How to build a tumbling composter

When I first moved into my current home last August, I really wanted to compost. I built a bin out of wire fencing that I bought through craigslist and constructed a cylinder of sorts using concrete blocks (my favorite gardening material at the time, if you look back).

See? Concrete blocks work for everything.

We didn’t do the best job keeping up throughout the winter… we’d bought some sort of specialized kitchen container for compost from Ikea, filled it a few times and found the kitchen smelly. Eventually I was carrying out compost on the most random occasions, when it suddenly came to mind or when someone I was making dinner with asked what they should do with the onion skins.

I was surprised when, this spring, the volume in the bin had actually shrunk (something it is supposed to do, as organic matter breaks down and transforms brown and green waste into healthy soil).

You’ll have to trust me, the pile is totally smaller.

But even so, I knew the system wasn’t perfect. The bin was in the back, at the alley, near the trash and recycling. My well-intentioned but somewhat lazy household of roommates cycling in and out would do better with something right outside the door (which incidentally opens to the kitchen). And my beautiful but perhaps temporary garden would do better with compost that finishes quickly. Out of this, my job (as local foods outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota’s Student Organic Farm), and the public community education system (I taught a class about it last weekend), our tumbling composter was born.

Tumbling compost barrels create usable compost, called humus, after three weeks to six months — a long range, but a much shorter time nonetheless than the one to three years that a regular compost bin produces. This is because in order for the waste that compost is made of to break down, it must be turned, about once a week, with a pitchfork.

These handy devices can be bought. I recently saw one for $79.99. They can also be made. To my surprise, it was incredibly easy.

And isn’t it pretty?

Here’s how to build it.

You’ll need (materials in parentheses optional):
Plastic drum / trashcan / etc.
PVC pipe / metal pole / etc.
Six 2 x 4 pieces of all-weather lumber
Sheet metal ¼ the length of the barrel
Two knobs
Nails
Hammer
Electric drill
(Carpenter square)
(Permanent glue)
(Three hinges)
Bolts

1. Build the base. Place two pieces of lumber so that they form an X. Use the carpenter square to make sure they are square, then nail the pieces together in the center. Repeat this with two more of the boards. You now have the two ends of your compost tumbler base.

2. Support the base. Stand one of the “X” ends up then attach the remaining board to one of the legs and attach the other end of the board to the bottom of the second “X” end. Repeat with the last board and to the back of the base (see below how it fits together).

3. Make your barrel spin-able. Turn the barrel on its end. Drill a hole slightly larger than the diameter of your pipe or pole in the center. Repeat with the other side of the drum. Slide the metal pole inside the drum to act as an axle so the drum can spin.

4. Make the door. Put the barrel back on its side and cut a rectangular hole in it. Save the piece of plastic you removed. Attach three hinges equidistant apart on the drum at the top of the hole you just cut. Glue one knob to the plastic piece you cut and another to the drum itself opposite the hinge side.

(We actually did something much simpler: just cut three sides of the door, attached one knob on the outside, and are holding it shut with duct tape, which must be refreshed from time to time.)

5. Make a mixing fin. Bend the piece of sheet metal in to an “L” shape. Use the drill and bolts to attach the fin inside the drum on the opposite side of the door.

(We actually skipped this step, but it seems like something that wouldn’t be hard to add at any point.)

6. Assemble your composter. Place your new composter on the “X” base you created in and check how well it spins on the axle. Paint the drum a dark color if it is not already; this will help content heat up and speed up the process.

Finished composter, community education workshop participants standing proudly.

Side note: I imagine you could doctor this design in many ways. For instance, we thought adding some support at the top of the Xs might be a good idea.

7. Use it! Fill the tumbling composter with compostable material. Add water to the drum to moisten the contents. Turn the composter a few times to mix the ingredients and continually check on and tumble the compost. Put it outside your kitchen door — you’ll be much more likely to use it.

