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Beginning to Compost

 
Matt Tebbit
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Location: Cusco, Peru
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Hi all,

I'm basically a beginner at making compost so any advice would be appreciated.

I started a compost heap a couple of months ago and it seems to be going ok but I have a few questions.

Firstly, is it possible to put too many grass clippings in? I can get hold of large amounts of it at regular intervals but I don't want to overwhelm the heap with too many greens.

Is paper from offices acceptable for compost? I've heard that it can contain heavy metals. I'm having trouble finding suitable sources of browns. Other options are cardboard boxes thrown out from supermarkets and to a much lesser degree pine needles.

What about wood ash? There are wood burning ovens everywhere here, I could easily collect large quantities of ash / biochar (am I right in thinking this is partially burned wood?). Too much would turn the compost alkaline but some should be good, right?

As you can see I'm trying to find most of my ingredients from recycled waste around me.

Finally...

Are cockroaches a problem for my heap? Cockroaches live in the area, they were there before I began the heap. I've noticed one or two have taken up residence in the heap when I turn it.

Thanks

Matt.

 
William James
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Hi Matt,

As for grass and too much grass, it depends how you're managing the pile. I see you're turning it, so I it's obviously not the 'sit and compost down' type that takes a year of just sitting. You're amping up the biological activity by turning it, which means you need more brown stuff on the whole. Adding lots of grass means you'll soon find yourself with lots of stinky, slimy grass.

Excesses of grass are best done in a compost pile that you don't turn, in my opinion. A little is okay, a lot makes your life less enjoyable. In a year even a relatively large amount of grass will compost down into something you can use.

As for paper or cardboard, you'll find people who come down on both sides of this issue. Some people just say no to the toxins that are (in all likelihood) in there, some people accept the toxins and believe that the composting process binds them to carbon and they essentially get locked up. You'll have to decide for yourself there how you want to handle that information.

As for how paper and cardboard break down in a compost pile, if you have small pieces they will break down pretty fast and they would be easy to turn. Smaller than the palm of your hand. Anything bigger than say your full hand is going to break down slower and be more difficult to turn. Again, this might be something for a long-term pile.

If you made a lasagna pile with paper and grass and just waited, I think you would have something nice at the other end of the process. Pine needles would work well for a regularly-turned pile.

Ash is something that I wouldn't be adding too much of into a compost pile. A little probably goes a long way. I've hear people spreading ash widely over land to disperse the concentrations. What ash gives you in abundance is potassium. The problem is that compost as well gives you loads of potassium, so there's really no need to raise that nutrient in your compost. If anything you might want to add calcium or ag lime to the pile to balance that out.

One thing you might want to try is to separate the biochar from the ash and do some contained experiments in a raised bed or even a box with drain holes in the bottom. That way you could get some experience with using it, while not overwhelming any land you are working with. While it is generally agreed that biochar is a good thing, I have the feeling that the jury is still out on where, when, how to use it. Each situation is different so you might want to use caution there.

As for cockroaches, I've seen worse. Rats are worse by a long shot. I wouldn't be bothered too much, unless this thing is sitting next to your back door.

Have you tried a flow-through vermiculture bin. If I didn't have chickens processing most of the waste, I would build like 3 more. They are super efficient and take all of the monkeying out of composting. I seriously put in trash and scrape out processed compost from the bottom hatch. It works so well that you would really have to pay me to touch another compost pile. Let me know if you want pictures and I'll show you the design. Two barrels with 1 cover, a little bit of plastic-covered wire, and a little sawing is all you need.

All the best,
William

 
Rick LaJambe
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William, I'd be very interested in seeing your vermicomposting set-up. I too am getting disillusioned with composting. At first I was excited to see the composting action with the steam and incredible heat produced. I was even happy about the amount of exercise I was getting by turning my hot piles every 2nd day. Now it has become a chore that I try to put off for as long as possible. Rats and mice have moved into my piles too.

