How do you get compost going in a desert climate?

bluegirl_gwNovember 26, 2013

I recently moved to a desert climate from a subtropical one.
What do you do to help make compost in such conditions? The best luck I've had so far was hauling bags of leaves & laying them several inches deep on top of the cruddy caliche junk that's our "topsoil" .

It took a year, but they did fluff the soil up & supported a nice colony of earthworms under the moisture they created.

But a year! It takes even green stuff, packed tight, a looonng time to compost. I have located a good horse manure source, that will help

So what do you other dry-landers do?

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strawchicago(zone 5a)

Hi Bluegirl: I'm a wet-lander in spring/fall, and dry-lander in hot summer.

I dumped grass clippings from the neighbors in my garden, they matted up, and took more than 1 year to decompose. High pH stuff is corrosive (lime sulfur has a pH over 11, burns skin). Charcoal ash with high pH is corrosive ... my Mom put that over leaves to break down leaves faster. Lime was used in the old days by heretics to destroy incorruptible bodies of Catholic Saints. That's why my skin looks like a leper with hard-well water, high in calcium....

My limestone clay (pH 8) is corrosive. My neighbor, Ph.D. in botany and biology, dug a hole, put leaves down, then layered soil, then leaves, then soil ... the lasagna method. When it's in big hole, covered with clay on top, there's more moisture for decay. Plus it's warmer below ground for decomposition, versus our -20 degrees below zero, zone 5a winter, plus high wind that blow stuff all over.

Nitrogen can kick-start the composting process. Stinky dry chicken manure has NPK 5-3-2.5, only $8 per 25 lbs. bag. I used to pile up leaves in my garden, they matt up and took longer to decompose. If I have to do all over again, I would layer leaves, sprinkle some chicken manure, then horse manure (with wood chips), etc.. The lasagna method prevents leaves from matting up.

Thank you, Bluegirl, for raising very good questions. Some info. I dug up:

"Compost should be as moist as a wrung out rag; thus, if your heap is drier add water or move the bin into a shady area. â¢Keep a lid on your compost pile to reduce evaporation; dry compost does not decay."

More good tips from the below site "Composting in 18 days":

The materials containing high amounts of carbon, but low in nitrogen are considered âÂÂbrownsâÂÂ
The materials containing higher amounts of nitrogen are considered âÂÂgreens.âÂÂ

Composting materials with a very low C:N ratio of 7:1 would rot very quickly, because they are high in nitrogen, eg. fish, this decomposes very quickly

Composting materials with a very high C:N ratio of 500:1 would take a long time to decompose, because they are low in nitrogen, and need to be broken up, eg. tree branches.

Basically, if you want to to get started in a hurry, aim to use 1/3 Manure and 2/3 dry carbon materials. It will work. Just pile alternating thin layers of greens and browns until you end up with a compost heap that is 1 metre square and a bit taller than that. " More info. from below link:

Chicken manure is higher in nitrogen than horse manure.

Horse Manure 18:1
Cow Manure 16:1
Alfalfa 12:1
Chicken Manure 12:1
Pigeon Manure 10:1
Fish 7:1
Urine 1:1

Here is a link that might be useful: Composting in 18 days with hot...

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 9:30AM
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thanks! Yeah, I'm starting to utilize hotter, wetter compost ingredients that I wouldn't have in the wet climate.

We have abundant soldier flies here & they will eat everything, even meat scraps that I would never have thrown out before.

They are totally innocuous insects--you hardly even notice them until you get some compost going. The larva don't carry disease, the adults don't even have mouth parts--totally harmless & they are valuable protein for birds--you should see the set-ups folks with chickens rig up to harvest the nutritious maggots.

I have them in a big 30-40 gallon 1/2 barrel in the shade. Everything gets dumped in there--we're on a septic tank & have no garbage disposal. All food scrap, green weeds, dirty litter & paper from pet birds, coffee grounds, tea bags--everything. Those soldier flies quietly lay eggs & the stuff is totally covered with larvae. They plow through the stuff so well it doesn't have to be turned. In a very short time they have debris converted into a coarse dark compost. The ground under the drainage holes on the bottom sides of the barrel gets soaked with dark liquid run off from the compost. The soldier flies convert waste so efficiently there isn't any reek from the scraps--they don't have time to rot.

I've seen a few articles investigating their value in disposing of animal waste--I don't do that, but wouldn't be surprised if they are a clean alternative to converting nasty dog & cat poop to clean compost. Also read about using them in earthworm beds to convert wet vegetable scrap. Only problem seems to be that the soldier larvae out-breed the earthworms.

And, boy, do the wrens & mockingbirds love to harvest that barrel. Living in the desert, I swear we have at least as many birds as when we lived in a milder climate.

So I think starting more barrels or beds where the soldier flies can develop will allow me to make more compost. Hardest part will be getting enough matter to keep them fed. I have experimented with disposing of even newspaper in the barrel by wetting it down a bit & layering it with food scraps.

    Bookmark   November 26, 2013 at 5:53PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Bluegirl, can you be more specific about where you live? It might help understand the climate you're dealing with. I found that keeping the right amount of moisture on the pile is the best way to keep it going. I tried several devices including shower heads, but everything over soaked it. Finally I settled on misting heads. These are the things you sometimes see used outdoors to cool off an area in extreme low humidity. I left my misting nozzles running right over the pile for about 2 weeks straight and finally my pile of leaves to slump down. Once you get it started the pile should continue with moisture once per week.

Doggie dung is decomposed naturally by wood lice (rolly pollies or pill bugs), flies, and other tiny critters...UNLESS you feed the dogs deworming meds every month. The typical deworming meds will kill wood lice and flies when they visit the feces. So if you care enough to deworm your dogs, then you have to so something else with the dung. Compost is certainly an alternative.

When you're talking about composting it is very helpful to understand what green and brown mean. I'd say 99% of the composting experts know what it means but still they choose to use green and brown as the vague terms. For example why is lettuce a brown and coffee beans a green? It ain't that simple. Well, really it is that simple, but for some reason nobody talks about it. Green means high in protein. Brown means low in protein and high in carbohydrates. Protein contains nitrogen. Carbohydrates contain carbon. So when they talk about greens and browns, about carbon and nitrogen, that's what they mean - protein and sugar. Anything with protein in it (milk, meat, beans, nuts, grains, seeds, and even grass) will heat up your pile if you have enough of it. Anything brown (most veggies, tree leaves) will moderate the heat and actually absorb the smell of decomposing protein. If your compost pile stinks, cover it with tree leaves. This fact came from practically ancient Russian research that was not released until recently.

Compost must have air to work. All the microbes which do the decomposing are aerobic, so if the pile packs down, it must be fluffed up. Professional compost windrows are turned 4 times in the first 15 days.

Your compost is finished cooking when it cools off and it smells like a forest floor after a summer rain. The very last microbes to decompose the materials give it that earthy aroma.

My compost pile is on the ground in the shade. Shade keeps it from drying out too much or too fast.

    Bookmark   March 9, 2014 at 12:09AM
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