Soil and Compost forum: Musing about Compost

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Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 15, 2013 6:41 PM CST
When composting, "everything works". Details of the "right way" to build a compost heap only matter if you want to win a prize for "fastest heap in town", or "hottest heap".

True, a really hot, fast heap will kill more weed seeds than a cool, slow heap, but you could also avoid throwing weeds that have gone to seed into your main heap.

If you worry about pathogens from animal manure, or persistent herbicides or pesticides not breaking down, then you may want to make the hottest heap you can make, and age it further after it's done composting. And/or test it for herbicides before you add something to the heap or before you use the finished heap.

Almost everyone I read is careful to thoroughly compost most fresh animal manures. I think rabbit manure may be an exception. Cat poop is especially bad. It contains oocysts that persist in the soil for up to ten years and they actually CAN infect humans. (Google "oocysts of toxoplasma gondii").

The only way you could not succeed at composting is if your neighborhood association nags you.

Or wild animals could drag away your food scraps before they decompose. That's why most people won't compost meat or fatty scraps or dairy. I have gotten away with burying small amounts of spoiled meat deeply in the pile.

There are some invasive plants that spread by runnering (ivy and Burmuda grass). Don't compost them. Maybe roast them in the sun and burn them, then drive a stake through their hearts.

Instead of making a compost pile, you could sheet compost ("lasagna gardening") or spot compost (bury it in holes between rows).

No matter what you do with organic matter, it will rot.
(Just don't seal it tight in plastic bags and store it in a freezer.)

Well, a compost pile could go smelly and slimy if 2-3 things all go wrong at the same time:
- not enough air,
- and too much water,
- and too much "green" high-nitrogen stuff.

One fast fix is to deny it water. Dry compost rots very slowly, and then any amount of air is enough to make it smell OK.

The very best fix is to throw down an amount of paper or sawdust or brown shredded leaves equal to the pile you already have, and turn the slimy stuff on top of it. The anaerobic N-rich slime will soak down into the paper or leaves and cure itself. And then it will all be ready to use very soon.

But there are many ways to fix a slimy, smelly heap. The cause is that it is decomposing too fast for the amount of air that can diffuse in.

Air 1 -
Turning the heap will mix air back in.

Air 2 -
Throwing in some twigs or stiff stems from yard waste as you turn the heap will also keep it "fluffed up" so it has enough air whether you turn it again or not.

Air 3 -
Making the pile smaller or not-as-tall lets more air in.

Air 4 -
Clever people will use a length of rebar or pipe to punch or drill holes into the pile. If you "build the rebar into the pile" as you turn it or build it, it's easy. Just push it back and forth weekly with some heaving or cork-screwing to open an air channel.

Air 5 & Excess Water 1 -

Very clever people will throw down a layer of branches and twigs on the ground before they build up the heap. This will hold the heap up a little, and let air come in from underneath. It also helps excess water drain out if you have heavy clay soil.

However, as the OM decays, it will sift down and fill that air space, at which point you have to pull the twigs out or screen them out. I don't like that method because I like to shovel the black, crumbly bottom layer out, and spread it on top of the heap, or use it right away in my garden.

Excess Water 2 -
Stop adding any water. If it rains too much, shape the top of the heap to shed rain, and try to cover it with big leaves or part of a tarp or plastic bag.

Excess Water 3 -
Or build your pile under a tree with lots of leaves (but try to avoid tree roots taking over your pile). Pine tree roots sucked all the goodness out of my pile once.

Too Much High-N "green" stuff.

There can never be too much compost! Therefore, it isn't "too much green", it is really "not enough brown". Adding mostly-carbon stuff will make your pile much bigger and you'll get more compost out of it.

I think of the greens as expensive spices, or as the roast beef in a sandwich. The browns are the less nutritious bread or mashed potatoes. If I have too much roast beef for one sandwich, I make two sandwiches!

If I need lots of compost but only have a few greens, I use lots more brown than green, even if it cooks slower or is less rich when finished. The soil needs organic matter, and there are many cheap ways to add nitrogen.

- brown leaves
- shredded paper or any paper including newspaper or cardboard
- sawdust
- chipped wood, but chips and twigs break down SLOWLY in most climates. So FINELY chipped wood is better
- rice hulls
- cotton waste?
- mill waste

If you have a lot of paper or cardboard, but don't want it to mat down and choke out air, you can soak it and then tear it by hand or chop it up with a mattock or shovel. (Tip from Dave, I think)

Or alternate layers of paper and stiff green stems. When it does start to mat down tight, then chop it up with a mattock so it's easier to turn, and do turn it often enough to let air in despite big pieces of paper or cardboard.

Currently, my best source of high-N "greens" is a fruit stand where I buy apples. They let me take away supermarket bags-full of their discards. Not all are rotten and stinky!

