Compost production is at the heart of our regenerative practices and having a proper space to produce it seemed an important milestone in our journey.
It all started from the wish to professionalize our compost production. At the beginning, we were making our compost outside, having to protect our piles from sun, wind, and rain.
A fully covered area would give us the benefit of working in the shade and protect our fresh piles and the finished product from too much heat, wind or humidity. All of which contributes to a better product in the end: a rich, dark compost, that is full with microbial life.
So, the task at hand was to construct a spacious, covered area that would allow us to have more control over the entire process while making our lives a bit easier at the same time.
We always try to design our systems with a permaculture approach – each element performs many functions. Thus, the new building should not only help us to produce compost, protect us and the compost from the elements but should also integrate in the existing systems. That’s why the “relative location” of each element is crucial.
By placing it right next to (and one terrace level up from) the main garden, we can choose to gravity-feed our veggie garden by connecting the liquid compost tank to the irrigation system. This way, we save ourselves a lot of time and effort. Future plans involve adding animal stables right next to the compost area, which is another example of a “relative location“. The need for fresh manure in our compost production makes the placement of animal stables right next to it a smart choice.
The building process
After having found the right location, we started out with a rough sketch, some measuring, and the help of many volunteers. We had to select the right logs for the pillars, shave the bark off of them and bury them 1m deep in the compacted clay soil.
Now that the pillars were in place, we started to connect them with horizontal crossbeams. On top of these connectors, we had to fix other logs using simple joinery. Even though it was basic woodworking, the irregularity of roundwood has got its challenges. Nevertheless, we were determined to spend as little money as possible (as opposed to buying more processed – meaning square – pillars and beams) and we simply love the “rinky-dinky”-style of building with roundwood.
As soon as the main structure was up, we could cover the roof. We decided on rough boards from locally sourced Douglas firs.
To protect the roof from rain, we used overlapping rows of tar paper. We heated the tar paper at the edge where the rows overlap in order to glue them together properly.
Finally, it was time to take care of the work area itself. After some debating whether to use cement or not, we’ve decided to pour a cement floor for half of the building.
We wanted a flat and clean workspace for storing the finished compost and more importantly, placing the brewing tank for our liquid compost production.
We boarded up the walls on the two “wheater sides”, to protect from winds and precipitation from north and west. Leaving enough space on top of every wall would grant us enough natural light and also lessen the wind pressure on the structure.
All we had to do now was installing water and power lines and build a wooden platform to carry our 600lt tank. We’ve also included a ladder and service platform on top of it to be able to easily access and clean the residues inside the tank after each brewing process.
We’ve already used it many times and it works perfectly! The elevated platform provides some altitude to empty the tank without any pump or power, simply using gravity.
In the future, we’re planning to install a wind turbine and batteries to hopefully generate enough electricity for the air pumps, which are needed to produce a high-quality liquid compost (tea & extracts).
Another future project is to harvest the rain water from the roof to further minimize the environmental impact in our compost production.
Surely, we’ll be looking for the best possible “relative location” of the rainwater catchment system to ensure that it’ll be also adhering to the permaculture principle of “each element performs many functions”.
For now, we’re super thrilled to be able to work efficiently and produce one of our main assets, a dark, rich, microbially active compost in larger quantities.
In the following article, we’ll walk you through the building process for our eco-friendly campsite. We have completed two super comfy and easy-to-service compost toilets aka “the temple of poo”, two “yin-yang” shaped outdoor showers, a spacious washing station, and a social “chill-out space”. It is eco-friendly because every drop of water is being put back into the cycle and re-used. It all turned out quite as we envisioned it and – even after a year – we’re still very happy with the outcome.
When we decided to organize the “natural building workshop” in September 2020 we knew that we had a few weeks of hard work ahead of us to build a comfortable camping area to accommodate the needs of 12-15 students. It was quite a challenge, having to build all that within the hot month of August!
