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Soil and Composting: a good article about composting

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trackinsand

trackinsand
mid central, FL
(Zone 9a)

August 23, 2012
5:22 PM

Post #9251633

nutsaboutnature read my post on the voting booth thread today and suggested i post it here for you all to see.
she said she was able to zoom it and read it okay. if you have a mac, you can drag it to photos and then print it out.
i thought it was pretty interesting.

Thumbnail by trackinsand
Click the image for an enlarged view.

Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

August 30, 2012
9:05 AM

Post #9259266

I clicked the image and save it to a separate tab on my browser, then CNTRL+++ to make it bigger. Easier to read. Thanks for a great article. I am trying to figure out if I have made compost or just a mess. I have two 3x3x3 cubes on a stand that allows me to rotate them as often as I like. The stuff is garden clippings, kitchen stuff and shredded paper. Have tried to keep the ratios about right. It has broken down to a wierd mass with lots of tiny flies in the drums. How can you tell when it is 'compost'?

Our weather is cold (55-65F) on average over the summer. Our summer is about over so I guess I should dump the bins and spread the results on the gardens. Alternatively, I can dump the bins and add leaves, cuttings etc and let it sit for the winter then get an early start in the spring. Will the little beasties that make it compost survive the winter or should I add a compost starter in the spring?

trackinsand

trackinsand
mid central, FL
(Zone 9a)

August 30, 2012
9:23 AM

Post #9259301

i hope someone can answer your good questions. i can't because i don't compost. living here in florida, everything turns to soil pretty quickly!
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

August 30, 2012
9:57 AM

Post #9259325

thanks. Me Too. I really want to turn all the stuff that I pack in black garbage bags for the dump into something useful.

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

August 30, 2012
6:59 PM

Post #9259902

A lot of the decomposition is done by bacteria and fungi. Cold won't kill them, just slow them down.

I would urge you to pile together as many leaves and cuttings with coffee grounds and garbage as possible, as soon as possible, so they get a head start before hard freezes set in.

Worms are the other great decomposers, and they must have some strategey for living through the winter. I guess they burrow deep, and maybe hibernate. But if your p;ile is bigt enoguh, it may generate enoguh heat to keep its well-insulated core warm enoguh for them to ovgerwinter right there.

>> How can you tell when it is 'compost'?

It is all-the-way finished when you can't tell what any part of it used to be. If it's all black and crumbly, it is well and truly composted. But many people use it before it goes "all the way".

You can even spot compost (bury) or sheet-compost (spread like mulch) stuff tyhat is not broken down at all yet. It will all (eventually) break down and be eaten, or be eaten and then break down.

I like to compost it in a heap enough that it doesn't look or smell like garbage! And cook it long enough that small wood chips are soft and breaking down. I pick out or screen out any twigs or chips that I put into the pile too big to break down fast enoguh.

My new policy is that whenever I get impatient to recover "the good stuff", or need it, I dig from the center and bottom and screen it and use it. Then I put twigs and big stems back into the heap to keep cooking. Every week I add some scraps from the kitchen to resupply nitrogen to enc ourage the woody or brown remnants to break down faster.


>> should I add a compost starter in the spring?

I don;'t think there is ever any need for store-bought "compost starter", if those are bacteria and such. A shovelfull or two of good rich soil will have the organisms needed. And for sure they overwitnered in \whatever was left of your heap. If cold killed them, any soil that ever froze would become almost useless for gasrdening every year.

If "store-bought compost starter" is mainly a source of nitrogen and organics, it can't hurt, but won't help your heap any more than garbage, coffee grounds, molasses or nitrogen fertilizer would. Save the money, and spend it on bark mulch or wood chips instead.
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

August 30, 2012
8:11 PM

Post #9259974

All sounds good. Thanks Corey. I will dump both bins out and fish out the big stuff to go back into the bins. One is pretty fine stuff and all of it is black. Do you have those little nits flying around your stuff. Annoying little buggers... no pun. lol

sallyg

sallyg
Anne Arundel,, MD
(Zone 7b)

August 31, 2012
6:05 AM

Post #9260214

I agree with all RicC's advice.
You may have different things ping on than what we have in more temperate- to tropical (track) zones , but the basics are the same.

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

August 31, 2012
7:10 PM

Post #9261035

>> Do you have those little nits flying around your stuff.

