Remedial Composting

When I did my composting boot camp posts we were under a few feet of snow here in Denver.  I was unable to get outside and get any useful pictures of the compost bin in progress for you.  But over the last two weekends, mother nature has been much more cooperative.  We were able to get out to the bins, and coupled with the spring garden cleaning we did, we had plenty of stuff to add to it.

Both bins were pretty full.  The bin on the right had been covered, and I was hoping that it would be full of finished compost, ready to go.

Instead, it was nearly done.  But there were a lot of sticks and twigs in it from the tree last summer that hadn’t broken down yet.  Rick raked it all out of the bin, while Henry and I collected as many sticks as we could.  The plan is to power compost this stuff so it’ll be ready to go into beds by April or early May.

Here is a close up of that almost ready compost:

It looked pretty good, but there were still a lot of big pieces that I wanted to get broken down before we put it in the garden.

The left side of the bin is where we added our kitchen scraps all winter, fall garden materials and sod this spring that we removed from the edges of our flower and herb beds where it was encroaching.  We didn’t turn the pile over the winter at all, and it had many fabulous layers.

See all that beautiful finished compost at the bottom?  That is what I want!  But there is an awful lot of other stuff on top of it.  So we used the now empty bin on the right side to mix up the stuff on the left side all the way down to the finished stuff, which we will keep separate.

We started moving it over…

Not pictured is a bunch of dried grass and leaves and yard clippings that will get mixed in with the layers.  It’s off to the left of the frame.  We had more stuff than we could immediately fit into the bins without doing this process first.

So we tossed part of that top layer of grass and sod into the empty bin on the right, and part of it got tossed in front of the bin, so we could mix in other layers too.  As we moved layers over, we had H grab big armfuls of dry leaves and dry grass to mix in with the stuff coming from the left bin.

As the right-hand-side pile grew, we put the front boards back in to keep it contained.

We watered the pile with the hose as we went.  Remember, it takes water, air, carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) to make a great compost pile.  It was a hot day and the week was supposed to be plenty hot, so I wasn’t worried about making it too wet.

Where the layers were already very wet from the winter snows, we added lots of dry stuff.  If anything was too big, we tried to break it up as well.  The layer from last year’s garden was pretty wet, so it was good to mix in some dry brown material as we went. We were trying to balance it out. 

Also as we got to the middle layers we mixed in some of that first stuff that went over the side of the bin.  The idea it to get it somewhat uniform, so it all rots together, as opposed to the layers we originally had.

You never know what you’ll find in your compost bin.  I found this perfectly grown beet with a weird, crunchy, light-starved top.  It grew somewhere, way down in the pile.

We continued layering and watering and mixing and putting the boards of the compost bin back up until we had reached that finished compost down at the bottom of the left bin.  Then we pulled all that great, finished compost out of the bottom of the bin.

Now we had two piles.  Finished compost on the left, nearly finished compost on the right, and an empty bin.

We could use all that compost on the left, but I really didn’t have a place ready for it yet.  I decided to layer it back in with the nearly done stuff on the right with some of the top soil that we had from the bed edging.

Rick and I grabbed shovels and tossed both piles into the empty bin.

We watered it and then covered it with heavy black plastic. Over the next few weeks, it should cook down to great, useable compost ready to feed this springs’ gardens.

We did all of this work on the 11th.  I’ve checked the left-hand bin pretty regularly. Some days I uncover it and watered it; I’ve mixed it again once with a rake and my hands (so I could feel how wet and warm it was/wasn’t) since then already.  I want to keep it hot and damp, but not too wet.  Like a wrung out sponge or chocolate cake.  We’ve been adding our kitchen scraps and other yard waste to the bin on the right.

That is what composting looks like in action… the down and dirty work of spring cleaning.  ;)

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Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , | 24 Comments

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24 thoughts on “Remedial Composting

  1. Cynthia in Denver

    Remmbering to water our compost is my downfall. I would like to get a second bin and move the one we currently have to a better lit spot in the yard. Preferably where the new garden beds have been built.

    Happy Spring!

  2. This is great, thanks!

  3. Fantastic looking compost! I always get greedy and grab mine at the “almost finished” stage. I think the hardest thing for me is the spent brewing grains – especially when the hubs decides to brew with his friends and dumps 30 pounds in the compost at once! I’m really glad for the organic inputs but sheesh! It stinks like you’re trying to hide a body for the first week and then takes *forever* to break down!

  4. Connie

    Any experience with a tumbling compost bin? I currently have one of those black plastic ones and it works OK, but it’s always coming apart at the seams and it seems to take forever to compost even with regular summer turning. I’ve been debating the cost of a tumbling one since I’m very short and turning my other one with a pitch fork is extremely difficult. Just curious.

    • Hi Connie – No, I’ve never had a tumbler, but I think the problem may be that you have too many browns or not enough moisture. Try adding more water or greens (nitrogen rich stuff) and getting it to heat up faster to break it down quicker. ??

      As for the turning a regular bin, it’s hard at the top of the pile, but we actually use a rake and shovel more than a fork to turn it.

    • Hi Connie,
      I have a JoraKompost JK270, which is made of steel. I have been pretty darn happy with it, with a few small complaints. It is very fast at breaking down materials, and pretty idiot-tolerant. As long as you balance the input, it doesn’t smell.

