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Composting

 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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I've composted in several parts of the US with different climates. Where it's dry, dig a hole and add wastes and a little soil each time you add something. When it is mounded up slightly, add a few inches of soil and wait until it is flat or slightly sunken. Plant in it. Works great.

Where it's wet, make a pile. Put it where you'll want to plant something someday. I never turn my piles but they never smell. The secret is twigs and branches. Start your pile with a bunch of twigs and branches from pruning or removing shrubs or trees. (Not diseased ones, but ones that weren't where you wanted them.) Vine cuttings like Virginia creeper or honeysuckle or jasmine work great too and they grow like crazy so you always have plenty. Now add leaves and weeds and scraps etc. Put some soil in there, too or if your soil is dead add some compost starter. If you don't have enough Nitrogen stuff, add alfalfa pellets (rabbit or guinea pig food). There used to be an alfalfa cat litter (Litter Green) that was super but I don't see it any more. If you're converting a grassy area to a planting bed, the chunks of sod you remove go in the compost pile. Even St. Augustine grass will compost. If it starts to grow around the edges of the pile, pull it up and toss it on the top then put something else on top of it. If you put in a bunch of stuff that tends to mat down, add more twigs, branches or vines. These make air pockets. Dampen the stuff as you add it. Depending on your rain you may need to water the pile sometimes. If you have enough microbes your compost will rot just fine. If you get a lot of rain some nutrients get washed down through. That's why put it where you want to plant. If you can't do that you might have to cover the pile with a tarp.

Since I keep adding stuff to the top, it eventually gets unwieldy. Then I make another pile with branches, pull the stuff off the top of the 1st pile and put it on the 2nd. Undigested branches from pile 1 go into pile 2 as I get to them. When I get down to compost in pile 1 I rake through it for branches and remove them to pile 2. Then I can either plant where pile 1 was or remove some compost for elsewhere. I guess moving from pile 1 to pile2 counts as turning the pile, but that only happens once a year or so. I'm in the South so if I can keep the pile damp it rots for a lot of the year. It never gets that hot, but I still don't have much problem with weeds.

Another method is one I'm using now. I have several grassy areas I want to convert eventually to planting beds. This is my first year composting on this property and I made my usual pile last fall as described above. The leaves are still not composted. The soil here is really dead (years of chemical fertilizers and removing grass clippings by previous owners) and there just weren't enough microbes to get things to rot. I moved some of those leaves to a 2nd pile and added compost starter and now things are humming along in that pile. But here is what I've done with the remainder of the 1st pile: spread it as a mulch about 4 to 6 inches deep over the areas I want to convert. Weeds etc. from the vegetable garden get pulled and thrown on the top of this mulch. If I see something sprout I go pull it which is easy because the roots are in the mulch. Or even better, throw handfulls of mulch on it until it's buried and dies. The grass underneath is dying (more compost). To add kitchen scraps, dig into the mulch, toss in the scraps and cover with mulch. Make sure to move around the yard and not put all the scraps in one spot. The mulch keeps water in the soil so well, when a nearby area that is mulched with pine bark shows "moist" on my meter this area shows "really moist" and it stays that way through days of no rain. (We can get an inch of rain one afternoon and nothing for a week or two.) I'll probably throw some compost starter around in this mulch and probably some alfalfa pellets, too, otherwise it'll probably still be there in 3 years. Composting in place like this isn't very pretty, but it's really easy to do. Since I'm almost 60, easy is important if I expect to continue to garden for years.

When the soil is a little better I'll add some plants with long roots to help break up the soil, and pull them up and throw them down to compost in place. If I get dandelions I'll let them grow for a while then pull them. Then bushes will be planted and eventually some small trees. The yard is small so not enough room for large trees, my neighbors have those. Eventually the leaves from the bushes and trees should keep the mulch going on their own. It seems like the less I dig the better everything grows. I'm a very lazy gardener. 
 
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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Excellent advice, CBostic. If you add compost starter to your mulch, do you plan on taking a small amount of your active pile in the fashion of sourdough starter, or will you buy commercially-prepared starter?  I've never found the need to add starter. Even with a pile on bare concrete in the middle of the city, and the only "soil" added a few accidental clods of dead, beige clay, even salamanders eventually found a way in.

