Making Compost

I’ve seen plenty of formulas and recipes for making compost.  One certification standard, for example, specifies:

(2) Composted plant and animal materials produced though a process that
(i) established an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1; and
(ii) maintained a temperature of between 131 F and 170 F for 3 days using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system; or
(iii) maintained a temperature of between 131F and 170F for 15 days using a windrow composting system, during which period, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

I’m pretty sure the compost we make here would satisfy that standard, but we don’t track the ingredients that carefully and we don’t take the temperature of the pile.  When we first started out doing this I was careful to insure that the correct mixtures of green and brown ingredients went in and I kept the pile moist to make sure it would stay hot.  But eventually we settled on a different way that works for us.

On the first day of fall I start a new compost pile.  For the next twelve months the pile receives leaves, manure, grass clippings, spoiled hay, bedding from the stalls and sheds when they get their annual cleaning, any kitchen scraps the pigs or chickens won’t eat, and anything else that will rot.  I turn the pile occasionally with the front-end loader on the tractor.  It gets turned at least once a week and sometimes more often than that, except during the winter, when it doesn’t get turned.  On the first day of fall the following year I stop adding to that pile and start a new one.  The original pile will be spread on our gardens beginning the following spring and through the fall.

New pile in the foreground, old pile in the background.

New pile in the foreground, old pile in the background.

So the compost we spread has been cooking for a minimum of 6 months and for as long as two years.

Because we’re not in any hurry to get it ready we don’t need to keep the pile wet.  We rely on nature to do that.

The process works for us.  We spread the rich black compost on the gardens, then till it in before we plant.

IMG_5181

So the takeaway from our compost learning process was not to be overly focused on precise formulas and temperatures (as long as there is plenty of time).  For others trying to figure this out, I’d recommend just experimenting to discover what works best for you.

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12 comments on “Making Compost

  1. Joanna says:

    We pretty much work on the same principle too. Some of ours ends up in the greenhouse where I place it in deep holes dug for the tomatoes. We have to be a bit more organised about getting it on the garden next time, but Ian had to move the pile and so it got integrated into next year’s compost pile. Sometimes we also place bedding material directly onto the beds as they are cleared in autumn, so they are not left bare over winter.

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  2. bobraxton says:

    In 1984 when we moved from NJ we began our compost pile (back corner of corner lot) and still use the same, 31st year. Until this year, ALL our deciduous leaves have gone into it. What I turn into the pile (using garden fork) I collect in a fast-food pickle bucket (about five gallon). I view the compost pile as our hogs – except we do not have any hog-killing.

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  3. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Ah, the simplicity (and logic; ) of working with Mother Nature and the rhythm of the Seasons… Why must everything be hurried and made to seem so complicated?
    And, oh my, what beautiful compost you have there!

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  4. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, the material that I use for compost is the fall material from yard cleanup and some through out the year as I cut the grass. What I don’t just spread on the garden beds for sheet mulch, I dump in the back corner of my backyard. It’s a basic one pile process but only gets turned once. The bottom of the pile is the finished compost from 1 1/2 years ago. In the spring, the top layer of material from the previous fall is removed down to the finished compost level. This compost is used to make new soil with the formula 2 five gallon buckets (buckets bought from local grocery store bakery for $1 each) of regular soil, 1 five gallon bucket compost, 1 five gallon bucket of sphagnum moss, a 3 pound coffee can of perlite, and a cup of Epsom salts for minerals that plants use. I dump it all in a large size compost barrel and mix it all up thoroughly. Once it’s mixed up it can be used for just about any kind of vegetable or flower growing. I use it a lot in containers and it will last the summer without much fertilizer added. It seemed to out do the commercially planted hanging baskets that I bought for the poor man’s living patio.

    When the compost has been used up, the six month old material from last fall is put back into the compost spot and is ready for this year’s material to be piled on top through out the year. I haven’t quite figured out how to use the green manure from grass clippings to get maximum benefit from the nitrogen just yet but I’m working on it.

    Have a great composting day.

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    • Bill says:

      Sounds like you’ve got a good system Dave. I don’t think there is any one right way. As long as the stuff breaks down into good soil, then the system works.

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  5. Woody says:

    If I can haul it in here I will compost it. I have permission to use the skid steer at the livestock auction when I need, or have time for a load. I’m known now to be more than happy to retrieve moldy old round bales from neighboring farms. A reputation of being a composting scavenger can be most helpful. I try to roll out the bales and dump the fresh manure on top. Then it becomes a folding process. I leave our pile uncovered, uphill from our garden area. At least any runoff will make its way across our patch. My piles tend to be more of a row.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re importing nutrients that way! I hate seeing good compost go to waste on other people’s farms and I love spoiled round bales.

      I like the idea of having the pile uphill from the garden. I feel like we lose too much when it rains hard and I see a stream of compost tea heading off into the woods.

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  6. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden (which I highly recommend) has a lot of great stuff in there on composting. He says a slowly rotted compost pile supplies plants with nutrients longer than a hot pile you’ve turned into compost in three weeks.

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