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A Window On My World

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Green Cone Composter

Over the years, I have had several compost piles of assorted shapes, sizes, and configurations. The first one, when I was much younger, was a super-duper one that Husband/Best Friend/Chief Photographer made for me with large, heavy, wooden pallets made of strong oak wood. There were three bins lined up side-by-side. Two were one pallet square, but the Number One bin was larger, because at first there is a greater amount of organic material which gradually breaks down and shrinks smaller and smaller.

He wired them all together with plastic-coated clothesline wire. In order to make the first bin largest of the three, he made the end wall with two pallets instead of one. It buckled or budged out at the side, but the front edge of the last pallet came back toward the front which was just one pallet wide. I could loosen the wire holding the front pallet, swing it out of the way and pull all that pile out, work it over and toss it back in to give it a good aeration and chopping.

After a few turnings, it went into the middle bin, because by then the volume was less, and because that bin was smaller it would be full. Each time I turned and stirred the material, it was given a new dose of oxygen, and the particles were bruised, broken, and smashed making it easier for bacteria to infiltrate the cells, all of which enabled the fungi, bacteria, and creepy crawlies to multiply and work away happily. In the meanwhile, bin Number One was vacant again and ready to start receiving new trimmings and pullings plus anything else that came available.

Each time I turned the contents of bin Number Two (the middle bin), the volume of material decreased markedly. Finally, it was transferred to bin Number Three where it was allowed to sit until I was ready to use it.

While it was waiting it would break down a little more, but mostly it was finished and cooled down. Earth Worms moved into it and contributed their processing. They were the largest, fattest earthworms you ever saw, and husky, strong, long night-crawlers that looked almost like small snakes. Rolly-pollies, pill bugs, sow bugs (whatever you want to call them), did the same. I removed the compost with my hands, because I did not want to injure them with metal tools. They were my helpers.

I tried to keep all three bins covered to prevent nutrients from being leached out. Smelling like fresh mushrooms, or a wood on a rainy day, the finished product was a mix of fine and coarse material. I could use it as it was, or sift it and separate the two qualities.

Early on, I realized that it was dangerous to breath the air full of spores as the compost was tossed about. I could tell I was getting an allergic reaction to it, so face masks became part of my garden paraphernalia.

Early spring or late winter one year, I discovered a lovely butterfly on one of the pallet walls. I had never seen one like that before. I identified it by looking in a book and learned that it was the Mourningcloak butterfly, and that they are, frequently, the first to appear in early spring. Sometimes they hibernate in a protected spot until spring sunshine warms them; then they can move. I think it had hibernated somewhere in all that compost bin contraption. When I found it, the butterfly had walked into the sunshine and was sitting there taking a sunbath and collecting solar warmth for its whatever they have in the place of bones.

A few feet from the bins I planted two or three (I forget which.) McDonald rhubarb plants. As Dr. Spock's book had been my guide for caring for our babies, Organic Gardening Magazine was my guide for caring for my garden. I followed their instructions faithfully. Their article about growing rhubarb said to mulch it twice a year with compost. So, that is what they got, good homemade compost. They grew huge and delicious. (Note: I did not put rhubarb leaves in the compost pile, because of the oxalic acid crystals they contain. I did not want it to build up in the compost.)

I grew up in the south and rhubarb was not a plant of the south. I had never tasted it until I was grown and had a family. One year we flew all six of us to California to visit friends and relatives. A friend's wife served rhubarb crisp for dessert. One bite and I thought I had died and gone to heaven! They showed me the plant. I had never seen one before; it was small and had stems about the size of a pencil but longer.

Years later when our friend visited us something was said about me putting compost on my rhubarb. When he saw my rhubarb plants he said, "B...., you don't need to put compost on rhubarb that is that big!" My retort was, "It is that big, because I put compost on it."

We moved from that property to this one and I have had multiple compost piles here of different shapes and sizes and contents. Over the years mounds and mounds of compost have been used here in the garden.

