Monday, February 28, 2011

The Evolution of My Composting Area.

In previous posts, I had said that I was going to provide an explanation about my composting activity. This has taken a few weeks to assemble from all my records, but here it is. I hope you enjoy it! This post documents my experiences with my composting efforts. Don't let its length deter you from reading all of it. Take a bathroom break and then get a cup of coffee before you start reading. It turned out to be this long so I could clearly share my experiences with each of you, because I thought it might be helpful to your own gardening efforts. This posting may do one of two things: a.) prove beneficial to those people suffering with insomnia; or b.) Provide useful information to someone that would care to prepare their compost using the same methodology or modify my methods to suit their needs or circumstance.

I do not claim to be an expert in this process, and I'm just sharing what I have experienced. I have come to be suspect about the validity of most of the printed material that I have read on the subject, as well as all the videos I've watched pertaining to it. It's very popular to talk about the ratio of "browns" to "greens" and the theory that it has to be a "just right" mixture. In my experience, if you turn the pile every 3 or 4 days, that ratio never has a chance to become an issue. The compost is in such a state of movement that it doesn't have time to create problems. Frequent turning blends the material and that eliminates even the possibility of that problem for me. I wouldn't think twice about adding six 30 gallon bags of grass clippings in one day to my pile consisting of less than half that volume of browns. I've done it many times and it's never caused a problem because the frequent turning disturbs the pockets of rich greens and mixes them. They're less green with every turning, so each time you turn it, the risk goes down and the reward of successful composting occurs. That's been my experience, anyway.

Now I have been exposed to composting all my life since my mom is an excellent gardener. Please bear with me and let me interject a personal note about her here. Last month, my wonderful mom was honored by having her name submitted to the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State, Inc., District 3, Book of Recognition for her 35 years of service to the Claverack Garden Club and the community. She was so surprised! Yay Mom! I love you!  There. Now the whole world knows! Thanks for letting me share that with you! Now back to the subject of this post. When I was young, I knew that composting provided rich nutrients for boosting vegetable growth. Therefore, at this point in my life I already knew composting was a good thing for plants, and there lay the foundation for my desire to produce high quality compost for my organic vegetable garden.

And now, the rest of the story...

By November 4, 2006 I had increased the size of our garden dramatically from the original 12' by 12' plot we had the previous year. I decided to create my own compost after reading so much about the benefits to the plants when you use it. This pile is in the area that I had decided would be the best spot for a compost bin. It wasn't shaded, and there was no rainwater runoff from the shop roof running through the base of it. Considering that information and the limited availability of space for a compost bin, this turned out to be the spot for it. I began accumulating material for composting as you see here.

By February 4, 2007 I had decided to use a two-bin, wood framed, wire enclosed composting area. You can see some of the wood for this project in the picture. All the while I was constructing the bins, I was still tending to my pile, even though it had no walls at the time. At this early stage in the pursuit for good compost, I was turning the pile every day.

By March 19, 2007 I had a roughly designed composting bin that seemed to comply with most of the guidance material that I had read. At first glance, it looks pretty good for a compost bin, but there would be problems with it that would be exposed through it's use. In anticipation of material creeping out the gates and causing problems with closing them, I put down two concrete patio blocks in front of each gate making it easier to scoot the material back into the bin if it spilled out. Every day I was turning the pile from one bin into the other using the most highly recommended tool... the pitchfork, or digging fork as some folks call it. Even at this point, I was thinking there had to be a better way to accomplish the turning.

By April 23, 2007 I was paying attention to air circulation and heat generation in the pile. You can see that I now began pitching the compost to a corner of the bin rather than heaping it up in the center. I tried this to increase air circulation to the center of the pile. Still turning the pile every day, I grew to dislike using a pitchfork to accomplish the task. I considered it to be a back-breaking job as there were too many obstacles to lift the material around without knocking it off the short handled pitchfork.

A few days before May 15, 2007, I had decided that the typical compost bin system wasn't suitable for me, so I distributed the compost throughout the garden and dismantled the bins. I still kept accumulating compost, even with the bins gone.

By June 23, 2007 I had some ideas in my head about how I would like my composting area to be constructed. In the meantime, the compost pile kept growing throughout the whole process. Turning it daily was producing some really nice-looking compost!

By August 14, 2007 I had decided to make the compost enclosure by using galvanized chain link fencing. During the process, I employed cinder blocks to help keep the perimeter of the compost piles in check. I set the poles for the cooling area first. Time was on my side so I wasn't in a rush to complete this in any particular hurry. I had to tend to the garden during this time as well as live life in addition to working on the compost enclosure. There was just no rush about it.

As you can see, by August 19, 2007 the hot pile was increasing in size causing me concern for space as I worked on the enclosure. I distributed most of the cured compost into the garden and blended the rest of it with the hot pile. This gave me a manageable sized pile but the grass clippings kept coming.

