Soil and Compost forum: Compost vs. Sheet Mulch

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Name: Karen
Cincinnati, Oh (Zone 6a)
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kqcrna
Apr 24, 2012 8:08 AM CST
Most facilities that I have heard of use extreme heat to kill pathogens in human waste or sewage. I believe the issue is with human, dog, or any feces of meat eating species. I definitely don't think it's a safe ingredient for sheet composting which doesn't heat. And I personally wouldn't use it even in a well-managed hot home compost system. Pathogens like E.coli can be deadly. It's not something to be taken lightly.

Before attempting this I would advise you to consult with your state extension service. My strong suspicion is that they will advise against it.

Karen
Name: Mary Stella
Anchorage, AK (Zone 4b)
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Oberon46
Apr 24, 2012 2:06 PM CST
I had pretty well come to that consensus. Out the the back forty junk pile for it.
Name: Karen
Cincinnati, Oh (Zone 6a)
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kqcrna
Apr 24, 2012 4:10 PM CST
Thumbs up Sounds like a good idea to me.

Karen
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
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RickCorey
Aug 14, 2014 5:20 PM CST
(bump)

Or set aside one small compost heap to be used only under bushes or on the lawn. Anywhere you'll never grow veggies, and where runoff and seepage are away from vegetable beds.

I know that "seem to recall" is not very reassuring, but I seem to recall reading about one experiment where someone found that no bacteria actually made it through the roots and up the stem into leaves and fruits. But that experiment would have been with just a few crops, and was just one experiment.

I think the rules for Class B biosolids include different time periods between application and harvest for vegetables vs. leafy crops, but I can't swear to that. And anyway, even Class B biosolids have greatly reduced pathogen counts compared to raw poop.

On the other hand, "greatly reducing" a billion per gram might be as high as 100 per grqm ... I don't know.

http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/...

The EPA says:
"The federal biosolids rule is contained in 40 CFR Part 503. "

"Class A biosolids contain no detectible levels of pathogens. Class A biosolids that meet strict vector attraction reduction requirements and low levels metals contents, only have to apply for permits to ensure that these very tough standards have been met. Class B biosolids are treated but still contain detectible levels of pathogens. There are buffer requirements, public access, and crop harvesting restrictions for virtually all forms of Class B biosolids."

A Plain English Guide to the EPA Part 503 Biosolids Rule
http://water.epa.gov/scitech/w...

A Guide to the Biosolids Risk Assessments for the EPA Part 503 Rule
http://water.epa.gov/scitech/w...

I wallowed around in it for a while but couldn't find actual numbers for class B pathogen levels. Even then, it wouldn't mean much to me unless I could compare them to ACTUAL pathogen levels in fast food restaurants, salad buffets and public buses.

Name: Kyla
Richmond, VA (Zone 6b)
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kylaluaz
Aug 14, 2014 6:12 PM CST
For me what is fundamentally important about composting (and by the definitions I've been using, "sheet mulching" as described up-thread is a form of composting) is returning biomass to the soil, instead of digging it out, scraping it off, bagging it up and hauling it away somewhere such as usually a landfill where it is of no use to the earth or anybody.

However it's done is fine with me! and IMO it's a matter of finding the method that works for the situation one is in. Where I live? I kind of doubt sheet mulching would work very well. Plus, here, the pre-existing practices have removed so much of the organic matter over time, adding it back in however we can is a primary goal of mine.

I've used uncomposted rabbit poop just fine and also heard from others both stories: it burns, and, it doesn't ever burn. Maybe it's a matter of what the rabbits eat?

Humans and most dogs and cats eat things that make the manure pretty unpleasant to deal with, even compared with raw chicken manure which as we all probably know is pretty strong smelling. I've been taught that the bacteria in human and dog and cat manure is the big problem with using them in compost; however, of course traditional ag systems have used "nightsoil" for eons. Those folks didn't have artificial chemical additives, preservatives, colors and flavors added to their food, and that may make a difference too.

Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
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Seedfork
Aug 14, 2014 6:25 PM CST
Sheet composting is good for certain things, but I don't like the idea of spreading millions of weed seeds with sheet composting in a flower bed. I like the idea of killing as many seeds first, then applying the compost. Maybe trench composting would work well in some circumstances in which the soil would never be turned deep enough to undercover all the weed seeds that were buried. A nice clean composted bed can be ruined in a hurry with careless sheet composting of seedy weedy plant debris.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
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RickCorey
Aug 14, 2014 6:32 PM CST
>> A nice clean composted bed can be ruined in a hurry with careless sheet composting of seedy weedy plant debris.