How much food can your system handle? Would it handle the waste of a household of 5 people?
 
William James
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When you're composting, steam is not a good thing. It means you're off-gassing your nitrogen supply in the form of No3 (nitrate) and No4 (ammonia). Either you need to turn it less, spread it out over a larger space, add brown material, or maybe all of the above. Anything to keep the heat to diminish. Rats and mice tend to move in during the cold months, it might be too hot in the summer.

The berkley method of composting has you turning every two days for 18 days. If you have access to water you can keep the correct temps. Also might want to get a compost thermometer. The good thing is that after 18 days, the work is all over. Might want to check that out. It also uses dead animals, so now you know what to do with those rats

http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/diy-instructions/hot-compost-composting-in-18-days/

I'll try to take some pics of my vermicomposting. For a household of 5, your might want 2-3 barrels. Two for sure. My barrels are rat-free. I doubt they could get up that high on a plastic barrel.

William
 
Matt Tebbit
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Vermiculture, that's worms right? I think I'd have trouble finding a supply of the blighters. I've heard people mention that worms are used here, whether they're the same sort you guys use I don't know. I've never come across anyone who has said they use them, just heard tales that people do.

Regarding the paper/cardboard and toxins - is that in general rather than just stuff coming from office printers. What toxins would you find in cardboard for example? So far a little paper has been sneaking in, the wrappers from teabags, torn up receipts and the like but only on a small scale compared to the kitchen waste going in.

What are some good, easily accessible sources of browns? If it's produced by humans I can be guaranteed that it's not being recycled here so is available to whoever will take it off the producers hands, are coffee grounds considered as browns or greens? There's a Starbuck's in town who I was thinking of hitting, if they won't oblige there's a heap of small cafes I'm sure will help out. To be honest I thought you had to add browns and turn the pile fairly frequently to keep it aerated.

Thanks for the info on the ash, I may collect a little to add if only to dry it out a bit. I think I'll leave experimenting with biochar for now, maybe next year

Finally regarding the grass, if it were just left by itself it should compost fine on it's own? I will hopefully have a truckload of grass clippings (the local government dump it and when one of the workers saw me collecting the stuff he offered me the whole load next time they do a big area) in a months time, I could just have a seperate pile left to compost.

Thanks for all the useful info and the quick response.

Matt.
 
William James
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Matt Tebbit wrote:Vermiculture, that's worms right? I think I'd have trouble finding a supply of the blighters. I've heard people mention that worms are used here, whether they're the same sort you guys use I don't know. I've never come across anyone who has said they use them, just heard tales that people do.


If you know someone who can give you fresh manure cow/horse, you have someone who can give you worms. Red wigglers are what you need. Thin red ones. Nightcrawlers aren't what you need.
William
 
Rick LaJambe
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To clarify, the steam I refer to is when I'm turning it. If I leave it for three days between turns, I get the white fungus or mold from too much heat, I presume. I am not getting the final product I should, as there is still much uncomposted straw. I need more greens, I'm sure, yet the piles are heating up sufficiently to begin with. I'd like to get together with someone locally to show me what the needed quantities actually look like. I don't mean to hijack this thread though and make it about me. I am still curious about what you referred to in your earlier post.

Have you any photos or plans for your vermiculture set-up to share?
 
William James
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Rick LaJambe wrote: I get the white fungus or mold from too much heat.


The white stuff isn't fungus or mold. It's anaerobic bacteria. Not enough oxygen.
William
 
Matt Tebbit
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No problems Rick, hijack away.

Regarding horse manure, one of the neighbours has horses and there's a pile of manure so maybe I can get some worms. The area is very dry and the pile looks completely dessicated, not too sure if the worms will have stayed put. To be honest I hardly see any worms here (in the Andes). Having dug my land over to quite a degree I only have only found one worm, hopefully they'll migrate once they realise how tasty I'm making it for them.

