Dog poo experiments

My inspiration - Dr Andrew Agnew

My inspiration – Dr Andrew Agnew

One of my lecturers at university, the person who inspired me to become an ecologist, was Dr ADQ Agnew. He was (and still is) the epitome of a dotty professor… one day he came in to the department wearing two ties because he’d forgotten that he’d put one on and so he donned a second before leaving the house. He would sing to us in lectures (I particularly remember a rendition of ‘I’m a Gnu‘) and deliver anecdotes… he even took us on a field trip to the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and a bit of Germany) that involved him and seven female students all in their early 20s… which probably wouldn’t be allowed these days! Anyway, Andrew often claimed to have studied the effects of population density by examining dog turd predation by lawnmowers in a park… I can find no published paper on this subject (and, believe me, I’ve looked), but it may exist somewhere. I might ask him about it next time I see him.

Max - a source of pollution

Max – a source of pollution

My experimentation, in contrast, has a rather more practical bias. One of the waste products that we have to deal with on a daily basis is, indeed, from our dogs, Sam and Max. They are terriers, so there isn’t a huge volume, but even so it is something that we do not feel happy about sending to landfill.

It is easy enough these days to buy plastic ‘poop’ bags that are biodegradable and simply to throw these away with all the rest of the trash. I wondered whether it might be possible, however, to collect the dog poo this way and then just place the entire bundle on a compost heap to break down. However, some trials revealed that even after a year, the bags were still identifiable, although the content had often disappeared. Anyway, whilst trying to reduce our impact on the environment, it seems inappropriate to ‘consume’ plastic bags in this way.

What we wanted was a composting system that was contained (to avoid flies and smells) and that was separate from our standard composing bins, so that the end product could be used separately. It’s generally recommended that you don’t use humanure on food crops and I assume that the same goes for doganure (ooh look, another new word!). However, whilst I don’t want to apply it to salad crops, for instance, I see no problems with using this type of compost when planting fruit trees and bushes, or in a bean trench.

I have written in the past about my wormery, but I have become increasingly aware that I don’t really need one except for the liquid feed: pretty much all the compostable material we produce can go on a ‘normal’ compost heap and with the aid of grass clippings, we manage to get these hot enough to break down quite quickly. In addition, I’m an increasing fan of in situ composting… so that the heat generated can be utilised by growing plants. So, the wormery has become superfluous and, thus, available for use in the composting of dog waste.

Some limited research suggested that dog waste is acidic (I haven’t tested this, but perhaps I will once I can work out the best way to sterilise my pH meter afterwards) and that some means of raising the pH would be appropriate. One of the suggestions was that adding wood ash would work – something that we produce from our Kelly Kettle and that we normally add to the compost or put straight on the garden. I was inspired by Deano’s approach to this problem at the Sustainable Small Holding, but decided to use shredded paper for some bulk rather than the Miscanthus that he has access to. We collect the faeces in a bucket round the garden, but when we are out on a walk, they are picked up in paper and transported in a plastic bag before being added to the bin, complete with the paper wrapping as an additional source of carbon.

Initially, I only added the three dry ‘ingredients’: faeces, ash and paper. But Deano’s suggestion to add urine as well seems to have been well-founded: a recent agitation of the content of the bin revealed that it was very dry and did not seem to be very active, although there was no unpleasant smell. In addition, there was no sign of the worms that I had added. So, with this in mind, I have been adding urine for the past couple of weeks, now that I have a ready source. I will give it another stir in a week or two and see how decomposition is progressing.

Despite the slow composting process and the dryness, I had extracted about a litre and a half of liquid feed from the reservoir at the bottom of the bin prior to starting to add additional liquid in the form or urine. This extract has been used to feed peppers and tomatoes… applied to the soil not the foliage… and is the only feed that I have provided them with so far this year, with good results.

Although I had hoped that decomposition would be quicker than it has been so far, I am hopeful that this will turn out to be a valuable way to add fertility to the soil and will be a real case of turning something initially perceived to be a pollutant into a valuable resource. In the past urine and dog faeces were used in the tanning industry, but since this is not an option for me, I think I’ll stick with increasing soil fertility!

I’m sorry I haven’t a clew – the demise (and resurrection) of the wormery

I’m so excited about the word ‘clew’ that I just had to use it in another post!

I have mentioned in previous posts about compost that we have a wormery. It’s not my favourite way to make compost, but it is useful for dealing with cooked foods that can’t go to either the dogs or the chickens. In addition, it does produce a great liquid fertiliser that we call worm wee, but in more refined circles is known as worm tea.