Oh, you SAW my attempt to pamper some lettuce seeds by covering them with sifted compost?

I never before saw such a healthy, dense and vigorous monocrop of weeds in my life!

The really sad thing is that I PUT those flowering weeds into my small, cold compost heap and rotted them for 6+ months. Some gardening advice is very good advice! "No weed seeds in the pile" is good advice, even if weeds are all you HAVE to feed your heap.
Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
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Seedfork
Aug 14, 2014 6:57 PM CST
If you put seedy weeds in the piles you want to get them good and hot, often only a few hours are needed to kill a lot of weed seeds if you heat the pile to 140-160 degrees. I like to use some hot fast piles and some slow cool piles for different things. I was just reading a very interesting article on the loss of nutrients in the composting process, and that makes me think that compost piles do not lose that much in the way of major nutrients. Nitrogen being the main thing lost, and that mostly early on(the first few days), and most of that can be prevented by using the correct carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 30:1. Allowing the piles to sit in the open (under trees) as I do does allow some leaching, but it goes into the soil that may one day also be a garden spot.
Here is the article from Washington State University.
http://whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/comp...

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hazelnut
Aug 15, 2014 6:34 AM CST
What I do have on my Alabama property after this long hot summer (its not over yet) is BIOMASS. Its English ivy, poison ivy, wisteria, by the tree-ful, autumn clematis (a flowering weed), weedy shrubs and trees. I see it COMPOSTED! Well there's a lot of cutting, chopping, piling, and sorting between then and now.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
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RickCorey
Aug 15, 2014 12:42 PM CST
Really great link, Seedfork! Thanks.

I was surprised that they left "leaching by rainfall" until the end ... especially coming from WSU! I figure that half the goodies in my raw materials exit the piles straight down. Oh, well, I relocated my pile into the middle of some bushes that will benefit thereby.

In some theoretical perfect world, I would locate a big new pile each year on top of some poor soil that was scheduled to become my next raised bed. Let the pile leach and elluviate into that soil for a year, and then use the enriched soil as a base for the next bed.

>> Also, studies indicated that nitrogen conservation decreased rapidly as the C:N ratio increased from 40 to 50.

I always figured that if I ran my pile "extra lean", the extra C would force microbes to scavenge and conserve N. But that link's numbers suggest that even a moderate excess of available C is enough to minimze losses of N.

>> Ammonia escapes as ammonia hydroxide as the pH rises above 7.0.

I knew that was why most people say "never add lime to a pile". I agree that lime or wood ashes are only desirable if you start out VERY acid.

>> turn only as often as necessary to maintain aerobic conditions and control flies.

I mostly agree with that. But I would add "and to return the dried outer layers to the inside of the pile where they will become moist and resume decomposition".

(Probably you casn get faster results if you rake the dried outer layers away from an old pile and move them to a newer pile, so the remainder of the older pile can more quickly become "all finished". Sometimes when I have a bigger than usual heap, I make it elongated and add new matierals to one end, but remove finsihed compost from the toher end. Frequently I'll rake the dry, unfinsihed outer layers from the "old" end back to the "young" end and mix them in. I figure that also provides continuous re-innoculation of active microbes into the fresh material.

>> Also, addition of soil to compost with high ammonia content absorbed some of the nitrogen.

Good to know!
Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
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Seedfork
Aug 15, 2014 12:54 PM CST
Speaking of dried out areas in piles, one reason to avoid any dried out areas is that seed destruction is largely dependent on a high degree of moisture. If the seeds in the pile are allowed to stay dry they are not nearly as easy to destroy, but if they are allowed to stay moist and the seed actually cracks open they are much easier to kill.
One good reason not to add lime to the pile is that the composting process will neutralize the ph anyhow. Much better to use the lime in the soil, than in the compost pile.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
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RickCorey
Aug 15, 2014 1:00 PM CST
I was hoping that weed seeds in my small, cold pile would sprout and die, or rot and die, or be eaten by worms and die ... but not last year!

I have a 5 gallon bucket of compost left over from last year - I stopped using it when I realized that I was just sowing weeds when I top-dressed with it. It's probably better to mulch over compost anyway, to keep it moist.

I think I'll use it in a bed that already is as weedy as it can possibly be, but turn it under and consider the weeds that sprout anyway as "green manure" or a cover crop, and just chop them into the soil as they sprout. BEFORE they go to seed!

Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
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Seedfork
Aug 15, 2014 2:33 PM CST
Burying weedy compost is a great idea, as long as you never did deep enough to uncover those seeds that are just waiting for the opportunity to sprout.
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
Photo Contest Winner: 2014 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.
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RickCorey
Aug 15, 2014 5:56 PM CST
Like burying landmines!

Several of my beds went totally crazy with weeds last fall and this spring, some because of top dressing with weedy compost, and some because they had perennials that kept me from just chopping away with a hoe, and some because I procrastinated (see Procrastinators microbadge, charter holder!).

With those beds, I really don't think I can make them much worse. This fall and next year they'll be test beds for whether or not enough mulch can protect soil that's like 10% weed seeds!
Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
Composter Garden Photography Million Pollinator Garden Challenge Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Celebrating Gardening: 2015
Region: Alabama
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Seedfork
Aug 15, 2014 6:09 PM CST
Mulch can do wonders if applied at the right time and thick enough!
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
Photo Contest Winner: 2014 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.
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RickCorey
Aug 15, 2014 6:16 PM CST
I was impressed when I read someone saying that she almost poised one hand with mulch when the other hand disturbed the soil.

During my first five or so years gardening, I tried to identify UNnecessary things that people tell you to do (without giving any reasons or "why").

During the the last few years, I've had it forcibly brought to my attention by the garden itself, that some of the things that "everyone says to do" ... REALLY DO need to be done.

Name: Larry
Enterprise, Al. 36330 (Zone 8b)
Composter Garden Photography Million Pollinator Garden Challenge Garden Ideas: Master Level Plant Identifier Celebrating Gardening: 2015
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Seedfork
Aug 18, 2014 3:39 PM CST
Back to the idea of losing all the nutrients in a compost pile. I really don't think if the compost pile is done correctly that a large portion of the nutrients are lost. Remember that one of the primary benefits of compost is that unlike synthetic chemicals compost provides the slow release of nutrients. Keep that thought in mind, compost provides for the slow release of nutrients, and that means for a period of years, not days or weeks. Compost turns waste into a stable soil conditioner. On the other hand, I am not saying that most of the nutrients in a compost pile can not be lost if done incorrectly.
I realize mulching is a great thing, but I want to emphasize that the Bill Mollison article at the beginning of this thread does not say to stop composting in piles nor does he say to just use sheet mulching. They both have their place and purpose in gardening.

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hazelnut
Aug 19, 2014 8:02 AM CST
Right, Seedfork. Good pointl. And another method is to build beds over cut down trash trees and logs -- hugelkultur. There are many ways to build soil -- if you can get your hands on a wood chipper, that is one great way to sheet mulch. There is no one way: use what you've got or can get for the situation you have. But the point is, the compost pile is not the only way. Ooops. Left out worm bins.

Name: Tiffany purpleinopp
Opp, AL 🌵🌷⚘🌹🌻 (Zone 8b)
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purpleinopp
Aug 25, 2014 3:27 PM CST
I gave up composting in a pile for various reasons, but primarily because life's too short to irritate a back injury and to get sweaty and eaten by mosquitoes over something unnecessary.

The last pile I built was completely full of 17 million ants who I guess ate most of it, probably aided by worms. It took a LOT of sweat and effort to pile so much stuff up, many hours of work, even stuff from other people's yards. It was 6 feet high, about 8 feet long, 4-5 feet wide when I stopped adding stuff to it in late fall. About 3 months later, there was hardly anything left, it took about 20 minutes to distribute a few buckets of stuff to beds. I was only able to get that from it because I'd built the pile on a few sheets of old roof metal. No way that was as worthwhile or yielded as much benefit as putting that stuff directly on beds. Everything the worms did there was for naught in terms of garden beds - 20 feet from the nearest one.

Then you have to decide when it's 'done' and move all that crap - again, and what to do with all of the OM that comes along while the pile is 'finishing?' Another pile of course. I still use all of the OM from our yard (except some bones, meat kitchen scraps, thorns) but I only move it once. I have the softest, blackest, most well-drained-yet-takes-forever-to-dry-out 'dirt' you could fantasize!

I don't need to buy mulch anymore, as long as I make use of all of the OM our yard and kitchen generates. If there's no logical/scientific reason for doing a thing, it's just busywork that doesn't need to be done. I'm not concerned about killing any kind of seeds because I don't wait until weeds have seeds to pull them. They are left to bake in place, where pulled.

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☕👓 The only way to succeed is to try.

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hazelnut
Aug 25, 2014 4:17 PM CST
it seems to me that that's what permaculture is all about recycling what you have, not buying stuff to make some body else rich.

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