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Composting 101: It All Started With a Problem

As the title suggests, my journey into sustainability began with a series of problems: Power is expensive, waste is problematic, media is costly, chemical fertilizers are unappealing, pesticides are dangerous & gross, and water management in the desert presents its own series of challenges. Plus, for some inexplicable reason, there’s always a heaping pile of root balls following me like the dark cloud that follows Charlie Brown. I did not solve these problems overnight; becoming a “sustainable” grower took a lifetime. I hope to encourage other growers to take to heart the hard-won lessons herein. The only question I want to ask is this: “What does it mean to be truly sustainable?”

A primary goal of every sustainable grower is to close-loop various processes within the cultivation environment. With that concept in mind, I will attempt to explain my methodology for close-looping those systems in my own cultivation practices. The first topic that I want to discuss is composting. It represents one of the most challenging systems to close-loop because of the literal mass of media and waste. Both media and waste can be close-looped by effective composting or vermiposting.

We want to banish our old foe, the black trash bag. In the past, I simply removed all of my waste in not-so-discreet black trash bags. The multitudes of black trash bags that left my Chicago apartment must have raised the suspicions of neighbors, wandering passersby, and, in all likelihood, local law enforcement. Flash-forward a few years, and my eco-conscious girlfriend and I both hated throwing away kitchen scraps, paper towel tubes, and more.

My first solution was my first attempt at vermiposting: two Rubbermaid containers, one nestled inside the other. We filled the interior container with kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, newspaper, egg shells, plain brown cardboard scraps, iguana poop and finally, worms. Everything with this design concept was perfect except for one small detail: we foolishly placed the whole contraption, worms and all, on our balcony in the full Arizona sun. Needless to say, we were surprised when we discovered that the dark black containers had cooked the poor little worms to slimy husks of their former selves. My first attempt at vermiposting was an abject failure. I would later make another, much more successful attempt at worms a few years in the future.

We scrapped vermiposting at the time, opting to manually compost the material in our Rubbermaid bins. Without the ability to physically tumble the content of the bins, I manually worked in kitchen scraps and other materials with a small shovel. Although successful, this method was physically taxing. If you want to pursue this method of composting, my recommendation is to get a small tumbling system. This can ease a lot of the physical stress brought on by tumbling. I hope readers might have some helpful recommendations as well.

After years of trying many different mixes and blends, I have moved to building a coco-based super soil. I use coco coir as the inert substrate upon which I build the mix. I add a mix of inputs into the coco, including trace minerals, worm castings, perlite, alfalfa, fish, shrimp, crab meals, oyster shell, and a few other goodies. I mix in an aerated mix of low pH water and some enzymes, and then let that sit with occasional mixing for at least three months. I have found that plants benefit from this mix because they take up only the nutrients they need. The coco provides excellent water retention and drainage properties. The perlite offers excellent oxygenation to the plants’ roots. The worm castings offer nutrients and microbes that the plants utilize as food. Thanks to composting and vermiposting, I am able to take my trash and turn it into plant food.

So whether it’s your kitchen scraps in a small compost pile in the backyard, or industrial-scale vermiposting, composting offers a path to a sustainable future. It just feels good for your your soul! Happy growing!

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Great post.

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Hi there! At the company I work for, we are practing all of the things you mentioned commercially. I’d love to talk details if you’re interested, and bounce some ideas and experiences off one another. My first questions would be:

Where are you located? We are in Colorado

What is the biggest size operation you have seen with truly organic/systems like this?

What would you estimate your cyclic “refresh” amendment needs to be on average (based on per gallon of soil) - compost, minerals, organic residues, etc.?

Cheers!

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Hey Dustin,

I would be happy to share ideas with you. I was the master grower for an
11,000 commercial medical facility in Tucson, AZ. I helped build the
facility when we first attained one of the very first commercial licenses
in AZ. Since then, I’ve left that company to work for Growers House while
operating my own small licensed caregiver facility. My facility is zero
energy consumption (sun-permitting), waste-free, and largely water
self-sufficient (depending on the time of year). I now spend my days
helping growers small to commercial improve their own grow operations and
be a bit more sustainable whenever possible. I practice all these
techniques daily in my own facility.

I have seen attempts at organic and sustainable cultivation at many
different levels from commercial operations to backyard hippie with varying
degrees of success (and to be real, abject failure as well). I always try
to explain techniques/tricks/hacks that have worked for me when I speak to
the grow masters of these facilities and really love that “Aha!” moment
when the concept clicks. it’s really cool to come back to the same facility
later on and see the sustainable systems in place, often with some
improvisational improvement.

I try to reintegrate the recharged media at the rate of one part recharged
to one part new media. I use coco as the base for everything I do (peat
breaks down and turns to sludge over time and let’s face it, peat is NOT
sustainable). Pioneer from Batch 64 is my preferred coco. I’m not sure if
this was the exact nature of your question, so if there is some
clarification or more info you need, just shoot me an email, I’d be glad to
answer.

Happy Growing,

-n-

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@Batch64 shout out!

