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Posts: 13
Location: Lockhart, TX
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So, as a forewarning, this might be a stupid series of questions that I could probably just google search and get the answers to. But, I much prefer conversing about these things to better learn about them, and maybe get a few good tips to start on. And all the information on the internet is so overwhelming. So please forgive me  .

I am quite new to composting and I'm only 22 and quite new to gardening also. I recently got out of military where I was not allowed to have a compost pile in my yard on base housing, so I had to purchase my compost from the store. And now that I have the freedom to do as I please, I am dying to start a good compost. So my questions are:

- What is the "green" that I put in compost. I know already manure and kitchen scraps. But what else is there?

- What is the "brown" that goes into compost. I know leaves and i think grass (or is that green?). And what else is there? And what do the terms brown and green actually refer too/mean?

- What is the best way to start a compost?

- How long does it take to start the composting process? And I've heard the term activator for compost, but what does that mean and what are activators?

- Is it OK to use weeds in a compost, or will they create havoc in my gardens?

- And if I were to attempt a "lasagna garden" would I adjust the Ph within the compost layering and not worry so much about the soils Ph, or would I work off of the soils Ph while layering on top of it?

- And any other helpful advice would be much appreciated! 

I have chickens right now, and I will soon have goats. I also have my neighbor's cow manure at my disposal. I don't have very much grass, my 2 acres are mostly weeds and dead dirt. And the trees I have are live oaks and ash. And I have plenty of kitchen scraps to compost also. I don't really know what else on my property would be useful.

If these questions are repetitive on this site then, by all means, please refer me to other similar posts or links I could get the answers from. But I'm pretty sure once these are explained I will have plenty more questions to ask also  .

Thank you,
Dominic
 
Steven Baxter
Posts: 258
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As you are new to composting don't worry about the technical details just yet. That will come later after you are more experienced. Here are some things to consider when starting a compost pile:

Air- Compost needs air to breath, with no air the compost pile may rot and produce less ideal bacteria

Moisture- For the organisms to survive and break down your compost. We all need water right? Your pile should be as moist as a rung out sponge.

Nitrogen- Nitrogen or green material is the food for the carbon. It also supplies some moisture to your pile.

Carbon- Carbon or brown material is the food for the nitrogen.

Too much nitrogen and the pile will just sit and rot. (think of a bucket full of 2 weeks of dinner scraps)
Too much carbon and the pile will decompose very slowly. (think of a pile of sticks)

A good ratio is 3:1.
3 being carbon and 1 being nitrogen. Or 3 handfuls of leaves and sticks to 1 handful grass clippings.

When constructing your pile, construct in layers. Add some leaves and sticks, followed by grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Wood chips then horse manure. These are just examples, use what you have.
Spray a little water on each layer and give it a rough mix to incorporate green and brown together.

Thats pretty much it. hers a small list of some carbon and nitrogen.

http://www.composting101.com/c-n-ratio.html



 
maikeru sumi-e
Posts: 313
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I'm of a few minds about composting. Sometimes I do a lot for specific purposes or preparation, other times I'm lazy and don't have time for it. I actually prefer mulching, but there are times when composting is necessary or most desirable.

Oracle gives a good explanation of the basics. If you have too many greens, don't worry. If you have too many browns, don't worry. You can still make awesome compost. A diversity of materials going into the pile will give you better, more balanced compost at the end.

If you want to hot compost, you should keep your pile turned and well aerated with rough materials like wood chips, sticks, etc. and moderately damp (like a wrung-out sponge), and it will gradually get up to 140-160 F. How fast it heats up depends on the carbon and nitrogen ratio. If you have a lot of nitrogen, it'll cook fast, within a day or two. Too much nitrogen however can make it stink from ammonia and other noxious vapors, and if ammonia is being released, you're losing a lot of the good stuff to the atmosphere. Add more carbon/brown stuff to stop nitrogen/ammonia loss.

Once it's steaming, it's cooking quite merrily. Keep it at 140-160 F for several days. This is useful for pasteurization purposes: killing off dangerous microbes, diseases, unwanted plant seeds, plant diseases, insects, etc. Manure, spoilt meat/seafood, etc. composted at this temperature will kill E. coli, salmonella, and other nasties and certain kinds of chemicals and antibiotics that may be present in the original material, making it safe to use on food plants or fruit trees. You can have compost done in as little as 1-2 weeks. It's also possible to hot compost even in the middle of winter if you make your pile large enough, so that it retains and generates enough heat.

Cold composting can involve mixing things (or not) and making a pile and not turning or watering it (though I would recommend keeping it moist to facilitate breakdown). It may be aerobic, it could be anaerobic if it gets too wet or doesn't get enough air. Make sure it doesn't become stinky. Usually if you keep it lightly moist it'll continue aerobically as the pile shifts and little critters work inside and out. This method usually takes a month to a couple months...maybe a year...to produce good compost depending on what you put in the pile. Piles of sawdust, sticks, leaves, etc. may take several months to a year or more to breakdown. The advantage of this method is that it's highly likely you'll have well-developed soil fauna, microbes, and probably worms living in your compost and you can spread them around your veggie garden. I would not recommend putting bones, spoilt meat, seafood, etc. into this kind of pile, because they may attract scavengers, dogs or cats, rats, mice, etc.

