using old techniques.

Not a bad days work.