Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Digesting Some Facts About Dalek Composters

Our Dalek can eat for Ireland. We put kitchen guck in and within a few weeks it has reduced to a fraction of its mass.  The domed scoffer has been shoved to the far end of our garden on account of his occasional propensity to embarassing odours but in fairness to his designers (Davros?), he only ever hums in exceptionally hot weather - or when he’s got a bad case of indigestion.

We feed him with all the food waste that a family with three children can produce in any given week. We keep a big picnic sized portable cooler box in the kitchen and into it goes all our fresh food kitchen waste along with eggshells, egg boxes, loo roll tubes and odd papers. At the end of the week when it’s full and weighs about five kilos, we walk to the end of the garden and sling the rotting guck into the Dalek where the worms, bugs and microbes get to work on it.

For those who aren't from Ireland or the UK, it's time to explain something. A Dalek is either (a) a warlike metal coated alien from the planet something-or-other - as featured in the popular BBC cult science fiction series Dr Who or (b) A popular nickname in gardening circles for a particular type of pepper pot shaped composter which so happens to resemble the sci fi baddie. Indeed with the with the addition of a couple of police lights on top, a sink plunger and an egg whisk to the composter, you'd have some trouble distinguishing kitchen waste digester from menacing and shrill intergalactic nemesis.

A BBC science fiction Dalek yesterday
 Our Dalek is also a big lover of newspapers. Until recently, each and every week he was a particularly big fan of the Sunday Times Culture section which he scrupulously digested each and every week. Unfortunately, they recently changed the paper from a matt to a gloss and now it gives our Dalek a bellyache. Unknown to many, news print is actually a perfect addition to a composter and is a key method of keeping the chemical balance ideal for digestion. It contains plenty of carbon which helps to neutralise the acidity of the "green" waste that comes from our kitchen.

They digest newspapers.... and biographies.....
The "Dalek" style of composter is a giant pepper pot with a removable lid on top, an open bottom which goes on the ground. Some people like to line this with chicken wire to prevent rodents burrowing in. There's also a flat sliding panel on the front bottom which allows access to the black gold that is the mature compost. The open underside allows the earthworms and other insects access which aids the digestion and breakdown process. 

Over the years, I would imagine that its innards by now contain a whole universe of assorted heebie jeebies. But this is only after a degree of trial an error. In the beginning it proved tricky in to get the balance of contents right and sometimes its innards turned to sludge and remained as unusable sludge for much of the year. So anyone who wants to get the most from a Dalek or any other composter will need a period of trial and error to get that balance right.

We must have got that right in the end because the Dalek now exterminates food waste at a remarkable rate and in so doing, saves us a packet of cash in the process. While others pay eight euros every couple of weeks to have their kitchen food waste taken away in a stinky brown bin - our Dalek vaporises the lot in jig time.

GERMINATE!! GERMINATE!! A garden Dalek invasion pic lifted from Mark's Veg Plot (check it out)

The problem is that it’s rather too good at digesting food waste. A weekly installation of five kilo of food guck and the Sunday papers disappears to the degree that the infernal thing is always half empty (not half full), a condition that persists until right until the end of the year. Where does it all go?

Until last year we were also throwing cooked meat products into the Dalek, something you’re not supposed to do because you’ll attract rats. To keep the rats away I judged that our cat Oscar (he’s wild), the biggest cat in western Europe - would scare them off whilst a double under wiring would also keep the rodents out. But this thinking both underestimated the tenacity of rats and overestimated that of fat cats. For a time we ended up with whole family of rodents in the Dalek, something I didn’t tell Her Outdoors about, because  don’t appreciate this type of thing you understand.

Newsprint is good for compost to keep up the carbon levels and balance the "greens"

Indeed many intrusive objects found in its digestive system can be attributed to Her Outdoors “autopilot” school of kitchen cleaning. Uncompostables like foil dishwasher tablet wrappers and yoghurt carton tops cause our annual compost haul to twinkle and sparkle a good deal more than anyone else’s.

It seems the trick to running a happy Dalek is (a) take the trouble to turn the contents on occasion with a gardening fork (b) in dry weather take the time to pour a watering can or two of water into it, to keep it moist and clammy in there.

You'll be richly rewarded by year's end with pure plant food once you manage to get that balance right between the two main types of waste - green waste which is high in nitrogen and includes all kinds of fresh food waste, leaves and grass cuttings, and brown waste which is high in carbons and in our case, is usually made up of degradable paper (including newsprint) and woody cuttings.

If you sling a huge big bag of grass cuttings (green waste) into your Dalek then you’re going to give him indigestion. Large amounts of grass tend to compact and the lack of oxygen inside the slab of grass prevents its break down. So you end up with a big pillow of slime in there.

Exterminated! What happens when you overload your Dalek with grass guck

There are different views on whether weeds with seed heads should be thrown into compost. I keep dandelions and docks out but the rest go in on the grounds that the heat the compost generates will kill the seeds of other plants. Other staples among the kitchen waste are coffee grounds and tea bags.

Adapting a composting regime that sticks can be a tricky process. Essentially its about routine and having a container/caddy in the kitchen which won’t stink the place out. Our picnic box cooler is ideal because the lid seals tight and the waste stays cool inside it until the end of the week. But if we leave the lid off for even a few minutes, next time we lift it, a flurry of nasty little fruit flies will spray out of it. Women in particular have an ingrained reluctance of having anything at all “dirty” in the kitchen. So if you can’t have a sealable container in the kitchen, stick it just outside the back door where dinner plates can easily be scraped into it.

They do like coffee and tea however

Finally, sometime in spring, I slide off the panel on the end and dig out the priceless black gold which should have the colour and consistency of coffee grounds. This is the best food you could ever give your plants. Unfortunately there’s only enough to apply a light dressing on the raised beds in the garden and never enough left over to take up to the allotments. It’s also vital in the greenhouse where it helps our seeds to sprout. Spring is when our Dalek makes most impact and its keyword is: Germinate! Germinate!

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