You can also dig holes and bury things, bokashi compost (basically, you pickle the scraps/materials), and do worm composting (vermicomposting).

Weeds are fine for composting, but if you worry about weeds sprouting again or seeds coming alive, hot compost. If you have no problem with certain kinds of weeds (opportunists) sprouting, like dandelions or nettles, then cold composting is fine.

Activators are things that increase microbial activity in the compost and increase/speed up decomposition and get things cooking, especially if you want to a warm/hot compost. Usually these are rich in nitrogen, protein, or sugars/starch. Compost activators include...

--Urine (high nitrogen source, be aware most people will freak out if they know)
--Manure
--Bone meal or blood meal
--Spoilt seafood/meat
--Fishmeal/juice
--Alfalfa or soybean meal
Etc.

Composting material and lasagna garden layers pH initially may change as different decomposers and soil fauna come in and do their thing. Generally compost tends to balance itself out and come out around neutral after its done. So you can expect around 6-8 pH after completion, though it can be more basic if you add a lot of calcium or limestone. Don't worry too much.

Useless tidbit: supposedly it takes only 1-2 inches of compost on the surface of the soil to feed veggies for a single season.
 
Emily Jacques
Posts: 30
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Maikeru: does one need activators for Compost Tumblers? If you turn it daily, compost is supposed to be done within 4 wks. Was wondering if activators would make it go even faster, or if they are only needed with sedentary compost piles. TIA.
 
maikeru sumi-e
Posts: 313
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emjo wrote:
Maikeru: does one need activators for Compost Tumblers? If you turn it daily, compost is supposed to be done within 4 wks. Was wondering if activators would make it go even faster, or if they are only needed with sedentary compost piles. TIA.


I don't think you do, but I would recommend adding a little of your garden soil or older, finished compost to inoculate it with good microbes. Using a compost tumbler should speed up your compost production a lot, since you can keep the pile so well aerated. Usually more important is the nitrogen and carbon ratio. A lot of N gets a pile cooking fast, but you don't want so much you vaporize lot of that valuable N off into the air. We should try to conserve as many nutrients as possible. Even high carbon/brown compost can gain N due to the microbial decomposers fixing and storing N, though it takes time.
 
                  
Posts: 13
Location: Lockhart, TX
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Thank you all for the great info. It helped tremendously!

My C:N ratio wasn't to far off when I started my compost yesterday morning before I posted the above questions. . I get lucky like that sometimes! I just had to add a bit more carbon. Though when I added more and turned it today I noticed a good amount of bug life on the bottom. I would assume that IS a good sign, right? The bug life that I noticed was a good amount of roly polies, an equal amount of earwigs, a small amount of centipedes and some spiders that scurried off before I could make out what they were.

And, should I add the activators immediately, or let the compost sit for a few days first? It would be nice to just relieve myself closer to my gardens while I'm working  . Speaking of urine, should it be diluted or "aged" before adding? Or is direct application alright?

Thanks you all again,
Dom
 
maikeru sumi-e
Posts: 313
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dom wrote:
Thank you all for the great info. It helped tremendously!

My C:N ratio wasn't to far off when I started my compost yesterday morning before I posted the above questions. . I get lucky like that sometimes! I just had to add a bit more carbon. Though when I added more and turned it today I noticed a good amount of bug life on the bottom. I would assume that IS a good sign, right? The bug life that I noticed was a good amount of roly polies, an equal amount of earwigs, a small amount of centipedes and some spiders that scurried off before I could make out what they were.

And, should I add the activators immediately, or let the compost sit for a few days first? It would be nice to just relieve myself closer to my gardens while I'm working  . Speaking of urine, should it be diluted or "aged" before adding? Or is direct application alright?

Thanks you all again,
Dom


I hope people aren't going to get grossed out, but it should be just fine to add it straight. Urine is sterile in the human body, and mostly sterile once it comes out, so disease/pathogen risks are minimal. If you want to use it on plants, it should be diluted to avoid root burn, or if you have significant concerns about disease microbes it should be aged for 1-2 months sealed in a jar/jug. Make sure you have some dry spongy stuff to help absorb it. As it breaks down, the N will be released and used by the microbes and soil life very quickly over a few days and that will help avoid funny smells.

Bug life is good. I just am wary of earwigs after they ate holes in some of my peaches last year! grrr.
 
                  
Posts: 13
Location: Lockhart, TX
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Sorry if the urine talk did gross anyone out!

Since the urine (and other activators) is nitrogen, does that mean I would have to add more carbon to the compost? Or would I exclude activators from the C:N ratio?

