New to composting

alb123(USDA zone is 5)August 26, 2012

I have taken shredded leaves (mostly Oak) and added grass clippings in two different composting bins and also tried just creating a pile. I make sure it is moist, I turn it over on a regular basis (except when frozen in the Winter). Each Spring, I have a pile of leaves and grass. What am I doing wrong? I have added lime to no avail, I have added cow manure also to no avail. I have read some of the posts on covering the pile which is what I was going to try next because I think perhaps it is too wet. Any suggestions?

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First, where are you ( general area)?

Second, how big are your bins? Are they in sun or shade?

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 10:00PM
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ifraser25(z11 Brazil)

There are three possible reasons why your heap is not "fermenting" 1. It isn't warm enough 2. It isn't big enough.3. There are not enough bacteria. Or a combination of all three. The colder the area you live in the bigger the heap needs to be. It will generate its own heat once it gets going. With colder weather coming on I would suggest covering the pile with heavy black plastic, but don't expect much progress during winter in northerly latitudes. The bacteria problem is easily solved by adding a few spadefuls of common garden soil. Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 10:55PM
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What was the ratio of grass clippings to leaves?
What was the ratio of manure to leaves?
Just how "moist" was that pile?

You need about 1 part grass clippings, or manure, to 3 parts leaves and just enough moisture so material is just barely damp. Too much moisture displaces the air the bacteria that will be digesting the material need to work.
Lime does not aid the composting process and may well inhibit it.
Learning to compost, even with really good advice, takes time and trial to get the mix close enough to work.

Here is a link that might be useful: Composting Tutorial

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 6:38AM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

I am puzzled that the piles did not change from recognisable grass and leaves. Even if they did not heat up at all they should still rot down into compost. My compost heaps rarely ever heat up and I only turn them once a year when they get moved to the next bay when the oldest is ready to spread but they still turn into compost. I think there is something else going on. Too dry maybe? (If it was too wet it would be slimey, not unchanged.) Expecting results too soon? It sounds from the description as if you are hoping for compost between leaf fall and spring. That may be unrealistic depending on your climate. How about forgetting the pile for a few months and starting a new one? And also they do need to be big, at least a yard cubed.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 8:41AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

If you are adding manure to a compost pile that should be FRESH manure, not bagged manure compost from the store. Since it's generally already composted, it won't help your compost.

Second the advice to ditch the lime. It's only good for pH adjustment and calcium, neither of which you need for those ingredients.

I, too, wonder what is going on here, though. Even just a pile of leaves left to itself in my yard (MO, Zone 5) makes some compost at the bottom in less than a year. Leaf/grass mix made in the fall is compost by spring, with 1-2 turnings.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 2:11PM
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The OP answered my questions via email, and with his permission, I am posting his answer here:

The bins I had were circular, about 3 feet deep and about two feet in diameter. They each had a cover. I got rid of both as I Never got any compost after about three years of trying. They were about half the day in the sun and half shade. I am in the northeast - Massachusetts.

Here's what I wrote in reply:
Can I post your answer in the forum on Gardenweb? The main problem is that the bins were WAY too small: you need a pile/bin/whatever at least 3 feet square for the middle to get cooking. Covering a pile can be necessary but quite often it just messes with things. With your permission, I will post your answer and the amazing people there will chime in. You may end up buried under good advice, but boy, these folks know their compost, and we'll get you going. Let me know.

And his response:
My pleasure! I can use all the advice I can get. I have many oak trees and tons of leaves in the Fall. Compost sounds logical but I end up paying to dispose of leaves and buying compost from local farms. The bins I had I purchased from the town I live in and supposedly industry standard. Covering was my thought because I thought the pile was getting too wet �" the only reason I could think of for no compost.

So, wizards of compost?

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 3:32PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

If there was a brown/green mix - which he says there was - the size shouldn't really matter that much. It doesn't need to heat up to eventually make compost, it can go slow and cold. I'm thinking it might have been too dry. That's about the only thing that will completely halt the process. But it's all guesswork, without being there to see it in person.

Post your address, and we'll all come over and make compost!

BTW, are you adding your kitchen scraps all year? Great source of nitrogen as well as moisture.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 4:36PM
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billums_ms_7b(Delta MS 8A)

One thing to be aware of is that some types of leaves just break down more slowly than others. Oak leaves are one of the types that break down slowly.

Most of my leaves are from the evergreen form of oak trees native to the deep south that we call live oaks. I pick mine up with the bagger on my mulching mower and then use them as mulch in my flower beds and just allow them to break down at their own pace while they help control weeds and retain moisture.

