What can go wrong with your new compost pile?
Actually, quite a few things. Most "wrongs" are caused by the pile build itself, but some, like adequate watering, apply to after-build issues. Another biggy is having and adding proper ratios of each raw material type. Always keep in mind the rule of 31 parts dry "Brown" raw material(Also called "Carbon" material as it is essentially dry carbon mass) to 1 part nitrogen. This loosely translates to one part green or rotting mown grass to three parts "Brown."
In the build method this book focuses on, the biggest key success factor is the addition of adequate brush to the base of the pile and then layered in as the pile goes up. Otherwise, you have a major turning job on your hands for every other day or so for two weeks! Longer if not adequate mown grass!
Go back and re-read the key points of pile building in the last chapter. Do the best you can with your raw materials and skills to follow those points carefully.
Now that the pile is finished per the last chapter, do a mental run-through of your work. Actually, it is best if you've read this chapter Before building the pile!
- Good Job building! Now, sit back and relax, just a bit. You deserve it! We need the simple temperature gauging tool mentioned in the Tools Appendix. Any sturdy metal rod will do. Plastic and fiberglass resist heat so it's best to stick to metal. Remember, the thicker the rod the longer it requires to heat up to the temperature of the pile. Also, the rod will cool the material it touches, so a second placement for thicker rods will be necessary for accurate sense of actual heat.
Compare This Soil-Producing System To Other Systems
This period of comparable rest opens up time to check out other soil-producing methods. Perhaps the worst ones are those silly rotating drum thingies! In theory they appeal to mobility-challenged gardeners, and just plain lazy folk, so they sell well. But two things make them useless. Well, let's add a third:
A. They take dedication to turning frequently. Lazy gardeners DO NOT do this! That makes the raw material inside turn foul and stink!
B. They are "tiny"! Even the largest only holds a few forks of raw material, compared to your free-standing pile! Then that tiny bit of raw material produces just several gallons of soil.
C. The worst part is all that labor! The pile you just finished is FINISHED! Now you sit back and allow natural laws of gravity to pull water down through the pile, and heated air to rise through it bottom to top, carrying vital oxygen to keep the pile fresh-smelling and continue its proper heating process.
As it is reduced to basic nutrient elements, gravity does all that turning work as it pulls the pile down on itself.
There is just one labor left to your new soil; separating out the brush from the finer material.
*IF* you do not want that valuable, partly-decomposed brush in the grow beds. For back-filling tree planting holes, the brush is perfect, and should remain in the soil. The vegetables you grow in the soil don't care a bit if brush is in their soil, and actually grow better with it!
So, go ahead and check out other soil-producing systems. I've never discovered one that produces ready-2-use soil. Only large commercial hot compost producers' methods produce soil ready to plant in.
This mention of commercial producers brings up a point I want to stress. By federal law and very stiff fines, commercial composters are barred from allowing their material to NOT reach very nutrient-destroying temperatures. Upwards of 200, 300, 400, and more degrees F is required, by law. The reason is valid, too.
Commercial operations by nature of their size and need to generate profit, require massive intake of raw material. That raw material comes from thousands of uncontrollable content sources. Chemicals, waste oils, diseased dead creatures, baby diapers, rotting yuk of all sorts, and who knows what else can, and does enter those processors' raw materials stream.
So . . . the "soil" the commercial composter bags and sells you at the grocery store is *NOT* nutrient-dense at all! Rather, it is inert like sand. Oh, it does have a little nutrient for YOUR soil bugs to slowly enter and start the process of composting all over. But, essentially, it's like a bag of sand.
That said, let's return to your pile now. That metal temperature monitoring rod is your ticket to great management! Use it frequently to "see" your pile's hot spots and not so hot areas. Check the pile water content throughout the pile. I like my rods to be rusty, as the rust retains moisture and shows where there is lack of same. Learn to "read" this tool, and it's OK to dig small holes into the side of the pile to see and feel the progress, or lack of it. Be sure to repack the hole and wet it good!
At this point it's insightful to know how fully decomposed organic material looks and feels. This is where the trip to, and close, careful observation of the rich, verdant soil in a local woods is invaluable!
Finished raw organic material decomposition to its basic elements is when the lignon - woody content that shapes and maintains the structure of all plants - is reduced to soft, water-retaining mass. If it is undisturbed as it decomposes, the original shape and texture of the plant part remains intact. I once enjoyed the awesome experience of finding completely undisturbed ancient coal chunks on an outcropping of a seam of coal along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. That 60 pound block of completely decomposed ancient vegetation held a little snake smashed to a thin, oily sheen of its scales and shape in one paper thin layer! Another layer had a tiny imprint of a baby dear, or other split-hooved creature! The perfectly preserved shapes of ferns, small branches, and other plants of that ancient time made one of the most fascinating finds of my life!
The point here is that those organic raw materials still held their original form and substance, due to their being undisturbed during their decomposition. Just as you new soil pile will produce near-perfect form and substance of each piece of raw material. With this in mind, as your pile processes to completed reduction to elemental nutrients, its appearance with fully shaped leaves, grass, small branches, and some thicker food plant stalks has no bearing on the fact it is ready to grow your garden in.
The one criteria to gauge full decomposition by is nitrogen consumption by the decaying material. This is the reason for carefully building the pile by the method I share. There are any number of other ways to build a pile of organic material to produce soil, but all others take far longer to completely decompose, or require very tiring, intensive labor to turn repeatedly during the process, if a speedy source of soil is desired.
Your new pile is fully reduced to elemental components when the following is true . . .
1. You have maintained moisture throughout the build so that squeezing a handful of material at any point during the decay process leaves your hand slightly wet, but not so wet as to stay wet more than a minute or two.
2. You have built the pile carefully adding the proportions of components as defined in chapter 4.
3. You have followed the guide to compress the pile as defined in chapter 4.
4. Your monitoring the pile's progress kept up with water, air flow and even pile heat requirements.
5. In the last days of a two or three week time from first watering and pile compression, the temperature drops from a steady, even heat to below 110 degrees F. This signals that the combination of oxygen, aerobic bacteria, water and compressed contents is completed. The carbon content is near fully reacted with nitrogen and water and oxygen to form decomposition of the complex plant molecules to their basic nutrients.
6. Your entire management of this soil production process is finished when YOU realize that there now is your very own nutrient-dense soil in your hands! This is a moment to remember!
Note: Tale lots of photos ALL during this entire process! You will be very happy you did!
Let's remember . . .
- Two things are "musts" for good decomposing activity: A. The right moisture. B. The right air flow.
To make the pile wet enough, add water to the pile at about the half-built point, then over the top of the finished pile. Watch the bottom of the pile to tell when the water penetrates the entire pile. We'll call this the "first" watering.
The second requirement for good success: When the pile is built, cover the top and sides with 1 to 2 inches of sand, sod, or other fine material that will benefit plant health. Do not cover with anything that blocks air or water!