I decided on August 30, 2007 to try to keep both the hot and cold pile to the right of the cooling bin while I finished building it. This is when it hit me. Why not utilize one elongated hot bin? Look at the space with the two piles and you'll see that it is plenty wide enough. If I was going to really produce some high quality compost for my organic garden, then I would need more than a three foot square box could produce. The die was cast. A wide hot bin it would be!

Around August 30, 2007 I started using a hay fork that belonged to my grandmother in order to turn the compost. The long handle made a dramatic change in the process of turning the compost pile! The leverage it provided made it so much easier to handle, and it required far less stooping than the pitchfork did. On the far end of the cooling bin, you can see where I put in a wooden support to hold horizontal fencing that I would use for "sifting" the compost so I could use it in the garden.

This is what the sifted compost looked like on September 3, 2007 when I was taking it to the garden.

Here you can see the double layered offset fence material I was using for sifting the compost. It was crude, but it worked.

I used the wood support on September 13, 2007 to hold plastic sheeting to try to keep the compost from getting too wet during the rains.

By November 9, 2007 the open compost pile was getting pretty big. I needed to get the other bin completed so I could use it.

That day I began putting the top rails on the cooling bin. It finally started taking shape.

By November 11, 2007 I had the top and bottom rails with center supports in place. Not much to it at this point but I was anxious to get it completed now. You can see my stockpiled grass clippings in the bottom left of the picture. I didn't have space to add it to the hot pile on the right.

On December 1, 2007 this is what the cooling bin looked like. Pretty nice in my book. I was feeling good about it! I was still stockpiling material outside the bin.

I knew the small material would fall out the holes in the fence fabric, so I lined it with 3/4 inch bird netting in order to keep it inside the bin.

The cooling bin is now loaded with the material from the hot pile. Notice how the natural angle of repose of the compost flows towards the open end of the cooling bin. I would address that end of the bin at a later date.

Looks respectable for a compost bin. Notice how the bird netting kept the material from falling through the fence fabric. It isn't accumulated outside the bin at the bottom rail level.

Now I have more space to use in the hot pile area.

And use it I did...

I had been reading for quite awhile about air for the microbes in the center of the pile. I saw many suggestions on printed material and videos that suggested that if you ventilate your compost pile, with so little as a pipe simply stuck in the center of it, you would greatly speed up the composting process. So on January 31, 2008, I began constructing a ventilation device to try to promote air circulation within the pile in order to expedite the decomposition. These are the pieces of PVC piping laid out for assembly.

This is the PVC pipe ventilation system assembled. It stood about five feet high.

In order to facilitate air circulation, there had to be entry points along the length of the piping. I drilled 1/2 inch diameter holes on opposite sides of the piping so that air could be drawn into the base of the pile, and the heat could rise and vent out the top.

In order for the air to enter, I left the open ends of the base of the structure exposed at the front and rear of the pile. See them sticking out? The hot air in the center pipe rising would draw in fresh air at the bottom and allow a flow-through of air for the microbes to flourish.

By February 3, 2008 I decided that the piping going through the center of the pile was an impediment to the turning process, but I would continue to use it to see if there was any benefit to the composting process.

On April 9, 2008 I decided that the ventilation pipe experiment had come to an end. It didn't do anything that I could readily notice. Perhaps it would help if the pile were to be undisturbed. However, when turning at the frequency I employed, the piping was a serious impediment. The tines of the fork would hit it when you had a forkful to turn, then you would have to pull the fork back out and try again. In the right side of the picture, you can see all the bags of leaves that I had stored for future use.

It's June 1, 2008 and I'm ready for a burst of energy to complete my composting area. As you can see, I'm still stockpiling as well as composting. Notice the texture of the material in the hot pile on the right.

I'm still looking for that burst of energy on July 24, 2008. But, there appears to be an energy shortage... or is there?


Now you can see the fence gate that my mother-in-law bought me for a Christmas present. This is my completed composting facility on February 7, 2009. Looks very nice, doesn't it? I'm comitted to serious composting for the benefit of my organic crops. I will continue to gather compostable grass clippings and leaves ultimately for use in my garden.

I have a 1,500 square foot garden, so I'll need a lot of compost, and I plan to get it. This shot shows what I call my west field. The east field isn't in the picture, and it's a larger one.

Now for some personal preferences for composting thoroughly and having compost ready in 30 days.

When you have prospective compost material like this, it decomposes more readily if you cut it into smaller pieces first. This only took a few minutes to do, and look how much more manageable it is. Remember, according to the literature on the subject, the microbes eat from the edges so the more edges, the faster the decomposition. I wonder how a microbe can tell if a surface is an edge or a top or a bottom? Anyway, I try to do this with everything I put in my compost bin. Imagine how much longer it would take the pieces on the right to decompose. If I want good compost faster, it only makes good sense to do this. Of course, I recognize that I'm not caring for cows, chickens and goats in the meantime, so time availability for doing things the way I do could be a factor.

