Steaming Piles

What is it about compost that fascinates me? I thought about this today as I was tending to three piles. Every week or ten days I turn over the piles to mix, aerate, and check the moisture level. As I begin to break the pile open, I just stand there in awe and watch the steam rise up and feel the heat emanate off the pile. There are so many processes happening in a compost pile that it’s fascinating to me to see the change each week. So many micro- and macro-organisms at work here!  I suppose I could just toss things into a pile and let it do what it does on its own and eventually it will decompose.  The key word here is “eventually.” As I’ve written in other blogs I prefer to work the piles. I started three new piles last weekend and tore them apart today, one by one, to mix in new matter, water, turn and cover. The first pile did not have as much volume as I thought when I built it so it was not heating up well. This pile did melt some of the snow on top but today I noticed worms and this pile is not even close to allowing worms to move in yet. But there was old soil on the bottom and that’s where they were wiggling around. They’ll leave when this pile starts heating up and move further down into the soil where they will wait until the pile is ready for their ascension.

The second pile is what you would call a steaming pile of compost!  As soon as I moved just a fork-full you could see the white and grayish moldiness of the matter and steam just poured out of the center of the pile. This pile also dropped about 4-5 inches in depth since last week. I added new matter, turned, watered and covered. Now I have two cubic yard piles in my homemade pallet compost bins. The third pile stands closer to the house. I use this pile when I take out food scraps at night or on cold days and mix up with the leaf and other carbonaceous materials.  It is closer to the house and I can run out and run back. The third pile is in a black recycled compost bin. It is not a cubic yard, but close enough to give it some volume when it’s filled. I pull this one up and off the ground and move it right next to the current spot and fork all the matter back into the bin. This one takes no time in aerating and mixing in new matter. This bin use to sit in the garden and I tended to toss in more nitrogenous materials (mostly food waste) and the mice would visit. It tended to be a stinking pile of mess, too. My cat was often found in the winter time sitting on top of the bin waiting for the little critters to pop out and soak in some rays.

After taking the Denver Master Composter classes earlier this year, I learned a lot more about why some of the compost piles I built were still showing leaves and other matter which had sat in a chicken-wire bin for 7 years and seemed like nothing changed. Yes, there was some good compost on the bottom and the leaves had matted down, but I never did anything with it and left Mother Nature in charge. The Mother will always take care of these things, but she can’t do much for a bin of leaves that weren’t crushed or trampled on, and left to sit behind a shed forgotten. And the same goes for grass clippings too. If you just pile up a bunch of grass clippings, they will begin to smell like ammonia and begin decomposition, but not as fast and it will just sit there taking its sweet time. Mixing crushed leaves and grass clippings are two of the best ingredients for a beginner to use in starting a compost pile. Mix about two to three parts leaves to one part grass clippings and build that up into a three-foot by three-foot cube. Make sure there’s enough water so it feels like a wrung-out sponge and cover it with black plastic or in a bin with a lid. You will begin to see decomposition happen before your eyes. Go out and check this in a couple of days and see! Check to see where the height of the pile now rests. Has it shrunken down some? Now start adding a mixture of crushed leaves and kitchen waste. Use the same ratio of 2:1 when adding new layers to the current pile. Mix more leaves with the food waste and turn into the pile. Again, make sure it’s moist too.

One of the many questions asked during compost outreach was when do you stop adding to the current pile? That’s a tough one sometimes and I’m not sure I always know. What I tend to do personally is build the pile so it is at least 3 cubic feet and no more than 5 cubic feet in size at the start. Any more than this and it will be too much to turn regularly. I may mix in more greens and browns, but I wait until I’m going to turn the pile for aeration and checking moisture. After pulling the pile apart, and turning the bottom up and the outside in, I will add more layers in the center, make sure it’s moist and finish it up. If you don’t have a pile that’s at least 3 cubic feet, it probably won’t heat up much because it truly does need some volume. If you do not have enough to start a pile, start collecting leaves in your yard or from neighbors. Crush them up with the lawnmower and set aside somewhere in your yard. You can also freeze food waste as well and wait. Or if you start the pile small, just keep adding layers and mixing. Eventually, you will have enough to get one going.

The two piles in the back will eventually be mixed together when they have reduced about half and then I will begin another pile in the empty spot. I have several piles of compost decomposing in various stages throughout the year. We’re moving closer to winter, and I will still have steaming piles through the season. Composting slows down in the cold but if properly covered against the wind, even by using plywood boards around the pile or bales of straw, it will heat up throughout the winter and you’ll have compost in the spring.

There’s a lot more to composting than what’s written in this blog and these are processes that I use and that work for me. I’ve learned a lot this year by becoming a Denver Composter and working the Farmer’s Markets and there’s a lot more to learn as well. One of these days I will begin vermicomposting and I’ll write about that when I begin the project!

Check out the steaming pile video and Happy Composting!

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