[Last edited by RickCorey - Oct 16, 2013 10:19 AM (+)]
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Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
Charter ATP Member Seed Starter Tomato Heads I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Vegetable Grower Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge)
Birds Garden Ideas: Master Level Butterflies Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Roses Hummingbirder
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Newyorkrita
Oct 15, 2013 6:46 PM CST
Rick, I make compost. I just pile whatever up in a pile way in my Backyard and ignore it. Eventually I get lovely compost. I never even think about it. It just happens.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 15, 2013 7:07 PM CST
I agree that it's hard to go wrong, but I enjoy playing with my heap.

The most useful thing I've learned (besides DON'T let a pine tree root system steal your pile from you) is that the sooner you grab the compost, the better.

The idea of "aging" compost that's mostly finished no longer appeals to me. That just loses soluble nutrients and lets compost-heap-microbes eat more organic matter that could have been fed to soil microbes.
Name: Deb
Pacific Northwest (Zone 8b)
Region: Pacific Northwest Organic Gardener Herbs Dragonflies Dog Lover Keeper of Poultry
Birds Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge) Garden Ideas: Master Level Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Garden Sages Plant Identifier
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Bonehead
Oct 15, 2013 8:17 PM CST
Good information Rick, thanks.
I want to live in a world where the chicken can cross the road without its motives being questioned.
Name: Sandi
Austin, Tx (Zone 8b)
Texas Gardening
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Bubbles
Oct 15, 2013 10:03 PM CST
Rick, you have an article's worth of information! You should have submitted it.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 16, 2013 10:37 AM CST
Thanks very much, both of you! The discussion of "soil" as a possible topic of an "ATP Plant Week" made me start writing an article, but polishing an article takes a lot of time.

After I got this half typed, I decided to make it a thread, instead, and see if it would attract any other rough drafts for articles about composting, amending soil or mulching. We could make a "soil series" by linking articles to each other, like articles in a magazine or chapters in a book.

I'm accumulating several rough drafts for articles, mostly about saving, drying and storing seeds. But I want to include photos, and good photos are hard to get.

Also, my Impossible Dream is to make them less wordy!

In this case, "composting", there are several more ideas I would want to get in, like:

- how compost helps soil (feeding microflora, soil structure, tilth, aeration, drainage, water retention
- mineral nutrients aren't very concentrated in compost, like 1-1-1 (*)
- whether the the FSMA rules about composting animal manure are too fussy
- the risk of putting persistent herbicides into compost
- more ideas for finding raw materials

I figure that many or most ATP members already know anything I have to say about composting, but I still hope for "on the other hand" posts, or "I do it this way" posts. With the authors' permission, I would work those into an article and give credit. That's how I learned about lasagna gardening / sheet composting and planting in it right away.

Someone else started a compost thread, a year or more ago, but I think that experienced gardeners mostly react "yeah, I know".

(*)
http://www.lundproduce.com/N-P-K-Value-of-Everything.html
http://www.sunset.com/garden/garden-basics/crash-course-fert...
[Last edited by RickCorey - Oct 16, 2013 10:48 AM (+)]
Give a thumbs up | Quote | Post #499223 (6)
Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
Charter ATP Member Seed Starter Tomato Heads I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Vegetable Grower Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge)
Birds Garden Ideas: Master Level Butterflies Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Roses Hummingbirder
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Newyorkrita
Oct 16, 2013 10:40 AM CST
But you would still have a very good article to submit as a Garden Idea. Thumbs up
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 16, 2013 10:57 AM CST
Thanks, and it is on my list to polish and submit.

Let me check - I have five closely-related short drafts in process about seed drying, long-term seed storage and desiccants. These mostly just need photos, and I hope I get them done while it is still seed-drying season!

Plus four other drafts :
slug tips
Bottom-watering seedling trays with cotton flannel
Insulate your seedling trays on heating pads
"OP" vs "OP"
Name: Jennifer
48036 MI (Zone 6b)
Cottage Gardener Houseplants Spiders! Heucheras Frogs and Toads Dahlias
Hummingbirder Sedums Winter Sowing Peonies Region: Michigan Garden Ideas: Level 2
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jvdubb
Oct 16, 2013 11:24 AM CST
I don't make my own compost. I never have enough brown ingredients. And I'm paranoid about rats. I know, if its done right it shouldn't attract vermin but I can't take any chances. Also, I have two dogs, one of which just loves to get into stuff like that. I just find it easier to buy the lovely bags of compost from my local nursery.

I do "steal" the bags of leaves the neighborhood puts out in the fall. I shred them and store them. Then the next year I incorporate them into my soil mix I use for planting.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 16, 2013 11:40 AM CST
>> I never have enough brown ingredients.

I know what you mean!

>> I just find it easier to buy the lovely bags of compost from my local nursery.

The "bulk" compost around here comes from "Cedar Grove", and they make a product that seems to be 80% - 90% wood shavings. Bleah! And it's pricey. Maybe I should buy one bag, to see if the bagged product is lots better than the cubic-yard product.

