New to composting -- nothing happening

RogueKnits(6b)May 4, 2014

Last fall, I decided to start a compost pile so that I would have my own compost to add to my raised beds every year (and could avoid having to buy compost). My husband built a basic frame out of wood and chicken wire, and we filled the first compartment with shredded leaves from our yard. I added kitchen scraps when I had them until the snow set in and covered the pile for the winter.

I didn't expect a lot of activity over the winter, so I wasn't too surprised when the snow melted (mid-March) and most of the leaves were in the same shape as when they went into the pile. There were some food scraps still in there as well, but they were "tougher" things like citrus peels. Since then, I have been turning the pile at least once a week and added more kitchen scraps, but it doesn't seem to be heating up at all. Veggie scraps that I tossed in a month ago are still clearly visible when I turn the pile, and it's pretty cool.

I'm trying to figure out my next course of action. I don't think the bin is in the best location (it's in the back corner of our lot, downhill and very shaded) but there's not realistically anywhere else we can put it to avoid smells and rodents too close to the house. Would covering with a tarp help? Is it just a matter of adding more greens to get things moving? We are not yet ready to mow the lawn (maybe another week or so), but of course I will throw in the grass clippings when we do.

Maybe I should just give up on the pile and buy one of those "compost tumblers"?

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Don't give up on the pile. If it's not heating it likely needs more 'greens' and your lawn clippings will help. Also make sure it's kept damp.

Can you get used coffee grounds to add or scrounge more kitchen scraps from friends?

Anyone in your climate cutting their lawns yet that you can get clippings from? I'm in a much colder zone and mine needs it now so I'm surprised yours is not yet long enough to cut.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2014 at 1:57PM
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How big is the pile? 3x3x3 is about the minimum size.

Does it stay moist? Dry piles don't do anything. I have mine on a drip line.

Cool composting is not bad, it just takes longer.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2014 at 1:59PM
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luckygal, our front yard is very close to needing a trim. The back yard is mostly shaded, so it takes a few more weeks to catch up. Don't think I've heard any lawnmowers in the neighborhood yet. We had such a terrible winter and I think this coming week will be the first where every day is expected to have a high above 60. :(

I may try to get some coffee grounds from the local coffee shop. I know they have a sign-up sheet for distribution of grounds for composting. I throw mine in, but we don't drink tons of coffee so it's not a significant amount.

lazygardens, the pile is at least 3 x 3 areawise, but at this point probably not 3 ft. deep. Closer to 2 I would estimate. So maybe there was some breakdown over the winter. Or everything just compressed so much. It's probably actually too wet. It's been raining quite a lot the last few weeks, and even though I go out and fluff things up after a rain it doesn't seem to help a lot. That's one reason I was thinking of putting a tarp over it to at least keep a little rain out.

What are the thoughts on throwing weeds in the pile? Those I have plenty of, but I've been throwing them elsewhere because I don't want compost full of weed seeds.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2014 at 8:34PM
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I toss pulled weeds on the pile all the time.

It makes no difference in the weed count in the yard.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2014 at 9:30PM
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Several things influence the bacterial activity that generates the heat most people look for in a compost pile, sunlight is not one of them. Particle size, moisture level, and the Carbon to Nitrogen ratio are the most important, while volume does enter in to that equation. Full size leaves simply take much longer to be digested even with the right C:N ratio.
The link below may be of some help.

Here is a link that might be useful: Composting Tutorial

    Bookmark   May 5, 2014 at 7:05AM
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I use 4 foot wide wood pallets tied together with baling (rebar tie) wire. They have the right amount of air space, are cheap, easy to assemble and make a compost bin that is just the right size. I make two bins side-by side to start with and add a third when needed. I keep the pile covered with an old leaf bag or other plastic sheeting to control the amount of moisture in the pile and to help insulate it. Before I had a chipper/shredder I had to be mindful of mixing enough grass clippings into the pile to ensure it would compost well.

You can use a length of rebar or metal conduit to check the temperature. Leave the rod sticking into the middle of the pile and just feel it when you go to check on it. Once a bin is full, add new material to a new bin. I don't turn a pile very often. If I have a pile that's nearly ready to use, I will sift it through a screen and pile the sifted stuff separately to allow it to mature.