No, never. But I usually have my heap on the "brown" side, low in Nitrogen. When I add kitchen garbage, I bury and mix it with stuff that is brown or even woody. I always bury it at least 3-6" deep. I've dumped diced overage hot dogs, milk, cottage cheese, and lots of rotting apple scraps. Nothing ever bothers my heap, probably because there is alwys an outer layer of dry brown stems or dry part-finished compost. And I live in near-city conditions, no hungry forest critters digging deep for lunch.

Maybe add less water, to discourage bugs? Just a thing to try.

If your mix is richer than necessary, it may get slimy and stinky and attract bugs. That's an invitation to add more paper or sawdust or brown leaves. Then you'll get much more bulk of compost, and waste less N.

"They" say you can run a heap on 20 parts brown to one part green (5% green), but that seems WAY lean to me. I sometimes start thjat lean when I have a lot of chipped branches to add, but I add kitchen scraps and green plant cutitngs until it approaches 1/4 green (25%).

>> two 3x3x3 cubes on a stand that allows me to rotate them as often as I like

I would expect frequent turning to expose some raw material to insects, especially kitchen scraps. Maybe try tumbling it less often - like only when you add smelly things and want to bury them.
Give green or slimy bits more time buried before turning them to the top.


How easy would it be to post a photo? Here is my heap at its very woodiest. One photo also shows the kind of clay soil I'm trying to amend, in a pile between my heap and some trees.

Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA   Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA   Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA      
Click an image for an enlarged view.

Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 1, 2012
7:32 AM

Post #9261339

I will run out and take a picture of both bins as soon as the downpour stops. I think I misunderstood. I thought once it started going dark and you couldn't see any raw stuff (though there are plenty of identifiable lumps of wood and such) that you were supposed to stop adding to the pile. I would guess you are right and I need more brown. I have shredded paper and that is about it. Right now I am starting the cleanup and cut down as I rearrange my garden for the winter in prep for next spring. Lots of green stuff could go in. Better get back to the shredding project quick. And I guess you are right about not spinning the drums. I was trying to assure adequate oxygen. And also perhaps got it too wet. Are you in the hot part of Washington. When I visited my son in Vancouver, WA and near Portland, Or I was aghast at how hot it was several years ago. In the +90's. Wayyyy too hot for me, but great if you are working a compost pile.
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 1, 2012
8:12 AM

Post #9261366

Well, I braved the rain (it slowed up a bunch) and here are the pictures. I started adding green stuff just the other day after reading this thread. The first is a picture of the whole setup. The second picture is the drum iI started second. The third and fourth pictures are of the one that I began to work with first during the spring before I got the drums. Just dumped stuff in a huge (3' across and deep) pot.

Thumbnail by Oberon46   Thumbnail by Oberon46   Thumbnail by Oberon46   Thumbnail by Oberon46   
Click an image for an enlarged view.

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

September 1, 2012
8:46 PM

Post #9261992

>> Are you in the hot part of Washington.

No, the cool wet part. Less than two miles from the Sound (Possesion Sound where I am, not Puget Sound). I call it the Pacific NorthWet.

This year we had 50 degree nights well into June, then a few more 45-50 degree night in mid-August. The "hot spell" was when the days finally went above 70!

Hmm, you can't be TOO far into the green side, because it doesn't look slimy. Probably the rapid turning DOES keep it aerobic. But you don't have as much actual organic matter as I thought: I pictured a 3' cube FULL of clippings. I'm surprised that such a small quantity decomposes fast enoguh to attract flies, especially in cool weather! Maybe those are really hungry flies.

I think it would cook faster if one cube was mostly full, with just enough room that it can aerate & mix when you turn it. One big heap cooks faster than two small heaps.

If you see any worms, toss a few in. Maybe a little rich soil also, to innoculate the bins. Or leave the contents on the ground for a week beofre loading it into the bins, to attract micro-critters that will break it down.

If I were putting in whole plants like that, I would expect them to take 4-8 weeks to break down in my pile. Sometimes I chop them up a bit before adding them. I guess I think of green things as the "spice" that attracts and encourages bacteria, bugs & worms to eat faster. Like grinding garlic, pepper or chili powder finer, to get the flavor from it faster.


>> I thought once it started going dark and you couldn't see any raw stuff (though there are plenty of identifiable lumps of wood and such) that you were supposed to stop adding to the pile.

My policy is to stop adding BIG stuff, or HARD stuff as early as I can, just becuase it will take several more months (at least) for those big chunks to break down. I guess now that I screen the good stuff out whenever I ned it, I COULD keep adding big stuff forever. But instead I park anything woody to one side of the main heap, for the next heap, maybe next spring.