Instead, when I run out of "my" compost (which is "always"), I buy something in bags called a "manure-compost blend", which seems to be mostly aged, dried manure. At $1.25 per cubic foot, it seems worth it.

>> I do "steal" the bags of leaves the neighborhood puts out in the fall.

You recycle them!
You sequester their carbon footprint!
You help the town collect them as a public service!

>> I shred them and store them. Then the next year I incorporate them into my soil mix I use for planting.

Thanks for pointing out a third alternative to sheet composting and spot composting! Direct incorporation, mixed into soil. I hope you don't mind if I "steal" that idea for my article.

For example:

"Instead of making a compost pile, you could use the raw ingredients for mulching or sheet composting or "lasagna gardening". Or you can spot compost (bury raw organic material in holes or trenches between rows. Or shred leaves, paper, etc., and mix them directly into the soil before planting."


[Last edited by RickCorey - Oct 16, 2013 11:46 AM (+)]
Give a thumbs up | Quote | Post #499261 (10)
Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
Charter ATP Member Seed Starter Tomato Heads I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Vegetable Grower Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge)
Birds Garden Ideas: Master Level Butterflies Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Roses Hummingbirder
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Newyorkrita
Oct 16, 2013 11:48 AM CST
Rick, get out your camera and take pictures!
Name: Jennifer
48036 MI (Zone 6b)
Cottage Gardener Houseplants Spiders! Heucheras Frogs and Toads Dahlias
Hummingbirder Sedums Winter Sowing Peonies Region: Michigan Garden Ideas: Level 2
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jvdubb
Oct 16, 2013 12:08 PM CST
Steal away Rick!
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 16, 2013 12:15 PM CST
We need a "Thank You" smiley!

Group hug
Name: Rita
North Shore, Long Island, NY
Zone 6B
Charter ATP Member Seed Starter Tomato Heads I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Vegetable Grower Lover of wildlife (Raccoon badge)
Birds Garden Ideas: Master Level Butterflies Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Roses Hummingbirder
Image
Newyorkrita
Oct 16, 2013 12:39 PM CST
I tip my hat to you. How about Tip Hat?
Name: David Paul
(Zone 9b)
Cat Lover Hibiscus Seed Starter Native Plants and Wildflowers Vegetable Grower Region: Florida
Miniature Gardening Keeper of Poultry Herbs Foliage Fan Farmer Dragonflies
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DavidofDeLand
Oct 16, 2013 12:49 PM CST
I have enjoyed your well written and fun composting information. Thank you! I tip my hat to you.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
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RickCorey
Oct 16, 2013 1:50 PM CST
*Blush*

Thanks, David. I've enjoyed your detailed posts also.
Name: Kathleen Tenpas
Wickwire Corners NY (Zone 5a)
Charter ATP Member I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! The WITWIT Badge Raises cows Region: New York Farmer
Garden Ideas: Level 1
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Kathleen
Oct 17, 2013 9:00 AM CST
Rick, there was an old guy on another site who's favorite thing to say about compost was: 'Compost happens' It's funny how freaked out we all get when the thing is a totally natural process that will happen no matter what we do. Good information and well organized comments notwithstanding ; )

Name: Terri Hamilton
Rockford, Illinois (Zone 5b)
Butterflies Organic Gardener Composter Cat Lover Garden Ideas: Level 1
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holity
Oct 17, 2013 10:07 AM CST
I have one of those black plastic bins. This past spring, a colony of bumblebees made a nest in there! They moved on sometime during the summer. (I looked it up and found that bumblebees move their colonies all the time... they don't make a permanent hive)
My blog, which occasionally talks about gardening: http://holity.blogspot.com/
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Vegetable Grower
Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database. Charter ATP Member
Image
RickCorey
Oct 17, 2013 12:58 PM CST
>> It's funny how freaked out we all get when the thing is a totally natural process that will happen no matter what we do

I think we just love fiddling with things that we love.
It makes us feel more involved in the circle of life.

Name: Linda
Carmel, IN (Zone 5a)
Forum moderator I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! Charter ATP Member Region: Indiana Dog Lover Container Gardener
Seed Starter Herbs Vegetable Grower Cut Flowers Butterflies Birds
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mom2goldens
Oct 17, 2013 7:10 PM CST
I started composting about 2 years ago. I live on a suburban lot with a very fussy HOA, so I bought 2 not-to-unattractive compost bins and hid them behind some ornamental grasses. We put in all of our kitchen waste, shredded leaves, etc. We mulch our lawn, so no grass clippings. My pile is not large enough to get "hot", so I avoid throwing weeds in there. I chop up my other garden waste so it breaks down more quickly.

This year, I built some new raised beds, and was able to get about 6 5-gallon buckets of compost from my first-ever bin. I was happy Hurray!

All I do is water it when it doesn't rain, and occasionally turn things over. Not to much fussing over it. Probably takes longer to make compost this way, but it works for me.

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