Last April, Kat and I built our very own compost bin! We had been learning about reusing and recycling, and had been thinking of ways to help clean and protect our environment. Those conversations along with starting a vegetable garden led us to the idea of composting. We could reduce our garbage while learning about the decomposition of plants and organic material. Not only could we help our environment, we could help our garden too!
We started by planning and building our bin. Home Depot offers scrap lumber for 50 cents per board, so we were able to get all of the supplies we needed for under $10. Once we had completed our bin, we began collecting unwanted sticks and small branches from our neighbors. Kat and I sat outside for two hours, talking and trimming the sticks down to six-inch pieces. We created a six-inch layer of these sticks at the base of the bin, which would allow for better drainage once the composting process got going. Then we began adding our organic material!
For the next several months, we would alternate between carbon rich material, nitrogen-rich material, kitchen scraps, and any other organic material we could find. Every few days we would water our pile, trying to keep it as moist as a lightly damp sponge. Once a week, I went outside with a rake and spent a few minutes turning the pile over, getting as much air in there as possible. During the dry heat of the Arizona summer, we put a burlap cover over the top of the pile in an attempt to lock in as much moisture as possible. During the monsoon season, we left the cover off so our sporadic bouts of heavy rain could add to the mix.
At the end of summer, we invited the neighborhood kids over to check out our bin. They reveled in the pile of “garbage” they found, and were excited to learn that it would eventually turn to dirt. The best part for them though, was that the bin had become a home to all sorts of insects and arachnids: wasps, crickets, large white grubs, and even predatory spiders. A whole new ecosystem was developing, right in our backyard!
As summer turned to fall, we found that the change in temperature brought less activity. As the weather grew cooler, fewer insects were found wandering through the pile. Our lives grew busy with the birthdays, Halloween, and the approaching holiday season. The compost bin was left alone, except for a few trips to water and turn it.
The month of January was a different story. Here in the desert, we began experiencing high-pressure fronts with 80-degree temperatures. This brought Kat and I a rekindled sense of longing for nature’s bounty. We went out to check the compost bin and found that it was ready for harvest! Finally, we could reap the benefits of our (mostly nature’s) hard work and patience!
We borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbor and set to work. As we dug into the rich black soil, we marveled at the results of the processes of decomposition. What had once been sticks, branches, leaves, paper, kitchen scraps, tree bark, and charcoal, was now a nutrient rich mixture that would work wonders for the plants in our hard clay soil. What was really neat about this, was that while Kat and I had often contemplated how many living things would turn into dirt after a while (trees, plants, animals and humans), it was wonderful to actually see this actually happen!
As we dug deeper, we found the what we thought to be the adult versions of those white grubs earlier in the summer. Kat put a couple of them in her bug jar, and we talked about the habitat specific to her insect, and how it may be adapted to live in a compost pile. We discussed how soil can be fertilized by animals eating the decomposing material and excreting the nutrients back into the compost. Larva, beetles, and other tunneling critters assist in the aeration of the compost bin, while fungi and bacteria break the compost down into the soil that we now could see in front of us.
After the excitement of finding the insects at the bottom of our compost pile, we set ourselves back to work. We still had a wheelbarrow full of decomposed organic material, and it needed to be dumped into our garden bed! The garden bed in our front yard is composed mostly of mud and clay, and it needs some serious love in order for it to be suitable for growing various types of plants. Kat and I had spent some time playing soil building and photosynthesis games and learning about soil types and what the ground needs in order for plants to grow well. Our goal was to break up and turn the dirt, so that we could add the compost in, and then turn it again to mix it all together. This provided yet another opportunity to talk about what was in the compost, and why it was important for all of that Carbon, Nitrogen, and Potassium to get back into the ground.
Finally, we had a nice layer of compost over the top of our garden bed, and we were able to turn the dirt and mix it all together. I was very impressed with how quickly the texture of our soil had already improved, and was excited by the thought of all of these new nutrients seeping into the ground. The next thing we needed to do was protect all of our hard work! Fortunately, the fall and winter season had brought barrow loads of leaves to the ground from our neighborhood trees. Our family had already had plenty of fun raking them into piles to jump into. Now we would actually use them for an intended purpose!
Once we had added our leaves, our garden bed looked beautiful! I knew that under the blanket of dried foliage, we had a nutrient-rich mixture of compost, clay, sand, and mud. It wasn’t perfect, but after two more composting cycles, our garden bed would be able to support all sorts of lovely flowers, herbs, and vegetables!
Now that we had laid our compost down and covered it with leaves, we still had one more task to complete. We needed to identify the insects we had found at the bottom of our compost heap! We thought they were the adult versions of the white grubs the neighborhood kids had found at the end of summer. However, after searching scores of images of beetles found in Arizona, we were coming up empty handed. We sought the advice of the insect enthusiasts over at Reddit.com’s /r/What’s This Bug, who had previously helped us identify our giant crab spider. They informed me that we actually had a colony of American Wood Cockroaches!
Fortunately, the outside of my home is primarily made of stone and brick. Unfortunately, the inside of my home is filled with logs, wood panels, and cedar. I am not thrilled with the idea of having such a large colony of cockroaches near my house. I will consider ways to move the remaining compost pile away from my home, but if I am unable to do so, I may look into using tablets of Boric Acid to get rid of them. In the meantime, I will keep an eye on them and hope that they stay in their home, and out of mine.
I will say that overall, this has been an incredible journey for Kat and I. We learned about the decomposition of organic matter, observed the creation of an ecosystem in our backyard, talked about the food web within that ecosystem, and learned about what it takes to make fertile ground for our plants to grow in. We also spent quite a bit of time out in the warm sun, getting our hands dirty and spending some quality time with each other. This was one of my favorite projects, and I definitely want to do it again!