Starting to compost and I have questions

Discussion in 'Compost and Recycling' started by Spacehog, Aug 15, 2017.

  1. Spacehog

    Spacehog

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    Ahoy everyone! I am brand new to this forum, and I am also fairly new to gardening. My wife and I have just purchased a house that has 1 acre of land, and I am eager to get started with all kinds of gardening projects. One of the first things I plan to set up is a composting system. I was fortunate enough to watch a TED talk with Mike McGrath about composting that was very interesting. Here is the link if you're interested in watching it yourself. Anyway, he makes a very compelling case for using only fallen leaves for compost, and I plan to give it a shot. However, I am curious to know what qualifies as a fallen leaf? For instance, would it be good or bad to include grass clippings from our lawn mower? They are leaves, but obviously not exactly like the leaves he's talking about in the show. Also, what about pulled up weeds and such? I know that grass and weeds are traditionally used in compost, but so are things like kitchen trash which McGrath ruthlessly mocks in his talk. I do plan to have a separate worm farm thing for the kitchen waste and whatever. But I am curious to know just how strict I should be with the "Only leaves in compost" idea described by McGrath. I suppose I could try one chamber of just fallen leaves and then experiment with more stuff in a different chamber. But I am curious to hear people's thoughts before I do anything.

    Oh yeah, my setup for compost is one that I stole from a friend. He uses 12 pallets turned up on their side to make 4 square chambers for compost. The pallets are wired to each other, and one of the pallets is removed to open up use on the pile of compost that is ready to go, while the other 3 chambers are open to receive stuff until they are full.

    I wasn't sure how important it is to turn the compost over with like a pitchfork or something like that. Also, I am interested in making compost tea once I feel like I've got some good stuff.

    Ok! So if anyone has thoughts specifically about these things: 1. What qualifies as a fallen leaf in McGrath's version of compost? 2. Is there another version of compost worth considering? 3. How important or unimportant is turning the compost? 4. Do people have any thoughts and/or pointers regarding compost tea? 5. Any other thoughts or ideas about compost would be great too!

    Thanks in advance!
     
    Spacehog, Aug 15, 2017
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  2. Spacehog

    MoonShadows

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    sgreeting_welcome_team_100-100.gif

    I saw this Ted McGrath video a while back. He makes some excellent points, and I am sure his method of composting is good, too, but opinions on making the "perfect compost" are like opinions on making the perfect cup of coffee; everyone has an opinion.

    No matter what method you decide to use, there are some basics. I think the Compost Guy does a good job of explaining the basics, so I'll quote part of an article from his website at http://www.compostguy.com/

    NOTE: 2 posts since the forum will not allow me to post over 10,000 words in one post.

    Many people wrongly assume that composting is a complex and challenging undertaking, and worry that if they try it they won’t do it “right”. While large-scale ‘professional’ composting facilities certainly do have the process down to an exact science, there is really no need for us mere mortals to be intimidated. By following a few basic guidelines, you can produce your very own beautiful compost – and do so with relative ease.

    Here are the basic requirements for making compost – 1) Moisture (water) 2) Organic ‘waste’ 3) Warmth, and 4) Oxygen

    Moisture – Composting is a biological process mediated by countless microorganisms. While you may not think about it when you pick up a handful of garden soil (which may only be slightly moist to the touch), in order for there to be life (or at least active life) in that soil, there needs to moisture spread throughout. You don’t want to have too much moisture however – when all the soil/compost pore spaces are filled with water, it is much more difficult for air (and thus oxygen) to permeate the material.

    Organic Waste – You’re obviously going to need some sort of starting material – typically a ‘waste’ of some sort. For a typical home owner this could include fall leaves, grass clippings, yard and garden waste, kitchen scraps, paper, cardboard etc. Someone who lives on a farm may also have some sort of manure, which is an excellent starting material for composting. There are two very important elements that we need to consider when deciding on what materials to use – carbon and nitrogen. Specifically, it is important to consider the ratio of these two elements, known as (surprise, surprise) the ‘Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio’ (C:N). The ideal C:N ratio for composting is somewhere in the range of 20:1 to 40:1.

    You definitely don’t need to let this fancy term intimidate you though – we can compost just fine (thank you very much) if we think in terms of ‘carbon-rich materials’ and ‘nitrogen-rich materials’ – or even ‘browns’ and ‘greens’. I prefer the former, simply because there are plenty of exceptions to the colour rule. For example, manure is a fantastic n-rich material for your composting system – but I have yet to see a green heap of manure (and would likely run away screaming if I did)!