      I use it for a community house where a lot of people aren’t familiar with composting. The rule is: 1. Put material in the working side. 2. Close door. 3. Tumble once. 4. Put one scoop of sawdust pellets in the compost pail and return to kitchen.

      This process has resulted in a tremendous waste reduction from the kitchen, and lots of compost. that tumbler model is relatively expensive, but should last a very long time. You can also find it on sale if you wait for the right time.

  5. Okay, my problem is the sticks. And the fact that neither of us is handy, so we don’t have TWO bins. So I end up having a giant pile of sticks, and compost that takes so long I don’t know what to do with the scraps while I’m waiting to put it all in the bin. And my homeowner’s association. But this was super helpful. THanks.

    • Annie – The best way to compost the sticks is to chip them with a wood chipper. Otherwise they do take forever. Some people run over them with a lawn mower, if your mower is powerful enough. Or you could give the kids some busy work, breaking them up into small bits. ;) Since you are in a neighborhood with an HOA, your best bet may be to send the sticks away, so you can focus on the stuff you can break down faster. If someone in the neighbor hood is getting their tree trimmed, ask the guy if he’ll take your sticks?
      For the rest, try getting more greens in or more water. Not so much that it stinks, but if it’s too dry, it is probably taking forever to break down.

    • Dave

      Another option for the sticks it to burn them. A patio chimnea or small fire pit will go through them in no time. I enjoy it and the wood ashes seem to be good for the beds and gardens.

      • Genius. My husband’s been looking for a way to talk me into a chimnea… you’re it! Thank you.

  6. Christie

    Great post! I learn so much from seeing how other people do it. :) We desperately need a two-bin system soon here, and it’s good to see how you used the two bins to essentially do one massive turning.

  7. Hazel

    Hi,
    I’ve been lurking on your site since I found it a week or so ago, I think via Surviving (the Apocalypse) in the Suburbs. I’ve enjoyed reading some of your older posts.

    I spent yesterday sorting out my 2 compost bins. I had almost exactly the same situation as you- layers in one bin I’ve been filling over the winter and just about finished compost in the other. The finished but with some sticks has gone in the new raised bed, the other has been mixed, watered and layered with the first of this seasons grass clippings to try and get it going.
    Our compost gets quite a lot of straw from cleaning out our chickens and ducks, so I tend to need to add extra nitrogen to compensate. Apologies if it’s too much information, but I do it by encouraging the men of the family to pee on it! It doesn’t have to be male urine, it’s just that it’s much easier for them…

    • Thanks for commenting! I’ve been instructing my guys to go out there too, but we have to be kind of sneaky due to neighbors. ;)

    • Cynthia in Denver

      Hee hee hee!!! I gave My husband a Gatorade bottle before he went into the loo. He balked at first, so I gave him the option of going outside to pee. He chose the bottle. Right now we’re pouring it around the fence line in an effort to dissuade a fox that made a visit to the backyard 3 weeks ago. Fortunately, not a free range day for the hens.

      • Cynthia in Denver

        Oh! I forgot! The real reason I returned to the comment section….
        What are you using for a sifter? Are you using one? Did you build one yourselves? Maybe that could be a future post.

  8. My problem is the sticks too. And that I’m lazy and use the “almost there” compost too often! But you’ve inspired me to put building some proper compost spaces onto my list of priorities for this year!
    Thanks :)

  9. I forget to water enough as well. This is very helpful and the pictures are great!

  10. Pingback: Composting Basics Part I « The Lazy Homesteader

  11. Pingback: Composting Basics Part II: Hot, Cool, and Greens vs. Browns « The Lazy Homesteader

  12. Jennifer

    I live in Denver, too, and am just getting started on the homesteading. I spoke with a coworker who’s got her own garden/chicken/compost setup and she said that she doesn’t recommend an open compost pit in the area because she got a lot of rats, mice, and gross bugs. I very much want an open pit and was wondering if you have any of the problems that she mentions.

    • Hi Jennifer – we have had mice in the compost bins, usually in the winter because the bin stays warm. Our bins are in our chicken area though and I have witnessed the hens catch, kill and eat a mouse, so I think as long as the bins are not next to the house, that shouldn’t be a problem. Rats – they are more attracted to rotting meat I think. If you keep your compost bins vegan (no meat, no dairy, etc.) you should not have a problem with rats.

      As far as gross bugs… what are gross bugs? Your bin should get bugs – they do the work of breaking down the materials in the bins. The kind of bug is dependent upon how hot you make your compost. A very hot bin won’t have any large bugs or worms, it relies on micro-organisms to break it down. A cooler bin will have worms, pill bugs, earwigs, etc. which are all decomposing your bin for you, just more slowly than a hot bin would. Both are absolutely fine, the cooler bin just takes longer. Neither is harmful. If you have a cooler bin with pill bugs, etc. just spread your finished compost on a tarp for a day in the sun before adding it to your garden. The bugs will jettison the compost so you don’t bring them to the garden.

      • Jennifer

        Ok, that all sounds good! I had the same thought about bug life encouraging the composting process. What does your family do with your meat waste if you don’t compost it?

      • The chickens love to eat meat scraps. We just don’t feed them chicken. But we also don’t eat much chicken either.

      • Jennifer

        Ok, thanks! Lots of food for thought (and compost… sorry, couldn’t resist!) here. :)

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