Now, that I am older and not able to do all that physical work, I have scaled down hugely. My current favorite compost maker is one I ordered from a catalog years ago. In the catalog it was listed as the Green Cone Composter. I did an Internet search and noticed that it is now being called Solar Digester, but it looks just like mine.

There is a round plastic basket that is buried in the earth. It looks very similar to a plastic laundry basket with open spaces where earthworms can move in and excess moisture can drain out. There is a black plastic liner inside the green cone, and screws attach the top parts to the basket. There is a matching green cover attached by a flap of leather so the lid can be lifted and/or flipped off. Scraps or trimmings can be dropped in, and the lid replaced.

I do not put animal material in it other than egg shells, and once or twice I poured in some soured milk. It is surprising how much it heats up inside. This one gets morning and midday sun. Even in the wintertime, when I lift the lid, I feel warm air puff out. In summertime, it is steamy. That is why I want the lid to stay on and in place, and why I was so vexed with the raccoons that kept opening it and letting it cool down and allowing rain to enter.

During the process of having our old roof replaced several years ago, roofers had to remove the old shingles, and falling shingles broke the lid. The leather flap was torn in two, and the lid had a big crack across it. I picked it up and put it back on, but rain could go through the crack and the heat could escape. I had a difficult time finding something that would fit over it. The diameter of the top was not the only problem; the cone shape itself posed a challenge because it gets larger as the lid fits down on it. I tried several pots and pans. Finally, I tried the pan section of an old cold-water humidifier. It fit, but eventually another family of raccoons discovered they could knock it off.

Now, I had to go back to trying a brick or stone on top of it. In time, it too developed a leaky crack and rain was getting inside. I didn't want my compost nutrients depleted by rainwater washing through and flushing them out.

Again, it had reached the point that I had to find another lid and throw away the old broken humidifier pan. The lid needed to be something waterproof, that would accommodate the expanding girth of the cone, and something that raccoons could not pull off.

I guess they could still dig into the ground and into the basket. Before, when they did that, I moved the dirt back into the hole and placed rocks where they dug before. As you can see in the photograph, my solution was a plastic bucket trug. I had them in three colors: red, blue, and purple. I rather like purple, so there it is; and purple and green are a pretty good combination... at least one I can live with.

(It looks blue in the photo, but it is really purple.)

All summer I have let the compost rest and finish up. No new material was added. It is ready to harvest.

While that was going on, I utilized an old metal garbage can with a rusted out bottom. It collected all the new contributions from the house and a little from the garden. I hope to empty the Green Cone Composter (G.C.C.) soon, then move the summer's collection from the garbage can into it.

I am considering adding composting red worms to the G.C.C. I am thinking, if it becomes too warm or too cool inside, they can burrow into the ground. If any of you who have experience with vermicomposting have any thoughts on that, I would appreciate your input.

Photos of Morningcloak Butterfly in different stages.dividerdivider


Gardening By Mistake said...

I would be surprised if there aren't "native" worms already taking advantage of that nice food supply (and winter warmth). Regardless, I think some composting worms would do fine in that. Many people who have other kinds of composting contraptions end up using them primarily as worm bins once the worms move in.

You are right that if the worms get too hot or too cold they will move to a more comfortable temperature amd return when the compost is in their preferred temperature range. Even if your worms did not survive the winter (and at least some should, with the heat generated by the composting materials), they will leave enough cocoons to repopulate the compost in the spring.

If you have a friend who has horses, ask them to dig into a pile of aged manure. It is very likely you will find those exact red worms (Eisenia fetida) and it won't cost you anything!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen that kind of composter before. I like that you have been creative with finding new lids for it instead of just junking it.

Ewa said...

This is a good post, because shows different ways of composting. It is important for the 'compost newcomers' to see different ways :)

Cindy said...

I have never seen or heard of this composter before. I like the sounds of it though if it keeps the rain from leaching out the nutrients. That is the one problem I run in to big time with my compost piles during the winter when it never stops raining. This spring our piles were taken over by what looks like red worms (I have a worm bin full of them)and they have done a wonderful job in our compost. I would say go ahead and add them. They have done wonders to mine.

mary said...


