What makes good compost?

reddingJuly 7, 2011

Okay, all you experts, here's a question that may seem basic to the experienced gardeners, but is a puzzle for some others. What should actually be added to a compost heap for it to be good and healthy? We've been discussing the pitiful excuse for soil that's in my chicken pens, and it brought up the thought of manure in general.

I've never really done a true compost heap that's anything more than leaves and grass clippings left to break down. I haven't added in anything from the kitchen because I had no place to collect it that wouldn't create a problem.

This year I started one by piling up some of the bedding from the sheep pens and then adding in grass clippings and so on. My neighbor brings me a bag of the cedar bedding from their chick nursery now and then, and I've added it also. I haven't built a regular compost box, because we have so much room. It's easier to just keep it in a pile where it's more accessible.

Am I correct in thinking that some of the good things to use are coffee grounds, egg shells, produce trimmings and so on? And should I be careful about adding in too much poultry manure? In other words, more than just a little? What about horse manure from my neighbor's barn, or will I just be starting up a huge crop of weeds transferred from his pasture? The grass hay and oat straw from the sheep pens does not appear to be causing a seeding problem. When I use it as mulch, it isn't sprouting, but it's hard to say what it will do if it's tilled into the ground later.

All the garden mulch from this year will be tilled in and a new layer put down next spring to check the weed growth, but I just don't know about the material to add to the compost heap. Can we get a new thread going with some good ideas in that direction? I'd appreciate your input.

(In theory, it would even be possible to dump in all the waste from when we go fishing, and then cover it up . . . IF I wanted every raccoon in the county in there digging for it. I definitely do not want that. I was just being a wise guy, even though it does make an amazing mulch. Sorry about that.)


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I think variety is important, so I add just about everything, then let it do its thing. Some people like to micro manage their compost. I admire them, and I'm envious of their apparent free time, but I'm just a hands off composter. We have lots of knowledgeable people here, so in my next comment don't think I'm trying to send you away; I'm just mentioning another resource. Are you aware of the Soil Compost & Mulch forum here at GW? Those people are serious, and I learn a lot from reading. One word of caution. There are certain individuals who are not friendly, who don't welcome newbie questions, and who think they know it all. So be prepared for anything if you post a question there. I find the search feature to be my best friend.

I've often wished I had a good way to use fish waste. If you find great ideas, please share them.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 1:17PM
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Hi Seedmama,

Oh, dear. I certainly don't want to start any flare-up with my naive questions on the compost forum. Maybe I'll pass on that one, and thanks for the tip. I'm not into the whole idea of building a bin and working hard at it. I just want to put some of the waste material to the best possible use. Heaven knows, my soil can use all the help it can get.

I agree about the fish waste. I've seen it used in commercial operations on the west coast, near the ocean, and the product is totally amazing. However, I don't think there's any way to use it anyplace that has raccoons. Unless, of course, you don't care how badly they tear up the compost heap, because they will. Bone meal is the same way. they will dig up everything in an attempt to get at it. I don't know if possum and skunk will do the same thing, but I'm fairly certain that a possum will. They do love fish!


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 1:49PM
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Lisa_H OK(7)

I pile everything up. I even use meat in mine, but it's fairly safe because I live in the middle of the city. Dogs don't seem to bother it too much. You can also use shredded paper. I have a friend who sends me her shreds. I corral them in a paper bag and add wet stuff to the shreds before burying it in the compost pile.

You could make a slurry with the fish waste, but I think I would keep a blender just for that purpose :) You could pour it out on the ground away from everything.

My understanding with chicken manure is that it just needs to be composted and well aged. Did you see the pic of the huge passionvine posted earlier this week? Nothing wrong with that chicken manure! If you have access to wood shavings that might help balance them in the composting process.

I read the soil forum off and on and have for many years. They do have very knowledgeable people there.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 3:26PM
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Hi Pat,
I LOVE composting, but I am also not very diligent in my efforts, i turn the pile every now and then and then go lay on the hammock, lol. I do get thrilled when I turn it and it is very warm in the center, on it's own volition. or when I turn it and see big earthworms in there. this heat and drought has made me stop watering it to keep it moist, so I really just let it do whatever it wants. When one pile looks black enough I start using it on the garden beds.

My system is very simple, and may be extremely backwoods to some, but everyone in my family participates in the compost process. We eat a lot of ice cream, so we have several ice cream buckets. I rotate them in and out of the kitchen every day. One can get full of banana peels, potato peels or other veggie scraps in just one day. I put everything but dairy and meat in ours, we do have dogs in the neighborhood. i don't chop things down, whole paper plates go in, too. When I go out in the morning or afternoon, I carry out a bucket and dump it, then set it down to dry out in the sun since it gets mucky in a day. then i grab one that is sitting there from earlier and take it back in with me. The bucket sits on the floor by the back door, no lid. So there is the occasional fly, but stuff goes out about as quickly as it accumulates. my girls know whatever they don't eat goes in the bucket and they do it themselves.

My husband built two pallet bins for me, and then I made a third pile next to that on just cardboard, a great tip i got from here. A bin can fill up really fast, but a few waterings and turnings and it sinks down quite a bit. Eventually i decide which one looks like its getting close to finishing, and I quit adding new stuff to it, just let it sit there, and add new scraps to the 2nd one.