And there you have it. Stay tuned for more composting fun — I’m getting into building with pallets.

Happy spring!

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Growing microgreens inside or out

As time goes on and I continue to neglect this blog, I keep learning new techniques, experimenting, and thinking, “this would be really great to post…” but never doing it. With that in mind, I bring you some practical knowledge I’ve fostered this winter.

I’ve been leading some workshops on “winter gardening” in the past few months, focused mostly on growing microgreens, which, if you don’t know, are the first true leaves of a seedling. Also known as cotyledons. Microgreens can be any of several plants — beets, chard, radishes, arugula, broccoli, Asian greens, spinach, mizuna, the list goes on — harvested and eaten before they have the chance to grow past that first seedling stage.

Microgreens are delicious, super nutritious (broccoli sprouts are supposed to be a cancer fighting superfood), and possibly the easiest thing to grow inside. In December, I became convinced that I could grow microgreens at home, in my bedroom — and after a few experimental trays, I proved myself right. The weather is turning and I don’t think anyone could call in winter anymore, but you can still grow these delicious little greens inside (and out)…

Most of the techniques I describe here can also be used to start seedlings inside for your garden this season, with a few variations.

My first sad, spindly shoots

The best advice I can offer for growing inside, the thing I must stress the most, is lighting lighting lighting. I tried to grow these little guys by a south-facing window and it just didn’t work. The seedlings were long and spindly, kept reaching toward the light but were never able to get enough. I discovered that this is because glass windows scatter the small amount of natural light beaming in from outside. A greenhouse works because it’s made of special material that doesn’t do this.

So how to light? The best value lightbulb you can get for a makeshift grow light is a cool white fluorescent. They cost $3 each at your local hardware store, and are ideal for green growth, which is all you need for microgreens and shoots (slightly bigger than “micro,” often a pea or sunflower plant). The way I light my plants (pictured here) is with one of these lightbulbs along with a reflector, also purchased at the hardware store, maybe $6.

my beautiful, functioning light set-up

The light should be on 12-14 hours a day. Since mine are in my bedroom, I turn the light on when I get up and go to work and turn it off when I go to sleep. It’s not an exact science. You can also use a timer if you’d prefer not to think about it. Obviously, if you’re growing outside, don’t worry about lighting — the sun will provide.

Containers. Since I’m lucky enough to have access to plant propagation trays, I use those for my microgreens. They’re simple black plastic trays with some holes in the bottom that are meant to be filled with soil and sown with seeds. These are available lots of places — garden stores, online — but if you have an extra take-out or yogurt container, you also don’t really need one. Just wash it out, poke some holes at the bottom, and you’re good to go.

black plastic tray

I’ve always heard that drainage is important. You can use any of a variety of containers to grow plants, but making sure that there are holes on the bottom is key. As a disclaimer, a friend did tell me she grew microgreens in a frisbee this winter — no holes — and it worked fine.

For starting seeds, it’s convenient for transplanting purposes to use trays with cells, or, if you’re being creative, things like used little yogurt containers and egg cartons.

SoilYou only need an inch or two of soil — no need for the 6 inches or so suggested for container gardening of mature plants. Since you’re harvesting at a stage where seedlings are small, root development doesn’t really become an issue. If you’re growing inside, use potting soil, as pure as you can find. The soil from outside in your garden has microbes in it that interact with their outside environment but that won’t fit with an inside one. That being said, I see no harm in trying it. If it fails, you’ve only lost a week or two in microgreen production.

The soil situation with seed starting is the opposite, because root development is very important. If you’re starting seeds, use plenty of soil.

Watering. Water your greens every few days — keep the soil moist, but not saturated. Best methods are a fine mist watering can, spray bottle, or bottom watering: putting a tray under your container, putting water in the tray, and leaving it there for 45 minutes or so.