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Awesome, thanks for the response!

To give you a summary of where we are at… We switched over from soil-less hydro system about 8 or 9 months ago, so we’re still ironing out some kinks. We were really trying to use bokashi (largely made from our own plant waste) as our main N input (and for persistent fixation), which turned out to be very hit or miss, and then really took a turn for the worse. We are getting back on track now that we have started using more reliable forms of N like compost, fish, and amino acids (soybean hydrolysate). Once everything is back to optimal health, we would still like to explore using greater amounts of ferments as a more sustainable and cost effective approach to nutrition. We do still currently use vegetative and flowering fermented extracts as supplements. Do you have much experience with the anaerobic side of things? Any related production models you’ve seen that work well?

When you say that you “reintegrate the recharged media at the rate of one part recharged to one part new media,” do you mean that you remove half your used soil from your pots or beds and replace it with a newly mixed soil? What do you do with the soil you removed if that be the case? I was really curious what type and how much you use when it comes to organic amendments and rock dusts, etc.

Would you like to share an “aha” moment that you or one of your clients have had? My most recent was “Damn! Why didn’t we try nitrogen as a fix right from the beginning like I originally wanted to!” Haha! We lost a lot of yield and spent a lot of money and time trying every other amendment and rock dust in the book (which does now makes our soil tests look pretty great minus the lacking N thing). And now just by adding some N, everything is turning back around very quickly of course :wink:

Hey, while I’m on soil tests… What are your thoughts on optimal soil P levels and additions in organics? I’ve gotten some very conflicting information from different people.

I take it you must grow in a high tunnel sort of environment if you have zero energy input? Passive ventilation? No HVAC? Where does your water come from? Sounds awesome! I miss the sun! We do Gavitas.

What is you preferred container? We currently grow in 30 gal fabric pots, but I would really really like to be doing raised beds. We currently water by hand, which is crazy to keep up with when plants are vigorous!

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Cody,

You’re most welcome. Thanks for your interest and attempts to become more
ecologically conscious. Earth needs more growers with your attitude! I
support your use of sea-based amendments as your primary source of N. When
I recharge my media, I add a series of sea-based amendments to the mix,
just prior to the 3 month rest phase. I separate the root mass from the mix
and allow the root mass to go through a longer rest and recharge phase
dichotomous from the rest of the media. I find the combination of fish,
shrimp, kelp, crab, oyster shell and enzymes (I prefer Enzymes Komplete)
plus a good rest phase provides sufficient nutrition for my plants. I have
very little experience with fermented anaerobic nutrients or bokashi (this
method seems adverse to everything I know) and can only provide guidance
based on anecdotal info from my experience and the experience of my clients
or from research journals on the topic. As far as rock dusts are concerned,
a little azomite or elemite goes a long way to help strengthen stalks and
make heartier, stress/drought tolerant plants.

To answer your second question: after that three month rest phase, I add
the recharged coco based super-soil to new Pioneer Blend at a rate of 1:1
and start transplanting.

Working with my clients at Growers House, my life consists of a series of
"Aha!" moments…Seriously, every day. You might be surprised how many
"professionals" make simple errors that often lead to major loss of yield.
Sometimes it just takes a second set of eyes looking over an area to see
major flaws or points of improvement.

On the subject of phosphorus: given my use of natural amendments to supply
NPK and micros to my plants, it was wholly logical to utilize enzymes,
microbes, and amino acids to unlock available nutrients in my plants’
rhizoshere. Mammoth P has seriously become my best friend for unlocking
available phosphorus. A tiny bit of Mammoth P once or twice a week and my
ladies are happy and praying.

In regards to my facility: totally indoors with full HVAC (central and
split AC’s). We recover the condensate generated by HVAC and dehumidifiers
and run that water back through our RO system for future applications. Our
location in sunny AZ offers approximately 360 days of complete sunlight
annually, so using the sun to generate energy made a lot of sense to us. We
calculated our total canopy space and the number of lights used and wattage
consumed. We then tried to find ways to at least cut the power consumption
in half. We used as much available space as we could to add as many panels
to the facility as we were safely able. We scrapped old power-hogging HID
lights altogether in favor of more energy efficient LEC’s and LED’s. On a
not-too-hot sunny day we are able to zero our energy consumption…but I
assure you it’s a constant balancing act. I spent well over a year dialing
in this system; during that time, I concerned myself very little with
overall yield and instead focused on the quality of the finished product. I
was far more pleased with the quality and minimal environmental impact for
the cultivation facility than I ever was pleased by big numbers.

Fabric pots are the way to go for me. Growers House brand Root Pouch are
super durable and run half the cost of every other brand on the market.
With the combination of the correct transplanting schedule, a properly
balanced coco based super soil, and ideal conditions, I find I only have to
water every other day in my Root Pouches.

Hopefully I Was able to answer all of your questions. Happy growing!

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Wood chipper for stems should work well. use the chips at bottom of pots for drainage and till back in soil pile.More carb food for worms.

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That’s a great suggestion! Worms love the wood! Thanks!

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