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Compost, part three; The Pile

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Compost, part three; The Pile

Post by Forerunner on Fri Oct 23, 2009 9:54 pm

Compost is one of those natural phenomena that seldom manifests itself in the natural world. It disposes itself more to the diligent caretaker of the earth, available when needed. It must have been a gift, given to those who find themselves the recipients of dying soils.....

Thermophilic bacteria are everywhere. They wait for an opportunity. They apparently multiply and subsist under less than ideal conditions.
They have preferences, but they are patient. It is only when some one, or some force, kicks together a large enough mass of organic materials consisting largely of carbon, with just a comparative touch of nitrogen, adequate moisture, and a suitable quantity of trapped oxygen, that they lose their grudgingly held inhibitions and really come out of the closet.
Thermophiles create, and thrive on, heat.
The seemingly near infinite strains thereof collectively consume and digest every organic substance on the planet in it's due course.
It is their dead bodies and the enzymes given off thereby that make up the
rich, black, grainy, sweet-smelling substance known as compost.
Those enzymes are the key to unlocking the nutrients pre-existent in heavy clay soils. Those dead bodies are the key to giving structure and sufficient mineral composition to sand. The residual living bacteria in finished compost will break down vegetable matter in the otherwise lacking soils recipient of the material, much faster than they would otherwise be naturally returned to the soil as humus. Compost offers, without the addition of costly mineral amendments, a natural pH balancer. Compost provides, depending on the variety of the original ingredients, an assimilable source of trace minerals to the plants that are so fed. Compost unlocks the minerals previously unavailable to plants due to pH and other deficiencies and imbalances.
Compost is the gift that keeps on giving. Artificial and superficial mineral treatments common today feed only that year's crop, as a rule. Well composted soil will feed the crop this year, and so on for several years following. Compost can be somewhat of a quick fix, but it is better approached as a long term investment.
I'll do my best in the following paragraphs to give instructions on some of the better ways to manufacture this food producer's gold.

Compost microorganisms might be treated and considered as any other livestock. They need space. They need a specific diet (though perhaps more forgiving than some). They need water, oxygen, time to grow, mature and reproduce. Unlike most livestock, once set up in their preferred environment, they won't require much attention. They won't be a part of your daily chores, unless you are an enthusiast, of course.
You can readily identify the compost obsessed because they cannot pass a compost pile by without prodding it, feeling the warmth beneath the surface, and appreciating the different fragrances as the pile goes through the several stages of decomposition.
Compost microbes are the livestock of last resort as pertains to the quality of forage that they might prefer. They will, literally, grow positively festive when given the opportunity to eat things that really will make a billy goat puke.
In fact, one of the most valuable traits of thermophilic bacteria is their collective willingness to promptly dispose of what would otherwise either go to waste, or, worse, those items and materials that would otherwise cause health and eyesore grievances in both urban and rural settings.
Compost is the best tool we have for turning many necessary evils into good.
In a long term survival situation involving any number of people, compost can be the greatest asset for maintaining the health and dignity of the populace. It is a wonder to me that any civilization claiming the smallest degree of enlightenment could so absolutely abandon such a valuable practice. It is a wonder to me that any thinking human being could waste so much potential plant nutrition for the shameful convenience of a landfill.

So much for philosophizing.

The process of manufacturing compost is as varied as are the local materials available for it's manufacture. Think of it as a large scale whatcha-got stew.
The two basic elemental ingredients have been covered multiple times in previous chapters. They are carbon and nitrogen.
Carbon is available in many sources around the globe.
There are few locations on the planet where compost might be profitably manufactured and utilized that carbon might be in short supply.
My first compost piles were matters of practicality.
I had only my father's tarped suburban composite and the later leaf bin as examples to draw from. Having the resources of manure from our own farm and the horse track nearby, combined with the occasional load of old sawdust
from the mill, my own first piles were just material dumped and forked or shoveled up for the sake of good space management.
I doubt I even knew to blend my sawdust well with the juicier manures.
I do recall spreading a thin layer of sawdust between my garden rows with satisfactory results. Just don't use too much.... and avoid the fresh stuff when applying directly.

