I’ve decided to write a good compost to grow great things part two because this is such a long winded subject. I couldn’t get all of this to fit into one already lengthy post. If you haven’t read the first part you can find it here: Compost to grow great things. I believe that anyone serious about gardening for their health, sanity or whatever reason you garden for, needs this information. So thank you to anyone who is still with me and continuing on to read the rest of this.
Lets recap what we have so far for making Good Compost.
- Fresh grass clippings collected from mowing the lawn. “Greens”
- Old straw bails. “Browns”
- Bat guano to add biodiversity to our compost. “Activator”
- Biochar “prevents nutrients from leaching away from your garden, and retains Co2 in the soil to save the world from the possibility of global warming”
- Rock Dust “To re-mineralize your soil and make a healthier you by re-mineralizing you when you eat tasty things from your Garden. Oh yeah, rock dust also retains Co2 in the soil to save the world from the possibility of global warming”
The short list of materials above should make a pretty good compost pile. But we want to have more biodiversity, some kind of mycorrhizae (fungal) addition to the mix.
One thing before we move on. If you want to learn more about the last two items, Biochar and Rock dust here are a couple of good sources:
- These two books showed me just how important minerals are to us and how the lack of them can negatively effects all of our lives.
From what I understand fungi is just as important as the bacteria in the compost. After our good compost is finished and you apply it around your plants these microorganisms and fungi will form a relationship with your plants and as the plant grows the fungi will form a web of mycelium in the ground and attach itself to your plants roots. The fungi will pull additional nutrients from the surrounding soil by mining for minerals and make them available to the plants.
Just as the plants provide other things for the mycelia like sugars. The bacteria from the compost will also continue to break down insoluble things in the soil to make them available to your plants too.
- So you see it’s important to have as many different strains of microbial life and fungi as possible to benefit your plants. I add fungi twice in the form of a compost starter, or a mycorrhizae type inoculant. When the pile is initially built, and again when the pile no longer heats and you begin curing the compost.
Additional things I will add to this compost
- Jobes compost activator. It contains several strains of bacteria, and two strains of fungi.
- Premiere sphagnum peat moss. This material comes from Canada and contains some good bacteria and should add some biodiversity so I’ll throw a few hand fulls of this in as well.
- Bone meal. Another good activator. Although I don’t use this anymore it went into the pile I made for this post. Because we are adding rock dust and mycorrhizae there should be no need for the bone meal.
- Ashes from our wood stove. Ashes contain potash and can be a good addition to your compost pile if added sparingly. I only add it to a couple of layers when building the pile and only a couple of handfuls of ashes on those layers.
- Humic Acid in powder form.
One last thing I have been putting into my good compost for the last couple of years is Char. My first thought was to basically make biochar using my compost pile to inoculate it. This works great but what I found is that it now is just another ingredient in the compost. Impossible to extract once incorporated. With the results I’m getting, I’m okay with that.
Caution about biochar
I have made my own charcoal off and on for years now. I learned sometime around 2012 that people were starting to put this stuff in the ground to help plants grow. And that people had done it hundreds of years ago In the Amazon rain forest. Apparently people have been doing this for thousands of years with varying results. So I made some charcoal and put it right on my garden. It was about the same results I got when I tilled in wood chips one time. Locked up the nitrogen for over a year, almost two full years before things started to grow well again. But now I’ve got the best garden I’ve ever had. So it does work, I just didn’t know how to properly apply the stuff without getting myself into trouble.
Benefits of biochar in your compost
- One way to inoculate biochar for good results in the garden is to first add it to the compost pile you are making. So it will be inoculated by the microbes, and fungi in the pile while the compost materials break down. The char should also soak up much of the nitrogen that would normally escape a compost pile. You want this stuff to be full of nutrients, and ready to give back before you put it in your soil. I’m still learning how to use the Biochar in the garden. But I am seeing good results now. I will share with you as I learn what to do or what not to.
- For making this batch of compost I added 20 lbs. of home made char to one of the layers of our compost pile. Some of the pieces were much too large. But I threw them in there any way. Any thing larger than 3/4” should be made smaller by crushing. Some people roll it up in a tarp and drive over the charcoal to make it small. Small pieces and dust work just fine when it comes to biochar.
How big is the good compost pile going to be?
Once I have everything together in separate piles I try to gauge just how big of a pile I’m going to get. I must note here that through the winter months my family will continually add kitchen scraps to a pile adjacent to where we build the hot pile at the beginning of summer. This pile is in various stages of decay, I will also incorporate this into the hot pile. The pile shown in this article ended up about five feet in diameter. A small portion of this compost pile was from our kitchen. We just keep a compost container on our counter top and we fill it a couple times a week. The kids go and dump it on the pile when it’s full.
