Sunday, March 31, 2019

Black Gold for Your Garden: Compost

Composting Changed My Garden Life 

Yesterday was one of my favorite days of spring.  Composting Day.  It is that day each year when I get to dive into the piles that have been sitting all winter, and often times most of last year, and see what sort of magic has happened.  I Love Composting Day!! Soil is the key to everything you are trying to do in your garden.  It is the foundation that your plants use to create their roots, leaves, and fruit.  The healthier your soil is, the healthier your plants are and they therefore provide even healthier food for your and your family.  Compost is a critical element in our soil building plan, and I hope that the information we have here will inspire you to start a compost pile of your own.  
Let me start by stating that I am not perfect, and those of you who have been composting longer than I have will likely find multiple things wrong with my approach.  But I have realized in my experience that that is ok.  Composting doesn't have to follow all the rules.  Now don't get me wrong, the rules certainly help the process along, and I will detail which rules I broke and what the impact was to the pile from yesterdays turning.  But here is the thing everyone needs to understand.......

Compost Happens!! 

I am serious.  If you just pile some organic matter up and let it sit for a while, it will compost eventually.  What we do by managing our piles is help the process happen more quickly and with more control on the outcome.  Lets break this all down and see what we ended up with this spring.  

Cover Your Pile to Control Moisture Input

The piles I turned yesterday were sloppy wet.... like in a bad way.  This causes a couple problems.  First of all, your pile can get no air since it gets waterlogged.  This leads to anaerobic environments which don't help with breaking down material the way we might want.  I don't raise any pigs here....but yesterday for a brief while, it smelled like I did.  The first pile was ripe to say the least.  So, lesson learned, it might be a good idea to actually cover the pile the way they say you should. 

Watch that Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio (More Carbon 3:1 Nitrogen) 

Part of my lazy composting approach, especially in the late fall and all winter, is to just keep adding "stuff" to the pile.  This generally results in a gross input of nitrogen rich material, without much carbon added.  We threw in multiple hole pumpkins, squash, and other things from our fall decorating, and didn't attempt to balance them out with some straw or shredded paper as a carbon source.  Lots of veggie scraps, coffee grounds, and all sorts of other stuff.  Bottom line, we needed more carbon, which isn't much of a surprise to me as this is often the case with my piles in the spring.  That is why I generally layer them with chicken bedding from our coop and/or shredded paper and cardboard once I start turning them.  The correct carbon to nitrogen ratio is generally reported as 3:1.  You want more carbon than nitrogen when composting.

The Smaller the Material the Better

I do some landscape maintenance for a few clients each year, and in the fall I end up with piles of spent plants, trimmings, and other material that I know will eventually break down.  But instead of trying to run it all through the leaf shredder, chipper, or even the lawnmower, I just add it to the pile as is.  While there isn't anything wrong with this, it does make it interesting when it comes time to turn those piles, and I did discover that the ornamental grasses tended to mat together.  Eventually, all this material will break down, but it will take longer than if I had use some physical means to physically break down these elements before adding them to the pile.  Maybe this year I will try and shred them first somehow. 

Hot Composting Plan: Building the Piles

A couple years ago I stumbled upon this method known as Hot Composting.  The quick version of this method is lots and I mean lots of pile turning.  If you're physically capable of doing the work, it is an amazing method.  I start each pile with a layer of chicken bedding, and then wet it down.  It is important to keep the pile wet throughout the formation.  Then I turn part of the existing pile on top of that.  Again, wet this down, but it was very wet already so I didn't have to had much.  Then another layer of bedding, more compost from the pile, bedding, more compost etc.  Always making sure to keep some water in the pile along the way.  I did notice that I had a bit of dry material in the back of the piles, so at the end I didn't have to add any additional carbon sources.  In the spring like this, my go to carbon sources are cardboard and shredded paper, but this year, their addition wasn't necessary.  By the time we were done, the pile was huge.  Might be the biggest pile I have ever made honestly.  

You can see in the photos that the two end bays of my composting area are open to each other, and that was created purposefully to facilitate the hot composting process.  Now that the pile is made, we will carefully monitor its temperature using a composting thermometer.  This tool is critical as it allows us to determine when the interior composting process is beginning to slow.  In my experience this is usually caused by the excessive amount of heat within the pile caused by the microbes and bacteria doing their thing.  

