Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Compost Troubleshooting

Finished compost

You probably know by now how much I love compost, and how strangely silent I have been on the subject. That’s because I haven’t been having much success with it lately, for reasons not entirely under my control. In a funny way this is valuable experience because I knew exactly what was going wrong in each case as it was happening. Hopefully this can answer questions for the beginning enthusiast wondering “What in the world is wrong with my compost?” 

I have worked with 3 different systems since this spring: 
  • A visit to my old bin left with my parents in Texas, 
  • a successful, inexpensive, though messy looking cardboard box/pile situation necessitated by a medium sized home bin getting too full, and 
  • the aforementioned undersized box. 
When I left Texas last fall I gave my parents 8 double trash bags of compost and my beloved bin. Though they weren’t full, the bags were back breakers because they were full of moist dirt in various stages of decomposition! My parents did not spread the dirt, but put it back in the bin. When I visited in September my mother asked me to move the bin to another spot. When I checked on it there was a much smaller volume of material in the box, and the compost was no longer heating for many reasons. To start off, there was a whole bunch of finished dirt in the bottom taking up valuable space. It was ready for earthworms to finish things up. Secondly, the right conditions were not maintained for heating the new compostable materials. Let’s review those conditions quickly:
  1. There must be a great volume of appropriately stacked compostable materials. It’s hard to be specific about how much that is. My mental image is that our compostables need to add up to be at least the same size as a small armchair.  
  2. The compost needs to be quite damp. Many people caution you not to get the compost too wet, which seems wise where I live now, but in Texas I watered my compost a little almost every day. The advice that compost should be like a wet sponge is meaningless in the southwest. If you stick a wet sponge outside, it’s dry in an hour there, whereas on the east coast it might take days! The bonus counterbalancing the water use is that the healthy dirt you are making will help retain water in the soil for your plants in the long run. 
  3. “Wets” like food and fresh plant matter and “dries” like paper and leaves need to be alternated, always with wets under dry. Food scraps, grass clippings, and manure should be dug into the active part of the pile, covered with dry materials to sop up the excess liquid, and buried in older compost for a pile that smells like dirt, not rotten food. 
  4. Add manure, urine, or fresh grass clippings regularly to boost the nitrogen content. Every time I add wet material I add nitrogen. The following measurements are neither precise nor scientific, I just want to convey amounts that work for me in estimates that are easy to picture. If it is manure I use a heaping handful sized amount- though I don’t use my hands! If using urine, a brimming cereal bowl full would be about right, just not in a cereal bowl! An armful of brand spankin’ new FRESH grass clippings is great. I find that burying grass clippings in the pile is most effective so they don’t dry out.    
When those conditions are not met, if you throw yard waste or food scraps in there they just sit on top going bad and luring vermin in search of a snack. I dug into the pile and was astonished panicked by the mass exodus of cockroaches of all sizes and descriptions.

It was like Men in Black II for a few long seconds. I am still a little traumatized. They flew into my hair, guys. Don’t let this happen to you!
When people advise not to throw oily, animal based, or wet food scraps into your bin lest it attract vermin this is why. This is not to say that you should not put food in your compost. You can, and it is a responsible thing to do. Nature can make mulch by heaping up leaves, but it takes water, nitrogen, and proper handling, or a whole lot of happy worms to actually make compost. Otherwise you are just feeding the local wildlife. 
I spread the compost that had been sitting for a year on a sandy bed in my parents back yard and layered the rest back into the bin with strict care instructions. I try not to dwell on how it’s going without me! 

My black plastic compost bin was overflowing for reasons I shall later state. Then our tree was in a big rush and lost all of its leaves at the end of August. I had nowhere to put them, but no way was I going to bag them up and put them on the curb! 
My best option seemed to be a compost pile, as in, pile the compost. To get a pile of anything to actually compost you need to pile it high not wide. I find that my pitchfork is essential for this. Also, I cheated. I got a big cardboard box and set it up with both ends open like a chimney on the ground. Then I filled it with whatever I needed to compost that wasn’t fitting in my other bin: food scraps, yard clippings, and newsprint sale circulars to name a few. I made sure to keep it damp. As the ‘post piled up I slid the box higher up, and everything lower down stayed in the square shape. Obviously I wasn’t turning it, and that’s okay! To keep it active I used urine or manure every time I added kitchen scraps, and... it worked!

Finished compost

The top of the pile was loose leaves, the middle of the pile was broken down, heat marked, and barely recognizable. The box was gone. The bottom was gorgeous, rich, black earth full of earthworm casings. It could have used several months more of sitting to decompose the leaf skeletons, but it smells like sweet success!  

I saved the worst for last. Spoiler alert, there were rodents and carnage involved. Everything is bigger in Texas. The compost bin I purchased when we moved to this house was smaller than the one I had before. You’d think I could just look at it and tell, but it had been more than 6 months since I saw it last. I noticed the size discrepancy because the compost wasn’t heating up properly, I was starting to throw scraps in the trash can because the scraps were going septic in the bin, and then when I went to visit my old bin– oh yeah, and a few other people I love– I realized the old box dwarfed the new one. 
Then I saw a mouse. 
Then I saw mouse poop. 
Lots of it. 
A new system flew right to the top of my honey do list! 
When I dug into it there was almost dirt at the very bottom, and at about 2/3 of the way up the bin. Other than that it seemed like a great way to mummify old newspapers and cardboard. As I excavated, things I had buried months ago turned up in mint condition. 

Unsuccessful compost

Clearly this compost wasn't decomposing. Basically the box was just shielding all of the compostable materials from the elements so that they couldn’t compost. Brilliant. 
Also it was harboring 8-10 mice and about the same number of cockroaches. Thank goodness mice and cockroaches are also bigger in Texas! It wasn’t too alarming since I had a pretty good idea what was coming.   

I killed 2 mice by accident and 2 on purpose. The rest made their escape. By the way, may I borrow a cat? The mice had made a warm, dry little nest in there. At least they shredded some paper while they were at it! The thing is, a compost bin should be the opposite of comfortable for furry woodland creatures! It should be a damp biologically active cauldron of stuff mice don’t have any interest in. The main problem was the small size which did not allow enough volume, and somehow with the way things were layered, water wasn’t getting all the way through. 

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