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I am planning to start a terrace garden and to generate compost for it. I found two sellers Seller1 and Seller2 in my city. Seller1 has "patented microbes" and Seller2 has microbes, saw dust, dry leaves and treated coconut husk to help in composting. The problem is that I'll have to purchase these microbes and extra composting material every month, and the cost seems much higher than what I'll be saving from the vegetables I cultivate.

Problem specifics:

  1. Seller1 says that if I don't want to purchase the microbes every month, I could take half of the old compost and re-use the microbes, but I wouldn't be able to do that more than two cycles, and would need fresh microbes. Each handful of "patented" microbes costs Rs.300. (To compare that to your currency, a loaf of bread here costs Rs.30)

  2. Seller2 has cheaper microbes at Rs.60, but also requires us to purchase sacks of dry leaves + saw dust + treated coconut husk for Rs.140.

Questions:

  1. Is there a simple, safe way for us to culture and grow these microbes ourselves (and not have to spend so much money for other raw materials needed for composting), instead of depending on what looks like a clear business strategy by these sellers? Is it really so necessary to purchase these microbes?

  2. If I take the top soil from some land which has flourishing plants and use it in my flower pots, won't it already have the necessary microbes? If I water the soil regularly and provide sufficient shade, wont the microbes continue thriving such that I won't need to do any composting in the first place? If I ever need more microbes, couldn't I just get some fresh soil from that land again? The empty plot of land full of wild plants and weeds is just next to my house. If I throw organic kitchen waste there, won't the composting happen automatically, so that I won't have to buy any composting equipment or spend time on composting?

The cost kills the enthusiasm of doing composting for the sake of gardening.

  • 3
    Ask for the patent number. If it is patented, the patent file is public (it is the principle of patent) , so we can check what they do as "magic". But as you probably know, it is just a scam word (some people say "patent pending" (such files are not public, but a patent pending longer then two years (usually more then half year) is a failed patent. – Giacomo Catenazzi Apr 10 '18 at 9:59
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    @GiacomoCatenazzi, yeah it sounds more like a sales pitch. If you compost the right way (use the right combination of greens and browns), you don't need to add the microbes yourself. – benn Apr 10 '18 at 10:02
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    I've got some guaranteed permanent-use microbes for sale if you're interested. Cash only, though. $1000/g. – Peter4075 Apr 10 '18 at 10:35
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    How did we ever get by before patented microbes? I mean, it is lucky anyone in the past was ever able to compost anything - ever. I jest, but really if you throw a bunch of organic matter together in the presence of moisture and air, it'll eventually decompose - even if it has been sterilized previously. C:N ratios and microbial boosts can boost the rate of decomposition, but I can't see it being worth paying extra for. – That Idiot Apr 10 '18 at 13:05
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    Aren't microbes everywhere in our world? No need to pay money for them at all. – Trilarion Apr 11 '18 at 7:18
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The way i was taught composting is, fence off a piece of soil, and just chuck stuff in. Nature will do the rest. Worms, bacteria, insects will do all the needed eating of biggies, sugars, etc.. and convert it to sweet stuff for plants.

Dig it up, mash it around once a week to properly mix everything and you have a nice compost stewing. Stuff will decompose on itself, provided it's moist enough to harbour life, but not too moist to drown it and has plenty of oxygen to sustain it(hence the regularly mixing it up)

Since you are on a terrace, you might want to go bughunting. Hunt down a few rainworms, woodlice, and other mulch fans and chuck em in the compost, they'll have a blast there.
If you do this, don't throw any garlic or onion family scraps in there as it will most likely kill your little helpers and then you have only the bacteria left to break down the big stuff, which takes longer.

Also, feel free to throw in some coffee grounds and tea in there, without bags and paper, to add some extra nitrogen, phosforous and potassium boost to your compost.