Chopping them up with the mulching mower and mixing them in with the top layer of soil in my bed both help speed up the process, but they are still going to break down more slowly than other kinds of leaves.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2012 at 5:43PM
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Piles smaller than 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet do not have enough volume to retain the heat generated by the bacteria that digest that material, although digestion still takes place much slower then in a hotter pile. The heat generated during composting is an indication of bacterial activity.
Some leaves, such as Oak, have a natural preservative, tannic acid, that can slow this digestion process although shredding them can spped that up. Generally the smaller the particles given to the bacteria to digest the faster they will digest them, all else optimal.

Here is a link that might be useful: composting fundamentals

    Bookmark   August 28, 2012 at 6:57AM
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alb123(USDA zone is 5)

Last Fall I posted a question regarding my efforts at composting. I started a new heap last August and used all the feedback you guys provided me - thank you so much for all the advice. Now in April after "composting" all winter, I have the same pile of dead leaves I always have in the spring. Perhaps I just live in an area where composting doesn't happen!

    Bookmark   April 27, 2013 at 6:06PM
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Unless you live around the arctic circle your winters should not be so cold that composting stops. Even in the arctic circle compost happens although it may take years. There is something you either did not do that you should have or something that you did that you should not have.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2013 at 6:58AM
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Hello again! I just emptied my big bin over the weekend, and all the leaves that were put in there in the fall are now mulching some of the beds. The leaves looked about the same as when they went into the bin, but I know from past years that breaking up the clumps, getting air into the whole mass, and contact with the ground will result in them being completely decomposed before July.
If you don't want to use them as mulch, just stir up the whole thing and put it back in your bin, with some water if the leaves are dry. You should have compost by late summer. It really helps the whole process if whatever you're composting is chopped/cut up, and this is especially true for oak leaves, so crumple them up or just pull them apart before you put them back in.
Please don't give up!

    Bookmark   April 29, 2013 at 9:48AM
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alb123(USDA zone is 5)

Thanks everyone to al the input from my message on composting. I have still been trying and still no luck. i will keep trying. Let me pose any other question. I have a new flower bed and all the plants are surrounded by bark mulch. to enhance plant growth next summer I was going to add several inches of compost (purchased) throughout the bed and turn it into the foil. May be a silly question but does that sound like a good idea? Best bet to enhance plant/flower growth?

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 8:34AM
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davids10 z7a nv.

the oak leaves are the problem. they have an exceptional protective layer and the tannin is a natural bactericide. if you've ever been in an oak forest there are years of leaves breaking down very slowly. if you can grind up the leaves to get more area exposed that will help-if no grinder or rotary lawnmower just jump up and down on them in the bin. after you make the heap turn it every day for a couple of days and gently spray-it takes a lot to hydrate oak leaves but once you get it down yoy will have great compost

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 12:56PM
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davids10 z7a nv.

forgot to say add more green lawn clippings(make sure they havent been treated with weed killer-the grass should give the heap the boost it needs

    Bookmark   July 27, 2014 at 12:59PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Leaves alone will take a long time to compost, much longer than if you mix in high nitrogen material like grass clippings, fresh manure, green plants, or kitchen scraps. Are you saving your fruit and veggie peelings and coffee grounds? You can do that all year long, dump them in the bin when your kitchen bucket gets full, and cover with some leaves from a spare pile. By spring you should have a nice stack that will compost faster than leaves alone. Whenever you have green stuff from the yard or garden, mix or layer it with some leaves. When your pile gets big enough or your bin gets full, start a new pile, turn the old one and let it finish composting.

You should be able to get compost in a few months, certainly in a year, this way.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2014 at 12:22PM
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rfonte649(9 La)

Coffee, lots of used coffee grinds.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2014 at 9:53PM
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nancyjane_gardener(Zone 8ish North of San Francisco in the "real" wine country)

Also, you can go to the local animal shelter and get some Rabbit/goat/sheep/or other NOT hot manure to get things hoppin!
One of my best compost batches was when someone gave me 5 gal buckets of rabbit cleanings! (sawdust, pee, poop), gallons and gallons of UCGs and I sucked up all of my neighbors' leaves! WooHoo! Nancy

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 1:29AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I believe the OP has said nothing about moisture despite our asking several times, along with other questions about kitchen scraps etc. Please tell us how your compost looks and what you're doing this year that's different from last year in response to our suggestions. And post pictures if you can!

    Bookmark   August 5, 2014 at 12:44PM
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