Soil and Compost forum: Starting a compost pile: layer or mix?

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Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
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RickCorey
Aug 14, 2014 5:54 PM CST
I always read about "layering" when I read about composting.

"Put down 3" of browns, 3" of greens, then sprinkle with water and (fill in the blank).
Repeat with more layers until the pile is 4 feet tall."

But when I do it, I mix things well as I go, figuring that a microbe a few microns long is not going to commute very easily over a 3" distance to get everything it needs.

Does anyone know an actual REASON for layering?

Such as "the browns let more air in if they are not mixed up with greens".

Or are these authors all assuming that it's much easier to throw down a lot of one thing before switching over to another thing, and relying on subsequent pile-turning to do the mixing that is required for fast decomposition?

This source is typical: it says to "layer", but not why, unless it's just to have a layer of brown on top and sides to hide the foody stuff from critters.

http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/compostingathome.pdf


P.S. Maybe insects, worms, etc like variety, and burrow back and forth between layers for some insect-psychological reason?

Wikipedia says that many organisms larger than bacteria are involved:

Bacteria- The most numerous of all the micro organisms found in compost.

Actinobacteria- Necessary for breaking down paper products such as newspaper, bark, etc.

Fungi- Molds and yeast help break down materials that bacteria cannot, especially lignin in woody material.

Protozoa- Help consume bacteria, fungi and micro organic particulates.

Rotifers- Rotifers help control populations of bacteria and small protozoans.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compost


P.P.P.S. Here's a nice collection of composting info from Cornell, addressing commercial, municipal and home composting:

http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/factsheets.htm



Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
Region: Alabama Composter Garden Photography Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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Seedfork
Aug 14, 2014 8:51 PM CST
I think one reason for layering is to give a visual measure of the greens and browns in order to get near a 30:1 ratio in the mix.
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
Aug 15, 2014 12:49 PM CST
That would make sense. Lately I've always had excess brown, so I pile that and get it started, then add kitchen scraps and coffee grounds to the center as they become available.

I like the fact that the "Composting" microbadge looks like a green birthday cake. But it seems to advocate layering!
Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
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frostweed
Aug 16, 2014 7:30 PM CST
I layer my compost because it is convenient, and because that way I can add my kitchen waste as it becomes available, usually about twice a week.

I used to keep the kitchen waste in a bucket in the garage, but it got terribly smelly, so I came up with the idea of using one of those shoe storage boxes with a cover, which cost $1.00 and I keep it in the fridge until it is full.
Wit it being cold there is no smell, so disposing of it is a pleasant task, then I cover it with plant material which I keep handy nearby.

I also keep a plastic bucket in the kitchen where I dump all left over coffee and tea, plus any water left in glasses.
I pour this bucketful over the layer of browns and I repeat this until the pile is completely full.

I do not turn or stir the pile, I just let it sit for about 6 months to a year, then I harvest my beautiful compost.
When the first pile is full I start another so I always have one pile being built and one cooking.
This system has worked very well for us. Smiling
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
Name: Kyla
Richmond, VA (Zone 6b)
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kylaluaz
Aug 16, 2014 7:34 PM CST
Sounds like a great system, frostweed. I've kept kitchen waste in the freezer during the winter at times, when I'm not going to get it outside soon enough to keep it from being a nuisance.
Name: Kyla
Richmond, VA (Zone 6b)
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kylaluaz
Aug 16, 2014 7:39 PM CST
And I agree, the layering is for convenience. It's not usually easy to mix compost, though I do find I tend to do that more when I am carrying kitchen waste out there more frequently. But the point of layering is that the decomposers -- all the critters who do the work out there -- will mix it up for you if you layer correctly.

One thing I like to remember that helps me keep the compost balanced is that basically what I'm doing is creating habitat for decomposers. If I can keep their habitat within the right parameters as to moisture, air, and food, they are happy to do the work of creating the compost. But if I fail to provide them with good working conditions, they go on strike!

Green Grin!
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
Aug 18, 2014 12:21 PM CST
>> I do not turn or stir the pile, I just let it sit for about 6 months to a year,

I think you've proved that mixing is not necessary unless that's too long to wait.

>> When the first pile is full I start another so I always have one pile being built and one cooking.

That's a good solution to waiting, if you have enough raw ingredients.

I "mix" by intention, but I guess I layer by default when I add a bunch of kitchen scraps or fruit stand rejects every few weeks. I don't mix them right away, I leave them in "pockets" and figure that worms and other larger critters will find them easier that way and start the process. I intend to stir them around after they've sat long enough that they won't look or smell gross, but I don't always get around to it.