And we had to start from scratch: There were only olive trees, a small meadow, and a ruin.
But with the help of our volunteers, especially René, Markus, and Nina, we started to transform the area quickly into something else. First, we installed a small outdoor carpentry from where we’d build all the components for the dry toilets, the showers, and the washing station.
Compost toilets aka “Temple of Poo”
Our first priority for the compost toilets was durability and comfort. We wanted to create a structure that would last over time and could comfortably accommodate two people at the same time (in different compartments, of course 🙂 ).
Also, it should be easy to service and clean in an efficient manner.
The location we chose for the compost toilet would have to contribute to this latest aspect. We found a perfect spot that was close enough to the tent space and offered two different altitude levels.
The reason for building the structure across two levels is that on the upper level you’ll have convenient access to the toilet spaces while on the lower level you’ll get easy access to the maintenance area with all the bins and containers. This way, comfortable usage is guaranteed for both the visitors of the toilets and the maintenance crew (us 🙂 ) to do the weekly cleaning routine.
As soon as the site was chosen, we started with the foundations for the main pillars. In this case, we used a cement / gravel mix mainly because our focus was on durability and also because there is a high risk of erosion around a terraced ground that consists mainly of sandy soil.
After the foundations had dried, we started constructing the wooden structure and raised the nine main pillars.
Luckily, we were able to reclaim both doors and windows from a derelict house which are giving the building a unique touch. In the end, we oiled the whole wooden structure (Douglas fir) with linseed oil to protect it better from rain.
One of the main reasons why the compost toilet works so well without generating unpleasant odours was the separation of liquids and solids in the toilet. A urine separator ensures that the faeces do not get the excess moisture and can therefore dry quickly without generating unpleasant odours. Another huge plus is that we can safely compost the precious “humanure” (feces) and use the urine diluted with water as a high-nitrogen liquid fertilizer for our olive trees.
Yin & Yang Showers
One of our first ideas was to build two intertwined outdoor showers in the shape of a drop or the Yin and Yang symbol (which can only be seen from a bird’s perspective).
However, we soon realised that some modifications had to be made to the original shape to make it functional and to be able to enter and leave the “maze”.
Following the permaculture principle, “Each element performs many functions” (at least three), we had set our minds to a solution that would allow us to reuse the greywater from the showers and circulate it through our land as long as possible. From a permaculture perspective, the showers are not only cleaning our guests, they also inspire us with their beauty and most importantly, they’re also helping us to irrigate our citrus trees.
We knew that this would require some sort of cleaning process before we could use it for irrigation. Read on and discover the step-by-step process of constructing the showers and the reed bed to filter the water until the moment when we finally could wash the sweat and dust off of our happy faces when the showers were finished.
It all started with a hole of about 4m in diameter.
In the middle of the two showers, we installed a drainage system and a pipe that would transport the greywater towards the reed bed.
We laid out a 4x4m pond liner (black waterproof plastic) to collect all the water from the two showers. Then we topped it up with gravel until the ground level was reached.
Once the water collection system was almost done, we proceeded with the installation of posts to support the walls of the showers. Since the pond liner couldn’t be pierced or damaged, we had to construct a stand-alone wooden structure where the walls could be attached to.
After the structure was finished we covered the boards with gravel.
For the shower walls, we chose the local variety of cane, as it grows abundantly in this area and is available freely all year round. Each of the canes was cut to a certain height (around 2m) and a couple of holes were drilled in the ends of the cane.
Then, a wire rope was inserted through the holes to give consistency to the wall and to join cane to cane.
Once the walls were done, the only thing left to do was to connect the shower heads with the pipes coming from the ground. For usability and comfort, Nina has built a small wooden bench for each of the shower compartments.
Washing station & Laundry
Last but not least, we also needed a place for our guests to wash their clothes, brush their teeth, and, basically, have access to water.
From reclaimed local chestnut wood, Nina built a beautiful wooden table with a double sink. On the extension to the left, we managed to integrate an old washstand that we had found in the trash.
