Decomposition constructed

When the instructors asked “How many here have compost piles?” many of the Master Gardener Volunteers halfheartedly raised their hands. I soon realized that most, like me, had heaps of garden debris and kitchen waste slowly decomposing in various corners, but few had attempted to build an active compost.

My attitude has been one of benign neglect: compost happens, vegetation rots, so why should I spend my effort when I can just let nature take its course? But, after an inspiring lecture by the compost queen of Keene Valley, Bunny Goodwin, on the ease and value of accelerating the rate of decomposition from 2 years to 6 weeks, I decided to see if I can improve on my current (non)-management plan.

I emptied the waste corral (a piece of heavy, perforated black plastic fastened into a circle) of its contents of partially broken down vines and stalks, spreading them into an area where I plan to extend an existing bed. (If I add some mulch and dirt to cover the stalks I’ll have the makings of a lasagna garden, another method for turning refuse into garden soil.)

Leaving some of the woody debris on the bottom for air circulation, I have been filling the corral with layers of grass clippings; dead bean, cucumber and tomato plants; wood chips; manure; kitchen scraps; and weeds. Adding weeds is risky, I know, so I won’t add those with persistent roots like quackgrass. So far my pile is about 3 feet high and 4 feet in diameter; I’ll stop when it reaches 5×5.

At that point, the pile should begin to heat up, due to an explosion of activity by microorganisms breaking down the vegetable matter, with more complete decomposition aided by forking in the edges of the pile after a few weeks. Hopefully, by next spring I’ll have a stock of nitrogen-rich organic material on hand to add whenever the garden needs a boost.

Here’s a video from one of my favorite groups, Kitchen Gardeners International on how to get started with compost. Do you have an active compost pile? What are your tips and techniques?

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2 Comments on “Decomposition constructed”

  1. Michael Greer says:

    You would have a more manageable pile if you stopped at 3x3x3. You have to be able to reach into the thing…both putting and taking, and oxygen is a critical ingredient.
    It’s good to avoid quack-grass. I have a raised pallet where I throw those roots to murder them in the sun.
    I laugh at those who tell us that 140 degrees is essential for killing seeds and pests. We dumped a load of last years compost recently, and got 20,000 tomato sprouts. The punch line is that these had been boiled, prior to going through the Squeezo, and yet are still viable. Yikes.
    If you come through Potsdam, I’ll show you the nicest compost in town.

  2. Ellen Beberman says:

    @Michael – 3x3x3 is probably big enough, but I was told to not make it too small or it wouldn’t heat up.
    Boiled tomato seeds sprouting – wow. Gives me hope that the heirloom seeds I saved this year – Galena is the name -will most likely be viable come spring.

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