I have contributed a little toward the wiki on this subject, but it sounds like you might have a lot to share.

Northeast Al: One important thing about all-browns cold composting, is that nitrogen-fixing bacteria play an important role. There are studies tracking the C:N ratio in piles like yours, and it tends to fall in a way that can't be explained by mere loss of C. I bet the ecosystem in that old pile developed a real talent for making nitrates out of thin air, over the years.
 
Posts: 405
Location: New York
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Joel, that is an interesting piece of information.  It may very well be that is the case.  I do have loads of earthworm castings at the bottom of the pile and long strands of rubbery fungus within the pile too.  If you look at the size of the pile it is actually quite small.  About 2 foot high and about 10 around.  Because it is at the edge of a drop-off, most of the material must have fallen into the woods, but plenty has compressed deep into the ground and created about 3-6 inches of solid, rich soil.

Two very strange things we found when we first decided a few months ago that this actually was a compost pile.  An old newspaper that had to be one that was delivered in a plastic bag was under the leaves.  It had been reduced to pure humous within the bag.  If not for the very small piece of newspaper still in the bag, we would not have known how all that soil got in it.  And then there was an open two liter soda bottle that was filled with the same black humus.  No idea how long either were there or whether or not the worms or the biological entities did the job. 

Over the 20+ years I would think the  total amount of greens thrown on that pile would not even fill a wheelbarrow.  Not bad for a junk pile. 

I started the same type of system at the bottom of our slope.  This time I add greens from the 6 foot tall grass stalks we have and wild Rhubarb leaves and such.  Makes a nice soft path to walk on and keeps the weeds in check.  Should be a bonus under there some day.
 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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Joel - I will use some commercial compost starter since I have it. Pile 2 was kind of small and it's gotten added to the mulch already. My pile 1 was 3 feet tall and about 15 feet long by about 4 feet wide. When I took it apart the bottom two inches were fairly well rotted, but most of the rest of it was still fresh. I even pulled a carrot out of it that looked in better shape than when I put it in there. It got dried out in the frig so I put it in the heap months ago. When I pulled it out a couple of weeks ago it looked like I just brought it home from the store. I scratched my head and put it under the mulch. We'll see what happens. A few other spots in the pile were decayed, but most of it looked just like it did when I built the pile. That's when I started pile 2 and added the commercial starter.

The soil I have here is as dead as I've ever seen. Calling it soil is much too kind. The only worse soil I've had was in Fort Myers, Florida. That was beach sand and about 2 feet under it (or less) was solid limestone. I got some large plastic totes, drilled some holes in them, filled them with potting soil and planted my veggies there. Anyway, the soil I have here seems to be a mixture of sand and clay particles. If it gets dry it turns hard like a brick - you can't even get a spade to go into it by standing on it on bare ground, you need a mattock to break it open. Once you water it though, it gets soft and nice to work with but it doesn't have any structure. When I dug into it dry, I dug down about 18 inches and I did not see one living thing. After I watered it and dug in the same area, I was seeing some earthworms, a few japanese beetles and a few grubs of some kind (probably cut worms of some sort). That's in an area about 30 feet by 10 feet. The soil is almost black in color with occasional lumps of yellow sand or yellow clay that is really tough and rubbery. There is no visible organic matter and no apparent top soil layer. It's not a new development - the house was built in 1963 and some of the shrubs have probably been here that long.
The only thing that is growing well is the volunteer blackberry growing through a dead azalea. Even the weeds aren't doing much. Where I have loosened the soil, dug in some compost and mulched, I have planted a couple of figs and they are doing well. I found a lily of some sort stuck up against the garage wall, dug it up, separated it and planted the bulbs between the two figs, and they are doing well. The area under where I had compost pile 1 was great when I removed the pile. Beautiful loam. I dug some of it up and scattered it through the mulch.
If anybody can give me any other ideas what I can do to add soil life or encourage what little I've got, I'd be very appreciative.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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CBostic wrote:If anybody can give me any other ideas what I can do to add soil life or encourage what little I've got, I'd be very appreciative.



I think the no-till + mulch strategy you're following will do wonders, if my limited experience is any guide. It might be hurried along if you can find a way to get a large number of roots into the soil, maybe cutting the weeds down instead of pulling them, maybe even planting a cover crop (more for the sugars the roots would exude, than the shade the leaves would cast) if it makes sense to do so.