Fast forward from 1982-84 to 1999.
I still don't recall having put my hands on much reading material concerning the proper construction of a compost pile by that time, save the occasional small Mother Earth News article. My father did get in fairly early with that publication, having subscribed in the mid 70s. He promptly ordered all of the, then, still quite available back issues.
For whatever happenstance of foresight that I may have had in my early teens, I did save up and buy my own set of the first 60 MEN issues. I've never regretted that.
Anyhow, I do recall gaining a focused enthusiasm as I took on composting anew in the very late nineties. I wasn't too long loading, hauling and piling the materials before my father made to me a gift of his copy of "Rodale's Complete Book of Composting". His was the original version, published in the late sixties, I believe. The revised version is great reading for, say, a restless third grade class at nap time (by comparison).
That thick old hardback book changed my life forever.
Ten years later, I still haven't come across any compost-related concept not mentioned if not thoroughly exhausted in the pages of that book.
Every aspect of composting was covered. Many and varied theories and concepts were introduced. I took it all in by night, gathering materials and building piles by day. Then I came to the chapter(s) discussing Ehrenfried Pfeiffer.
That man had a vision--and put it into practice-- that drives me to this day.
It was from Ehrenfried that I gained my ambition to think big.
I highly, highly recommend the book.

Enough of history.

A compost pile should be built according to the materials available to and the
soil-building needs/ambitions of the manufacturer.
I've had just about enough of the negativity expressed by readers here thus far, whining about the small size and therefore presumably less suitable nature of their own piles compared to those of men with, say, a more obsessive nature....
The only reason anyone should ever feel shame about their compost is when an opportunity innocently presents itself and no positive action is taken.

There are three basic types of compost piles; the quick, the typical, and the long term.
The quick pile requires a lot of effort. The material must be ground to a rather fine consistency and the pile turned every few days or so.
I don't make quick compost, one main reason being that I hate to turn a pile.
A compost pile is rather a living thing, and turning it is akin to major surgery.
It always takes time for recuperation and most piles are never quite the same after turning. Nitrogen is invariably lost. The heating cycle is disturbed and often never regains it's original fervor. The only real advantages to turning are re-oxidization and the incorporating of weed seeds and pathogens from the outer layer to the inner portion where they can be exposed to the extreme heat. Both of these tend to take care of themselves given time.

Long ago, I once heard of a concept embraced by what was then referred to "real investors". Apparently the more advanced and determined investor takes into account the invaluable nature of time.
I have found that time is priceless, and it is for that reason that I forgo the "quick" and instead build mostly "typical", and even a few "long term" compost piles.
Typical will likely be the focus of most readers here, so I'll just briefly describe the basic tenets of what I consider a "long term" pile and devote the rest of this article to what works well for most everyone.

As I've mentioned, there is a very large sawmill just up the road, and over the course of the years that I have hauled sawdust out of there, I have had many occasions to walk around and observe while waiting to be loaded.
Over twenty years ago, there was a good deal of clearing done on the east end of the mill property. The brush, stumps and debris resultant have been added to over the years with various grades of waste lumber ends, slabs and other organic matter for which there was no ready market at the time.
The mill owners have since developed good markets for every waste material they generate, and so the old material has been allowed to mellow, undisturbed for some years. There is still evidence of what the original material consisted of back there, but most of it-- stumps, logs, etc.--has decomposed to the very consistency of the potting soil-liked material found in a rotting tree stump.....
Just about every publication out there warns against the use of even light brush in a compost pile, and, generally, I would agree. But there is a place for the construction of a pile that one might not be in a hurry to use.
For those on the edge of timber, who might come up with brush, coarse bark, small chunks of wood, stumps, etc., don't be tempted to burn that material merely for the sake of its disposal. Such things as round hay bales, wood chips and even old lumber could be considered as additional materials from which to construct such a pile. I am in the process of slowly leveling wasted space around the property here and have buried much of the above-mentioned material just under the surface where I plan to plant fruit trees, grapes and bramble berries-- i.e. areas that need never be tilled. I know that the carbon in that material will act as a sponge to absorb, not only nitrogen, but a host of other long term nutrients that larger plant roots will easily access as they establish themselves.
The heavy carbon-rich materials that compose the long term pile will decompose on their own over time, but the occasional addition of animal stall bedding and rich manures will only speed up the process and add nutrients for the long term. Enough said about long term compost.

