am i composting correctly?

coengApril 4, 2012

About a month ago I bought a 7 cubic foot compost tumbler, my first stab at composting. Since then I've been adding bits and pieces of stuff daily to the point where its about almost 2/3 full and I rotate it each time I add to it. Each time I empty the contents of my tall rubbermaid container into the tumbler, I make sure I add about a gallon of water to introduce new moisture.

I've added wood ash from my fireplace, lots of coffee grinds, skins of fruit, broccoli stems, old lettuce, and some tree leaves and grass that I bagged from my first mowing of the season this past week.

I also added a generous sprinkling of Espoma Organic Traditions Compost Bio-Excelerator because it seems like its really not breaking down even though the tumbler is in the sun for most of the day.

We had a warm spell in NJ in early March but things have cooled off in the past 10 days so I guess I shouldn't expect the breakdown process to be happening very quickly.

I'm trying to be patient but I need to make sure I'm not doing anything wrong and wasting time in the process.

Some questions:

1) When should I stop adding stuff to the bin?

2) How often should I add the accelerator? The instructions provided were really intended for a layered compost pile.

3) When should the compost likely be ready for use? In time for planting (May 15)?

4) When ready for use, do I just spread it just around the roots of the vegetables like a top coat? Or do I spread it out evenly across my raised beds (they are framed wooden boxes?

5) Do I reapply every few weeks? How do I know when?

6) What else can I add to my compost that will speed things up


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I've never composted in a tumbler/bin but I can answer a couple of the questions. Your compost is ready when it looks and smells like dirt and you can't recognize any of the ingredients (save maybe an egg shell if you put those in). If possible try to till the compost into the soil before planting. Even if everything is not fully composted it will still benefit your garden more than nothing at all. Some gardeners even claim it is better not fully composted.

As far as speeding things up I would suggest grass clippings and more coffee (see if you can find a local shop to take it from). Generally, the finer and greener (from a living plant) the quicker it will compost. Another thing is adding ashes will slow things down. It will also raise the PH of the mix so keep it away from blueberries or other acid loving plants. I would say avoid ash altogether unless you are using compost for your lawn. Even then, ash can be directly applied where needed. I have very acidic soil so I spread my ashes directly onto any area of the lawn I see moss growing.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 10:23AM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

If you don't have heat by balancing greens and browns it will be cold compost. Cold compost takes 6 months or more to breakdown. It does not matter how much you turn, or how much worthless junk "Excelerators" you add. Epsom salts will not increase heat at all. Look up "hot composting".

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 10:28AM
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You do need to stop adding at some point in order for what's in there to finish. That's the problem with tumblers: you actually need two of them.

A gallon of water is a LOT. The contents of the bin should be moist but not drippy. If it's too wet it will smell bad and you'll know it.

The ash may be throwing your pH too high and interfering with the process.

In a tumbler, an accelerator might be beneficial because the pile is not in contact with the ground which has all the microbes needed for composting. I would think one addition would be enough to inoculate it. Or you can throw in a handful of soil or compost from your last batch. Microbes will multiply and do not need to be replenished by adding more.

[Tropical: he didn't say anything about Epsom salts. The brand of accelerator was Epsoma.]

Everything you listed is a 'green' (rich in N) except for the leaves. Your pile may be too high in N. You would know again because it would not smell nice and earthy. If so, add some browns - more leaves, sawdust, shredded paper. This can also help with excess moisture if you have that.

It may just be cold winter weather that has slowed it down. It's hard to tell you over the internet when it will be done!

Good luck and report back with how things are going.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 11:17AM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

That is true, I never use a tumbler, so I get everything from the ground. When you rip out plants and put those in, soil is on the roots etc, but don't put too much soil in. It will slow down the heating process.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 11:37AM
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7 cu ft is only a third of a cubic yard. While that's a fairly good sized tumbler, it may not have enough mass to heat up, especially if you are adding small amounts of materials over time rather than mixing up one fresh batch. That's OK, it doesn't have to heat up to make compost.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 2:12PM
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You tumbler people would hate my pile. It's 4 ft high by 6 ft wide (at the moment), it has flies, roly poly bugs, ants, and a plethora of other insects. I turn it maybe twice a year. Water is added in the form of rain. Leaves don't get shredded, but the junk mail does. There is still a pair of worn out khakis making their way through the pile. I heart compost ;)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 5:50PM
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Tumbler People...Pile People...Bin People...

