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Todd Parr
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This may be of no use to anyone but beginners, but this is the first batch of compost I have made that is truly excellent.  In the past I have always made compost that was "good enough".

When I started making compost a number of years ago, I read something that said “everything rots”.  Excellent, I thought, I can just pile up a bunch of organic material and wait, and I’ll have compost.  Don’t get me wrong, this works.  In my case though, it was an easy path to compost that, after a very long time, was “good enough”.  The most recent batch I made I did several things differently, and the results were great.

I made two major changes to my compost, and a number of smaller ones.  The main changes had to do with adding large amounts of coffee grounds, and quite a bit of biochar.  My bins are made of pallets, and in each bin I added 10 gals or so of used coffee grounds, and about as much biochar.  I’m not certain which of the two, or maybe both, made the difference, but after a couple months I dug into the compost and I’ve never seen so many worms.  Each scoop had literally dozens in it.  You can see and feel the life in a handful of this compost.
 
My “new” method of making compost follows.  I started with the material I brought from the chicken coop, namely, chicken manure and pine shavings.  I don’t let the manure build up in the coop, so in comparison, there was far more pine shavings than manure.  This was the first thing I did differently.  I used far more browns to greens than I have in the past.  I also didn’t “layer” the vegetation greens that I added, I sprinkled them.  I think the term “layer” is misleading when it comes to greens.  My newer piles have a brown layer, whether it is leaves, wood chips, straw, or whatever that is a few inches thick, then a sprinkling of cut grass or weeds or what have you.  If you can’t see the brown layer thru the green, it’s too thick.  So, it was manure mixed with pine shavings for part of the bin, and browns with a sprinkle of greens for the rest.  Also, I watered every brown layer to a uniform consistency as I made it.  In the past I just tried to water the entire pile when I was done and it doesn’t work nearly as well.  The pile needs a pretty tremendous amount of water as it is being built.  I would put in a layer of chicken coop material and spray it down well with the hose.  Then I ran a rake around to open the material up.  I was shocked to find that even after what seemed to be a really thorough soaking, the material would be bone-dry after the first ½ inch or so.  At each layer, I would wet it, run the rake thru, wet it again, and repeat until no dry areas could be found.  After that, a sprinkling of greens, and repeat until the bin was full.  Consistent moisture throughout.

The next change I made was making a commitment to turn the pile every week.  I did this every weekend, first thing when I went out in the morning on Sat or Sun, depending on which day was most convenient.  It didn’t take more than about 15 minutes or so.  At each turning, I would make a layer a few inches thick, and then add coffee grounds or biochar to the pile, and then turn on another layer turned in, and repeat.

I didn’t have to add any more water to the pile at all.  I think that was mainly to do with another change I made.  I kept the pile covered the entire time.  I had some old hay that was starting to rot, and every time I turned the pile, I put a layer of hay a few inches thick to shed any rain we might have.  The cover kept the pile moisture constant, and the pile never cooled down.

All in all, it was about 6 or 8 weeks of turning weekly.  I didn’t add coffee grounds and biochar every week, but I added them when I had them until I reached the amounts mentioned.  After the weeks of turning, I let the pile rest for about a month.  The results were far superior to any compost I have made in the past.

I realize none of this is new information.  It wasn’t new to me either, so far as “knowing” about them.  It was tweaking the things I already knew.  Consistent moisture, much more brown then green, consistent turning, coffee grounds, and biochar.
 
Todd Parr
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It's hard to get good pictures of worms because they dive for cover as soon as you expose them to light, but I tried to get a picture.
worms.jpeg
[Thumbnail for worms.jpeg]
worms
 
Harry Soloman
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I love it.  Especially when you said you can feel the life!

Congratulations on gaining your "feel" for composting.  It is one thing to know it on paper and a whole other thing to make and to make it right!  Bravo!

I am a big advocate of biochar, especially in compost.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Excellent work on discovering how to properly compost Todd, but I would like to ask; when you mention biochar are you meaning that you have already activated the charcoal with bacteria and fungi?
Or are you using fresh charcoal to the compost heap so it can become activated with biologicals? (this is how I activate my own charcoal for garden use)

Biochar means biologically active charcoal, that is usually created by making the charcoal then using either an active composting (as you are doing) or by soaking in biologically active compost tea.