If I were smart, I would have mowed the woody bits a third or fourth time before adding them. Then I wouldn't be picking and screening as much.

Anything soft and green, I will add at any time, because my pile usually needs more N.

Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 2, 2012
8:38 AM

Post #9262336

Okay. I think I am getting the idea. I stopped adding stuff way too soon. And I don't think I could sift either bin. It is very wet, not dripping, but very moist.
Your weather sounds identical to ours, with the obvious exception of several feet of snow in the winter. The last month or so we have one to three days of rains (light to torrential), then a couple of days of clear days and warm (65-70). My dahlias love it. Dan, in Ohio, said that they have had no rain to speak of. Pure drought. Last year he said it was like a monsoon all summer. Go figure. So I can't complain. Our weather is fairly consistent, either a little dryer or a little wetter. June broke our record for rain days though. I will dig up some worms of which I have lots, and am looking for a home grinder to get the stuff down finer. Uh, grind the green stuff NOT the worms. lol

Thanks for the help.
Mary
ssgardener
Silver Spring, MD
(Zone 7a)

September 2, 2012
9:19 AM

Post #9262360

Rick, the 20:1 ratio is for carbon:nitrogen, which is different from brown:green ratio.

Grass already has a 20:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio. Leaves have a 60:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio.

For aerobic composting, you're supposed to have 25-30:1 C:N ratio. I find that half brown (leaves) and half green (grass) gets me to 30:1 C:N and really hot aerobic composting.
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 2, 2012
9:29 AM

Post #9262366

WE are going to Sears and AIH today to see if I can find a good shredder chipper. I figured if it spit out a good mulch I could use some of it between plants to keep down weeds and hold moisture and dump a bunch into the compost bins along with grass clippings and shredded paper. A shovel of dirt complete with night crawlers should get it going. Once the bin is loaded then it gets tricky figuring the ratios to add. I hate to get picky about it and maybe use a bucket to keep the different materials in even amounts. Shouldn't be that difficult to rot stuff but it sure seems like it is.

RickCorey_WA

RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA
(Zone 8a)

September 3, 2012
1:00 AM

Post #9262988

>> For aerobic composting, you're supposed to have 25-30:1 C:N ratio. I find that half brown (leaves) and half green (grass) gets me to 30:1 C:N and really hot aerobic composting.

That explains why it seemed to me that "everyone got it wrong". I would expect that "half and half" or 1:1 brown/green WOULD cook very hot! I used to think of 4:1 as "quite rich".

The next time I have an unusual amount of green stuff, I'll try a small heap of 2:1 and see if it gets hotter than my usual efforts. The only time my heap got even warm was when I kept adding kitchen waste to the center, until the best-insulated spot was also the rishest in N, and it was well-mixed with compoost that was already cooing as fast as it could on what I guess was a N-starvation diet.

Of course, no small heap is going to get very hot, no matter how well-balanced it is. No insulation, it dries out too fast, and no "critical mass".

>> A shovel of dirt complete with night crawlers should get it going.

Great!

>> I hate to get picky about it and maybe use a bucket to keep the different materials in even amounts.

Naah, I still don't think the proportions are critical. Apparently, I've been off by a factor of 4-10 all my life and I still got compost every year (it just took me longer than it had to).

Too many browns just means that it cooks slower. If you get impatient, add more greens.

If you have too many greens, it will often get slimy and smelly. Anything that smells more like garbage than soil probably has too many greens. Maybe take a few shovelfulls out and replace with paper or brown leaves.

>> It is very wet, not dripping, but very moist.

I bet that less water will mean fewer flies. But as long as it has enough air (and a tumbler makes frequent turning and hence total aeartion easy), excess water won't prevent rotting.

I think that as soon as you see some "happy compost", you'll know exactly how to adjust future piles so that they feel and smell like a "happy" pile. And "happy" piles cook faster.
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 3, 2012
8:58 AM

Post #9263279

It would seem that I need to just add some new materials to get the old ones jumped up and working faster.

sallyg

sallyg
Anne Arundel,, MD
(Zone 7b)

September 3, 2012
1:12 PM

Post #9263534

>> A shovel of dirt complete with night crawlers should get it going.

Well, the worms will flee from hot green grass clippings but will return on their own when they find what they like. Add dirt for the microbes.
Oberon46
(Mary) Anchorage, AK
(Zone 5b)

September 3, 2012
2:06 PM

Post #9263587

All duly noted. I am armed and going after the compost...lol

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