Keep it simple
I used to drive four posts in the ground and put fence around the pile to hold everything together but it was just a big hassle to pull it all apart to be able to even turn the pile. So simple is better, I make a circular pile with slightly angled sides. At least initially I make sure the top has a slight depression. The whole thing ends up shaped like a giant rolo candy. That’s the shape you’re going for. It just doesn’t have caramel in the center.
But trust me, in the end this will be like candy for your plants. Also after turning your pile the first time it will never be the same again, as far as the shape goes, but that’s ok. Oh yeah, you want a pile to be no smaller than three feet cubed. Anything smaller than that and you may not build heat enough to kill bad pathogens, and weed seeds. No smaller than three feet tall and three feet in diameter.
Building the Good Compost pile
- Yup, the part you’ve all been waiting for. Start out by clearing the area you want to build your pile by raking. Also make sure you have double the space as you will turn the pile by moving it with a pitch fork from one spot to the other. It will make the ground bare wherever you do this.Now lay down about a five inch layer of your brown material straw in this case, in a circle about the diameter you thing your pile should be. On top of the straw add a layer of greens. Then dust it with the bat guano, rock dust, humic acid powder, biochar and small amounts of all the other goodies we talked about putting into the pile. Spray down each layer gently with the hose. Make sure to use UN-chlorinated water. We are trying to promote life so chemicals of any kind are to be avoided.
- Now repeat this until the materials are gone, and you have something that resembles a wet hay stack that’s flat on top. If your pile doesn’t look perfect, don’t worry about it. Your compost pile will still work just fine. Don’t worry about making mistakes, I’ve made lots of bad compost piles in the past and the end result was still compost.
Why this becomes good compost
Now for the most important part. By the way I don’t have much to substantiate this claim other than I believe it works or improves the process based on past experience. I’ve done tests, the kind we can do at home to decide if our soil needs one thing or another. I also know how the garden turns out and we have been pleased with that too.
Place a plastic tarp on top of the pile, make sure it covers the sides and goes out onto the ground a little. Weigh the tarp down so it wont blow away. I do this for two reasons.
The first, this is my effort to try and retain as much nitrogen as possible. My tarp does hold allot of the composting gasses in while I’m not turning it. I know because I can smell the composting odors when I lift the tarp. These smells aren’t necessarily bad but rather an indication of thermophilic microbial action in the pile. You will know if something has gone wrong in your pile, it will smell like sewage.
- My theory is that the biochar will soak up a good portion of the nitrogen and other nutrients in the pile while under the tarp. I’m gonna lose some N (nitrogen) no doubt when turning the pile. But I’ll bet because of the biochar the compost will retain a good portion of N and anything else that is normally escaping a compost pile. The second reason for the tarp is to keep rain from leaching the nutrients out of our good compost pile and into the ground.
Now wait three days before turning your pile. But the first thing you will notice, possibly the very next morning is that your pile has shrunk in size by about a third or maybe half. Don’t be alarmed as you assembled your pile you were incorporating a lot of air. Every three days when you turn the pile all you are doing is incorporating air. This is the most important part of hot composting. You have to keep oxygen in the pile for the decomposers to work for you. Otherwise the pile will go anaerobic stink, putrefy and possibly create harmful pathogens. So turn you pile every three days! Use a pitch fork, fluff the material and break up the lumps as you go.
On the third day go ahead and take the tarp off. Use a pitch fork and remove about three inches from the top of the pile and place it where you will be building the pile back up. Now remove about three inches from the sides of the pile and continue to build the new pile. You’re really gonna want that pitch fork right about now.
If you do this each time you turn the pile you will insure that everything gets cooked. At three days the pile may just be warm, but by the third turning you will not be able to hold your hand in the hottest parts of the pile. You can buy a compost thermometer and check temperature to know when to turn your pile. 125-135 degree’s Fahrenheit is ideal, but I just use my hand to gauge it.
Now turn the pile every three days until the pile wont heat anymore. Always turn the matted material lying at the bottom of the pile so that it ends up on top. The turned materials from the top and sides are loose when it’s time to turn again. Always recycle the things from the inside to the outside, and the outside to the inside. This is crucial. Occasionally you will find a visitor when removing the tarp I sometimes find snakes bathing in the sauna like warmth of the pile.
Speaking of little critters
Listen you have created a beautiful spot for certain animals to come and relax, eat and stay warm. They may also be bringing good things to your compost pile in the way of bacteria etc. the more the merrier!