    Here are some common examples of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials:


    • C-Rich

    • Fall leaves
    • Straw
    • Cardboard / Paper
    • Peat moss
    • Coir (coconut husk waste)
    • Wood chips / Sawdust

    • N-Rich

    • Manure
    • Fresh Grass Clippings
    • Green Yard Waste
    • Kitchen Waste (certainly some exceptions here, but in general not a bad idea to think of them as N-rich)
    • Hair (yes, you can in fact compost hair!)
    It is important to realize that even the n-rich materials can have lots of carbon (and c-rich materials will have some nitrogen as well), so you certainly won’t need 20-40 times more fall leaves than grass clippings for example. A reasonable rule of thumb would be to use about twice as much c-rich material as n-rich – but as you’ll see, there are no hard and fast rules for composting. The best way to see what works best is simply to start experimenting yourself. I like to think of composting as part art form, part science – once you’ve done it enough you will start to get a ‘feel’ for it and will be able to create a perfect pile without even thinking about it! Just so you know, if your composting heap has too much nitrogen (the C:N is too low), excess nitrogen will tend to be lost in the form of ammonia gas. On the other end of the spectrum, if you C:N ratio is too high the composting process will slow down considerably. Find the sweet zone between these two extremes is the key – so long as you pay heed to the other important requirements, that is!
     
    MoonShadows, Aug 15, 2017
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  3. Spacehog

    MoonShadows

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    Warmth – The success of your composting efforts can be temperature dependent as well. If you compost heap is frozen solid you can be sure that the microorganisms needed to mediate the process won’t be very active, and thus it will come to a complete stand-still. If your aim is to create a ‘hot composting’ system, temperature will play an even more important role – but don’t worry, as long as you take care of a few requirements the microbes will do the rest!

    We talked already about the C:N ratio – well aside from playing an important role in the decomposition process in general, it is particularly important when you want your heap to heat up. If you dump and big pile of saw dust on the ground for example, while it certainly may get somewhat warm in the middle thanks to the activities of microbes, it won’t generate the kind of heat a well balances compost heap can – and it will also take a LONG time to breakdown. That’s because saw dust is incredibly high in carbon, but not nitrogen.

    The size of the heap (or container that holds the materials) is also an important consideration. You can set up an incredibly well-balanced compost heap in a margarine container if you like, but you certainly won’t have a mini hot composting pile on your hands. You need a certain “critical mass” in order for a heap of organic materials to generate enough heat for thermophilic (hot) composting to occur – generally this is in the range of 1 cubic yard, but using even more materials will likely produce better results.

    There are of course ways to help the process along, should you not have the critical mass needed. Putting your materials in a dark container (backyard composter, tumbler etc) can help since the container will absorb a lot of heat from the sun (more so in warm weather) and reduce the amount lost to the surrounding environment. There are even systems that can artificially mimic the hot composting phase on a much smaller scale. Small home composters like the ‘NatureMill’ are an example of this.

    And of course, there are other types of ‘composting’ that don’t require any heating at all – such as vermicomposting and bokashi.

    Oxygen – As mentioned, composting is an aerobic process – that is to say that it requires oxygen in order to proceed properly. The community of microbes needed to help the process along require oxygen for respiration – and in fact it is via this respiration that heat is given off.

    The challenge for a composter is to maintain adequate moisture while providing enough oxygen to the composting mass. Water cannot hold nearly the same amount of oxygen as air, so if your compost heap becomes waterlogged air will no longer be able to circulate through the pile. It is important to find a balance however, since a bone dry compost heap is about as effective one that is frozen solid – it will basically be held in suspended animation until some moisture is added.

    When oxygen levels drop significantly in a compost heap aerobic processes start shifting to anaerobic processes, and the community of microorganisms changes with it. Anaerobic digestion can be a useful waste management strategy in its own right, but this is NOT what you want to have happen to your compost heap. Anaerobic pathways tend to produce a variety of undesirable compounds – some of which have bad odours and/or phytotoxic (plant harming) properties. One easy way to determine if your compost heap is staying aerobic is to use the good ol’ fashioned “smell test” – simply move some of the material around and take a good deep whiff. Does it have a nice, earthy aroma (or no smell at all), or does it have an unpleasant ‘rotten’ smell?