The typical compost pile is the one that you might expect to use within 6-12 months. The materials used to construct it aren't woody, and attention must be paid to balances and ratios to obtain the best results.
Good compost needs oxygen, and oxygen can be trapped in sufficient quantities to complete the decomposition without turning the pile.
One method that can be used to ensure this is to use your heavier garden wastes as the base material. This base is best constructed of a high carbon ingredient so as to best absorb and assimilate the high nitrogen liquids that leach out of the materials above due to gravity. Another good reason to put the heavier material directly on the bottom of the pile is to ensure their exposure to the ravenous bacteria that exist in the soil.
I use corn stalks, Jerusalem artichoke stalks, sometimes cardboard (if I have some to "dispose" of), okra stalks, and occasionally wood chips for my foundations. These materials are coarse enough to trap sufficient quantities of oxygen for the aerobic microbes to breathe. If the heavier stalks aren't available, any carbonaceous material will serve, such as sawdust, leaves, weeds, old straw, lightly shredded bark, corn cobs, peanut hulls, newspaper, etc.
The next layer is best composed of a material with a slightly higher nitrogen content, but not too much. We want some space between the highly concentrated nitrogen sources and the ground, to avoid both nitrogen loss and any excessive leaching of that valuable commodity to the soil in its raw and unpleasant (read unbalanced)state.
While we're on the subject, never put wood ash into your compost pile.
For one, the microbes don't need that ingredient to thrive. Ash is best applied directly to soils where high pH crops are to be planted. Ash reacts with nitrogen, driving the latter off into the atmosphere where it is lost to our purposes.
Back to the second layer....
I use such things as garden weeds, old alfalfa hay, partially dried grass clippings, animal stall bedding that has more sawdust than manure in it, etc.
More concentrated nitrogen sources should mixed throughout both the first and second layer in small portions, it's just best not to overdo it at those levels. I seldom add water as I construct a pile, but if the only available sources of material are dry, add enough water to give the material the moisture content, roughly, of a lightly wrung out sponge. That moisture level should be fairly consistent throughout the pile. Too dry and you will see an infiltration of mice and insects. Too wet and you will see pooling to the downhill side of the pile as the excess liquid, now carrying too much of your nitrogen, oozes out of the material.
Pay attention when using such things as leaves and, especially, grass clippings in your compost piles. Both have entirely different C/N characteristics depending on how fresh they are. In their dry state, both can be used as a carbon source. Fresh grass clippings, however, contain up to 50% nitrogen ! Freshly fallen leaves can be used as intermediate material.
For that matter, fresh leaves are relatively balanced, as is, and can therefore be incorporated into the soil directly or used as a sort of stand alone compost ingredient. For the sawdust toilet crowd, a material known as leaf mold can be easily manufactured and used in the event that sawdust becomes scarce. Simply contain in a bin, or, pile several cubic yards of fresh leaves and apply that crucial component called time.
The resultant, partially decomposed material looks and acts a lot like course sawdust...

Tangents, anyhow.....