It is more a matter of using correct terminology, I am not trying to criticize at all, you have given a wonderful story of your journey in composting and many should benefit from it.
 
Todd Parr
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:Excellent work on discovering how to properly compost Todd, but I would like to ask; when you mention biochar are you meaning that you have already activated the charcoal with bacteria and fungi?
Or are you using fresh charcoal to the compost heap so it can become activated with biologicals? (this is how I activate my own charcoal for garden use)

Biochar means biologically active charcoal, that is usually created by making the charcoal then using either an active composting (as you are doing) or by soaking in biologically active compost tea.

It is more a matter of using correct terminology, I am not trying to criticize at all, you have given a wonderful story of your journey in composting and many should benefit from it.


Redhawk,

I hesitated to use the term biochar in the way that I did for that very reason.  My contention has always been that it isn't biochar until after it is inoculated, but I was corrected by someone on this forum that said biochar just meant charcoal made from organic matter.  That still doesn't make sense to me because if you make it from anything other than organic matter it isn't charcoal in my mind, but because the person that corrected me is an "authority", I sometimes use the terms interchangeably now.

In this instance, I mean I use fresh charcoal and add it to the compost pile to be activated, as you do.  I only used the term biochar because it seemed to be the consensus on the forum that any charcoal used for gardening was biochar.  Now that I know I'm not bucking the forum consensus, I can go back to using the term biochar the way I always did
 
Harry Soloman
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I did a compilation on biochar.  Interestingly I finished this yesterday.

biochar information and then some
 
Marco Banks
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Wow -- the picture certainly shows how much biochar there in in your finished compost.  Lots.

Very cool to hear your experience.
 
Greg Martin
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Thanks for sharing Todd.  You've inspired me to turn my pile! 
Also consider adding your Biochar to the new shavings in the coop.  It should help keep any smells down in the coop and then will end up in the compost pile when you clean it out.  I add my Biochar to the bottom of my kitchen compost bucket every time I empty it out for the same reason....really works out fantastically. 
 
Todd Parr
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Greg Martin wrote:Thanks for sharing Todd.  You've inspired me to turn my pile! 
Also consider adding your Biochar to the new shavings in the coop.  It should help keep any smells down in the coop and then will end up in the compost pile when you clean it out.  I add my Biochar to the bottom of my kitchen compost bucket every time I empty it out for the same reason....really works out fantastically. 


Greg, I would recommend against it.  One of the keys to keeping chickens healthy is keeping your coop very dry.  I tried adding charcoal for the same reasons you mentioned and I ended up with a film of black charcoal dust all over everything.  I didn't use an excessive amount but it still caused a problem.  My chickens are in a run part of the time and I "harvest" soil from the run.  I only put charcoal there now, never in the coop.

Marco, it ended up being a bigger proportion than I expected.  It's obvious of course, but I didn't think about the fact that the compost shrunk to maybe 1/3 of the original size, while the charcoal doesn't  
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Great point Todd about the shrinkage rate for good compost. My heaps usually end up at 1/3 the starting volume too.
I am now at the wonderful place of being able to use 1/2 a heap as starter for new heaps which gives those new heaps a head start.
The one thing I have to help folks with the most is the quantity of "browns" to "greens", it seems hard for new composters to be able to use enough carbon material when they build their first compost heaps.

Part of that problem is the type of green materials used, fresh cut grasses can use up to 5 times their quantity of carbon materials due to the moisture content while green leaves can only use 3 times their quantity.
It is part of the learning curve, no matter who's instructions you read, they end up only as guide lines due to the many different "green" materials out there and that is why it takes time to learn to make great compost.
Then you can add in the confusion that is being created by the terminology being used incorrectly and you can find your self in a hot mess of compost soup.

If you really want to get "down and dirty" in the science of composting, you should have a microscope so you can see the organisms you are breeding, then you can make adjustments to get true "black gold".


Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:

If you really want to get "down and dirty" in the science of composting, you should have a microscope so you can see the organisms you are breeding, then you can make adjustments to get true "black gold".


Redhawk


Redhawk, after a conversation we had in the past, I started looking for a used one.  I won't know what I'm looking at, but I'm interested to see what is in there anyway
 
Bryant RedHawk
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decent microscopes

super deal

I would recommend checking out the second scope I listed, it is low price, has the magnification we need for microbiology and it can hook to a computer for photos and data recording.
You will want some slides and slip covers, and some mineral oil for the high magnification lens.
These can usually be found as a kit for cheaper price than buying them individually and you get the stains too.

