The design of a composting system for the management of organic waste generated by Ms Ortiz, me and our guest including paper, yard waste, cardboard, discarded food, etc. This system should supply most of the garden and food forest’s compost needs helping us increase soil fertility and the nutrition of our yields. It would also be a step on our path towards our “Cero Waste” goal and it would help us lower our need for outside resources.
Current site elements
As it can be seen on the Site Survey and on the diagram below, the main building on this 0.5acre lot is a 35’ by 35’ concrete structure. A separate building (labeled: tiny house) is my current residence. At the moment (approx. 2015) most of the site is a lawn with only a few trees and it generates significant amounts of yard waste. Also, there is significant leafy and woody material dropped by the Ficus tree.
To the north of the tiny-house, there are two sections of the “Zone 1 Garden” (Garden 1 and 2) as it can be seen in the diagram above. To the south of the tiny house there is a roofed and paved section that will be reserved for a nursery and a Grey Water Harvest System (See design page). The compost mounds that have been used for years are usually located to the east of the tiny house in random places. Most of our organic waste is added to the pile but no level of management is performed. (See below)
Types of waste
The biggest amount of waste is generated by the lawn when we mow. Another big source is all the leafy material dropped by the Ficus tree.
We try to compost all organic waste (paper, cardboard…) and the leftovers from our and our guests’ kitchen as well. I am a vegan and Ms Ortiz is vegetarian so 100% of our kitchen waste ends up in the compost pile. We avoid placing any meat leftovers from our guests’ kitchen to avoid attracting rats and other animals.
Needs and Wants related to this system
As it can be seen in the client interview, the main purpose of this design is to lower the amount of compostable waste that reaches the landfills. (Produce no waste).
We also wish to decrease the need to bring outside resources. This would lower our expenses and decrease our contribution to pollution by not having to drive to the store to purchase products that have been transported around the world.
There is a need for a diverse set of educational and demonstration elements on site.
The only boundary recognized for this system is related to any odors that could reach the residences. Taking into consideration the prevailing winds, the system should be located in a place that the winds carry away any smells. When compost is properly made it should be aerobic, but I have had times in which the pile went anaerobic and the smell is quite intolerable. This usually happens when bringing bagged wet yard waste discarded by neighbors.
Considerable amounts of yard waste are generated on site from grass clippings and leaves from the Ficus tree.
It is very easy to compost in the tropics due to the warm and humid weather. In rainy periods, it takes less than a month for a heap to compost without any intervention
Lifelong building skills in iron and galvalume structures and average experience in concrete and wood working.
There is significant metal materials around the home which could be used to build this system.
Budget: Because all the resources are available on site I will not assign any budget to this design.
Permaculture Ethics– Guidelines within which this design should be completed
Earth Care- Lower the amount of waste generated at the site. Lower transportation pollution related to bringing soil amendment materials from outside.
People Care- Generate savings in fertilizer and soil amendments. Increase the amount and quality of our food by using nutritious compost to amend our soils and help friendly bacteria.
Fair Share-. Provide an example of an easy to use system which clients can participate in, after explaining the compost process.
Out of the Client Interview process, we can discern some specific functions related to this design from which our goals were set:
Lower costs on fertilizers and any travels to the store.
A way to improve our composting practice and avoid generating any waste which can be turned into a resource
Soil improvement- Have a source of nutrient rich compost we can use on the garden, nursery and our food forest (Law of Return- Mollison)
Secondary functions (functions that are not directly associated with a particular need, but that can support the system, therefore, solutions to the client’s needs and wants are successfully achieved):
Serve as an example of an eco-regenerative system that can be recreated by our guests and serve as an example of the “Produce no Waste” principle.
Serve as one of the example elements on PDC’s and workshops.
Options and Decision
The current setting that has been used for years works fine but would not help us reach some other goals. Below I explore some of our options:
Current system (approx. 2015): This simple system has been used for several years before the start of this design. This is a simple pile where all yard and kitchen waste is dropped. It is rarely turned and all kitchen waste is placed inside the pile to avoid attracting pests. Once all the elements turn into compost we drop the new waste into a new pile. The already composted material is saved in buckets or transported to the garden or the Food Forest.
We explain to our guests where to leave their kitchen waste and advise them on what not to place, i.e.: oils or meat products. Being just a random pile it is not “education friendly”, especially if I’m out of the country trying to explain the process without even knowing if there are any piles available. A fixed system would help with this.