 
Steven Baxter
Posts: 258
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This may be a whole other topic, but if you make a small batch of compost tea. That tea could be sprayed onto the pile to assist in the activation. Someone had mentioned bokashi which is inoculated with EM(effective microorganisms). EM can also be made and used to spray on compost and plants. Buying it is a bit expensive, so making it is a fun experiment to try.

This is also similar to but not the same as biodynamic farming.
 
maikeru sumi-e
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dom wrote:
Sorry if the urine talk did gross anyone out!

Since the urine (and other activators) is nitrogen, does that mean I would have to add more carbon to the compost? Or would I exclude activators from the C:N ratio?




You might not if it's just a container...or few. Urine definitely contains enough N to be considered a powerful activator. If it smells funny, just remember to toss some more browns in and toss/aerate.
 
Casey Halone
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are coffee grounds brown?
 
maikeru sumi-e
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Grounds are generally considered greens. They can heat up a pile rather quickly.
 
Ken Peavey
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GREENS
anything you could have eaten at one time
fruit and vegetable peelings
fresh grass clipping
weeds
freshly cut vegetation
any manure
bugs
dead animals
tree sap
coffee in any form
tea
last nights leftover beer or wine
urine
spoiled grains
moldy bread
shelled acorns or other nuts
flowers
soda pop
eggs
meat and dairy (may attract rodents, can be smelly)
There are lists all over the web of materials that can go into compost classified as greens or browns.  Many lists will also give an estimated C:N ratio.  Greens would be those materials with a C:N ratio lower than 30:1.  For example, urine typically comes in at 2:1, coffee grounds at 12:1.

BROWNS
once living vegetation that has dried up
hay
sawdust
fallen leaves
cardboard
acorn shells
cardboard
newspaper
These items have a great deal of woody/fiber/cellulose involved.  Sawdust and leaves would be as high as 300:1, or as low as 80:1. 

BEST WAY TO START
Pile stuff up.  Get it moist.  Repeat.
For your first heap it is less important what goes into the pile.  Getting stuff gathered is all it takes.  Microbes will get right to work.  Finding bulk around your home gets easier as you learn what to put in.  Lots of leaves at the start is a fine plan, there will be no odor, but the heap will be slow.  This gives you time to find out what to add.

ACTIVATORS
These are the microbes that do the work of populating and consuming.  You can spend your hard earned money or save it buy spreading a shovel full of soil to your heap here and there.  Microbes are in the soil everywhere in the world.  I've seen compost activators for sale at retail stores.  I find them to be a gimmick.  All the stuff does is increase the microbe population or add in some fertilizers.  Everything the heap needs to decay is already in place, give it a few days.  The microbes will increase their population on their own.

STARTING TIME
The material is already breaking down if it is not refrigerated or is laying on the ground.  If heat is the indicator you use to measure when the compost process has started, you will need a heap about 3' x3' x3', about a cubic yard.  At this size the heat produced by microbes consuming the material is able to build up.  In a heap which is at optimum moisture and has an ideal C:N ratio, it will only take a couple of days.  In a less optimum heap, you may get very little heating, but the process is working, just slower. 

WEEDS
Toss em in.  If they are dead, they will decay.  If they grow, pull them, let them wilt, then toss em back in again.  If the pile is heating up, and reaches 130 degrees for a couple days, this heat will destroy weed seeds and diseases in the hot parts of the heap.

pH
Let the heap do its work for a while.  If you toss/mix/turn over the heap, the blending of materials will help to bring balance to the heap.  Tossing some worms into the heap will also help to bring balance to the pH of the heap.  This process takes time-a couple of months at least.

HELPFUL ADVICE
Pile it up.  Being your first heap, give it some attention.  Turn it any time you like.  Employ patience.  There are methods out there that make claims of a couple of weeks will make compost.  Try them if you like.  If you want rich compost, add a wide diversity of materials, and plan on using it next years garden.
When you are driving through town and you see bags of leaves and grass, TAKE IT.  Those live oaks will offer lots of leaves.  Combining those leaves with the manure at your disposal will make for a fine heap.
Lots of videos on youtube.  Watch a bunch of them.  You'll find some ideas that suit your methods.
Get yourself a pitchfork with 4 teeth.  There is no better tool for tossing and turning a pile.

Pillbugs, earwigs, centipedes, spiders...
This is expected, sounds like the heap is off to a good start.

Urine
This can be added directly to the heap as it is produced.  There is a social stigma with this method.  It is best if you don't speak of it as some people will find it disgusting and may not care to share the bounty of the garden.  Alternately, you can build a second heap, adding to that heap only, and using the compost on non-food crops (ornamental flowers, shrubbery, decorative lawn.
Urine is not an activator-it is sterile when it is produced.  When added to a compost heap, the high nitrogen and phosphorus add a degree of fertility to the microbe environment.
The urine produced by a human in the course of a year can produce about a cubic yard of finished compost


 
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