Harvesting. Last time, I harvested my greens after a week. Literally seven days. Cut off toward the base of the stem, being careful not to get any dirt, with a pair of scissors. Empty your tray into the compost bin, add new soil and plant again — you’ll have new greens for next week in no time! And in the meantime, make a salad, top a burger, and make pesto.

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My interview with Courtney Tchida, University of Minnesota Student Organic Farm Manager

I recently began working for Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture with Cornercopia Student Organic Farm at the University of Minnesota.

My days are spent with Courtney Tchida, Cornercopia’s farm manager, MISA’s student programs coordinator, and long-time permaculture advocate. For this interview, we decided to take our lunch at Campus Club, the University’s exclusive bar and dining service and the farm’s biggest customer. Over my locally sourced caprese with butternut squash and tortellini salad, I asked Courtney what permaculture means for her and how she got interested in it.

Sophomore year of college at the U, Courtney was taking a cropping systems class with Bud Markhart, who now regularly teaches the spring semester “farm class” with Courtney – “Organic Farm Planning, Growing and Marketing.” She was going to miss two days of class for a feminist spirituality conference, so Bud gave her an alternative assignment: to find out what a feminist spiritual crop system might look like. Courtney had already read spiritualist writer Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, a dystopic novel set in California in 2048, in the midst of ecological collapse – and searching the author’s website for inspiration for the assignment, she discovered permaculture. Now she defines it simply and sweetly –as a design system that works with nature rather than fights nature.

How did she get involved with PRI?

Courtney was a part of PRI since the very beginning. Around 2001, Courtney met Paula Westmoreland at the Minnesota Landscape Association Annual Meeting. They were sitting next to each other during a presentation – one of those where you have to stop and talk to a person next to you – and it was Paula. After that, Paula, who worked at Ecological Gardens, would pick up from the Native Landscaping nursery where Courtney was working at the time.

“The Permaculture Collaborative” was later formed from a group of people, including Courtney and Paula, who attended an introduction to permaculture workshop at Bruce Bacon’s farm and decided to meet every few months. Courtney was the events coordinator for this collaborative, which would later become PRI.

A PRI work & learn back in 2007

Now, Courtney is an important part of PRI’s urban farming certification program. I asked Courtney what classes she’ll be teaching this time.

It turns out she will be teaching quite a few: the first will be an overview of crops and tips for successful growing, the second on preparing, planning, and planting your site, the third will look at companion planting, rotations and successions, and the fourth will be on business planning. In addition, she will hold a few practicums on the farm during the summer, and will teach a class with her husband Don about building farm tools, which participants will take home.

What are the differences between working with urban farmers and working with U students?

Summer interns from the U working the farm

One feeds the other. Everything she learns from working with students and the farm she shares with the general public – through PRI. It makes a good match, because part of MISA’s mission is to share resources and information with the public. Teaching PRI classes is how Courtney does that.

Courtney told me that in previous year she’s done various presentations on specific methodologies – organic, biodynamic, SPIN – but that in her classes now, all of these methodologies will be incorporated rather than separated. This led me to my next question: How does permaculture as a methodology fit into the larger local/sustainable agriculture movement?

According to Courtney, permaculture is so deeply engrained that it’s hard to separate it. She sees permaculture as more of a context – more of the ethics played out than a strict set of guidelines or rules. “The guiding principles can be interpreted in so many ways. In a lot of ways everything we’re doing is permaculture.”

Permaculture embodies that there is no one right way to do things. In contrast, organic farming tends to be more prescriptive (think of those strict organic certification standards). “Permaculture is looking at your situation from all the different angles, making the connections from all the pieces.”

What about Courtney’s permaculture plans?

Keyhole block at the farm

At the farm, she wants to implement an effective perennial guild system. This will start happening this spring.

On a personal level, she wants to keep finding ways to integrate permaculture into her life, and would be really interested in engaging her three-and-a-half year-old son in permaculture in a semi-structured way.

My last question was: Do you have a favorite permaculture principle?

The answer: The problem is the solution – the solution is embedded in the problem, you just have to look at it in a different way.