Regarding anaerobic piles, is this prevented by turning them and so aerating them, also by having enough carboniferous material to open it up a little?

I've decided to add cardboard egg boxes and some newspaper to my pile, I think they should be ok. The decision came as I'll be heading back to my land tomorrow and don't want to make the trip empty handed, also the pile needs more browns and my choices are limited.
 
james Apodaca
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I've always gone the lazy route.. I'm not making 18-day compost but my piles do grow throughout the year. It's hard in Florida to get what I need all at one time for a heavily active pile.

depending on how much bulk you have make multiple piles.

1. Every winter I bring home deciduous leaf litter by the truck load (I rake it at work, vacant lots, advertise at work for co-workers leaf litter) I bring home AS MUCH as I can..
I'm like a squirrel looking for nuts.. If I see it on the side of the road and I have a means to bring it with me.. it comes to the compost.

I spread out the dry leaf litter over my garden to insulate the soil for the winter and put whats left, after running it down in the lawn mower to chop it up, in my 4-5 'rabbit wire' compost "bins".

2. I never (have the ability to) get greens and browns at the same time.. When the leaves are falling here.. the grass isn't growing. So I have to wait until the rainy season to get my bulk greens.. at which time I can spread them across the multiple bins.

3. Of course throughout the year all my kitchen waste goes into the piles.. And yes the local wildlife loves it.
The cats and dogs keep the small stuff away and the larger critters (raccoon / opossum) they are actually quite amicable with.

4. I turn them whenever I can't find anything else I would rather do..

This usually leaves me with a mixture of leaf mold and composted material by the end of the summer..
You may be able to figure something out that works for you.. Composting for me is an investment in time, not labor.

Also, try to compost where you want to plant the next year as anything that leaches out does wonders for the soil directly underneath the pile and it saves you from having to cart your compost all over the garden.. I just topple over my piles and spread them out in place and plant directly.

Like I said.. Lazy compost.






 
Mountain Krauss
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Pigs would take care of those rats for you. They'd also turn the pile for you-- though you'll probably have to rake it back into a pile afterward.
 
William James
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Matt Tebbit wrote:
Regarding horse manure, one of the neighbours has horses and there's a pile of manure so maybe I can get some worms. The area is very dry and the pile looks completely dessicated, not too sure if the worms will have stayed put. To be honest I hardly see any worms here (in the Andes). Having dug my land over to quite a degree I only have only found one worm, hopefully they'll migrate once they realise how tasty I'm making it for them.


You should do some research on worms in your area, and decomposition in general. It's not always the same across the climates. I know that in tropical areas worms aren't the decomposters as they are in the temperate climates. Ants do most of the work of breaking organic material down, if there is any in the first place, since the vast majority of biomass is in the living material above ground. There are places in the US where worms are only there because they were introduced by careless fishermen and the forests there suffer because their soil is not supposed to have worms in it. Ask around, especially old people. They can tell you about worms in your area. Get to know your site as well as possible.

In tropical areas I think people might advise biochar over compost. It stays in your soil longer. Everything else just gets eaten up too quickly.

In any case, when you make your compost, or see other people's compost, are there worms? Worms should be attracted to decaying material. The dry pile of horse manure could just be because it's old. When I get my worms, the manure came out of the animal within a few weeks and is in a huge, stinking pile (again, temperate climate). You grab a fork and go worm hunting. You grab the bits with the most worms and leave the rest.

Matt Tebbit wrote:
Regarding anaerobic piles, is this prevented by turning them and so aerating them, also by having enough carboniferous material to open it up a little?


Exactly. You need to oxygenate and give the good bacterial something to eat (carbon), or everything goes south and the bad bacterial take over. You know because it stinks and it smokes. It is likely too wet at that point as well, so if you can keep water off it that's good too. Too much water means that water is filling holes where oxygen used to be.