Of course, we also connected the greywater pipe from the washing station with the reed bed.
We didn’t want to waste a drop of our precious water!
Creating a space for people to relax and socialise after work was the last of the tasks. We thought that our ruin, a halfway collapsed former farm building, would serve that purpose.
So we started to clean the inside from all the wild vines, brambles and leveled the ground. The half-open walls protect the interior just enough from wind gusts, creating a nice comfy space which we’ve completed by adding a couple of tables and wooden benches.
We’ve also included a light chain for late-night sessions and, most importantly, a power socket for the students to charge their devices.
Finally, we included a sun sail to create some shade for the rare occasion of rest during the day.
Luckily, everybody was as excited as we were about our new campsite facilities! We didn’t have to wait long before we’ve got some positive comments from our guests.
Among many others, we remember the happy face of a student exiting the showers. He came out with a broad smile from ear to ear saying:
“This shower experience has been amazing, I simply love the natural vibe of it”.
But not only us humans enjoy the benefits of a well-designed campsite. Remember: From a permaculture perspective, each element should have multiple functions. In this case, our trees and gardens also benefit indirectly from these facilities as the faeces and urine, generously produced by our guests, are being used as fertilizers.
In the case of urine, we get a ready-to-use, nitrogen-rich fertilizer (diluted 1:10 with water) while we prefer to let the faeces aka “humanure” decompose for at least a year before we use them as an amendment / organic matter for our trees.
We feel proud of managing our campsite in a sustainable way and hope that all our future guests will be equally happy knowing that the water they use or their “left-behinds” in the compost toilet will eventually be reused and put back in the big cycle of life.
In a healthy ecosystem (e.g. an untouched forest) nature has established an ongoing carbon cycle with a constant supply of dead organic matter (branches, leaves) falling to the ground where it is being transformed back to become new building material and food for all successive plant life.
With a highly specialised crop system like an olive grove, orchard or even veggie garden, we have to work very hard towards generating a carbon cycle. If we‘d only ever extract fruit, veggies or olives and never gave anything back to sustain a carbon cycle, the soil would be depleted of essential organic matter very soon and therefore having a negative impact on the soil and in future crops.
Taking nature as an inspiration, it is important to observe and understand natural processes and then imitate them. The following 5 steps are showing the regenerative techniques we’re currently using to achieve this:
1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER
The most abundantly available organic matter is produced by the olive tree itself in the form of leaves and branches.
After pruning the trees, we put all the branches and twigs through a shredder and scatter the wood chips / leaves on the ground along the drip line of the tree.
Along the drip line we’ll find the most active root zone. This is where the microbial activity is highest. The microorganisms that are present in the root zone now colonize the added organic material and thus enter into a nutrient exchange with the root system of the trees. This way, we return the lost biomass (from old leaves or pruned branches) back to the natural nutrient cycle.
Why aren’t we simply burning the pruned branches like everybody else in this region?
Even though shredding the branches and putting them back as wood chips is a much more laborious process, it is also exponentially more beneficial for the health of our soil.
The act of burning organic matter is interrupting the carbon cycle as the carbon material is lost to the atmosphere and therefore can’t be used by the microorganisms to produce more nutrients for new plant growth. Plus, by adding organic matter to the soil, we’re actively boosting the plant’s ability to store atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil (carbon sequestration) and therefore reducing the impact of CO2 as a greenhouse gas instead of adding more CO2 to the atmosphere by burning precious organic matter.
2. PRODUCTION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)
The production of high quality compost (= full with microbial life, especially fungi) is the basic ingredient for a successful regeneration of any land-based ecosystem.
With the active assistance of the present microbiology in a complete compost, we can re-stabilize even the most depleted soils and bring them back to their full, natural potential.We’re using a hot composting process to do this. It is an aerobic process that needs to be monitored regularly in terms of humidity and temperature.