Just disposing of veggie scraps that cause methane gas in a landfill gives me incentive to compost. then add the incentive to give my garden an amazing amendment, and I can't help but compost. You will have fun, especially when you check it, and the center is black and there are no recognizable veggie parts in there, and u know the microbes are hard at work. i am even writing a paper about this process for one of my classes.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 3:52PM
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Pat, when we first started composting over 40 years ago, we made "14 day compost" which has to be turned a LOT. Don't really remember how much, because that lasted only one season. Now we make compost one year to use the next spring. I don't use meat or bones; the dogs get them. But leaves, grass clippings (lots of both), all the kitchen (including eggshells) and garden scraps, the chicken manure that accumulates from 100 chickens that live only 7 weeks and the pine shavings that is mixed with it for bedding. We burn wood, but don't add woodashes as it causes nitrogen to vaporize off as ammonia.

When we kill the chickens the innards go into a deep (at least two feet) trench in the garden. Could you do your fish that way? He puts a slab of plywood held down with blocks over it for a while to discourage dogs and varmints from digging it up. After it rains a few times, there's never been a problem.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 4:31PM
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Thanks so much, everyone, for all the good ideas! I had never even thought of tossing our paper plates in with it, and I like the idea of using ice cream tubs to collect the compost. I'm still nervous about using any of the fish, since I don't want to draw any maps to my garden for the neighborhood raccoons to follow. We also have dogs that run loose and get into things. Some belong to neighbors, and some are strays that people drop out here in the country for them to fend for themselves. I just hate that. It's so unfair, both to the animals and to the people who eventually have to deal with them.
We have dogs of our own, and they stay behind the fences where they belong.

I do use newspaper for my mulch base, but had never thought to put any excess in the compost heap. I'd need to really weight it down or the wind would have it in the next county, for sure.

Lisa, that huge passion vine is mine. So far it's the only thing that will actually grow in the old chicken pens, but in this case it happens to be in several inches of pure manure. It got mellowed out a bit from the winter rain and snow, because a storm took the roof off last year, but there's still nothing added to the soil but a thick layer of good old chicken poop. Obviously the passion vine is thrilled with the location. It has taken over an area that's about 6' x 15' and is climbing up all the wire and walls. Since we're not using the barn, I really don't care. Maybe we'll harvest the fruit when it's ripe and see how it tastes.


    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 5:25PM
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I tried the counter top compost bins that have tight fitting lids, etc to keep flies out and keep the smell down. But I found that that made me keep things on the counter for a few days, and with it being sealed up, it was really disgusting. And flies find their way in to that, and it makes you forget to empty it, so then it gets full, and they just don't hold enough.
With some buckets by the back door, I find it easy to toss things there, just as I do the other things into the trash can. And since I go out to the garden at least once a day, some days it is several, I can't miss my daily addition to the compost pile.
And like Mulberry and Lisa, (who I think talked about laying down cardboard first to attract worms) I tend to let a pile sit for several seasons. The homemade tumbler by the back door gets all winter time kitchen waste, and I load it full of fall leaves as it shrinks down. I turn it when I walk by it in the winter, not often. In the spring, it is a nice black wheelbarrow full of compost.
I would love to have the patience to really get the mix of greens and browns just right, and do the quicker hot composting, but so far I am not that diligent.
I also use walmart bags on the days when a ton of stuff is coming out of the kitchen, like a big watermelon day, or when I get rid of all stale chips, bread, crackers, and refrigerator stuff that isn't meat or dairy or sugar.
And we have a few chickens now, I asked my husband to build the coop so that one whole side is a swing out door, the right height for a wheel barrow to fit right up to it, and I can use a garden hoe to pull out the bedding/poo and then dump it in the compost pile.
Have fun working out your system.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 2:19PM
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Still more good points. Thanks, Jammie.
I agree that I don't want anything sitting around in the kitchen that will draw bugs or smell. We already have our fair share of house flies, and fruit flies if I leave produce on the counter. I don't need to be attracting them.

Some of the stuff goes out to the chickens, like melons, cukes and so on, and the dogs get most of the meat scraps. We butchered some lambs this spring, but there was no way on earth I was going to put all that on any compost pile. It all went off to a neighbor who did something with it. I gave him the hides in exchange, so it was a good trade.

I don't have a tumbler and would probably forget to use it if I did have one, but I can see that I've been wasting a lot of produce that could have been added to the pile instead of being thrown out. Lettuce, cabbage, sprouts and so on, not to mention all the egg shells, coffee grounds, and paper plates I've thrown away. Thirty lashes for me!

All the grasses and weeds that I pull out of the flower beds have been going on the burn pile because I've been afraid of stuff simply seeding and reproducing in that nice mulch. Will it break down and not be a problem? My mulch heap would be at least twice its size if I had been adding that stuff. I can see that I'll be grabbing a grocery bag to take to the garden instead of dropping stuff in the garbage can from now on.

Our chicken coop is big, about 12 x 24' or so, with a regular walk door. The wheelbarrow or trailer won't fit in the door, but I can pull up right in front of it to shovel the stuff out after it's been gathered into a pile. The sheep pens are the same way. Usually they are roaming out in the pasture, but if they are lambing or the weather is really bad, they like to go in the pens for shelter. Even when the bedding has been pulled out for summer, there is usually enough manure to make it worthwhile to clean them out now and then.

One added note is: the main problem I have with putting any cardboard down at all on this property is that the scorpions love to hide under it. Since each reaction I've had to a bite has been worse than the one before, I tend to be a bit nervous about creating a ready-made habitat for them. I do use thick layers of newspaper a lot, but soak it down completely and then pile mulch over the top. It's usually kept damp by the regular watering. So far it has not been a problem for harboring any sort of nasties.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 3:15PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

Grasses and weeds that have gone to seed aren't a problem if your compost pile gets hot enough to cook them. If you cold compost, the seeds probably won't be killed.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2011 at 3:35PM
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