Some people just don't like messing around with composting. So they revert to 'lazy piles'. I like these lazy piles too because it seems to give you way more good stuff for less energy on your part (putting it in place is hard enough). That being said, some other people believe that the lazy pile method, or not composting correctly in general, gives you a mass of organic material that, while good for the soil, is not compost. Finished compost is something you can barely see. It's what sticks to your hands when you're finished. Look at your pile, then think 20%. That is what percentage of your pile will actually become compost. Perhaps even less.

Btw, someone is doing worm composting in the andes.
http://venezuelanalysis.com/images/5224

It helps to know your worms. This doc is about colombian worms. I'm sure you can find better info just asking around.
http://caribjsci.org/dec06special/42_301-310.pdf
 
William James
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Mountain Krauss wrote:Pigs would take care of those rats for you. They'd also turn the pile for you-- though you'll probably have to rake it back into a pile afterward.


But, if you had pigs, would you really need to make and curate a compost pile? Same with chickens and worms. Seems like a lot of unnecessary work to me.
William
 
Mountain Krauss
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That was kind of my point. We have chickens-- no pigs yet-- and they do almost all the work for us. There's a lot of work in sourcing and transporting the materials, but once it's on the farm, it's all them.
 
Jeff Reiland
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I think steam is a good thing in your piles; just hot and moist inside. Good for killing weed seeds and diseases. Composting in general loses some nitrogen and CO2 to the atmosphere (not ideal but its better than sending it to the landfill and if you don't have chickens or pigs to feed your scraps to composting's still good!)
Loads of grass can mat and cause the pile to go anaerobic-bad, stinky, slimy. A good place for carbon would be sawdust. If you know any carpenters you should be able to get some, just stay away from the treated stuff if they build fences or decks, etc. Or like James mentioned, stock up on bags of leaves. Should be tons around now (Northern hemisphere)
 
Jeff Reiland
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Here's a video I did for turning compost, pretty amateur but gotta start somewhere...
 
Jeff Reiland
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It gets stretched weird, but looks ok if you follow the youtube link <shrug>
 
William James
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Matt Tebbit wrote:

What are some good, easily accessible sources of browns? If it's produced by humans I can be guaranteed that it's not being recycled here so is available to whoever will take it off the producers hands, are coffee grounds considered as browns or greens? There's a Starbuck's in town who I was thinking of hitting, if they won't oblige there's a heap of small cafes I'm sure will help out. To be honest I thought you had to add browns and turn the pile fairly frequently to keep it aerated.


Good sources of carbon are
straw - here straw is abundant, even if a little costly. I finally scored some cheap straw (not the best kind, but okay). I would have never imagined that straw would be such a hot commodity.
wood chip - takes a long time to break down, bigger pieces remain nearly forever, but can be useful.
leaves - the more chopped up the better. you can also do it non-chopped, it just takes longer to break down.
grass - grass is a strange character. It's green in the beginning stages, but a source of carbon in the later stages. I usually keep grass on its own. You might incorporate it later after most of its decomposition has happened.
sawdust - great carbon source, better than chip for its ability to break down faster. Find a woodworker to give you bags of it.

on Cofffee grounds. The more the better. Coffee is almost like finished compost as is, so it doesn't have much effect on the green-brown ratio (it won't heat up or slow down your pile to a huge degree). It is a source of nitrogen so in theory it's a green, but it doesn't break down very fast, so it's a brown.


Matt Tebbit wrote:
Finally regarding the grass, if it were just left by itself it should compost fine on it's own? I will hopefully have a truckload of grass clippings (the local government dump it and when one of the workers saw me collecting the stuff he offered me the whole load next time they do a big area) in a months time, I could just have a seperate pile left to compost.


The other thing about grass is that your grass contains grass seed. When you eventually spread the compost, you might be planting grass. You may not want that in the garden. The only solution to that is hot composting (or time). Same thing with hay. Although some people say that straw has seed too, I would rather see wheat popping up in my garden than grass or hay, both of which are perennial and don't provide me with any direct benefit.