The compost building process involves layering three different materials:
1. MANURE – with a high nitrogen content, ideally from herbivores such as cows, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits (but chicken manure works, too).
2. GREEN – material with nitrogen content such as green leaves, grass clippings, green stems, kitchen waste, etc.
3. BROWN – carbon material such as dry leaves, dry branches, straw, etc..
By using the right ratio between these materials (normally 10% manure, 30% green and 60% brown) and a good water management of the pile (we want to reach 50% humidity level), we’re able to produce a high-quality compost that contains all the beneficial groups of microorganisms (especially fungi). These microorganisms are going to build a healthy soil, transform minerals and organic matter in plant available nutrients, and protect the plant from pests and diseases.
The type of microorganisms can be determined both quantitatively and qualitatively with the help of a microscope in our soil lab. This is important because it means that you always know exactly which microbiology you are working with, as not all microorganisms are useful for every purpose.
Depending on the type of application, the finished compost can now be spread directly onto the garden beds or around the fruit/ or olive trees. This will positively favor plant growth through the microbial activity around the root zone. In contrast to a classic NPK-fertilization process (where usually “only” certain elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium are added in the form of salts), the compost application has a far more holistic effect, as the microorganisms also provide the plant with all other nutrients and trace elements and protect them from pest and diseases.
Like with the plants, these additional nutrients and trace elements will be able to nourish and heal our bodies in a holistic sense. We’ll be writing more on nutrient-dense food soon, trying to outline how the beneficial microorganisms in the soil do affect the micro-biome in our guts and how important it is today to know where our food is coming from or how it is being grown.
The image above shows two fava bean plants from our experimental bed in the garden. They were sown at the same time and had about the same height when they were harvested. The picture to the right shows a massively enlarged root ball. Also the growth of the stems (5 instead of 3) speaks for itself.
3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid extracted from solid compost)
If one cannot produce enough solid compost with the relatively labour-intensive hot composting process (e.g. for larger areas / systems), there is the option of working with compost extract. The solid compost is placed in a textile bag and “swirled” in a large water tank by blowing air into the water from below. This way, the microorganisms present in the solid compost such as bacteria, fungi strands (hyphae), amoeba or nematodes will be transferred into a liquid medium.
After a short time, the extract can be applied directly or used for irrigating a garden or an olive grove (i.e. fed into an irrigation system).
Depending on the amount of organic matter in the soil, the added microorganisms will settle there and thus favour the soil building process and the nutrient uptake of the plants.
4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA (liquid extracted from solid compost)
The brewing process of compost tea is more time-consuming ( 24h / 48h) because, in this case, we need to add food to encourage microorganisms to reproduce in the liquid medium. The application of compost tea pursues a different goal than the administration of compost extract. Sprayed directly onto the plant, the compost tea forms a protective layer (a so-called biofilm) on the stem/leaf surfaces of the plant and protects it from pests and diseases, especially on leaves and fruits. With a sufficiently high ratio of beneficial fungal biomass, compost tea serves as a natural fungicide, i.e. it can prevent or cure most types of fungal infestation on leaves.
On our farm, we use both compost extracts and compost teas – both in our gardens and olive groves.
Like with solid compost, the same rule of thumb applies to both types of liquid compost (compost extract & compost tea):
A complete beneficial micro-biome provides the soil with the right biology responsible for building healthy soils and that will in return generate healthy plants. This way, we increase the natural resilience of the plants, so it can resist diseases better and is consequently less likely to be attacked by pests.
5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY
As long as an ecosystem is not stabilized, i.e. as long as it cannot provide itself with all the necessary nutrients or defend itself against diseases, we must repeat the application of organic matter and solid or liquid composts. In our case, we need to fix many years of conventional agriculture practices where the use of toxic chemicals and the lack of soil management were the “normal”.
The good news is that we can regenerate damaged soils in a relatively short period of time if we manage to support and imitate the cycle of life properly.