Some publications say that you can create usable compost in as little as 15 days, by turning the pile every third day. I have tried this, and it does appear to work, but I prefer to not introduce it to the garden until after 30 days, minimum. There's no need to risk upsetting the nitrogen in your soil just to be fast about it. Besides, most articles that address composting talk about leaving it there for months. Some even say leave it for a year or more. The way I do mine, I can have one bin full every two months ready for the garden. It takes time to fill the bin in the first place, about 30 days, then you do the 30 day composting by turning it every 3 or 4 days. I find that when a large part of the pile is on it's way to being compost already, when you introduce additional material, it decomposes faster than normal.

Here I am with my grandson on January 18, 2010. I've got my hay fork and he's got his rake, and we're ready to go to work! (Notice the nice greens growing in the garden in January!)

Here we are in action at the compost bin. He loves doing this because he knows we put it in the garden for the vegetables to grow... and he likes when steam comes out of it!

Here he is again. He's using his great, great grandmother's manure fork to turn the compost. Isn't that neat? I love being able to use the tools from the old farm where my mother was born!

Here is a typical picture of the compost bin. Notice the lack of material at the right end of it? That's to allow space for turning it. When you begin turning this pile, you end up with the space at the left end when you're finished. That way, there's no lifting the material over a dividing wall/partition. That wall is simply not necessary if you use a wide bin like this. Turning the compost is now more of a lateral movement than a vertical one. This wide design allows you much easier turning, and that is incentive enough for me to turn it more frequently. To turn a pile this large only takes 10 to 15 minutes. Again, since I have chopped up most everything before it goes into the bin, there are no stalks or vines getting caught and making a tangled mess. Most of the publications about composting that I have read don't tell you to chop it up. When it is chopped up, you get nice full forks of great looking compost.

I covered the bin when I knew this snow was coming. Although the moisture would be beneficial, I was more concerned to keep some of the heat in the pile to keep it cooking.

This is what it looked like on February 18, 2010. Notice what appears to be paper in the pile? Those are biodegradable coffee filters from Starbucks. From January through April of 2010, I picked up over 2,000 pounds of coffee grounds for my compost bin. I know that because I had a hanging scale set up so I could measure what I was actually putting into the pile besides my own generated materials, which I didn't weigh. All together, the amount of compostable material I gathered from the neighborhoods around us in four months totalled 2,852.5 pounds. That weight does not include the weight of the empty wet plastic bags, which weighed 75.5 pounds by themselves. Where we live, it is not difficult to acquire all the compostable materials you can possibly use. I even had neighbors deliver it to me because they knew what I was using it for.

This is a typical pile before turning it. Again, I have the space on the right for turning it onto.

This is a good example of why I do it the way I do. The material gets so dense, you can actually fork a trench across it. I believe this promotes good microbial activity throughout the pile. Again, since it is in small pieces, look at how well it blends together. The material on the right has had much of the grass clippings shown in the previous picture blended into the pile. You can hardly detect it.

There is the newly turned compost pile. It looks good doesn't it. All that green material that was blended into it increases the heat of the process. Just for the heck of it, I took the temperature of various batches of my compost over a long period of time and the highest temperature was 164 degrees F. That is a little too warm because at higher temperatures, the beneficial microbes can die. Not only that, but spontaneous combustion can occur at 170 degrees F. That's why turning frequently and keeping it moist, not wet, is so important. The microbes can't live without water and oxygen.

On February 25, 2010 the compost was cooking nicely. This is the part my grandson likes!

On September 11, 2010 after pulling all my tomato plants, I ran over them with the lawnmower without the bag attached. When it was finished, I put the bag on the mower and did it again, and then emptied the bag contents onto the compost pile. Using the mower bag is much more effective than just raking, as the material actually gets mulched twice this way.

All those tomato vines chopped up look like this.  If I didn't reduce the size of the material, it would have taken years to decompose.

See how small the individual pieces are? Perfect for composting!

Thirteen days later on September 24, 2010, this is what that material looked like after several turnings.

Thankfully, even on October 27, 2010, people were still mowing their lawns and I was able to get the clippings. Last year, I planted annual rye on my lawn in order to be able to harvest the green clippings to supplement my composting efforts.

Here is my wife and granddaughter on November 20, 2010 watering the leaves that I had collected for my compost. Watering helps to settle them down so I can fit more in there for storage. Now at this time I had just heard about leaf mold being beneficial for gardens, but this supply of leaves isn't going to be used for that. With the availability of such quantities of grass clippings, I'll need the leaves for "browns" to mix with the "greens" for nice batches of compost.

Here is the last picture of this post, taken on December 3, 2010. Plenty of leaves stored and a nice pile of compost almost ready to be spread on the garden. (You can see the Swiss chard in the lower right quarter of the picture.)

Thank you for allowing me to explain it all and to show my method of composting for your viewing pleasure. I hope you found it informative and interesting. I know my organic vegetables are happy!

Have a wonderful, warm vegetable gardening day!
Veggie PAK