I've also read diverse mulch environments help: brush piles for pest predators, swales full of wood chips for fungus, nitrogen-rich mulch like you have for bacteria.

In the lawn care forum, Paul occasionally mentions "worm pits," which is sort of like the pit composting you first mentioned, except in a post hole, with a larger proportion of soil,  and with a much higher C:N ratio. It also somewhat resembles double digging, except it's intentionally very localized and seldom; the idea is that soil life will spread horizontally.

A few sunflowers might be good: they're deep-rooted, and dry seed heads can hung as bird feeders over patches of soil that could use some guano. I buy raw in-shell seeds from the grocery store bulk bin; way more than I intend to plant for maybe $0.20.
 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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Thank you, Joel, that was just the kind of thing I was hoping for.

The idea of sunflowers is great! I already have a bird feeder hung on an arch with morning glories climbing up it. Some of the dropped sunflower seeds sprout and I let them grow. They typically grow about waist high. That little spot was improved soil already but I can tell it needs to be better. So I know the sunflowers will grow pretty well. I can plant a row of them behind my figs close to the neighbor's garage wall (concrete block painted white). I'm thinking of planting some beans along with them as a cover crop.

Pest predators! So that's why having a brush pile near the garden makes things better! I have one, but I'll have to move it since it's where I want to put the sunflowers.

Holes for composting to get microbes lower down sounds good. I'm willing to dig if it makes an investment in the soil instead of making a withdrawal.

Here are some other things I've thought about:
Since I have to bring in compost from off site, I should probably try to get as many different sources of compost as possible. I've been using cow manure and bark mulch because they're easy to find and I'm familiar with them and they're probably local. But I think I need to expand my horizons. I know I can get poultry manure and mushroom compost at the local big box stores. There's no way to know if the local cypress mulch was gotten sustainably or not, so I'll probably not use that until I can find out. I might be able to find straw of some sort if I go out in the country from here. I don't want to use hay cause I've gotten a lot of weeds from it in the past that were the devil to get rid of. Partly composted horse manure is a possibility, I just need to find some horses, although that can have weed seeds, too. Since my compost is cool, I might want to avoid that. I can ask my neighbors for leaves in the fall. I could probably get mulch from the city but you don't know what might have been sprayed on the yard debris before it was composted. Now that I'm thinking along those lines, I should be able to come up with some more ideas.

I can buy beneficial nematodes and maybe some other microbes by mail order. Has anybody done this?

I need to delineate my planting beds and get my lawn guy to stop mowing them. There's going to be some lawn left right in the middle of the backyard so he can keep mowing that, at least for now. I should plant some herbs and flowers that attract insects and birds, especially annuals. I'll start with the ones that tolerate poor soil. Since there won't be any mowing I'll have weeds that can be cut down and composted in place, too. The birds and bugs should bring in microbes that I'm missing. I can plant some beans in with these, too and if I cut them down they'll help with the soil. I wonder if I have the N-fixing microbes? I should probably inoculate the bean seeds just in case. Any opinions on this? (Maybe I should start another thread?)
 
                    
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I just got a Can-O-Worms composter, I've not had a worm composter before.

Has anyone used one?

Is Can-O-Worms a good composter? 
D
 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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Here's a followup on my composting in place with poor soil.

This morning I pulled back the mulch behind my figs so I could plant some seeds for sunflower and beans. The soil under it looked super! There were all kinds of bugs and worms and the soil was dark with a good structure. Not sure how far down it goes since I just uncovered a row, scattered seeds, covered with a bagged topsoil just to hide the seeds then watered. As soon as the plants are up a few inches I can start pulling the mulch up closer to them. So in just about 6 weeks at the most my soil has gone from awful to good - at least as far as tilth goes.
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Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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CBostic wrote:in just about 6 weeks at the most my soil has gone from awful to good - at least as far as tilth goes.



Congrats! It makes me happy to hear that.