    The type of materials you use in your compost pile can have a major impact on air flow. Bulky materials like shredded cardboard, straw and fall leaves are all great for encouraging air movement. If you are trying to compost wastes with really high moisture content, such as liquid manure or fruit/vegetable scraps, it will be vitally important to use these bulking agents. Often times (but not necessarily a hard and fast rule) the bulking agents are your carbon-rich materials.

    You can also artificially aid the aeration of your pile by turning the materials, with a pitchfork or by placing them in some sort of tumbler. In fact turning is an important part of hot composting – as the composting mass heats up and more and more oxygen is consumed, concentrations of this gas within the pile can be depleted regardless of bulking agents etc, so a little help from you can be important.

    Hot composting doesn’t always require active turning however – you can also try out various passive composting techniques. Apart from using bulky carbon-rich materials, you can situate your heap over top of a raised, vented floor, allowing air to be drawn up through the pile as hot air is released from the top. Another strategy is to insert perforated pipes into the composting mass, so air can be drawn in to the center of the pile where it is needed.
     
    MoonShadows, Aug 15, 2017
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  4. Spacehog

    Tjohn

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    So nice of you to post this where everyone can read it! It must have taken some time, and I wanted you to know your efforts are appreciated!
     
    Tjohn, Aug 15, 2017
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  5. Spacehog

    zigs Naughty Moderator Moderator

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    Well, if the bloke is calling leafmold compost then \i wouldn't listen to a word he's saying.

    Leafmold, made exclusively from fallen leaves isn't even a composting process, it's a fungal decompostion.

    It's a good soil conditioner, but is lacking in nutrients. Also takes 1 to 2 years to decompose, whereas a compost heap can be ready in much less time if its prepared properly.

    Moonshadow's posts cover the composting process very well (y)

    Welcome to the forums btw :)
     
    zigs, Aug 15, 2017
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  6. Spacehog

    Robert Cummings

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    Here in the UK composting as we call it is a regular and vital part of the gardening programme and it really is so simple and easy to create good nutritious compost for your garden. The idea of using the pallets to create a compound is great as this will create an area large enough but not too large. Here's how we make compost, any prunings from dead flowers leaves grass cuttings and deciduous hedge cuttings are added to the compost heap in layers anything woody is put through the shredder and the shredded matter added in slightly thinner layers. It is important to layer your compost heap to get a good balance of nutrients from your waste as some plants are more acidic than others so a good mix of different vegetation is what you need . Under no circumstances should you add lawn mowing that have been treated with chemicals such as selective weed killer as you will harm plants in your garden with the compost, it will be useless.The compost should be turned every to to three weeks in order to aid the composting process, if your compound is much bigger than the size of a couple of pallets you will struggle turning a large amount. We occasionally water the compost during the turning process but only if the matter is really dry, excessive moisture will just create a stinking mess which will be difficult to work with. Really it's that simple, using this method we have perfectly usable compost in about twelve weeks.Happy composting !!
     
    Robert Cummings, Aug 17, 2017
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  7. Spacehog

    Verdun

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    Despite 2 compost bins.....one a large homemade one....I often do not produce the quality I should do. This is simply because I do not make the time to turn the heaps often enough. When I do the compost is superb.
    I plan a further compost area this autumn with a resolve to produce good compost so regular mixing of ingredients will be a priority
    Excellent advice from Robert :)
     
    Verdun, Aug 20, 2017
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  8. Spacehog

    Robert Cummings

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    Thank you Verdun, It certainly is most important to keep turning the compost and the more often the better. At a private property near my home, a new thatch was put on a roof, the old thatch we mixed into the compost ( yes all of it) and it helped make some lovely compost which we are gratefully using to enrich the herbaceous beds.
     
    Robert Cummings, Aug 20, 2017
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  9. Spacehog

    DirtMechanic

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    I could tell you that if something falls into my yard it goes into my chipper and into my compost pile for next year.

    I can say that its a fine thing to have separate piles for leaves, twigs and wood and kitchen waste and paper/cardboard. They have different uses around the place, not everuthing os allowed into my garden.

    I can say the single worst mistake you will ever make is making a cold pile, which allows fusarium and other nasty garden blights to survive instead of be sterilized by 140f+ heat, and then use it in your garden. Lawn use, sure.
     