And yet we are all Brothers of Decomposition and Sons of Humus. :-D

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 6:16PM
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I'm a tumbler people, I don't hate your pile. I have piles of my own, luv them too.


To the OP, I don't think you will get much heat with a small volume like that. I also think you are adding too much water and I'm guessing your C:N ratio is off. Is there an offensive odor?


    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 7:17PM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

Allen I guess you turn it with a pitch fork? I use rubber gloves and hand mix it, so I don't want any bugs.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 7:22PM
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I'm going to need to see photos.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 8:19PM
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I am loving the, um, love that is going on in this thread. Piles & bins & tumblers alike, we can all get along.

Obviously toxcrusadr said it amazingly: "we are all Brothers(Sisters) of Decomposition and Sons(Daughters) of Humus".

Rock on.

P.S. (pile)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 9:16PM
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Digestion of organic matter happens. Many wee critters, ants, centipedes, Roly Polys, Earwigs, etc. convert organic matter into "stuff" the plants we grow cna use to grow. Much smaller, microscopic thingys, further digest that organc matter. Organic matter has been feeding plants for eons. The only way you can not compost correctly is to add too much water and have a batch of compost that smells bad, offensive. Compost should always have a pleasant odor, one of good, rich earth. Compost should not smell of ammonia (too much Nitrogen) or smell putrid (usually too wet). Other then that compost happens, slowly sometimes, or very fast (14 day compost). Slower is less work.
Perhaps this linked tutorial on composting can be of some help.

Here is a link that might be useful: Compost Tutorial

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 7:04AM
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Maybe I'll post a photo later today and see what you all think of the state of my compost bin contents. I only wish I could attach a scent to the photos so that you could also smell it. I don't know what is considered to be a good smell vs. a bad smell.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 8:58AM
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By the way, I forgot to mention that I had a half bag of organic veggie soil left over that I tossed into the mix as well. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I figured it wouldn't hurt. At least it made my compost resemble compost a little more.

Also, regarding the wood ash...I did not add very much at all. In fact it was only the remnants of my ash bucket from my last two lit fires.

If the tumbler doesn't work out this season, I'll try another approach next season. The only problem is that the previous owners of my home completely landscaped the backyard. Adding a DIY compost pile would stick out like a sore thumb.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 9:05AM
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A compost pile that has a pleasant 'earthy' smell or nothing more than a faint aroma of decomposing vegetables is OK. If you open the door and get your face close to it and inhale, and it makes you say "Whooo-wee! That is rank!", then you have issues. As an esteemed former President once said, "It's not rocket surgery." :-]

The soil won't hurt anything, although it doesn't contribute anything either, except microbes, which are already there due to your inoculating. It will absorb heat from an active pile and contribute no nutrients, so most people don't put in more than a handful now and then. I put in hand-sized chunks of sod with soil attached just to get the grass to rot away.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 10:33AM
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I am a pile person & I do not turn most of the 80 super sack I have left in the field at my garden & orchard.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 11:57PM
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Now Coeng,
Is this a sore thumb or what ;-)

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 2:22AM
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That so many do not know what that aroma of "good, rich earth" is speaks volumes about what we have been doing to our planet. That aroma, a very pleasant spring time smell, was common when I was growing up. As the earth warmed that was what you smelled, earthworms appeared, grass grew. Many soils today smell like old chemical factories if not overflowing septic tanks. If your soil has an offensive, putrid smell thjere is something very wrong with it. If your soil has a fairly pleasant odor, aroma, to it then you are getting close to a good soil.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 6:29AM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

Organic veggie soil probably does not have either sand or clay. People get confused between organic matter and sand and clay. Soil is a mineral base of sand, clay, silt with some organic matter. Organic matter is only broken down stuff that is once alive.

Look at the ingredients on the bag of "soil" and see if those things are what you want in your compost. When I say soil is bad for the heat in your pile. I mean if you want to skimp on bagged browns and decided to just dig up a bunch of dirt from your garden, (by dirt, I mean native soil), and stick in the bin instead of shredded wood because it's free. (or browns leaves, paper, whatever)
It is really going to take even more time to breakdown and when it does you won't have compost. It will be more like just burying the stuff in the ground.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2012 at 1:57PM
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