Sectioned Composter: A system that is divided in 3 to 5 cubicles to show the phases of the compost process. This system is inspired by Geoff Lawtons recommendation on ( https://youtu.be/9KjK61NtUAE ). This system could have labels that explain the process.
Current system (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Constraints):
Strengths- It is a simple system that barely needs any maintenance
Weaknesses- Weeds grow around it and it is hard to keep this area tidy. It does not work as an attractive or educational demonstration element
Opportunities-Additional piles can be added anywhere
Constraints- A big part of the compost is lost because it cannot be fully shoveled from the ground.
Sectioned composter (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Constraints):
Strengths- There is a significant amount of building material at the site which can be used to build the composter. It serves as a good visual representation of the composting process.
Weaknesses- It will require the building of a simple structure for the same resource we are already generating with the simple pile.
Opportunities- Signs could provide a description of the composting steps. It could be built in a way that prevents weeds.
Constraints- I may need to buy some of the building materials.
As a result of this process, I decided to use the second option.
The decision on the placement of this design is based on our experience with the current system. Previous piles were located in random areas but after the Sector Diagram was created they were located against the southern fence. This helped avoid the prevailing winds from bringing any smells to the residential areas. (See below)
This location right against the southern fence is convenient because:
It uses the fence as a back wall which would save on materials (Make the least change for the greatest possible effect- Mollison)
It is quite close to the garden and nursery which helps with the exchange of resources (Relative Location- Mollison)
It provides easy access to our guests
The prevailing winds take any potential odors away from the house and into a vacant portion of the neighbor’s lot.
Function / System / Element
This system will need to perform the following functions:
Serve as an educational Element
Show an organized system that separates the different phases of the composting process
Be accessible so our guests can easily take part in the process by integrating their kitchen waste.
Significantly reduce any waste generated on site.
3 simple elements can be integrated to fully perform this functions:
Cubicles– Element and its function
Cubicles of 1 cubic meter each that will hold the added waste in place.
It should be built in a decorative way to add to the beauty of the site and to generate interest in our guests.
Compost– Element and its function
Yard waste and leafy material already gathered on site to turn into compost.
Kitchen and organic waste to decrease our contribution to pollution and to invite our guests to participate by bringing their own.
Signs or verbal guidance– Element and its function
Teach anyone participating about the Why and How of the system including: the materials that can be composted, time, turns and how to use the final product.
Permaculture Principles to be applied
Observe and interact
Gained a few years of experience composting before starting this design and it allowed me to learn and experiment with the process. Was able to notice how the winds prevented any odors from reaching my residence by changing the location of the pile, once I learned about the prevailing winds in this area.
Obtain a Yield
Significantly increase the amount of compost generated at the site by using a more organized system. Use the compost to nourish our trees and plants and generate savings by using local resources.
Produce no Waste
All “waste” products from the food forest, gardens and our kitchens would be turned back into a healthy and fertile resource.
Design from Patterns to Details
Take into consideration, the wind patterns to carry away any potential odors if any pile goes anaerobic because of lack of turning.
Integrate Rather than Segregate
The compost generated will be integrated with the Grey Water system to brew Compost tea and the vermicompost farm as a recipient of the composted material for bedding.
The design below shows a potential system of 5 cubicle but it was decreased to 3 to adjust to our current needs. Each cubicle is 1 cubic meter. Each cubicle would hold the compost for around 6 pile turns. A turn of the pile would be made every 6 days for a total of 18 days. After the 6th turn, the pile would be moved to the next cubicle. The recipe followed would include 2/3 carbon material (i.e.: Dry leaves) and 1/3 Nitrogen (i.e.: Green material, Urine) and a compost activator if available (i.e.: comfrey or manure).
Note for the client: A compost pile can reach high temperatures inside where the organic matter disintegrates. The outside remains cooler so it is slower to compost. To foment an even composting, the pile is frequently turned so the outside elements are placed inside the pile.
Most of the labor involves the building of the separators that would help prepare a compost heap of proper size and better organize it for educational purposes demonstrating the different turns and its transformation. Several composting techniques have been practiced on site since 2013. I decided to base this design following Geoff Lawton’s recommendations for an 18 day 1 cubic meter heap. ( https://youtu.be/9KjK61NtUAE )
2013: Started practicing Composting at the site as learned from local organic farming recommendations which only involved creating a pile with green and dry organic materials. This piles were placed in random locations.