If you wish to bring your own soil back to its full potential, it is imperative to first spend some time observing the place, its topography, the water flow, its current vegetation and more to draw the right conclusions for your long-term treatment of the land. We will write more about the observing process / how to read a landscape in another article. For now, let us subsummize the main “ingredients” for a healthier micro-biome and therefore a richer soil:
1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER
We’re helping nature by imitating / speeding up the natural process of decay and regrowth
2. PRODUCTION / APPLICATION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)
We’re actively “producing” the right set of beneficial microorganisms and adding them to our gardens or fruit trees to improve soil and plant health
3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid)
We’re multiplying these beneficial microorganisms to improve soil health on a bigger area
4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA (liquid)
We’re actively re-producing a particular set of microorganisms (i.e. fungi) for a specific purpose, mainly for protecting plants against pests or disease
5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY
While a single application of organic matter / compost is good – a regular and recurring application of organic matter in combination with the right set of microorganisms will work wonders!
This quote is not only valid today but it is even more relevant when we see the steep decline of drinking water reserves globally or the impact that climate change has on the water cycle, just to mention these two.
Since the beginning of our adventure to become regenerative farmers, we know that one of the key pillars in the project is the use of water resources responsibly.
Therefore, we started the construction of two rainwater cisterns that would serve as storage, distribution, and optimization of water use especially in times of drought. Also, this storage of water is extremely important in the fight against wildfires that are quite common in summer.
We discussed several ways of building the cisterns without finding the “right one” until Diego, one of our volunteers with experience in the construction sector, suggested building them in a round form. This would require us to use metal molds to be able to pour the walls in a circular shape. His confidence and motivation convinced us and that is how we started the construction of the first cistern at the end of May 2020.
The first step was to find a suitable location where to build them. They had to be close enough to the house for maintaining a constant pressure (the pump that connects us to the public supply is too far away – due to that we often used to have pressure problems). An even more important reason for proximity to the house was that we wanted to collect the rainwater from the house roof.
Taking into account that the average rainfall in Badolato is 905mm / year and that our roof surface equals 110m2, we have the potential to store almost 100m3 of water per year.
We chose the closest olive grove from the house to build the cisterns since it is close enough for laying pipes. At the same time, the cisterns would be hidden amongst the trees and not draw too much attention away from the unique landscape.
From the beginning, Diego suggested excavating the holes by hand as the soil is sandy and not too compacted. Despite a certain skepticism, we accepted, and with the help of other volunteers, we started digging.
The first centimetres were easy to dig but soon we found coarse sand that was very compacted and we had to use a pneumatic hammer.
A metal ring helped us to keep the same right diameter during digging.
The first cistern is 2m wide and 3m deep, which amounts to 9m3 or 9,000 liters. The second cistern measures 2m x 3.5m which generates a capacity of 11m3 or 11.000 liters.
To ensure waterproofing capabilities of the cisterns we added a finishing painting layer.
At the beginning of July, the cisterns were ready to be filled and we were able to install the pipe system that connects the roof to one of the cisterns to start harvesting rainwater.
After so many weeks of hard work, we opted to hire an excavator to help us with the trenches for the pipes and also to lift the concrete lids onto the cisterns.
Both cisterns have submerged pumps that are independent of each other, which allows us to switch between them easily.
The latest step was to build a small housing for all the pipes, faucets, and control units. The natural place for this was right between the two cisterns.
The current set-up gives us full control of the water flow, for example, we could decide to pump all the water from one cistern into the other for cleaning purposes.
After some months of using the cisterns, we can proudly say that the whole project fulfilled all our hopes and expectations.
The system is running so efficiently that we are totally independent in terms of water use except for the driest season. This means that we don’t need to buy any communal water for about half the year! We are very happy to have successfully added some level of self-sufficiency to our lives and to this project.
We want to thank all the volunteers and people involved in this project, especially Diego and Rob who played a key role in the design and construction process. You rock guys!