Size matters. For the size of a compost bin, I like a 4' square box. For the size of the material going into the box. I like to run it through the chipper/shredder with a 1" screen. I can compost a pile of shredded oak leaves and it will heat up very nicely and be beautiful compost the next year.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2014 at 4:19PM
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The good news is, everything rots eventually, so don't sweat it too much. That pile will turn to quality compost in time.

If you don't have a shredder, best to run the lawn mower over the leaves/small branches to chop them up as much as possible. That made a big difference in my piles. Also sounds like the pile is too small and too low on greens.
When you get grass clippings, it's a good time to rebuild the pile from scratch. The more layers you have, the better. Alternate the leaves and grass, make sure to keep the grass in layers less than 4". Otherwise it will clump together, become anaerobic and won't allow enough oxygen in to promote the decay.Water it a few times while you build it.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2014 at 1:59PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

A watched pot never perks! ;) Nancy

    Bookmark   May 6, 2014 at 9:15PM
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couple of things might be the problem
1. size-pile must be larger than 3' tall
2. pile must get some sun-warmth activates the bacteria
3. try to water pile with rainwater or dechlorinated water-I noticed my piles cool down if I add regular tapwater
4. make sure you have the right brown/green ratios
5. use an inoculator like manure or spent grains....these are loaded with microbes that will heat up a pile very fast.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2014 at 9:32PM
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I'd Say #2, #3 and #5 are unimportant if not unnecessary for a successful compost pile

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 7:40AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Re: sunlight, some are fond of saying sunlight makes no difference because it is not what causes the heat in a compost pile. There is no doubt that it does affect the pile's temperature, and if microbial activity is minimal (i.e. not producing much heat by itself), I would think a higher temp would help boost it. Granted, it will not make a cold pile into a hot one, that requires the proper C:N ratio, moisture etc.

The way I put it to compost workshop students is that if you have it in the sun, it will thaw out and warm up faster in the spring, but if it gets very hot and dry in the summer where you live, the pile will dry out sooner and go dormant unless watered. So take your pick.

I suspect "manure or spent grains" heat up a pile as much due the infusion of N as to the addition of bacteria.

Perhaps tap water cools a pile off because it's often at 55 degrees, whereas water left to sit in a rain barrel or bucket is at ambient temp...maybe 70, 80 or 90F? The tiny amount of residual available chlorine in tap water would be no match for a compost pile containing billions of microbes per gram of material.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2014 at 6:15PM
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Sunlight has no affect on a compost pile heating or on the bacteria in the compost except exposure to sunlight could be harmful to them. The bacteria, that generate the heat in a properly digesting compost pile, need enough Nitrogen to feed on to digest the Carbon and it is that activity that generates the heat. Those same bacteria need air and water can exclude air so the moisture level of the material being composted is as important as the amount of Nitrogen, too much moisture equals not enough air since water displaces air. The heat in a compost pile is generated by various thermophilic bacteria, provided they have the food necessary to function.
Water, in any form (tap, rain, whatever) will cause a temperature drop any time it is added simply because of heat transfer rules.
Be sure you understand that some "greens (high N) are brown in color (manures) and that some browns (high C) could be close to "green" because of the C:N ratio they have.
Inoculators are totally unnecessary since the material you put in to be composted has the bacteria, and fungi, needed to be converted into something more useful. That is why the food we eat sometimes develops molds. If that food does not develop molds after a time that food may not be alive and may be unfit for us to eat (ie, Twinkies)
Compost piles should be about 27 cubic feet (3 X 3 X 3) not just 3 feet high at a minimum. Maximum is a pile 6 feet wide by 6 feet tall but they can be any length. That 6 feet seems to be about as much as air can infiltrate to the center where bacterial activity will be most active.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 7:12AM
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Ambient temperature (from sunlight), indeed, has an effect on how soon a pile heats up... whatcya tryin' to say, Kimmie-Pooh?


Here is a link that might be useful: Can You Hear Me ?

This post was edited by Mackel-in-DFW on Thu, May 8, 14 at 11:31

    Bookmark   May 8, 2014 at 11:26AM
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