It all rots in the end.
[Last edited by RickCorey - Sep 11, 2014 6:23 PM (+)]
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Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
Hi Everybody!! Let us talk native.
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frostweed
Aug 18, 2014 1:06 PM CST
Yes, as they say " Compost Happens " and that is good. Smiling
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
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
Sep 11, 2014 6:27 PM CST
I thought of one reason to layer, at least at the bottom of the pile.

It might be smart to put down a double-thick layer of browns on the very bottom of the heap, especially if you don't mix and have enough rain that some of the "goodies" sometimes leach out. An extra layer of browns at the bottom will absorb the "drippings" and capture the N that might otherwise have left the pile and gone into the ground under it.

Also, browns on the side help keep moisture in the center. Browns on top might help shed excess rain.

This kind of assumes that you have more browns available than greens.

Personally, "turning the heap" is almost my favorite garden task. Cultivating the soil is #1.
Name: Tiffany
Opp, AL (Zone 8b)
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purpleinopp
Sep 12, 2014 8:04 AM CST
I think the 'instructions' one finds out there regarding composting are because people ask for them.

"I'd like to compost, how do I get started?"

As if rotting requires some type of human coordination or permission to start happening. It doesn't. As soon as you put a banana peel anywhere, even in (heaven forbid! -) a trash bag, you have begun composting, whether that was your intention or not. Since decomposition can't be stopped or avoided, it's going to happen with or without your involvement.

There are faster and slower ways to do it, but really, what you have available to compost is what you have, so what diff does it make if you're following some instruction or not? Whatever you have, put it in. It's all correct. It will rot exactly the same in layers, turned, just laying on the surface, buried, in a bag waiting to go into a pile... it's not something you can control, except the speed at, and location of, which it happens.

I've said this around here before, sorry if it's a repeat for anyone reading this, but after a couple decades, the novelty of making the biggest possible pile, or the hottest pile, or the 'most correct' pile, or any kind of pile - and then having to move all of it again, to a garden bed, has worn off. Now I just put stuff around the garden in various ways, spread, slightly buried, whatever seems appropriate for the material I have and amount of it. Why would I want to move that stuff more than once? I don't, I won't, not how I want to spend my time or efforts. Also no longer lose anything to the ground under the pile, all decomposition happens where plants grow, much more like what mother nature does in the forest I believe.
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Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
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frostweed
Sep 12, 2014 10:14 AM CST
I totally agree with you Stephanie, but some of us don't have enough open ground available at all times, so we must save that valuable organic matter to be used at the right time. It is all good. Smiling
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
Region: Alabama Composter Garden Photography Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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Seedfork
Sep 12, 2014 3:11 PM CST
Here are just a few of the reasons I have a compost pile.
1. To kill weed seeds
2. To kill pathogens and diseases
3. To handle large amounts of materials
4. To speed up the process when compost is needed in a hurry.
5. To use for building new beds (I don't have nearly the amount of dirt I need so I use compost)
6. I enjoy the process and need the physical activity.
Not all my compost materials go into piles, some are used in trenches, some in spots or small holes, some around individual plants, it all depends upon the needs at the time. Still, I try to always have some new and finished compost piles on hand, it just suits my style of gardening. I can never seem to get enough leaves and grass clippings.
Sometimes the pile can be built right where it is needed and does not have to be moved until it is spread out, sometimes the pile can be built so that as it is turned it works it's way into the final location(that often works out great). Start up hill of the location and work it down to the proper place.
Sure a few coffee grounds here and a banana peel there can be placed directly in the garden by the selected plants, but top dressing an entire 60x5 foot bed requires a lot of compost.
The key to composting is to select the method that suits your style of gardening, and we all have our favorite methods, the ones we have worked out over the years that suits us best.
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
Sep 12, 2014 3:31 PM CST
Watching trash and garbage turn into SuperSoil under my hands is as satisfying to me as watching seeds turn into salad.

Maybe if I could directly grow a Pizza Plant and pluck hot slices, I would enjoy plants more than compost.
Name: josephine
Arlington, Texas (Zone 8a)
Hi Everybody!! Let us talk native.
Native Plants and Wildflowers Organic Gardener Butterflies Garden Ideas: Master Level Forum moderator I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database!
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frostweed
Sep 12, 2014 5:43 PM CST
I pizza plant that serves up hot slices!!! That would really be worth working for. Smiling
Wildflowers are the Smiles of Nature.
Gardening with Texas Native Plants and Wildflowers.
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
Sep 12, 2014 6:17 PM CST
There is a bacterium that exudes the chemical often used in cheap butterscotch sauce (Sporocytophaga myxococcoides).

So, if you can perfect an Ice Cream Plant, we can plant them together and have butterscotch sundaes.

(Now I feel like Monsanto.)