I've looked at lots of used microscopes, they all seem to be missing parts or don't have the magnification needed (2500,X ) so not really any savings from my view point.  

Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:decent microscopes

super deal

I would recommend checking out the second scope I listed, it is low price, has the magnification we need for microbiology and it can hook to a computer for photos and data recording.
You will want some slides and slip covers, and some mineral oil for the high magnification lens.
These can usually be found as a kit for cheaper price than buying them individually and you get the stains too.

I've looked at lots of used microscopes, they all seem to be missing parts or don't have the magnification needed (2500,X ) so not really any savings from my view point.  

Redhawk


Thanks for posting that.
 
Tim Kivi
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Great post!

Even though as you said it's nothing new, I need to read the same things again and again from different sources for it to finally sink in.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Glad to be of help Kola Todd.  by the way, that second scope is one I am going to get to add to my own lab equipment, my college scope is rather out of date. and shop worn.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Todd, here are some links that will help you identify what you see through the microscope.

NRCS soil organisms

Microbeoganics

I do have to warn you, kola, once you have a microscope and start using it to work on your soil, your plants might grow huge and or put off more produce than you expect.

Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:

I do have to warn you, kola, once you have a microscope and start using it to work on your soil, your plants might grow huge and or put off more produce than you expect.

Redhawk


That's a risk I'm willing to take my friend
 
Marco Banks
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I hadn't thought about the fact that while everything else in the pile decomposes, the bio-char would remain stable.  So the ratio of bio-char increases as the pile shrinks.  Never the less, I would imagine that you are capturing a greater percentage of nutrients that otherwise might just gas-off.  Those will be well-innoculated chunks of biochar by the time you are ready to use that compost.
 
Harry Soloman
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Here is a great talk by Dr. Elain Ingham


Dr. Elain Ingham is fantastic and I recommend all the videos you can find with her.
 
Tj Jefferson
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Todd,

I am very interested in whether you feel the charcoal gets inoculated enough in that time frame (since you are adding more in continuously). I have avoided adding any new char in my piles this whole summer, but it would be great to be able to add in incrementally. I could sure use a bunch more biochar that way. Are you using this compost this fall or keeping it for spring?
 
Todd Parr
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Tj Jefferson wrote:Todd,

I am very interested in whether you feel the charcoal gets inoculated enough in that time frame (since you are adding more in continuously). I have avoided adding any new char in my piles this whole summer, but it would be great to be able to add in incrementally. I could sure use a bunch more biochar that way. Are you using this compost this fall or keeping it for spring?


TJ,

It's a great question, and truthfully, I don't know.  I added charcoal when I turned the pile a few different times and then let it rest for a month or so.  Next time I would let it rest for a couple more months to get the full benefit of the worm castings from the dozens of worms that grew in the pile.  This time after the month's rest, I added half to the garden and added more material to the other half to get the bin going again.  I currently have two bins going that won't go on my gardens until spring.  Is a month long enough?  I'm not sure, but I would think it is at least starting to become inoculated.  The piles that sit until spring I would think will be good to go.  Our spring temperatures are warm enough to allow things to come back to life in plenty of time before I can plant things that are in danger from frost.  I try to look at these things long term, so even if mine isn't fully inoculated by the time it goes in the garden, I'm okay with that.  I just don't have a better answer than that.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Microorganisms don't take that long to create a huge population. I have seen them quadruple in numbers in a matter of hours.
One thing to understand is that carbon is not only a food source for microorganisms but it is also a place they want to occupy as living quarters since there are lots of "rooms" in a hunk of charcoal, they seek it out to live in.
If your compost is really good both in mix and bioactivity, charcoal introduced will be populated in 30 days.
Think about how long you brew a compost tea, 72 hours is the absolute maximum, this tells us that longer than that and the organisms we want are starting to die off.
If you add charcoal to a heap at the beginning, it will be fully occupied when the compost is ready, if you let the heap get half way through the process before adding the charcoal, it will be occupied fully by the time the compost is ready for use.

Live desires to live and spread all it needs is the opportunity to do so.

Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:
Think about how long you brew a compost tea, 72 hours is the absolute maximum, this tells us that longer than that and the organisms we want are starting to die off.
If you add charcoal to a heap at the beginning, it will be fully occupied when the compost is ready, if you let the heap get half way through the process before adding the charcoal, it will be occupied fully by the time the compost is ready for use.

Live desires to live and spread all it needs is the opportunity to do so.

Redhawk


Redhawk,  I wondered about that as well.  Is there a maximum time to let compost sit before it isn't as good?  My current bins will sit all winter and be used next spring.  Do I lose some benefit by waiting that long?  The seasons here obviously affect when I can use compost, and when I can plant, so I have constraints regarding the time frames, but does compost lose anything by sitting too long?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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There is a best time for use with compost but even if it has gone past that prime point of crumbly goodness it is still very good.
Compost goes through a multi-phase decomposition process, first it heats up as bacteria get to work on the green materials then as those green materials near complete breakdown the heap starts to cool and mycelium grow and eat some of the bacteria and other microorganisms, worms come in and eat their favorite food stuffs and deposit their castings, in the end the compost smells sweet and crumbles in the hand, looking a lot like wonderful soil. As it continues to age it gets more like a powder but still has lots of fungi, bacteria and the rest of the microbiome present, some will remain active and others will go into a dormant stage, waiting for their conditions to improve (as when you incorporate it into garden beds).  The difference between teas and just compost are several; teas remain wet (they are aerated water) there is no place for any organism to go and escape the wet conditions and they will multiply to the point of over crowding. This is why you need to brew and use a tea within 48 hours per most tea brewing instructions. To extend this "full of life" period you can use a vortex creating system for brewing, water then becomes activated because of the electrical charges the vortex apparatus creates in the water molecules. If you watch the rapids of any river or stream you will see multiple vortexes form and dissipate in those rapids, this is where air is injected into natural water and those funnels(the vortexes) spin the water giving the molecules electrical charges ( both + and - ) this allows that water to hold onto things or recombine with other molecules or break down into O2 and H.

The deeper I get into my current research the more amazed I am at how complex such simple processes become as well as the many relationships bacteria, fungi and all the other microorganisms create with each other and plant roots.
This micro cosmos is mind boggling in the quantity of relationships and interactions,

(Dr. Ingham is gold in a sea of silver when it comes to the micro biome of soil and how to improve it)
 
stephen lowe
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A question that has occurred to me as I embark on my first real large compost experiment is, will any improper blend of organic matter become decent compost if given long enough? I haphazardly dealt with large piles of manure and woodchips by layering them in large (3 cubic M?) piles. One had semi-dry seaweed of various, mostly kelp, species sprinkled similar to how todd describes treating the greens. I just turned the first recently, after 3 weeks because it's huge and tiring to turn, and it was fungally active in about the center .5 sq M. The other pile didn't have the seaweed and never got as warm or shrunk as much so I am not as optimistic. I realize now that I didn't really add much nitrogen but as I said these piles are huge and super tedious to turn without power equipment, so I wonder am I better off just letting something like this sit through the winter? could I turn them and add in fresh grass clippings, leaf fall, more seaweed, or other greens, and get something compostier to spread out before winter comes? All this also reminds me that I had always thought of manures as N sources but I'm starting to wonder about the source and reasoning behind that belief.

I really appreciate you all sharing your knowledge and experience.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Many people seem to think of manures as a nitrogen source but manures are not that rich in N.
Urine on the other hand is a great source of N. (urea) and can be used with wood chip mulches or piles of wood chips to start the break down of the cellulose.
Another fallacy is the idea that Wood chips will rob nitrogen from the soil, this only occurs in the immediate vicinity (1-2 cm) of soil that is covered with wood chips.
Using wood chips is a great thing for pathways, garden beds and even around trees, just make sure it isn't a conifer type since these are slow to break down and contain allopathic compounds.

Fungi are the feeders of wood chips so you can speed up the process of decay by finding mushrooms and creating a slurry in water and pour that on a heap of chips to help them turn into organic matter for the soil.
When chips are simply heaped on the soil and fungi are added through slurry application, the bacteria in the soil below will bloom after a short period and start eating the wastes materials from the fungi thus improving the soil beneath the heap of chips.

Redhawk
 
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