If you're worried about the toxins in paper, why not worry also about the toxins in grass clippings? Or are you lucky enough to live in an area where people don't spray grass with toxic gick? Personally I would just amass grass clippings and then think about using them later when they've composted down some. The end product just by itself is nice and it takes zero work.

William
 
William James
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I will hopefully have a truckload of grass clippings (the local government dump it and when one of the workers saw me collecting the stuff he offered me the whole load next time they do a big area) in a months time


I should caution you about amassing too much stuff, especially grass clippings. Here the law is that grass clippings have to be spread out, while branches can be piled up.

The reason is this: 3 or 4 knee-high piles with enough distance between them won't be a problem, granted you have enough space. If you take the same piles and make them one, after a few months you might start to see a black liquid coming out of the bottom. This stuff is great for the soil in small quantities. In large quantities it's not good and if the rain can't keep up with washing it into the soil, that's not good either.

I've seen head-high piles of grass and leave clippings sitting in a boggy, smelly liquid. That's not what you want.

The other reason you don't want to amass too much stuff is simply the work involved with shuttling it around. I had so much stuff that it took 3/4 people about a day of work to fork it into wheelbarrows and move it around the property. If you have a tractor that's another story.

By myself, it would probably take me about an hour or two to shuttle around a truckload of stuff (probably 2 cubic meters of fresh material), picking out all the plastic as I go. Factor that into your estimates of how many truckloads you want to work with if you're doing it by hand.

William
 
Matt Tebbit
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Thanks for all the feedback William, think you've answered everything...for now

If the offer for a truckload of grass clippings comes through i think I'll at least take the first one. I'm thinking to mulch my land, the area was cleared by a bulldozer before I bought it and with rain and wind I can see that a bit of soil is being eroded. A thick layer of grass clippings should help to keep it all in place, also there are a bunch of plants that are making their way back up after being cleared, most of which I'm sure I don't want.

Regarding toxins on the grass, luckily that's not an issue, none of that high falooting chemical nonsense here Also hopefully no seeds as the grass is from a nicely maintained lawn so doesn't get much more than a couple of inches before it gets another haircut. BTW I'm in Cusco, Peru, a fair way from Venezuela. I really have no idea why worms are such a rarity here, I think the ground is so poorly maintained that they struggle. I have a small garden in the city and after I worked it over and got some compost in some worms showed up. I may have found a source of worms, I met a guy who works for the municipality who is running a vermiculture project close to my land and he seemed very amicable and I'm sure won't mind sharing
 
Keith Odell
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If you are mulching and composting with the grass you should be able to use tons of it. You'll know if you aren't doing it properly.
Crappy soil will result in few critters in the soil. Like "Field of Dreams" - if you build it they will come.

I am not aware of your weather in Peru but I would bet that there is a type of composting worm working in the vicinity.
Maybe not the red wiggler, but maybe blue worms or African night crawlers. Horse manure piles would be a good place to find them.

Below is a video from an unsuccessful kickstarter project but the units work great. 5-gallon buckets work well also.

Good luck and have fun.

Keith

http://kck.st/1lRvl1C
 
William James
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Keith Odell wrote:

Keith

http://kck.st/1lRvl1C


Matt, the above link is my basic design. So easy!
William
 
Andy Jackson
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A few notes:

1) Steam - The presence of steam does NOT indicate loss of nitrogen, as suggested. It's merely water vapor driven off the pile due to heat. As long as your pile doesn't overheat or dry out, it is a desirable indicator.
2) "White Fungus" - This isn't a fungus at all, nor is it an anaerobic bacteria. It's a type of thermophilic bacteria known as Actinomycetes, and while it is a bacteria species, it grows white/grey filaments that are often mistaken as a fungus. Also a desirable indicator.
 