Over the winter we rather neglected the wormery and when we investigated it in March we discovered that it was clew-less… a completely worm-free wormery. Generally, when you buy a wormery you also receive a packet of compost (tiger) worms. If your existing wormery fails you can buy replacement worms, but I am far too mean to do this, and anyway, there are always loads of tiger worms under pots in our garden as well as in the normal compost heaps. If you look on the internet is seems that it is necessary to spend loads of money on your garden, but actually lots of resources that you can buy are available for free… worms for one and liquid feed for another. I have supplied several people with replacement worms, at no cost to either them or me – it’s all about sharing.

The first job with the wormery was to extract the resources: it did contain good compost and a little liquid. The worm wee was drained off (there’s a tap at the bottom of our bin) and the compost was tipped directly onto one of the raised beds… where the chickens enjoyed rummaging through it for tasty treats, whilst also helping to incorporate it into the soil.

Some of the current inhabitants of the wormery

Once empty we were able to get going once again… starting with a layer of compost from one of the normal bins (this had some worms in it already) then adding kitchen scraps as they became available. In addition, at that time of year I’m often moving bags and pots around the garden and revealing worms. Rather than let the chickens eat them, I collected them up and placed them directly into the worm bin to add to the colony (much to the disappointment of the chickens… they really don’t like to see a juicy worm whipped from under their beak!). I continue to add suitable worms as I come across them.

An inspection of the wormery today revealed a good colony of worms, not many eggs yet, but those will come. Now we can start feeding them up with greater quantities of kitchen waste and look forward to abundant worm wee to feed the plants in containers.

So, no longer clew-less.

I love compost

I’ve come in from a morning in the garden with dirt under my fingernails, feeling very satisfied with planting and sowing and potting on. The runner beans are in the ground, the melons, courgettes and squashes are in larger pots, there are two big pots of mangetout sown and the garden is looking like it might be quite productive this year.

Whilst potting up the curcurbits (as the squash and marrow family is known) I got to thinking about compost… partly because I had my hands in some lovely homemade stuff that I’m sure the plants are going to do really well in and partly because I have been reading blogs about compost this week. It all started of with a post by Fourth Generation Farm Wife describing a composting experiment which involved in situ composting… something I am very keen on. Her experiment didn’t quite work out they way she expected but was, nevertheless, a success. I make compost in my ‘rubbish beds’ and plant directly into them even though not all the material is broken down (because after all, it wouldn’t be in a natural system). This year I have harvested some of the compost out of these beds to pot up those curcurbits I mentioned earlier and it will be returned to the beds when the weather allows me to transplant them outside.

Many people seem to have problems with compost making, although many are very successful and if you search the internet you’ll find a whole raft of advice on how to make compost, what sort of composter to buy and loads of products (some astonishingly expensive) to help you to make ‘good’ compost. Personally, I’m not convinced. I have a variety of compost bins – a couple of wooden ones, which are good and big and easy to empty; a couple of ‘cones’, one big and one small, the big one really heats up if you put lots of grass clippings in it; one made of an old water butt that split; a wormery; and my good old standby, thick black polythene rubble bags.

My honest opinion is that the compost I make is pretty similar whatever the bin with the exception of the wormery and the black bags, because these use different composting methods. The other containers all make ‘slow compost’. Lots of books tell you that you need a big heap that you construct with specific proportions of different materials and that you need to turn the heap regularly and add water and it will get hot enough to form compost really quickly and kill off all the weed seeds. In my experience this simply doesn’t happen in normal domestic situations, where you ‘trickle feed’ material into your heap and it gets whatever is available in whatever proportions there are at the time. I’m fine with this – I just let it get on with it, close the bin up when it’s full and wait however long it takes to turn into compost (and I never turn my compost or add water). I do put paper, willow shreddings, chicken poo, cardboard and nettles on my compost, as well as shredded cotton occasionally in addition to the usual kitchen scraps and I’m generally happy with the results.

The wormery I keep mainly because I want the ‘worm wee’ (more delicately known as worm tea) which I use as a very handy (but smelly) liquid feed. It’s one of those bins with a reservoir and tap at the bottom and serves its purpose well, but is quite unwieldy when the compost needs emptying out. The black bags, in contrast, are very low-tech. I fill them with perennial weeds, such as dandelions or buttercups, including the roots. I then fasten the tops and put them in a heap out of the way for a few months (it’s important no light gets in). The conditions inside tend to be anaerobic (unless you get a puncture) and you end up with smelly fibrous sludge, ready for direct use on the vegetable beds or to go into the main compost bin for further aerobic composting (my preference is the former). I like this sort of composting because it makes use of material that might otherwise be discarded and so lost from my garden system and also because things like dandelions and docks produce really robust roots that are good and fibrous and rich in nutrients… ideal as a compost ingredient.

I never buy compost activators because nettles and chicken poo do the trick and I have no idea how well things like bokashi work (although maybe it’s a great option if you don’t have a garden and want to compost indoors), but I do know that there is something really satisfying about growing plants in compost made from stuff that most people would just throw away without a second thought… what other way is there for you to eat your old teabags and coffee grounds?

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