Asked for any last thoughts, Courtney said, “Permaculture is one of the few world-views you can have that embraces the ‘we’re doomed’ idea but also has a positive message that you can only do what you can do, and that’s all you can do. Some days that’s a lot and some days that’s a little, and it just has to be okay.”

She then left me with a quote from Andrew Light, an environmental philosopher at NYU. “Having hope and trying to do something, even in the face of disappointing odds and tremendous problems, is not naïve optimism. It is our best choice. It is our only choice.”

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Autumn: a new era

It’s been awhile… September has been filled with harvest all over the region, a killer frost or two, and exciting plans for the future. In the coming week, I hope to plant garlic in my yard for harvest next summer and some cold weather crops for winter, figure out a cheap and easy way to mulch them, and attend PRI’s urban farming graduation ceremony followed by a harvest party hosted by Growing Lots — oof!

So look forward to a post or two about these exciting events, and prepare yourselves for the future of this blog: your ability to post to it. If ever you have anything you’d like to share, simply comment on a post with your email and we’ll add you to the list of contributors, at which point you can submit a post at any time. Anything about permaculture, especially in the region, is welcome — whether you want to brag about your farm, enlighten us about cool things you do at home, tell us about a book or article, spread the news about local events and programs, etc., etc.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a quote.

“A sustainable community is designed in such a way that its ways of life, business, economy, physical structures and technologies do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.” — Fritjof Capra (read the article here).

Hope to hear from you all.

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How to build a raised bed with cinder blocks

This is actually an extremely easy thing to do. Last week I moved into a new place in the Powderhorn neighborhood, where the soil is rumored to be full of arsenic. Not wanting to bother to test for it before I got my seedlings out of their bursting trays, I decided to go ahead and build a raised bed before I even unpacked my boxes (still not done).

So I set about searching the internet for instructions on how to complete my task (for more basic info about raised beds check this out), and I came across the idea of using cinder blocks. It’s got to be the cheapest, easiest method: 10 cinder blocks cost me around $12 at Menards (my new favorite store), where I also picked up some potting soil and compost. These sat in my front yard in a pile as my roommates and I hauled couches, tables, and our various things into the house.

A few days later, I managed to find the time and enlist the help of my roommate to choose a sunny spot, arrange the blocks, and make the thing. It took about 20 minutes. I arranged the blocks in a square, intending to create an area that was about nine square feet, 8 inches deep. The blocks I used were 8 x 8 x 16, making for easy math. To grow, plants need about six inches of good soil, so the eight inches the blocks provide are pretty ideal. Below you’ll see my roommate, Jennie, arranging the blocks and mixing soil and compost with her feet (super fun!).

Then as I began to transplant my seedlings, the adorable neighborhood kids came over to help. We planted basil, cilantro, dill, green onions and peppers I had started in a greenhouse. I tried to vary the placement, putting basil next to peppers and dill next to onions in an effort to companion plant. (Companion planting had worked out so well in my herb spiral that I was encouraged to continue. As you can see, it’s exploding). Even though we planted two basil plants per hole (because basil likes to grow with a friend), my two trays were nowhere near used up and I was able to give some to my helpers, who excitedly put them in a pot to take home.

Building this garden was so simple, and produced such a positive reaction around me, I was (still am) amazed. Maybe it was the kids: they had never done anything like this before, and they were so excited to learn how, to dig in the dirt and take home plants of their own.

This week I may build another, and I encourage anyone who likes food, the outdoors, and/or cute neighborhood children to do the same.

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My interview with Northfield’s Paul Sebby: Transition Towns, time banks and energy efficiency

This week I got the chance to speak with Paul Sebby, a Transition Town activist and permaculture homesteader.

Paul got into permaculture through Transition Towns, a movement “comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis” (quoted from Transition U.S.)