Peter Ellis
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William James wrote:
Rick LaJambe wrote: I get the white fungus or mold from too much heat.


The white stuff isn't fungus or mold. It's anaerobic bacteria. Not enough oxygen.
William


Unless it is thready looking and holding stuff together, in which case it is mycelium and definitely fungus. Entirely possible for it to be fungus.
 
Rick LaJambe
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Andy Jackson wrote:A few notes:

1) Steam - The presence of steam does NOT indicate loss of nitrogen, as suggested. It's merely water vapor driven off the pile due to heat. As long as your pile doesn't overheat or dry out, it is a desirable indicator.
2) "White Fungus" - This isn't a fungus at all, nor is it an anaerobic bacteria. It's a type of thermophilic bacteria known as Actinomycetes, and while it is a bacteria species, it grows white/grey filaments that are often mistaken as a fungus. Also a desirable indicator.


I remember hearing (perhaps incorrectly) that the presence of this bacteria in the compost was an indicator that the temperature is too high in the pile. Is that incorrect? Since I don't have a compost thermometer, I have no idea what the exact temperatures were that my piles reached. I did the arm test after a week or so on some of them and immediately had to pull my arm out before reaching the center of the pile. The piles got roaring hot but they didn't break down all of the straw. I'm not satisfied with it as a compost product, but it is probably superior to a pure straw-mulch. I'll find a source of manure to boost my nitrogen for my future piles.
 
William James
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Rick,
The short answer is this: if you have a high-carbon pile, the white stuff is fungus breaking down wood. If you have a high-nitrogen pile, the white stuff is anaerobic bacteria. In theory you could have both, if parts of the pile are high-carbon and parts of the pile are high-nitrogen, but for the most part it's one or the other, especially if you're mixing. In your case, with the high temperature (sign of nitrogen taking over), the presence of white stuff, and an unsatisfactory outcome, my educated guess is that you didn't have enough carbon or didn't turn enough, but most likely the lack of carbon. Find sawdust or something woody. There are C:N tables that can help you understand what to look for to get high carbon stuff.

William
 
Rick LaJambe
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The white I saw in my piles looked like everything inside the piles had been burnt and was coated in white ash. It did not look like mycelium. From everything I have learned, they were bacterially dominated due to the high temperatures.

I am having a hard time understanding why I would need more carbon. The materials in the pile which are left intact seem to be high in carbon like straw, chopped cattail stalks and the like, which leads me to believe that there was not enough nitrogen there to fully break everything down. With two of the piles last summer, I had even added more nitrogenous material after they had finished their 18 days and they picked up in temperature again. If I was left with pieces of slimy greenery or identifiable food scraps and had a smelly pile, would that not have indicated too much nitrogen?

My hope is that since I am left with carbonaceous material in my cooled piles, letting them sit for a few months will allow fungus to move in and finish the job.
 
William James
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Rick LaJambe wrote:The white I saw in my piles looked like everything inside the piles had been burnt and was coated in white ash. It did not look like mycelium. From everything I have learned, they were bacterially dominated due to the high temperatures.


You know, I had that exact thing happen to me. I purchased a large pile of finished compost, and I left it in the sun. I started seeing white stuff that looked like ash.

Take a look at this:
http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/load/soil/msg062005043421.html

It turns out It's actually burnt compost. When I added leaves to that compost, it got super hot.

Rick LaJambe wrote:
I am having a hard time understanding why I would need more carbon.



You should be putting to soil before it gets the ash. If you wanted to continue composting with new material, then you would add more carbon. Can you see pieces of straw?

Rick LaJambe wrote:
If I was left with pieces of slimy greenery or identifiable food scraps and had a smelly pile, would that not have indicated too much nitrogen?

Yes. That, or it would indicate that the rats haven't moved in yet.


Rick LaJambe wrote:
My hope is that since I am left with carbonaceous material in my cooled piles, letting them sit for a few months will allow fungus to move in and finish the job.