It sounds like there's a lot of life in the soil, at many levels of complexity. I bet you have the right sorts of microbes if the variety of bean isn't to particular about it (e.g., mung bean), but others (e.g., garbanzo) are notoriously specific and need an exact strain of innoculant or they won't thrive. I'll try to keep the off-topic discussion to a minimum, but this also speaks to composting:

Fig roots are doubtless helping to sustain the soil, and over time they'll have the chance to reach fairly deep. I wonder how many calories the soil took in from the mulch above vs. from the roots below? Over the lifetime of these sunflowers, you might look into a guild that will support the figs long-term.

CBostic wrote:I should probably try to get as many different sources of compost as possible. I've been using cow manure and bark mulch because they're easy to find and I'm familiar with them and they're probably local. But I think I need to expand my horizons. I know I can get poultry manure and mushroom compost at the local big box stores.



Used coffee grounds from a local shop might be worth looking into, and what you're growing now (sunflower stalks, green manure) will also help with diversity quite a bit.

I'm not sure I'd buy chicken manure or mushroom compost, but I'm stingy like that.

Straw will likely include some seeds as well: a fair amount of wheat came up where I spread wheat straw, and I counted that as a bonus.
 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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I don't think the improvement is from the fig roots, because the area in front of the figs, where there is pine bark mulch has improved only slightly in the same amount of time. I'm not sure if the biggest benefit came from the compost/mulch itself or from the commercial compost starter I used. I used Ringer All Purpose Compost Plus and it says it has organisms that break down grass clippings, brown leaves, and wood chips. So I'm thinking it's probably a mix of bacteria and fungi. I do know my pile was just not decomposing much until I added that. I also added a bag of manure to the pile a couple of weeks before I spread it out, so I wasn't being scientific, just impatient.  I'll have to do some more controlled tests if I really want to know what got things going.

Over the lifetime of these sunflowers, you might look into a guild that will support the figs long-term.



I planted the figs just before I discovered guilds, so I had no plans of what to put with them other than "pretty". Now I've been trying to figure out what the figs need. They don't need a lot of nitrogen (very low requirement). They don't need pollinators. I haven't seen any bugs on them. So probably they could use a ground cover to keep weeds away and some dynamic accumulators wouldn't hurt. Attracting some pollinators is always good for the garden as a whole and ditto with insectaries.  This is kind of off topic here, so I'll start a new thread for it.

Used coffee grounds from a local shop might be worth looking into,



A quick check seems to show that the local shops are throwing their used grounds away, so after I get back from vacation I'll check and see if they'll save at least some for me.

 
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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A colleague of mine takes branches, cuts them pointy on one end and pounds them into the ground.  Fungi follow them down, and the rest follow... it creates some vertical conduits for moisture and air to start depening your young soil. 

I often use taprooted mustards and like them... radish, daikon, rapeseed... I think they need some fertility to really grow vigorously and do thier work, but they put a lot of root into the ground quicky.  Queen Annes lace might be another good weed (wild carrrot)... I don't know your climate.

I seem to recall there are a bunch of sub-tropical nitrogen fixing shrubby things that might suit your situation.... lespediza leucerna somethingerother
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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Paul Cereghino wrote:there are a bunch of sub-tropical nitrogen fixing shrubby things that might suit your situation



Lots of these have been planted for erosion control in my part of the world, and the best-adapted have naturalized themselves. If you look around marginal land, especially steep slopes, you'll see a lot of them, and some varieties are probably going to seed around now.

I haven't positively identified any of them, but they are obviously legumes, and there are quite a few different varieties available.
 
                    
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Question??

If we have to buy our compost for growing veggies from the store. as in it's our only option right now, what kind is safe for growing food?
 
                                
Posts: 55
Location: Savannah, GA
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The only way to have totally "safe" compost is to make your own. Anytime you buy it, you don't know what went into it. There could be herbicides, pesticides and what have you depending on the source of the original plant material and what has been done with it before it gets to you. You can find the company packaging the mulch and research them to see if you can determine the source of the plant material.

Having said that, I've used purchased bark mulch, purchased manure and purchased top soil many times over the years and never noticed anything bad happening. Eating produce that's not doused with chemicals has got to be better than eating stuff that is. I would think that the mulch would have to be pretty soaked with bad stuff to impact the end product more than being sprayed directly.
 