A good read about your experience with composting techniques. The green cone is a nice find - I, too, am looking for some less-heavy-lifting ways to manage compost these days and this looks good. Its design also gives ideas for building something similar from scratch.

Your purple trug is a perfect solution to the lid and it's beautiful. :-)

Mother Nature said...

There is nothing like a little black gold to enrich the garden. I'm amazed at the different kinds of composters. Thanks for sharing yours.

Lottie Wannabe said...

I was very interested to read your post about composting which is usually considered to be the dull side of gardening. I'm a big fan of composting and do what I can in my small garden. I love reading about the various things that can go in compost heaps. Apparently elephant dung works wonders, but it is in short supply in the UK where I live!

Barbee' said...

gardening by mistake (Missouri, U.S.A.): I appreciate your taking the time to explain this. I did go to your blog and read your article which was just what I needed to know. Sigh... you would think that, as I live in Kentucky, I surely would know a horse person, but alas, I do not.

Perennial Garden Lover (Virginia, U.S.A.): I was lucky to find some things that worked for the lid. I was determined to get it back into production.

ewa (Poland): Bless your heart, I never thought of it that way. I was just telling my story.

cindy (Oregon, U.S.A.): Thank you for the encouragement. Yes, it is difficult to keep out the rain. Those large tarps were not easy to handle and keep in place. Of course this little one cannot hold a lot as a large pile can, I mostly just put kitchen scraps in it. I like that it is close to the door and I can stay on the brick when I step out there.

Mary (Panama): Thank you. I hope you can find something to make composting easier for you. Sometimes, I just tuck trimmings up under a large shrub, or behind a large plant out of sight.

Mother Nature (Tennessee, U.S.A.): Black gold it is, you are correct there.

Lottie Wannabe (England): Elephant dung... I would think so! :0 I have heard that when the circus comes to town, people go down there and collect the elephants' contributions.

Cindy said...

I forgot to mention in my comment yesterday that your poppies as just beautiful! I love the frilliness of them.

Barbee' said...

cindy (Oregon, U.S.A.): Thank you. I love them, too. Sometimes, I get the grandchildren to scatter the seeds for me. They remind me of pepper shakers. The flowers are voluptuous, I think. I have tried to get them to spread down the bank, but a groundhog keeps eating them.

Sunita said...

Great post, Barbee. The idea of a basket with holes for earthworms to move in and out is a good one. Surprisingly I havent seen any composters at all that can be easily used around here. Those who do consciously compost , usually build their own either with cement or by digging a pit and hardening the sides with fresh cowdung (yes, it is still widely used as a building material in most rural/ agricultural places in India). This obviously doesnt translate into easy-to-use, so your idea is really worth trying out.

Barbee' said...

Sunita (India): That is so interesting, Sunita. One uses what one has available. But, it surprises me, for I would think the composting bacteria would compost the dung. Maybe it does over time, and when the compost is harvested, the sides have to be dressed again. Isn't it interesting to read about all the different types and styles of composters all over the world.

Kathleen said...

That looks like a composter I could handle ~ most of them look too big and like a LOT of work. I would fall into that "composter newbie" category. You always have such good information in your posts Barbee. I steered my Mom to your blog when you posted about burying a teapot in the ground for the bumblebees ~ she is going to do that this fall in hopes of attracting a nest next spring.

Barbee' said...

Kathleen (Colorado, U.S.A.): Thank you for the positive feedback. And, hello to your mom. Hope a queen bumblebee finds her teapot-quarters: Available to first arrival.

JGH said...

Very educational post. It's hard to get the perfect compost. Mine always seems too wet/dry, smell/buggy, or hot/cool.

Your comment about the spores and allergies have me thinking about my sometimes mysterious reactions to gardening....

Barbee' said...

JGH (New York, U.S.A.): Thank you. I had to smile when reading your comment. When I first visited my allergist after taking the scratch test, she told me to stay away from: house dust, leaves and grass! I have been taking the shots for approximately 15 years. They have helped me a tremendously.