If you want fungus to move in, you have to give them something to eat. Wood or oats increase fungi. Increasing the carbon content to a large degree would work. Basically you would jack up the carbon and put it where it was needed and the soil fungi would come in and do their job. I wouldn't be mounding anything at this point, since any mass tends to reproduce the decomposition process via bacteria, which means heat, and it means fungi won't move in. Spread out and carbonize. The compost you've created will fuel the fungi, while the wood or straw would give them something to eat.

William
 
Matt Tebbit
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Jumping back in again - what's the best way to transfer soil mycellium to my compost pile. Yesterday whilst digging a small section I found what I think is mycellium, there were some dead roots, bits of straw etc buried and the soil around them had white strands coursing throughout. Would it be possible to just transfer some of the soil to the pile or is it best to leave that area untouched from now on to allow the mycellium to establish.

I've got plenty of wood, should I cut that up in to smaller pieces to add to the pile and hope mycellium establishes by itself?

The compost is coming on fine, a few bits where there was too much grass are looking a bit gunky but I've been mixing in pine needles, cardboard and newspaper and it seems to be ok.
 
William James
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Matt Tebbit wrote:what's the best way to transfer soil mycellium to my compost pile.


I've heard of a great technique but I've never tried it. Small straw bale. Place in woods. Water. Wait a few weeks. Transfer to where you want mycellium. If you add some carbon and a little nitrogen to that, the fungi will come.

Matt Tebbit wrote:I've got plenty of wood, should I cut that up in to smaller pieces to add to the pile and hope mycellium establishes by itself?

Any way you could get sawdust? Adding big chunks means that the mycellium has to work harder. The idea is to make things super easy for them.

Matt Tebbit wrote:The compost is coming on fine, a few bits where there was too much grass are looking a bit gunky but I've been mixing in pine needles, cardboard and newspaper and it seems to be ok.

Good to hear that. The grass will compost down and get good soon enough.

William
 
Andy Jackson
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Rick LaJambe wrote:
I remember hearing (perhaps incorrectly) that the presence of this bacteria in the compost was an indicator that the temperature is too high in the pile. Is that incorrect? Since I don't have a compost thermometer, I have no idea what the exact temperatures were that my piles reached. I did the arm test after a week or so on some of them and immediately had to pull my arm out before reaching the center of the pile. The piles got roaring hot but they didn't break down all of the straw. I'm not satisfied with it as a compost product, but it is probably superior to a pure straw-mulch. I'll find a source of manure to boost my nitrogen for my future piles.


Its presence merely indicates high temerature. Notice that it tends to be everywhere around the core, including cooler outer layers as long as they are moist and warm. Thermophiles, like this one (Actinomycetes) break down certain materials fast (relative to fungal activity at ambient temperatures) and are absolutely desirable.
Personally, I don't think a properly formed stack can overheat. Sure, the core can soar to temperatures that inhibit or even kill certain mesophilic bacteria/fungi, but the thermophiles are raging. And keep in mind that this extreme environment only exists in the core of the stack, not the majority of the mass that composes the stack which is still full of the mesophiles that started the conflagration in the first place. What I have found, however, is that this superheated core dries out quickly, leaving the "ash" that some people describe while causing the core to cool. This is when (and why) you stir (and add water). After a few of these cycles, the pile will fail to heat like this, but that does not mean composting has completed, just the thermophilic phase. The remaining straw that you saw (and other material as well) require cooler temperatures and fungal activity to break down. This simply takes time. If you keep adding stuff, you're essentially restarting the process.
 
Rick LaJambe
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Andy Jackson wrote: After a few of these cycles, the pile will fail to heat like this, but that does not mean composting has completed, just the thermophilic phase. The remaining straw that you saw (and other material as well) require cooler temperatures and fungal activity to break down. This simply takes time.


