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Friday - March 19, 2010

From: Katy, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Compost and Mulch, Soils
Title: Help with composting in Katy TX
Answered by: Barbara Medford


I've gone on line and tried to figure out what I'm doing wrong with my compost pile. What exactly is the proper ratio, and the types of plant matter and layers to achieve the optimum decomposition in terms of speed and thoroughness; i.e., how do you layer your greens and browns and hay together to keep them moist without the pile sliming ?


You sound like a gardener who already has done a great deal of research and experimentation on composting, and I'm not sure I'm qualified to help you any further. However, I composted for many years in Texas and always regarded it not only as fun but a magic way to both dispose of leaf waste and create the most wonderful soil amendment there was. I'm afraid you are not going to get very precise information from me, including ratios and layers, so this may not help you at all. What I do want to do is tell you about my compost pile, what went into it and what came out. It evolved over time and I learned from what did and did not work. You have probably already read a number of books on composting; my two favorites are The Rodale Book of Composting and Let It Rot:The Gardener's Guide to Composting. See Bibliography below. From mastercomposter.com we found this list of links to various sites answering all sorts of questions.

Now, on to my personal narrative on composting: The method I am going to describe is not how I started; my techniques evolved over time and worked for me. I didn't work in layers or ratios and never used hay.  The tools I used were nitrogen (green matter, grass clippings, coffee grounds, lettuce-no dressing), oxygen (necessary for oxidation), heat (produced by the pile itself) and water. I lived on a small property with not much grass and about 30 native Post Oaks and 1 Live Oak. This meant that in October to November I had TONS of Post Oak leaves and in March another ton of Live Oak leaves. All at once. My lawn area was small and sometimes I raked the clippings for the compost pile and sometimes I left them on the ground to "compost in place." Because I had the space behind a concealing fence for a potting shed and compost pile, I was able to build a pile of considerable size. It started out as piles on the ground (which was pretty slow) and ended up with three bins. These bins I made from concrete blocks, the kinds with holes in them, which helped with the flow of oxygen. In a perfect world, by the time the leaves were falling, I had used up all the "done" compost in the garden. This not being a perfect world, I would mix whatever compost I had in the piles in with the new stuff as a starter.

Before I began to fill the bins, I went to the home improvement store and bought some perforated plastic plumbing pipe, such as you would use for a French drain. I think it was about 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and I bought enough that I could have the chimney (for that is what it was) extending above the top of the contents of the bins. It should be right in the center, and you may have to use some ingenuity to get it to stand up until you have compost around it holding it erect, but I'm sure you can figure something out. If you find one, and really want to have some fun, get a compost thermometer. 

I'm not going to give you dimensions or instructions on the bins. They just grew. I bought the cement blocks a few at a time (those things are heavy), hauled them around from the car to the potting area and started stacking.  I stacked them so there was air flow through the holes, and as high as I had the energy for. When there were a whole lot of oak leaves in the Fall, and little or no "green" matter, I bought 50 lb.  bags of cottonseed meal and a big scoop at the feed store, and sprinkled scoops of the meal over the leaves. This was as close to layering as I ever came. A bunch of leaves, a generous sprinkling of cottonseed meal, another bunch of leaves. Water. If it has been raining and the new matter gets wet, good; otherwise, drag the hose over and give it a good sprinkling. You want to encourage rot and fungi, that is part of the process. In a few days the pile should begin to shrink. Time to mix it up. And old-fashioned pitchfork is good, and I also found a long-handled tool that could have been used to dig up potatoes. It was great for grabbing the matter and mixing it around. This is hard work and you should already be feeling heat from the decomposition. The original concept of the three bins was that you would turn the piles over from bin to bin, with the third one having the finished compost.In actuality, the volume of input was so high during certain seasons that I usually had new material in all three bins for a while. When you get a pile going, stick in the compost thermomenter, and watch the temperature shoot up. Also, when the weather is cold, you will see "steam" coming up out of your chimneys.

Summary: you need to keep mixing it, by moving, turning over or whatever. If you have the means to grind material by a leaf chopper or running a lawnmower over dry leaves, that will accelerate the process even more. The more surface area that is exposed to the process, the faster the decomposition will be. The faster the decomposition, the more heat will be generated, and so on. If you have the need to improve drainage or nutrition in an area in your garden, and don't have any fully finished compost, just mix what you have in with the native soil and it will continue to decompose and amend that soil. This has been working in Nature for millions of years, we are just accelerating the process. 



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