Please do not harm the creatures that visit your compost pile. Work with these animals and for the most part you will find they are beneficial. Snakes and things like shrews eat more bugs than you could imagine.
small animals eat bugs that could be harming your plants. The bugs themselves are important to the composting process. seeing them in your compost pile means you are doing it right. Be kind to them. You will always find interesting things going on in the compost pile. When I start turning the pile they always just head out, and come back after I’m gone. Now if you have large coyotes or something like that coming in then I would take a look at what you are trying to compost. Most likely, animal parts. There is no need for animal parts in your good compost in order to get the desired results.
Final thoughts on turning your good compost
When turning your pile always observe how much moisture you find. You don’t want a sopping wet pile but it definitely needs to be moist. If you are having trouble getting a pile to heat up, it may be too wet or too dry. In the case of a wet pile in the early stages just add some more dry browns to see if that gets things rolling. If it’s later on in the process just keep turning every three days and it will dry and take off again. when the compost pile is too dry just spray between the layers as you rebuild the pile, but don’t get too carried away. Another good way to insure proper moisture is to use a moisture meter.
Once the heat is out of the pile and the thermophilic stage is complete.
You will know when this happens because when you turn it the pile will not get hot anymore. It may just be warm. At this point I have always considered the compost to be done. I would screen the compost and put it on everything in the garden. Side dressing tomatoes, squash, and beets. You name it and it got the good compost.
I’ve been doing a lot of research into curing compost. What I understand now is that the heating of the pile and the turning of the outside to the inside, as an attempt to get everything evenly composted has basically killed most of the fungi and mesophilic bacteria. These guys like temperatures of 68-113 degrees Fahrenheit. Now this is not to say that they are no longer there.
Because they are, but the numbers have been greatly reduced. So just like when I built the pile in the beginning. I will now reintroduce to the pile as much biodiversity as I can. In addition to this I will introduce more rock dusts. This is what I added.
- Jobes compost starter. This has many types of bacteria, and two types of myceilial fungi.
- Bat guano
- Basalt rock dust
- Mineral salt sea solids (very small amount) 1/8 cup to the entire pile.
- Humic Acid
I just sprinkled a little of each into the pile as I turned it. Applied just enough water to wet the dust as it was spread on the pile. Then I put the tarp back on the pile and let it sit for two full weeks. Let the fungal hyphea and mesophiles to take over. Let this process go for an entire month if you can stand it before using the compost. But wait at least two weeks so things can get established.
Well the compost has rested (cured). I kind of like the term rested. I’ve let it sit for one month. After couple of days into resting all the heat was out of the pile. I can now see little bits of fungi on some of the material but no running mycelium as I had expected. The compost smells very earthy and you can sense a mushroomy smell as well. Nothing bad at all. I usually sift my compost but I’ve been using the compost without doing this as I think that I would lose benefit from sifting some of the things out that were added.
Good Compost, Post cure
All the plants I’ve put the compost on or side dressed has sent small roots up into the compost and have shown much growth and vigor since the application. I have a cabbage turnip growing apparently Brassicas don’t utilize any type of relationship with mycelium. But since the compost was added, this thing has really had a growth spurt. That tells me in addition to all the fungal and microbial action there too is enough nutrients to grow anything well. Just like a manure would do.
We have mycelium running looks like several kinds in variuous spots all over the outside of the pile. I know I’ve had piles do this before when I don’t use up the whole pile at one time. This is just at the surface of the pile though and around the perimeter at this point. Still nothing on the inside.
Fast forward to next spring
Looking in the compost not used up in the garden before winter, I found the entire pile has in fact been permeated with very fine threads of mycelium. There also seem to be many little nodes white in color throughout the pile. Very interesting stuff indeed.
Home soil Test on the compost
I went ahead and did a home soil test on the compost just to see what we’ve got. Now this compost sat undisturbed over the winter months. I started using it in February to start seedlings. The pile has sat uncovered now for almost three months at the time of this writing. I just didn’t cover it after I started using it again this spring.
- So take a look at the results below. Click the picture for a close up. I think everything looks pretty good other than the K is in surplus. But using their little scale I think I could barely see those too. Hard telling, that’s the only test I wasn’t sure of. If anything I’m not going to add as much wood ash next time around when building a compost pile. As a side note non of the plants I’ve put the compost on are struggling at all. They’re all doing great.
I’m very pleased to see these results. Now I know for sure I’m doing something right. It makes me think about the biochar and the roll it plays. not sure how to find out if it really has soaked up all the access goodies. But seeing that the tests show good quantities of NPK I would say the Biochar can now be called that and not just Char. The rock dust i’m sure is doing it’s thing as well.
We’ll just have to see how the garden does this year. I hope this helps you with making your compost as good a compost as it can be.
Thanks for reading.