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Another Compost Newbie

Posted by Kay21 Utah 5a (My Page) on
Mon, Nov 11, 13 at 17:15

I finally got my husband and sons on board to compost (free labor!) and am pleased with the results. Week and a half ago combined our threes piles and added mulched leaves and the last grass clippings of the year; it was cooking at 140-150 F by morning (amazing how exciting that is!). Now it's down to 120F. The pile's quite big and turning means removing most of it and putting it back again; a big project and there's so much to do before we're buried in snow.
What happens if I let it sit for the winter? Will those corn stalks (they're in the middle) break down by Spring? I could get my boys to turn it, but I think just once more as I need them for other projects. Was that high temp long enough to kill weed seeds? What about adding more mulched leaves on top for awhile with some coffee grounds (thanks Starbucks) and/or nitrogen pellets? Will the top heat up? Help heat the material below? ...Or not, since heat rises. If leaves are mulched and added right after they doo and before they are crunchy is it too much too hope they count as both brown and green?
I would like to toss food waste on, too. It'll be too cold to cause odor but do we cover the scraps each time, and with what? There will be a tarp over the pile throughout the winter, I'm hoping that will help hold in moisture and warmth and keep the pile from getting too wet during snow melts - the piles went cold after a lot of rain we had last month; which reminds me (in case this info helps answer my questions about killing weed seeds), much of the material has been that hot before we combined the piles and the most broken down material was added last.
I have read a lot on composting but these are tidbits I didn't see in my research. Thanks in advance for your patience with these little questions!

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RE: Another Compost Newbie

  • Posted by Kay21 Utah 5a (My Page) on
    Mon, Nov 11, 13 at 17:18

Lol- right after the leaves "doo" meant to be "drop."
Maybe I should have listed my questions by number....

RE: Another Compost Newbie

Corn stalks probably won't be broken down by spring. In my experience, I get big temps this time of year, with lots of "shrinkage" (ie, stuff cooking down), then the cold temps will eventually cause it to almost cease. There's still microbial stuff going on in there--I know 'cause the pile still shrinks, albeit way slower--it's just cold composting rather than hot. When I turn again in spring & usually add a bit more N, I'll get a small heat spike again. There's plenty of usable stuff there for me by late spring, but I usually let it age 'til Summer/fall & use it then.

All that to say, a turn before the snow comes would be good, but not required.

Whether you turn now or don't, I'd guess you'll find something usable near the center/bottom if you go looking for it in spring.

Whether or not you sufficiently killed weed seeds... I'm not sure. I've never trusted the entirety of my pile to get hot enough to kill weed seeds anyway. For this reason seed heads, as well as anything "spready" (think bermuda, primrose, ivy, etc.) doesn't go in my compost. Good 'ol leaves are too easy to come by to risk tossing some bermuda stolons into my beloved veggie gardens!

I'm babbling, but hope that helps a bit.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

I like newbies questions . Their question are often my questions too.

CORN STALKS won't break down this soon but then it might help with aeration of the pile.

Turning over , I dont think, will be necessary during cold winter months. You need to do that when the pile is steaming hot. An that in turn will require presence of green stuff in the pile. I have actually covered my pil with a tarp to keep it a bit warmer. This way the worms and the micro organism my get to work on it. Your location and climate may be different. Sunny locations, warm days can speed up the process. In my location all I can hope for is SLOW COLD COMPOSTING. that will take like an eternity.


RE: Another Compost Newbie

Whether the corn stalks, or any other material get digested (broken down) by spring depends on the size of the material put in the pile, generally the smaller the pieces the quicker the bacteria can digest it. Given the temperatures your compost reached the bacteria are quite active.
While I would put a lid on the compost to help regulate moisture levels I would not use a tarp which can also limit air flow.
Ambient air temperatures can, eventually, slow the digestion process which is more dependent on the amount of food (the C:N ratio) and moisture and air levels in the pile. Too much moisture will limit the amount of air while too little moisture will limit the bacteria's ability to work. Turning the pile can put undigested material into the center of the pile where the bacteria will be harder at work and is why the center of a compost pile has the highest temperature. Turning can also introduce more air which might stimulate the bacteria to work harder, because often the temperature drop indicates a lack of air in the pile.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

