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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When good compost goes bad: how to fix up the pile

If you have not had any luck in composting, here is the best way I can describe building a hot pile from what is available.  Many serious composters may grow green manures and buy straw specifically to compost. Others have secret ingredients to add to the pile such as; fertilizers, dog food, molasses, soured milk or buttermilk.  You may want to try these if you have trouble with the reheat.

The best time here is spring and summer....spring more than summer, and I will tell you why.  On the first and second really nice weekend in Spring, those odd nice days followed by sleet, rain, hail and snow....we call that March in the Ozarks (and sometimes April, to be honest). That is the time to look for people cleaning up last Fall's leaves.  Usually in the heavily wooded neighborhoods like mine, where even if you clean up in the Fall, the wind leaves you even more by spring and you end up doing it all over again. Most people are happy to part with them, because it saves them from hauling them.  I stay close to my neighborhood, so that saves me from hauling far as well.
I like to save my leaves in a larger compost bin along side my regular compost. Generally speaking, I like to have at least two piles, if not three going at varying stages of decomposition. My set up is pretty big, but can easily be scaled back down to normal.  It is nice using pallets for bins because I like my leaves chopped, but that is not usually how they come, so I run my mower into the leaf bin, and use my mower's bag to dump it slowly into the pile I am building.  This works especially well for building a hot pile, you can either begin mowing the lawn and dumping it slowly into the pile of chopped leaves, and mix in some dirt and a bit of unfinished compost and stir in some water all in basically the same place.  essentially I mow until the bag is nearly full then mow my way back to the compost bin.  I try to keep the carbon ratio higher than the nitrogen, and keep it moist as I build...not soggy, but moist.  My kitchen scraps end up in one of any of the piles, whichever is least finished, and moved into another pile when it gets moved, usually.  When I build it this way it always heats up fast.  Other things that we have done to get a hot pile is adding fish tank water from my sister's (full of N in various forms) and I have also used old wood chips that had been seasoned for at least a year or two and were already basically half dirt.  That pile was super hot!!!  (And I have heard not to do that, but it wasn't half bad compost.) By the following season there was no trace of wood chip and no nutrient lock ups that were visible....(keyword).
And that is basically all I do...
So, here are some of the more common problems with composting that you may have run into and how to solve them. As you know from my stinky story, some of this has come from experience.  Currently I garden on the borderline of organic...so if you are organic...well, I guess I am not really...but I do believe in it whole heartedly, but some times I use regular fertilizers that are given to me.  Other times I just can't find the appropriate alternative...so this list isn't as green as it at first sounds...being that it is compost.
First, my new favorite:
ODOR
 Lack of Air:
1. too much water--------> Add carbons...brown material...leaves, and especially straw will absorb some of the excess moisture.  stir it up.  Fluff with a pitchfork, use sticks to poke holes in the pile and lift up.  The organisms that eat up everything need some air in that steam pit every once in a while, and if you think about building a compost pile like fire...This helps restart the heat as well. Compost can and will suffocate if too compacted...which is #....
2. Compaction------> aerate... that is pretty much it.  your pile will always settle if it is heating and that is good, but if there are layers beneath matted and wet it will cause problems....fluff the pile and use thin layers adding greens and browns both....like #
3.Smells like Ammonia------> that is too much nitrogen.  Add carbon and stir well.
4. Not enough nitrogen-----> that is another smell, add some grass clippings, dog food, blood meal or some other nitrogen rich amendment like fresh manure.  stir well (yes, there is a trend here)
5. Soppy wet------> add more carbon and stir well.  They say when build the pile it should be like a wrung out sponge.  For me that is a little too much for the imagination, with what goes in a compost pile. So I just make it very damp when I build it and it is usually dry around the edges when I turn it.  Sometimes when I water the garden I will spray through the cracks in the side of the bin and a little on top when it is looking too dry..but don't drown it when you build it....you have to wait until at least after the first "baking" before making compost tea!

NO HEAT
1. Not enough water, it may be too dry.  Try as above, but also aerate at the same time so some of the water makes it inside.  If you use a pole down the center as I do, you can water that as well.
2. It has finished it's initial "baking" and it is time to turn.  Either stir it well with a pitch fork, moving all the dry outer stuff in, and vice versa.  Or do as I do, and move the entire pile, into the next bin.  I add a bit of water to the dry stuff and the damp stuff I leave alone.  If I chose to use fertilizers or amendments in my pile, it is usually for the reheat, so I don't have to add any more materials.  If your previously hot pile is ice cold, it needs to turn.
3.  It's done----> scoop it out and use it!
a small pile will not get as hot, nor break down much at all.  If your pile is damp and only slightly warm and only in the center, you must rebuild a larger pile.

SOME MATERIALS STILL IDENTIFIABLE
1 It may still need nitrogen and moisture and more air.  You should never let it get too dry, nor too wet, nor too compacted.  Watering or withholding water, and fluffing the pile can help to rekindle the heat.
2. Some items may have been too large to begin with and will need to break down longer.  I usually sift them out and throw them in the center of my next pile. Try to only soft rotten wood or very fresh prunings and add them to the center where the heat can burn them up. You can still use the compost if there is not a lot that still needs breaking down.  Or you can use it to rebuild a new pile, adding lots of fresh nitrogen materials and little if any dirt or compost, since that is what you've got already.  It should break down after another good heat.  You can also use compost at this stage in the fall, as it will have plenty of time to decompose.  I prefer to layer if there is no cover cropping in place...Unfinished compost and chopped leaves with a layer or old straw from the season's mulch.  I usually remove the straw in spring and there is not much left below that but nice dark soil!

Hope it helps...most of the information I read from the Veg Bible's trouble shooting guide, the organic gardening encyclopedia and of course grow more veggies. Links to these books and why I like them are on a previous post. I have only composted a few years, but I have only had a problem one time so far.  As always there is a lot more great information to be had on the WWW.
Good luck, and I hope you get lots of hot compost this season! ;)

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