After reading about peak oil and energy efficiency during his spare time, Paul became exposed to Rob Hopkins’s work, and jumped aboard the movement. An interest in permaculture followed as Paul found out about PRI and started attending events and workshops. He discovered the way permaculture systems tie into the Transition Town shift to a post peak oil world by mimicking natural systems that are more resilient and diverse than those dominating our current society.

When I asked what appeals to him most about permaculture, Paul referred to this resiliency and diversity, as well as the way permaculture systems, like natural ones, tend to move energy in a circular, sustainable way. Paul also personally values the community that PRI has created. By participating in workshops and going to other people’s land, he said, he’s learned lessons more valuable than he ever could have from reading or hearing about them. Permaculture for him is about the community of like-minded people, just as much as it is about polycultures and perennials.

An Energy-Efficient Home

The foundation of a wood-burning cob oven Paul is building

In keeping with the sustainable ideals of the Transition and permaculture movements, Paul, his wife and daughter bought a 5-acre piece of property about four years ago, located six miles outside of Northfield, with a goal to build an energy efficient house and practice permaculture. In 2007, they worked with an architect to design the house, which includes solar panels and a geothermal heating and cooling system.

This system runs liquid through tubes that are buried 8 feet in the ground. The earth, whose temperature remains fairly constantly at 50 degrees Farenheit, acts as a source for heat in the winter and as a sink in the summer. Electricity powers the heat pump to move heat from the earth into buildings (or out of buildings into the earth) with an efficiency up to 4 times higher than fuel-burning heating systems.

Paul has started doing permaculture on his land by planting the beginnings of an edible forest garden. Having seen Dave Jacke speak at a PRI event, Paul took to heart that “the most important thing is to start considering the highest canopy level first,” deciding which larger trees will be used and considering spacing as an important factor.

A Northern Pecan Paul planted as part of his edible forest garden's top canopy

He began by planting chestnut, butternut, pecan and pawpaw trees, and has since planted medium and lower level shrubs, including seaberries, hardy kiwis, elderberries, and juneberries. Someday his system will include plant guilds, but it’s something he hasn’t gotten to quite yet.

Trellissed hardy kiwis, part of the forest garden's lower level

Paul and his family don’t fully live off their land on an isolated homestead – rather, they value their community in Northfield and are quite involved in the sustainability movement there. They wanted land to develop the way they wanted, but were never after total self-sufficiency. Already familiar with Northfield through Carleton College, they picked a spot that was nearby in order to stay connected.

Transition Northfield

Paul’s connection to the community involves acting as an agent for change through the Transition movement. Paul was a founder of the movement in Northfield, which is now the only official Transition Town in Minnesota.

Upon their arrival, there was already a sustainability group in town called the Center for Sustainable Living. Paul joined it and introduced the Transition Town idea. In 2009 the group planned and hosted a Transition Town training workshop hosted by certified permaculture instructors Bill and Becky Wilson.

Since then the group has continued to host events in town – movies on peak oil and local food, a tomato canning workshop, a chicken coop building workshop in which they built a chicken coop in a community member’s backyard, and several earth day celebrations that brought together other sustainability groups in Northfield. Their biggest event, attended by over 200 people, took place last November, when they hosted a talk by Richard Heinberg who spoke about issues surrounding peak oil and climate change, and how it all ties in to the economy.

Transition Northfield's Earth Day celebration this spring

Now they are in the process of setting up a community exchange system that allows community members to exchange goods and services without using money. Paul, a professional computer programmer, has created a web-based software program that allows people to post what they have to offer, search through other offers and contact the poster directly. The program will keep track of account balances in a time bank, and purchasing power will be measured in “time dollars” rather than money.

The system will start this week among the group, and expand to the larger community within the next couple of months.

You can stay up to date on what the group is up to through their website, http://transitionnorthfield.org/.