I assumed that my piles would finish up if I left them to sit for a few months. The part that confuses me is that most sources tell you that the end product of an 18-day compost pile should not resemble any of what went in to begin with. This leads me to believe I am still not getting the correct proportion.

If adding more green material to my cooled pile causes it to heat again, does that not mean that there was enough carbon to support a greater nitrogen load in the first place?
 
Andy Jackson
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Rick LaJambe wrote:
I assumed that my piles would finish up if I left them to sit for a few months. The part that confuses me is that most sources tell you that the end product of an 18-day compost pile should not resemble any of what went in to begin with. This leads me to believe I am still not getting the correct proportion.

If adding more green material to my cooled pile causes it to heat again, does that not mean that there was enough carbon to support a greater nitrogen load in the first place?


I'm going to need more information here. Are you stirring the pile at all?
Eighteen days is not nearly enough time to break down everything. The initial thermophilic stage in my piles (~3' dia., 3' tall) lasts nearly that long by itself! Thermophilic bacteria do not break down the tougher materials well; fungi do that, and as stated earlier, they need the cooler temps of a post-thermophilic stack to do it. That, and plenty of time (think months).

And no, it wouldn't be a good indicator, as a pile of greens by itself will usually heat up. In other words, heat generated by the further addition of greens will indicate only that you added more greens, not that your initial C:N ratio was off.

If you're in a hurry, just buy it bagged.

 
Rick LaJambe
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I build my pile, turn after 4 days then every 2nd day after. I have my piles covered loosely with tarp to prevent drying out from the sun or steaming off but leave gaps between the tarp and ground for air to circulate.

I'm in no big hurry. I had the understanding that the Berkley method of hot composting yielded finished compost in 18 days and could include materials that a slow pile could not. In my case I need a hot pile to kill off weed seeds and any potential pathogens from meat waste. We do not raise swine or chickens so composting is the best method for us to handle our organic waste. I thought that since 18 days did not yield finished compost for me, I was getting my proportions wrong.

So, once the thermophilic phase is complete do I spread it in place for fungal activity to continue, or is it better to spread it on my beds and allow that to happen there?

Another thought I just had was that I remember seeing some chicken bones in the pile after it cooled off. Since they didn't decompose fully, might they be a source of some nasty bacteria?
 
Andy Jackson
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Ahh, the Berkeley Method. Perfect for when you have everything you need at your disposal at the right time. You and I live in the real world, where you use what you have on hand. Our method takes a little longer.
As for the mesophilic, fungal phase, just leave the pile sitting after a thorough mixing. A turn every month or so will suffice until the consistency is what you desire.
And as for the bones...I have no idea. I avoid animal residues in my piles (excepting eggshells). I would advise caution, however.
 
Rick LaJambe
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Yes, the real world, where we can't all precisely weigh and measure our materials.

I wonder if anyone else reading this can speak to my concern with the bones being leftover in the compost? Do bones simply take a longer time to break down? I've seen video of geoff lawton where he describes putting fish, roadkill, old jeans, leather boots, or slow moving interns into hot piles and it all breaks down. What about the bones? Are the bones showing that I definitely haven't constructed a proper hot pile?
 
mick mclaughlin
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Bones you must discard.

Leaves I would use, not pine needles. Straw, hay, saw dust etc.. are a start for carbon. Carbob keeps well, so I grab it every chance I get.

I dont turn mine much. Once after two weeks, and once at maybe 6 weeks. Rule of thumb is the slower it cooks the more nutritional value to the soil.

I am only making good soil.
 
Leila Rich
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Rick LaJambe wrote: I've seen video of Geoff Lawton where he describes putting fish, roadkill, old jeans, leather boots, or slow moving interns into hot piles and it all breaks down. What about the bones?
I'm in the 'compost everything' camp, but mine isn't fast and hot like Geoff Lawton's piles-
it can take months to break down if I'm especially lazy.
If only I had some slow moving interns to speed things up a bit
 
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