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    We have been composting coffee grounds and used tea bags for almost two decades (including paper filters, bags, strings), and the worms in our three bins just love that stuff. We did buy some worms once when we started composting, and they have been propagating ever since (San Francisco Bay Area, so basically no frost) – njuffa Apr 10 '18 at 21:03
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    I agree of course that such plastic parts do not belong in compost. I would advocate the use of common sense in this regard. While the teabags we use do not have the kind of explicit labeling you suggest people look for, they do not have any plastic parts and rot away completely. – njuffa Apr 11 '18 at 6:05
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    True, but one might want to keep the following markers in mind. If the tag is glossy finish, you might wish to remove it. You might also want to remove the staple to prevent too much iron/copper/tin in your soil. Check if the bag is paper or plastic. Lipton here in Europe usually serves it flavoured tea in plastic triangle bags. Also make sure that when you have flavoured tea that the flavor doesn't come from sponges with chemical flavour enhancers. Those sponges might not be natural materials/compostable. When in doubt, call the manufacturer what those flavour buds are made of. – Tschallacka Apr 11 '18 at 7:11
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    @stormy Not all fertilizers are made equal. Stuff like potassium, magnesium and other metals are very important nutrients also. They will remain in the compost heap, enriching the ground, producing healthier crops. I never stated it was meant as a fertilizer, but it will keep and distribute the needed scarce elements the plants need. A lot of the waste products left by bacteria are also beneficial to plants. – Tschallacka Apr 12 '18 at 10:16
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    Good answer but don't forget fungus. Some dead man's fingers will really get things going. Especially important if you compost anything woody. Woody plants might take a little longer. I just pull anything out that's not broken down and completely and toss it back in. I've also had a community of red wrigglers move in and they are really thriving. Never had any issues with onions or garlic. – JimmyJames Apr 12 '18 at 13:35
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Why do you have to buy compost resources? Are you not able to make it yourself? You need greens and browns, microbes will enter the process for free.

There are many posts about how to make compost, for example here. If you have space for compost heaps I would just start gathering greens and browns yourself.

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    Wow! It's almost like those sellers are running a scam by convincing us that we need to purchase that stuff. The composting containers they sell are worth Rs.1500 to Rs.3000, when I could have just used waste plastic buckets. – Nav Apr 10 '18 at 10:28
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    Yes, maybe you should try it yourself first. It shouldn't be so difficult. I have a plastic box following these instructions here. But I didn't even used dirt or soil for it, just greens and browns. – benn Apr 10 '18 at 10:34
  • @Nav most stuff can be handcrafted by people (with varying degrees of difficulty). For some of them, the value of the product the companies are selling is the convenience of not - - - 1) Securing the materials and - - - 2) Doing said handcraft yourself. You need to understand this convenience to see if the price is worth the (saved) effort. – Mindwin Apr 10 '18 at 12:42
  • The link1 is about Bokashi. – Graham Chiu Apr 10 '18 at 20:28
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You don't need to purchase microbes in order to compost stuff (the purchased products look like they're just supposed to speed up the process). Microbes are naturally on the vegetable scraps you put in the compost, in the air, in the soil, and all over other stuff. If there were no microbes, the food wouldn't rot.

Just look up how to compost stuff online. I'm not an expert on the subject, but I know people don't usually add microbes.

It should be noted that banana and onion scraps should contain FOS, which is a prebiotic—which may help the process along (potentially as much as adding microbes, depending on what the microbes are).

You also asked about microbes in garden soil. Yes, the soil naturally has microbes. It may or may not serve you well without compost for a good while. Some soils have more microbes than others. Avoid using things like Calcium nitrate fertilizer, which can kill microbes. There are more purposes for compost than the microbes, however. Organic matter and humic acid are very helpful in a garden.

In my experience, you can add scraps directly to the garden and they'll decompose quickly if you mix them with soil and cover them with soil. The soil microbes do seem to help decompose things. If you just throw the scraps on the ground it could take a couple years to decompose. However, you'll probably want to mix it with the soil at least a few months before you plant anything in it, or it may interfere. However, if there are rats or such nearby, be careful about this, and especially don't add meat to it (meat is said to attract rodents fairly well, and to be dangerous to use in compost anyway). However, I know people do use fish and fish products (e.g. Fish emulsion) in their gardens (I've never heard of people composting them in a compost bin, though).