Name: Kyla
Richmond, VA (Zone 6b)
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kylaluaz
Sep 17, 2014 4:01 PM CST
*shudders to think anyone knows how Monsanto feels!*

Green Grin!

I am about ready to harvest my first compost here in this particular location. I'm just waiting for that "feels like the time" moment.

I haven't wanted to even talk about compost lately because I am disturbed at the lack of worms here! It used to be I could build a compost and before I knew it there were zillions of worms.

Not this time.

I know, this is really off topic. But not totally, because I do know that worms can't live in a pile that is too hot, and mine has gotten pretty hot -- for whatever reason I have attended to it much more frequently than in past situations. Maybe because my housemate is much tidier a person than I tend to be so I don't let stuff pile up in containers for a week before hauling them out to the compost!

anyway

I think I already said, I used to turn, and I don't now. I lift and sort of stir, and it's a partial turning that happens.

I also would prefer to just put stuff around here and there, and not bother with an actual composting setup. However, can't do that here. One thing I have observed when I did that was the nitrogen levels in the soil, varied widely according to where I had buried what. Composting does give a more even result. That's not always important but sometimes it is.

For me, when I had buried stuff in that mound of rubble, out of laziness mainly, and then saw the wintersown cosmos I planted there grow thick as saplings, I figured I might be on to something. nodding
Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
Region: Alabama Composter Garden Photography Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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Seedfork
Sep 17, 2014 4:11 PM CST
I would not let the lack of worms be too discouraging. It took at least two years for me to start seeing worms in my compost piles and then it was sporadic. Actually it still is, when the pile is very hot...no worms, after the pile is finished and sits for a while there tends to be few worms...most of the goodies have been eaten I guess. But when the pile is just right the pile is loaded with worms. They still feed there I feel sure, but they tend to go back into the ground during the warm days and feed at night in the pile. I think a lot of it has to do with the amount of kitchen scraps you put in the pile and the type of worms that use your pile. I have so little kitchen waste to go in my many piles that it is almost negligible. So my worms have to feed mostly on grass clippings, and decayed leaves. I filled a cold frame with liriope leaves one fall and let it stay still spring, what lovely compost that made and the worms loved it, plus as it decayed it helped to warm my compost pile.
[Last edited by Seedfork - Sep 18, 2014 9:25 AM (+)]
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Name: Kyla
Richmond, VA (Zone 6b)
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kylaluaz
Sep 17, 2014 5:19 PM CST
Thank you for that reassurance!
Name: Sandy B.
Ford River, Michigan UP (Zone 4b)
(Zone 4b-maybe 5a)
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Weedwhacker
Sep 17, 2014 5:48 PM CST
Just my opinion, but it seems to me that all of the "instructions for making compost" that are out there probably discourage more people from starting a compost pile than anything else. Mine is completely random, consisting of all the veggie scraps and then occasional "layers" of grass clippings (once I have enough clippings for mulching the garden itself). They help heat the pile up -- although I don't think my compost ever gets as hot as a "properly constructed" one would -- and also just make it look a little better than the various decomposing vegetables. If the badge looked like my compost pile, I'm afraid it would just look like a brown blob! I do turn the pile a couple of times over the course of the season, and then by spring it's nice fluffy black stuff that gets dug in with some of my plants and top-dressed over others. Right now I still have enough left to put on the asparagus bed once the stalks are cut down, and to put on top of the garlic bed after I plant it. Then I'll turn the newer pile and let it be until spring. Meanwhile we'll add the fall grass clippings and leaves to the top of the garden, which usually ends up about a foot deep on the whole thing and over the course of the winter goes down to almost nothing. During the winter I throw all the veggie scraps into a plastic garbage can that I cut the bottom out of and put next to the pile -- and that stuff becomes the beginning of the new pile (I've learned to empty it out before things get too warm, because the insect life gets pretty crazy in there otherwise Whistling )
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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
Sep 17, 2014 6:37 PM CST
Weedwhacker said:Just my opinion, but it seems to me that all of the "instructions for making compost" that are out there probably discourage more people from starting a compost pile than anything else.


Probably true! Gardeners seem to love to proselytize, or maybe it's just our enthusiasm.

We really mean "here's the way I love to do it, I bet yopu would enjoy this as much as I do" .

What we say sometimes comes across as "here's the way it has to be done".

But you're right, there are a million websites preaching specific ways to build a heap, even though "things rot no matter what you do".

Maybe a list of pluses and minuses would be more informative:

sheet composting: easiest
spot composting: hides the garbage right away
casual small heap composting: ("I enjoy this one! Everyone should do it this way!!!")
big heap that gets hot: fastest cycle time, kills some weed seeds and plant pathogens.


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