Now that we have a partial pile constructed, of any necessary size, composed of high carbon at the base and mid-range carbon/nitrogen material on top of that, for a depth thus far of, say, four feet, we can begin to add the high nitrogen ingredients such as heavy, wet manures, table scraps, organic dumpster contents (if one has such access), dead animals, humanure, rotting soybeans, rotting corn (I get these materials in from time to time), fresh grass clippings, etc. Mix those materials, about half and half, with a higher carbon source, such as sawdust, to avoid creating pockets of foul-smelling anaerobic activity that putrifies rather than breaking down to compost.
For the average pile, a circular shape is best as it reduces the surface area of the material exposed to the sun and weather. Sunlight and wind can be detrimental to your pile. Shade is good. A bin of sorts with a tarp cover is good. Large-leaf, vining crops such as pumpkins, squash and melons can be planted around the outer edges of the pile and allowed to climb all over it during the growing season to both supply shade and to make preliminary use of the nutrients contained therein. If the pile is constructed in an area of typically high rainfall, it is best lightly coned at the top to provide a water shed effect. If the pile is constructed in an arid region, it is best concaved in the center for the purpose of gathering and absorbing all the rainfall it can get. For larger piles, it is recommended that the material be wind-rowed roughly 6-8 feet deep, 12-15 feet wide, in as long of rows as necessary to accommodate the quantity of material available.
It is claimed that such a ratio allows for the best balance of proper heat and the entrapment of a suitable quantity of oxygen. Having long outgrown such dimensions, I pile my materials as they come, mixed to the best of my ability, in mountains up to fifteen feet high, up to a hundred feet long and any dimension of width. I have seldom seen evidence of a lack of oxygen due to compression. Most of the anaerobic activity that I find evidence of in my piles is from an over-abundance of nitrogen or moisture. Normally, given the large dimensions that I have mentioned, my material turns out black, rich and sweet smelling.
The finishing of a compost pile, after proper layering, is every bit as important as the beginning. After the heavy nitrogen sources are placed toward the top of the pile, they must be covered with a high carbon material to avoid odors, lock in that nitrogen, deter flies and other vermin, insulate the heat within from extreme temps on the outside, prevent eyesores of the unsightly potential of animal carcasses, etc., and, lastly, to protect the pile from sunlight in the event that shade is unavailable.
Of all the minerals and nutrients contained in compost, carbon is the most stable. It can handle the roughest treatment and it will be the last ingredient to be lost by leaching or degradation by outside influences. That is one reason why it simply makes the best cover.
Once so constructed, such a pile can be added to in any number of ways, i.e. more material can be placed against the side, or undesirables such as carcasses and toilet bucket contents, etc. can be buried within. The key is to always repair the carbon cover. I use sawdust, because it is the densest, least porous and most readily available material for the job. It simply does the best job of locking in the good, and locking out the bad....
Other high carbon materials can be thus utilized, the finer the material the better.
A pile so constructed should break down uniformly to a level quite suitable for direct application. Any small pocket variances in the ideal carbon/nitrogen ratio should be largely eliminated during the loading and spreading of the finished material. If there is doubt as to whether decomposition is complete, best to hold off applying the compost rather than to attempt growing satisfactory crops in undigested material.
Finished compost should be black and granular. It should smell sweet with little to no remaining traces of urea odor.

It has been a very busy, extremely productive summer. The harvest is in, and the rains have begun again....... so now I have a bit more time.

This has been, to me, the most basic overview that could be given, so I'll leave the rest up to discussion.

Happy composting.
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Re: Compost, part three; The Pile

Post by Sonshine on Sat Oct 24, 2009 3:38 am

Forerunner,
Glad to see you posting and for posting such a well written tutorial on composting. Unlike you, I was raised in the city and am still learning. I'll have my husband read this and the two of us should be able to get some type of composting started. We already have manure from the chickens and goats, and we have grass clippings. We don't have many leaves, since it's mostly pine trees on our property. Do pine needles do ok in the compost pile? What type of food scraps should be put in? Most of our scraps goes to the chickens.

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He who cultivates his land will have plenty of food,
but from idle pursuits a man has his fill of poverty
Proverbs 28:19[b]
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Re: Compost, part three; The Pile

Post by Forerunner on Sat Oct 24, 2009 5:46 am

Chickens are generally more deserving of food scraps than microbes, as they will eventually accomplish the same end while also giving eggs and meat. Smile
But even chickens have a limit as to what they will consume.
Anything that comes from the kitchen that does not appeal to a chicken, i.e. banana peels, coffee grounds, onion skins, pepper stems.....you get the idea....
would best be fed to the microbes.
Pine needles compost fine, just take a little time and will slightly raise your acid level. That can be balanced with limestone or wood ash applied directly to the soil. I say that, but the composting process tends to balance pH without help.

Grass clippings, chicken manure, pine needles and occasional kitchen scraps will make excellent compost. Anything you can add to that for variety will only be icing on the cake.
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Re: Compost, part three; The Pile

Post by Sonshine on Sat Oct 24, 2009 6:23 am

Great. We should be able to do that, including the wood ash, since we heat with wood.

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but from idle pursuits a man has his fill of poverty
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Re: Compost, part three; The Pile

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