The disadvantage of mixing and burrying your vegetable scraps is that there's no centralized place for it—your compost will be wherever you bury it, and you may have to choose a variety of locations. Other than that, it's actually my preferred method (since it's so fast)!

  • Seller 2 also sells bottles filled with a combination of cow urine, milk, ghee and two other cow-based liquids. This is meant to be sprayed on plants :-) – Nav Apr 10 '18 at 11:06
  • @Nav What on EARTH is that meant to do?? It sounds like an expensive way to end up with smelly plants. – BunnyKnitter Apr 10 '18 at 16:56
  • I don't have a clue of what that's supposed to do :-) This is at an outlet of seller2 where the guy seems to be getting all sorts of stuff from farmers and selling it to anyone who is willing to believe what he says. There's a lot being done in the name of the cow in India. – Nav Apr 10 '18 at 17:08
  • @SnyperBunny Cow urine is a snake oil of India. Seems to be partially religious based. – Carcigenicate Apr 11 '18 at 21:20
  • Well, urine can be used like a nitrogen fertilizer, at least, and ammonia (which is in urine) is supposed to stimulate microbes to break it down or something. If it's raw milk, it might have some good soil microbes in it already (but perhaps not the ones that turn scraps into compost). I don't know what to say about ghee. – Shule Apr 12 '18 at 3:04
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Perhaps there is some confusion here in regard to what method of composting these 'suppiers' are talking about. If you're using the Bokashi system, then you do need to buy an activated mix when you refill your bucket - but you also need to bury the contents in soil when they're fermented enough.

It depends how much space you've got for composting - a compost bin or heap should be no less than 3x3x3 feet square, or an equal volume in a compost container. Depending on how much you're growing, if that's not a lot, it might take quite a while to fill up the container, as well as being able to source enough browns to greens.

When you say terrace gardening, it's not clear whether you mean potted plants on a terrace or paved area, or whether you mean terraced levels of open soil. If you mean potted plants, then you need to produce your compost aerobically so that it gets hot enough to kill off weed seeds and pathogens if you want to use the resulting compost in your pots. But if you mean terraced areas of open soil, then it's not so important to produce your compost aerobically, because any pathogens contained within it will be harmless used in open ground. With either aerobic or anaerobic composting in heaps or large bins, you do not need to purchase microbes.

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Another possibility, related to that suggested by @Tschallacka, is to engage in vermiculture inside your home. A box approximately 60cm x 60cm x 45cm, which can contain the food scraps and some shredded newspaper, with a lid, is about the size I used for several years. You'd want to locate some Eisenia fetida, and you need to make sure the box has good ventilation (not forced, but passive). You'd also want to make sure the box has vents in the bottom, but they need to be small enough that the scraps/worms don't fall through, and that means you'll want some sort of catchment underneath it.

I still do this today (though I have a very large box in my basement, so the scale is completely different), and I've only had to replace the worms once after a centipede killed most of the worms.

3

Prepared fermentation bacteria serve one purpose: to make processes reliable. You have a similar situation with sourdough: the "traditional" method is to take some of your sourdough for seeding the next batch. Now in a bakery, when due to changed temperatures or invading bacteria a batch goes bad, we are talking about tons of dough not being fit for baking and having to get thrown away and customers not getting served. So bakeries tend not to rely on the closed circle of existing dough or spontaneously fermenting dough since the risk of a batch going bad is higher than seeding (in multiple stages) in a one-way process using bacteria batches as starters from companies specializing on them and maintaining constant quality.

For private composters, the consequences of a batch going bad are much smaller. You can still bury rotten compost (there is a higher risk of rat infestation though) and clean out your compost container. I'd just use leftover compost as starter. Only when you get consistently mould, and icky rut and slime and stuff would it seem to make some sense trying to restart with commercially available starters/bacteria.

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Compost shouldn't be so hard. All you have to do is throw a handful of rich soil in with your greens and browns and keep moist but not wet and turned to aerate. You can add a little molassis or sugar to feed those microbes. That little bit of rich soil is where the good microbes are introduced to the mix. Once the earthworms come it's a party.

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