                    
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Thanks CBostic ,
I think next year I'm going to see if a local organic farmer will sell me some made here, it has to be better than the commercial stuff.
 
steward
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COMPOSTING STICKS

***WARNING: RANT AHEAD***

ENOUGH ALREADY!!
The Powers That Be screwed up and I ended up with a long weekend!  Spent yesterday sleeping and eating.  Today I got out into the yard to do some dabbling about.  Got into the compost, adding to it, turning a couple of heaps some, and came to a conclusion regarding sticks.

General practice and instruction for making compost will tell you to start with a layer of sticks.  The theory is that these sticks will allow air pockets so the heap can breath. 

Sticks in a compost heap are a horrid bother.  Anything larger than my finger has no business being in a compost heap.  They take forever to break down.  Any contribution to the heap is years away or in such small amounts as to be imperceptible.  Should you ever wish to turn your heap, the constant struggle and tenacious obstruction offered by the sticks would be enough to ruin your day were it not for the promise of a beer in the late afternoon.

When it is time to harvest the heap, the sticks must be contended with yet again.  Common instruction is to use these sticks as the base of your next heap...I guess so you can fuss with them for the rest of your natural life!

When I built these heaps I raked up whatever was around, sticks and all.  While it seemed like a good idea at the time, hindsight shows that the few moments to remove all those sticks would be a fine investment.  I've got one heap loaded with lumber scraps.  I toss sticks in that direction, they will make it to the heap eventually.  I'll leave that pile be for a few decades.  When I get enough sticks, I'll use them all in a hugelkulture bed.  A few years of aging will do them nicely.  In the meantime, I've got 4 good heaps with no significant stick inventory.  I'll be able to use those with much less aggravation.

Leave the sticks out.  If you turn your heap frequently, the heap will have plenty of oxygen.  If you don't turn it regularly, the heap will still rot down with or without sticks.   
 
steward
Posts: 28836
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
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This thread is clearly one of the first ever threads in this forum!

I realize that in the last eight months or so I have shared a new opinion and it does not appear in a composting thread, so I thought I should add it here.

The new opinion is: composting is a bad idea.

I suspect that a lot of folks are getting ready to lynch me, but let me make my case.

First, there is the part where I had no compost on my farm. This was because kitchen scraps went to critters, and animals all stayed in portable shelters. there just ended up not being any compostible material.

But that was a decade ago. Now I'm taking this to a higher level that includes urban lots where there are no animals.

Consider for a moment that you build a big compost pile. Then, through good composting techniques, the pile shrinks by 95%. Now consider: where did that 95% go? Answer: that was mostly carbon and nitrogen that went up into the atmosphere. But the kicker is that we want all that carbon and nitrogen in our soil, not in the atmosphere.

The awesome thing is that Ruth Stout is way ahead of me on this. When i first read her stuff, I thought the way she dealt with kitchen scraps was weird. Now I see that it was advanced. She would throw kitchen scraps under the mulch. Sometimes she would throw kitchen scraps on top of the mulch - but i think under the mulch is best.

So now I feel better. I expressed my position on not composting.
 
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I noticed there was some discussion about peeing on compost. Funny thing to comment on, but seriously. Not sure about directly urinating on the compost pile or bin, but many people water down the urine and water their plants with it. I've done it; I think it works great. Works well. great fertilizer.

The ratio is 1:10

Worm castings are also great fertilizer and a product of vermicomposting.

Does anyone know of other forms of casting or feces that works for composting? Rabbit or dog feces, for instance? Those are the animals I have come by and asking this question to myself, wondering if anyone has experience with composting this.
 
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I just watched Geoff Lawton's Soil movie and was inspired to try and get an outdoor shower from the heat .  I added everything EXCEPT the dead animal goo or as he calls it "inoculant".  After 8 days my pile still isn't hot.  Was the goo that important?

Recipe (%): Carbon = dry leaves 75% 19% straw
                  Nitrogen = guinea hen poo 2%, cow pie poo 4%

Layer order: 1) Foundation of leaves (1 foot deep) 2)  thin layer of bird poo, 3) water it 4) leaves 5) cow poo 6) water  7) leaves, and so forth

after 4 days I turned the whole pile but added a huge pile of wet straw that I mixed in.  Covered the whole thing with a plastic tarp.  How can I get it started?  Do I need to add pee?

 
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