The Wait for Finished Compost

The Wait for Finished Compost

One struggle I have had gardening has been a consistent lack of finished compost. My parents get wood chips dumped on land near my house, which would make beautiful compost except it rarely gets turned because the skid steer battery doesn’t hold a charge and my truck isn’t big enough to jump it.

My first or second year gardening here, I loaded up woody compost which I thought was close to finished, only to find there was a great quantity of wood that just had a layer of compost over it. I then made the mistake of tilling it in without nearly enough nitrogen and robbed the hell out of my soil for a whole year. I’ve used it as mulch since then, but it just takes forever to break down sitting on top of the soil.

I started trying to make my own compost two summers ago. I made the mistake of making a small early summer pile, and a separate fall pile. The fall pile was too heavy on pine needles and wouldn’t break down, and the smaller older pile was always too small in the first place. And neither had the necessary amount of goat muck. Last year, as the two small piles were barely breaking down, I made a much larger compost pile with even more generous amounts of goat muck which grew throughout the year, but was too dry through the summer to break down. Finally, as the rains came, I wised up and threw the medium previous year pile over the smaller previous year pile. And finally had heat. Unfortunately, I then very much needed the organic matter to pile on top of hugelkultur  beds, because I only happened to have clay fill type soil.

Around this time, my big compost pile got a full turn and an influx of leaves and needles and started burning like crazy, creating lovely steam on cold mornings. I was hoping to watch the pile steam through the winter and maintain my positivity, as well as giving me access to unfrozen compost to smell. Instead, I made a tragic mistake. I put my old potting soil all in the very middle, expecting that it would keep it well aerated and hot. Which was idiotic. Instead, the compost pile became extremely cold. It stopped the compost from being thick enough at the center to ever burn- which should have been obvious. I tried turning it when I identified the problem, but the heat could not beat the cold. I had to wait months for the end of the long winter for any compost heat.

Fall 2016 Compost Pile
Fall 2016 compost pile at its largest, I swear it was bigger than it looks from this perspective!

It cooked decently in the Spring, but it was tired and washed out from rain and snow. And this when I was hoping to have it perfectly ready to go in March. I then expected to have it for my Summer crops, but instead it was mostly past the ability to hot compost despite having added blood meal and some dog food which had spoiled from wetness (apparently dog food bags are not truly waterproof, btw) and I finally took the outside off to let it slow compost in two small piles. While much of it is finished, it has been a dry summer and lost most of the moisture.

I ultimately used some of it to mulch my three sisters garden, as it was quite necessary, and good as a mulch, but not finished compost. But the rest is still sitting, after all this time. I decided to water it heavily the other day, especially the more finished pile. There are worms near the top of it so it is heavily into the cold composting phase. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I can even wait for it all to finish. It is drastically needed to cover the clay dirt on my hugel beds so things can actually grow- and it is almost time to put a Fall cover mix on them since the weather is about to go cooler.

Beyond which, my system of planting my decorative gardens of cutting out the sod and just heavily mulching with straw in most ways worked terrible (none of the seeds I later planted there grew properly) and I have plenty of other subpar/developing gardens that majorly need finished compost put under the regular winter mulch.

This year’s pile is large, but not enormous yet. It will need several more loads of manure, and of course weeds I pull between now and then and bags of leaves and needles. It takes an hour or more to fully turn these big compost piles, but it is worth it and only needs to be done infrequently at this size- and NOT at times when losing moisture or heat is a concern. Plus, it gets a bit easier once it breaks down and is not all tangled in itself.

This year, I intend to not make any of these stupid mistakes! I know to not expect it to get active until the wet season, and that I have precious little time before heavy freezes after the rains come, but I know a pile of the right size can beat the cold and keep going. (Though I will have to open it enough to bury kitchen scraps if I do that quickly it does not lose its heat). In my mind, I was long since going to have more finished compost than would immediately need and would be able to use generous amounts at will.

As it stands, I will have to use all of my current compost before the winter, which will probably not be all the way finished, and then have to hope I have more for the Spring. If this stuff could just keep cooking with the quantities of organic matter I haul home I will ultimately have an enviable amount of fully finished compost! But I have waited and failed for far, far too long.

I know I could just buy finished compost, but how can I justify when I work in lawn and garden care and haul the soft compostable stuff home and have access to goat muck!

Update: I didn’t happen to have an more current pictures when I posted this.

The nearly finished compost is wet and wormy.

My two smaller piles that are slow composting through the summer.

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