How I make compost
Good compost requires work and planning but the financial cost is negligible, the benefit to the plantings is huge and the satisfaction from recycling waste to worth, palpable.
Location -the compost heap should be in the shade, ideally deciduous trees where the shade in the summer protects the heap from drying out and in the winter there is some sun/heat penetration to keep the process on the boil. A negative to shade from trees is the roots of the trees, which will tap into the heap and suck out the nutrients. While a tarpaulin on the ground will prevent the roots accessing the heap, a tarp also prevents the earthworms and other good guys from reaching the heap. My solution is to only use the tarp for the finished compost, which, ideally, is stacked separately.
Self standing – my compost heaps stand by themselves, so there are no sides to construct or remove when turning or accessing the heap.
Use recycled materials:
• kitchen waste – I use all vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, egg shells and vegetable leftovers;
• leaf bags – I have a small pickup truck and in the fall collect the leaf bags conveniently curbside located by my neighbors;
• weeds and post prime plants from the vegetable garden (except for diseased plants);
• horse manure – I drive my pickup to local stables where they load my truck with matured/maturing steaming manure. There is no fee but I contribute $15 each visit to their fund for introducing children to horses. I believe their hay is free of noxious chemicals since I have not noted any ill-effects on my plantings;
• existing compost including earthworms is added in healthy doses to boost the process.
I do not add grass clippings from neighbors’ yards since these have been treated with chemicals which will decimate earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
Mixing – I usually fork up the soil where the compost heap will be located and remove stones. Thus organisms in the soil can more easily migrate to the heap and, more importantly, so can earthworms. Then ingredients are added alternately and, if dry, are moistened with a hose. With a pitchfork, material is pulled from the sides and added to the top – this steepens the sides which concentrates the heat in the heap. In winter the heap is covered with a tarp weighed with stones at the base and 2×4’s on the sides. In summer this is not necessary.
Progress – the compost heap should heat up within a few days and should be turned after a month or so. If it smells it is too wet. Turning achieves several objectives – moving material from the sides to the center (otherwise it will not decompose); ensuring the heap is still moist; is oxygenated; and the layers are mixed up to ensure better interaction. If mixed in the fall, the compost heap, after two turnings, should be usable, in the South, by May.
Other supplements to the compost heap
I do add wood chips to the compost heap but not fresh wood chips which absorb nitrogen and require a lot of work to break down. The wood chips delivered by the utility company are usually from freshly cut trees which encroached on their right of way. These wood chips go into a separate pile to age. However, dead trees ideally with fungi, such as turkey tail, make great candidates. I grind/chip them with a woodchipper attached to the pto drive of my tractor and direct the streams of chips onto the compost heap. I am taking more interest in the aging of wood chips from sound trees and am experimenting with running different types of mycelium through the wood chip mound. The objective is to have a better input for the compost heap or for mulch for my fruit trees and the walkways amongst the vegetable beds.
November 2012 update
A few additional thoughts.
- Starter compost is really important, as are starter grains for yogurt or kefir – see my post on kefir. The starter compost should be alive, which means it should never have been allowed to dry out nor be too aged. In addition to the starter compost, I build my compost heaps in the same location so there is a beneficial environment with helpers on standby ready to enter the new heap.
- I mention placing finished compost on a tarpaulin to prevent accession by tree roots. This is not a good practice. Once the compost is ready it should be integrated with the soil. The tarp prevents transmigration of living elements between the compost and the soil, which is a continuing process. It also allows moisture from the ground to enter the heap. If the heap dries out the living elements will die out and the heap will lose its vitality. So while the heap is alive, which means while the micro organisms and worms are still active working on materials not fully composted, the compost should be added to the growing areas.
- Since I have excellent starter compost I may temporarily discontinue using horse manure. Not because of the collection effort required but a concern with the outcome of a control test I performed in March – see my post on horse manure control test. I shall perform additional control tests before incorporating horse manure.