Once they dry the pile out, they slow down.  To keep them going we need a new introduction of water and in some cases, air, as the pile will begin to settle.  This is when we turn the pile, trying our best to move material from the outside of the pile towards the middle as we go.  Similar to before, it will be layering the new pile, then watering it down, next layer, more water etc. If I find any areas that look like they need more carbon I will add in some shredded paper to increase the carbon to nitrogen ratios some.  My instincts right now actually is that I will be doing this at least a little bit on the first turning.  There was quite a bit of moisture and mucky stuff in the pile, but we will see. Its a bit like making pancake batter without following the recipe.... Does anyone else do that?..... mix, water....whoops too much water, more mix.... wait, now its too thick.... add water until, ahhh just right.  

Depending upon outside temperatures, carbon to nitrogen ratios(3:1 is ideal), and moisture, your pile could be turned as often as once a week.  Your turning schedule though need not be regimented.  Turning too early just means more work for you as there would have been more continued breakdown of material in the pile, but it doesn't hurt anything.  And turning too late simple means that there were a few days that the pile wasn't efficiently breaking down material, but it will start again once you turn it.  

You will be amazed at how quickly the pile transforms using this method. Within 4-6 weeks, you will begin shifting out high quality compost that you can add to your garden beds, planters, and seed starting mixes.  I never fail to be amazed at the outcome.  Its like magic. 

Cold Composting Works Too

Yesterdays efforts also yielded some evidence of another composting method, and that is the cold composting method, which involves much less effort, at least as far as the turning goes, than the hot method previously described.  

After I moved the first pile into the hot composting area, I decided to transfer the second pile into the now empty bay next to it.  My theory being that simply turning the pile would get it going again, move some of the exterior material into the middle of the pile, and if nothing else, stage it up for the next round of hot composting a month or so from now. 

The deeper I got into the pile though, the more it became apparent that the material on the bottom was fully composted.  Started there last spring I believe, it had some evidence of sheets of cardboard being added (I believe I had some scraps from construction projects my students had done in class) and was a very nicely broken down compost.  Once I realized this, I grabbed my compost sifter and began shaking it out into storage totes for safe keeping and was pleased to find that I did in fact have some amazing, ready to use compost....and actually quite a bit of it.  This compost will be added to growing beds, used in our seed starting mixes as we experiment with soil blocking, and spread around the garden under existing plants, such as within our raspberry beds to give them an added boost.  

My compost sifter is a simple unit that I slapped together years ago.  It is simply a milk crate with a piece of hardware cloth across the bottom that I wired into place.  I put two or three scoops of finished compost into the basket, hold it over whatever my collection tray is, and shake the whole lot until the finer material has been forced out and the large chunks remain behind. Its a very simple approach that yields an effective separation of the large material that we might not want to add to our seed starting mixes.  Two potential uses for this large material is to simply add it to your compost piles again for further break down, or throw it into the bottom of your large pots and allow its bulk to help fill your containers.  Often this material in my piles is woody material that would make a great water sink in the bottom of large planting pots.  Sort of a micro Hugel bed basically.  

Black Gold is Amazing!  Get to Composting!  

If you haven't yet started composting, let me tell you that it is totally worth whatever effort it might take.  It doesn't have to be an expensive process.  While I love the fancy compost tumbler that I got at a yard sale last year, I have gotten amazing results for years just using a few old pallets, a pitchfork, and some patience. Start piling up your organic matter.  Start looking at the resources you are throwing out that could instead be food for your garden.  Make a pile.  You will be amazed at how it will transform your garden!  

If you are into this sort of thing, there is more information over at our website which you can view here. There is loads of information about gardening, a whole section on composting, and even some ideas about home remodeling!  Come check it out.  We'll keep posting here on the blog, and do our best to continue to add more content to the website as well.


  1. Large Compost Pile Temperature today was 100 degrees, up from between 60 and 70 the day the pile was assembled.

  2. The pile has been steady on its temperature increase. Yesterday we checked it at 135-140 degrees in the morning and it has shrunk in size as well. I will try and post an update here soon.