    DirtMechanic, Oct 8, 2017
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  10. Spacehog

    roadrunner

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    I compost 100% of my yard waste, absolutely nothing goes to the curb. We just went thru Hurricane Irma and virtually every house for miles around has yard waste piled up for pick-up. I mulch it all, including a 500lb branch that fell from my Magnolia tree. I use a chainsaw to cut up the pieces so I can bury them (create a hugelkultur) and all the other stuff becomes part of my mulch -- the soil doesn't care if your "wood chips" are in the form of twigs.


    BTW, you don't actually need to build a compost pile, just allow it to become a mulch and it will be reduced to nutrients for the plants.
     
    roadrunner, Oct 8, 2017
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  11. Spacehog

    DirtMechanic

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    That is hard work. Especially the tree sized pieces. I am about to consider the Hugel trench ideas, or burn the wood I have to a potassium rich ash. @roadrunner Do you dig or just pile your mounds, and where do you get the topsoil? From the trench?
     
    DirtMechanic, Oct 8, 2017
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  12. Spacehog

    roadrunner

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    I dig, but not too deep, so there's always a mound left; no topsoil needed.
     
    roadrunner, Oct 8, 2017
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  13. Spacehog

    DirtMechanic

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    Oh look! The tropical storm left me a bunch of tree sized branches to bury!
     
    DirtMechanic, Oct 9, 2017
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  14. Spacehog

    Robert Cummings

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    There are several recognised ways of making compost about four to be precise, Hot composting where the material is allowed to heat to a certain temperature and three others, all of which are recognised and used commercially in Horticulture for different reasons and preferences. No particular method is right or wrong, it just depends on what one's preference is.
     
    Robert Cummings, Oct 9, 2017
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  15. Spacehog

    DirtMechanic

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    I prefer to sterilize. It works better for my general purpose. Plus I do not think the word compost is good enough to use for the actual heat method because it has been used commonly to the point that it just means rotted organic matter to most people. 4 meanings for 1 word means the word itself needs composting. Pastuerposting is more accurate but sounds like something flaky.
     
    DirtMechanic, Oct 9, 2017
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  16. Spacehog

    alp

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    How do you sterlise it please, @DirtMechanic ? I used my own compost and it is covered with weeds. I'm so fed up. I think they are from the horse manure!:eek::cry:
     
    alp, Oct 10, 2017
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  17. Spacehog

    roadrunner

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    I'm not sure what you mean by "sterilize".
     
    roadrunner, Oct 10, 2017
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  18. Spacehog

    MoonShadows

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    Sterilizing soil is the process of killing all bacteria, microbes, undesirable seeds, etc. before you use it for seed starting or planting.

    To sterilize or pasteurize, take a large aluminum-baking pan and cover it with three to four inches of compost, potting soil, etc., insert a meat thermometer in the center and place in a preheated oven, at 200°F., once the center reads 160°F., bake for 30 minutes. Allow mixture to cool thoroughly before using.

    https://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/pateurize-your-own-compost-zbcz1304zcal

    You can also sterilize it outside by using black plastic.

    http://homeguides.sfgate.com/use-black-plastic-sterilize-soil-23181.html

    There is always the debate on whether to sterilize (pasteurize) or not. Sterilizing kills of so many beneficial bacteria and microbes which are good for seedlings and plants, but if you are plagued with gnats, other bugs, molds, or tons of errant seeds and weeds, you can do it. The beneficial will return eventually.
    Of course, if you have a large enough compost pile...at LEAST 1 cubic yard, and it is cooking properly, it should sterilize itself from the internal heat being produced.
     
    MoonShadows, Oct 10, 2017
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  19. Spacehog

    DirtMechanic

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    What I found over time was all the good molds as in the white aerobic mold and bacteria come again after the pile gets hot. At least all the bad stuff gets gone. For a while anyway, so the plants can at least develop some maturity and self defense before the windborn and insect borne and soil borne pathogens begin to attack them again.
     
    DirtMechanic, Oct 10, 2017
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  20. Spacehog

    Robert Cummings

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    Yes one has to be careful not to overdo the sterilisation because you will indeed kill off the good bacteria.I prefer to let it heat up itself and let's be honest, if it's correctly managed it will do so very quickly. Don't think my wife would be too happy if I put compost in the oven Lol!
     
    Robert Cummings, Oct 10, 2017
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