2015: Dec 23- Interview with the client to focus its final design on our wants and needs. (Used for all 10 designs)
2016: Feb- Completed a preliminary version of Ficus Temple Demonstration site diagram. (The diagram includes this design.) This helped me choose an area of placement against the southern fence based on the Sector Analysis.
2016: May 25- Adapted a 5-gallon bucket to collect gray water directly from the drain pipe. Inside I placed an automatic water pump which I connected to the reservoir using an old hose which I then replaced with old PVC pipes running under the soil.
2016: May 27- Started building a very simple irrigation system with additional access points using old pvc pipes.
2016: June 1 - Started making compost tea directly in the reservoir but I noticed that sediment could clog the system. First trial with an old hose-end timer showed it did not work unless it had enough water pressure. Ordered two low pressure hose end timers.
2016: June 10- Finished the irrigation pipeline to the first section of the “Zone 1 Garden” using one low-pressure hose-end timer.
2016: March 12- Purchased horse manure to be used on the vermi-compost farm (Separate integrated design). Also to be later used as compost activator.
2016: July 15- Completed and activated the Grey Water Harvester. This design would supply unchlorinated water for the compost system, as well as for the brewing of compost tea. (Separate integrated design)
Mar 2019- Started building a more esthetical and simpler system to help guests understand the composting method we use. To avoid weeds coming through the compost and to make it easier to use a shovel, I repurposed four 3’ x 3’ aluminum sheets. Sand was placed and compacted first to create a leveled surface where to place these sheets. The sheets were also attached to the wall to make it more stable and to block weeds.
Several metal materials were also repurposed for creating the frame that would hold the walls and front doors and to stabilize the whole structure.
Corrugated plastic sheets were also repurposed to separate the cubicles. Plastic was the preferred material to avoid rotting and rusting from the constant contact with humidity.
Doors were made out of scorched repurposed wood and lined on the inside with thick plastic bags to avoid contact with humidity. The white side panels were lined with scorched wood to make it more aesthetically pleasing and to protect the wood.
The following recommendations for the 18 day composting technique will be explained to interested guests.
All new grass clippings, thin woody material and leaves should be always dropped in the first bin. Food waste should be placed inside the pile to avoid attracting rats. Urine, comfrey, coffee grounds or horse manure could be placed inside the pile as a compost activator.
Note for the client: A compost activator is a high nitrogen element that microbes need to break down the material in the pile. A way to know if microbes processing the pile is when the temperature is at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
For six days the material will be turned daily if possible on the same cubicle. Humidity should be watched by pressing a fistful of material (only a few drops of water should come out) and watering accordingly. On the sixth day, the pile would be transferred to the next cubicle and turned for 6 more days. On the twelfth day, the material would be transferred to the third cubicle were it would be turned six more times.
The final material could be placed on a reservoir for later use on plants, trees, nursery, and compost tea or as part of the bedding in the worm farm.
The final material should be dark and resemble soft soil. It can be sieved to remove any un-composted materials which can be returned to the first cubicle.
This system doesn’t has to be followed strictly because the tropical weather accelerates the composting process. For many years, the piles we have created have completely turned into compost without any intervention.
What went well:
The original pre-design system which was extremely basic always provided enough compost for our needs but it did not help in generating an understanding of the compost process.
Once the new system was implemented and explained to Ms Ortiz the amount of labor decreased. The metal floor in the system prevented weeds around the pile and made it easier to turn. The walls also allowed for a bigger amount of material to be added while maintaining it shielded from the winds, helping it maintain its humidity.
By making the system more organized and aesthetically pleasing it can attract interest from our guests and serve as an educational element.
I was able to complete this design with a $0 budget. I had from the start the intention of implementing this design using only repurposed material to eliminate costs and to declutter my home.
What I would have done differently:
I would have designed a similar system years before which would have served as an easy to understand example for many interested guests. Many guests asked repeatedly how they could compost and how to participate.
Areas in front and near the compost bin where compost tends to fall while shoveling was getting a significant amount of weeds compared to other non-composted areas. The areas around the system were layered and deep mulched to minimize maintenance and to make it more aesthetically pleasing.
Learning Pathway Reflections:
How this design helps me apply permaculture in my life:
How this design helps me apply permaculture in my works and projects:
Principle 10: Use and value diversity
Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.From: " https://permacultureprinciples.com/principles/_10/ "