  • Posted by Kay21 Utah 5a (My Page) on
    Tue, Nov 12, 13 at 21:45

All the input is very helpful - thank you! I did add the corn stalks (cut into about 6 inch pieces) in hopes they would help with circulation; also, straw for the same reason. Most of the other material was mulched through our lawn mower. The overgrown swiss chard went in whole, as I'm sure that will decompose easily, and I discovered my boys didn't chop up the overgrown summer squashes as small as I had in mind, but greens break down faster than browns, it seems.
Sounds like it will be good if we turn it another time or two. Each of your comments made me think of air circulation and those piles shrink so fast! Somehow, I keep forgetting about air circulation, yet I added some bulky stuff for that reason - lol. The comments also reminded me that the heat would have caused some drying so we should turn it and add some moisture.
I'm numbering these questions this time:
1) While we're turning again, adding some nitrogen granules at this point will help, too, right?
2) I was thinking we can keep a pile of leaves next to the compost pile to cover food waste as that is added throughout the winter. Or would it be better to layer the leaves and food waste in a separate pile?
3) The pile is inside an enclosure of chicken wire; do the open sides allow for enough air circulation to make up for a tarp on top?
4) Ah - DH just told me he brought home three large bags of mulched leaves with a bit of grass clippings from our business property last Saturday (good to know!). This is in addition to what we'll still be mowing up in our own yard. I noticed a couple threads on this forum about leaving leaves in plastic bags all winter. Is it better to make another compost pile with the leaves and add coffee grounds/nitrogen granules, add them into the current pile, or leave them in the bags?
Thanks again for the great advice already! I hope I'm not asking too much by asking for more information that must be very basic to all of you.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

1. Adding some Nitrogen may help, but it depends on what is there. The temperature drop may indicate the N has been used up by the bacteria.
2. Good idea. Your food waste will have a greater C:N ratio then the leaves and would provide some N for the bacteria to fuel them as they digest the leaves.
3. The tarp over the compost can help control the moisture level and the wire will allow more than ample air to circulate.
4. I have found that leaving those leaves in plastic bags all winter can produce a stinky mess in the spring, depending on the C:N ratio and the amount of moisture the stuff in the bags have. Plastic bags do not allow air in so what is in them tends to go into anaerobic (in the absence of air) digestion.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

You can also add ammonia, as nitrogen source.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

Let the pile sit while you take care of more urgent chores, even if it's all winter. Compost is not rocket surgery. You'll learn what happened to the corn stalks in the spring.

When it thaws, it will resume composting.

Start a second pile or bin for winter. Rake up some *dry* leaves and stash them packed tightly in trash bags to use during the winter to cover kitchen scraps, and remember that shredded junk mail, newspaper,printer paper counts as a "brown" and can be used to cover kitchen scraps.

I have a very lax approach to composting ... pile it up, let it sit for a while and then sift it. Anything that hasn't decomposed enough to make it through the sifter gets tossed into the bins for another round. Some things, like oranges and pine cones, need for EVAH to break down.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

If you have room for the 3 bin set-up, you turn it by turning it into the next bin and starting new in bin #1 . #2 gets turned into #3, #1 into #2 etc etc.
I actually haven't built a 3 bin set-up, but now that I've retired, have it on "my list" (or my husband's list! ;) 0

RE: Another Compost Newbie

Kay, sounds like you're on the right track. You live in Utah, where the air is especially dry. I lived in Idaho for quite a while and I always covered my compost bins with old leaf bags. It helps keep the moisture in. I suspect it also keeps some of the ammonia (nitrogen) in the pile longer.

I used old pallets to make a compost bin. They are about the perfect size. I line them with old leaf bags or used plastic sheeting. I got the best results with; the material shredded to a small size, a compost pile that starts out at a size of 4' x 4' x 4', and keeping it covered. I will turn it at least once. I wait until it cools down to about 80 or 90 degrees. Once I have pile that's the right size, I don't add anything at all. New material goes into a new pile. Corn stalks disappear, especially if they get shredded.

I now own a Mackissic Merry Mac 12p chipper shredder, and it is a compost making machine. Incredible results. I try in include some chipped woody waste when I start a compost pile. It takes about nine months to finish composting a pile. If you use the compost too soon, it's bad for the plants.

I would plan on using the compost as a mulch on top of the soil after the plants are established. Do not till the compost into the soil next year until the end of the growing season. Repeat annually.

Good luck!


RE: Another Compost Newbie

  • Posted by Kay21 Utah 5a (My Page) on
    Thu, Nov 14, 13 at 13:44

Great advice! You all sound so relaxed. There are other projects that have me feeling tense (and a cold, COLD front coming in tomorrow - arrgh!
I'll try to set aside all thoughts of compost, other than placing the leaves nearby, and worry about whether we can still plant some shrubs or should hold them to plant in Spring.
Paul - the moment after I got my husband on board to compost he got on ksl and bought what looked to be a good used chipper/shredder. It wasn't and we're depressed :'(. Oh well, the local yard waste site is 3 minutes from home so our branches go there easily enough. I'm sure it won't take much sleuthing to round up some chipped waste if we decide we must have it.

RE: Another Compost Newbie

Like others have stated, after the pile is the size you want cover it and let it set all winter - no need to turn it during this time. In the spring when you are ready to prepare your garden put the material through a quarter inch screen. What is to big to pass through the screen can be set aside and added to another pile for further breakdown.

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