Paul’s perspective and story is compelling to me, as someone who someday wants to live sustainably, and also values the power of the community. It shows how integrated those two things can really be, though sometimes they seem to be at odds. Self-sufficiency often requires living on land that’s far removed from any community, due to cost, taxes, and regulations. Meanwhile, living in the city can mean giving up the space one might want to grow vegetables, keep animals and build solar panels. Paul’s story shows me that community is a vital resource: it’s through the permaculture community that he’s been learning the best ways to grow food on his property, and through the Transition Town community that Northfield is empowering itself to thrive.

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How to compost with worms: vermiculture

Composting is great. It’s a fairly simple and easy part of a sustainable lifestyle: It cuts down on your landfill contributions, creates usable nutrients for growing plants, and as I’ve been learning recently, you can do it while you play with worms.

I’m working with an organization called YEA Corps this summer. YEA does youth programming with the Minnesota Internship Center, an alternative high school in the twin cities. The high school kids work with an aquaponics system (if you don’t know what that is, you really must check it out, it’s awesome — I’ll have to post about it soon), grow mushrooms in buckets, and manage the vermiculture set-up.

Part of my internship involves taking over the vermiculture project for the summer: I’m evaluating the systems in place, improving them in any way possible, and writing guidelines so the project can be replicated as YEA Corps implements more programs.

So a plus of this whole thing, among several, is that I’m learning about how to create a compost that works well inside throughout the harsh Minnesota winter. (Season extension! Permaculture!) And I’d love to share it with you.

Basically, you take a bin.

Drill a hole into the side of the bin, at the bottom, so that you can drain the worm juice into plastic containers (pictured right). This will keep the bin from getting too wet, and produces an extremely concentrated liquid fertilizer.

Put about 4 inches of peat moss, shredded coconut hulls, finished compost, or coffee grounds on the bottom of the bin. If the material seems too dry, add water to dampen it.

Over this bottom layer add a cupful of fine sand.

Now come the worms. Add your worms — these will be red wriggler worms, available at a variety of places, including the Recycling Association of Minnesota, Laverme’s Worms (they actually sell whole kits), Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm (not local, but a priceless name), and of course, craigslist.

On top of the worms sprinkle a handful of sand, and then a handful of crushed or ground-up eggshells.

After that, add a couple of inches of bedding. Possibilities include dry leaves, sphagnum moss, wood shavings, and unbleached paper towels.

And cover everything with black plastic sheeting. See below.

And there you go! A worm composting bin that will yield you high-nutrient compost year-round.

Now: a few maintenance tips.

  1. The ideal temperature of the bin is 45 to 60 degrees Farenheit.
  2. Always bury uncomposted food (the stuff you are adding) under a couple of inches of the “compost matrix” (worms + compost).
  3. Leave the plastic jugs with worm juice uncovered. Continual exposure to the air will keep it from smelling bad.

Good & Bad Worm Food

Good worm food is fruits, vegetables, fruit and vegetable peelings and cores, crushed up eggshells (they provide calcium which enhances the nutrient content of the compost), and any meat that hasn’t been left out.

Bad worm food is meat that’s been sitting out in the open air, white flour, fried foods, processed foods, any food with a lot of preservatives, and most non-water liquids.

How to Get & Use Your Compost

The compost that a vermiculture system produces is extremely dense and fertile. It looks and feels like mud, collects continually along the sides and at the bottom of the bin, and can be harvested whenever it’s found.

Most vegetables will grow well in high-nutrient soil, but not all. Be careful not to use too much vermicompost — it should usually be mixed with soil.

To harvest a larger amount of compost, stop feeding half the bin for a month. Then scoop out the unfed side for your use, push the fed side onto the emptier side, and re-cover everything with bedding and plastic sheeting.

Worm juice (the stuff that collects in the plastic jugs) is also super concentrated. To use it as fertilizer, dilute it 20 parts water to 1 part worm juice.

So there you have it! An awesome way to compost, inside, all year if you want to. A way to help you grow more food that doesn’t take up too much space or too much time. Permaculture at its finest… vermiculture.

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