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Re: Composting idea

  • Subject: [cg] Re: Composting idea
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2006 14:12:52 -0800 (PST)

Hi, all,

Great compost questions, Carl, and helpful replies all
around. Of course, I can't keep quiet about compost
(or anything else), so before the list moves on too
far let me add to the pile already started by Adam
(thanks for the horse story, man), Judy, Ken, Steve
(ATTRA is a great outfit, and terrific resource) and

Along with the ATTRA site and their excellent compost
information sheet, I like Cornell's site -


The site is layered, so you can just touch on the
basics or wade quite deeply into it, as it were.

Also, check locally. In Rockville, you  evidently can
get municipal leaf and yard waste compost from
Montgomery County through the Dickerson Composting


And apparently, your community has been winning prizes
because you have such a good program:


Community gardeners here in Charlotte have an
excellent partnership with our local municipal
composting facility, who provide both mulch and
compost in exchange for gardens providing a
demonstration of the incredible value of compost to

 What municipal composters do on a large scale, you'll
be doing on a smaller scale - so, even if you come
away with an empty pickup, a visit to their facility
can help you get ideas about what you want to do.

Don't get me wrong - garden-site-based composting is
very valuable, and in my opinion every garden should
have active composting going on. We have small
'backyard' compost bins in community gardens here,
along with displays of how to do small scale
composting. It's another aspect of community gardens
contributing to sustainability and raising ecological
literacy and engagement, along with all our other
benefits... Also, every garden needs a compost area
for trimmings, overripe veggies, most weeds, etc...But
it is nice to use the maximum amount of space for food
and flowers, so if you can develop a community
partnership for large-scale composting, you can have
more growing space and good compost both.

Anyway, picking up on your some points in your post:

Your math is good in terms of volume, though I think
your weight of just leaves will be more like < 10
tons. Steve is right - garbage trucks will bring you
more than leaves (yuck). You'll need to figure out how
to get mostly leaves.

My experience supports Steve and Adam on materials,
though Mike is right that those coffee grounds have
lots of N and make fine compost ingredients (and
azalea/blueberry mulch)- though grounds are acidic and
may need very careful management to work with worms
(my wormies don't like 'em much unless heavily
adulterated - vanilla mint soy frappacino style).

I find that the average big pile of leaves may heat up
some in the middle of really big moist pile, but they
can easily sit around for at least a couple of years
here, especially once they pack down and dry out. To
get high enough temperatures to kill weed seeds and
some pathogens and to get compost more quickly, you
need to add a source of nitrogen to your leaves. The
Cornell Compost site can help calculate how much of
what material to add.

In the old days, a nearly ideal compost mix came from
barnyard animal manure (poop is a great N source)
mixed with straw bedding and old feed. In cities, you
could use horsepoop (and humanure). Nowadays, you have
to creatively look for good cheap N. Grassclippings
can work, but they can get stinky and aren't much fun
to work with (I can still smell the stench of opening
plastic garbage bags of grassclippings after a week of
hot summer weather - phew!). Ask your local compost
facility what they use for N, same for large organic
growers near you (ATTRA has helpful info).

My back-of-the-envelope calculations are that for a
trashtruck load (10 yds? Maybe at a stretch 5 tons of
leaves, depending on moisture?) you can get the N you
need for rapid heat-up by working 4 pickup loads of
horse manure into your leaf pile (6 if you can get
them). The non-organic but cheapest way (I'd probably
not do this, but...) is sprinkling in 3-4 50# sacks of
urea fertilizer (54-0-0) - but if you do, add some
soil to the mix so the urea doesn't just wash away.
Unless you've got super-cheapo alfalfa around, the
rabbit pellet/alfalfa meal idea is better for
small-scale composting because of the cost - stuff
like bloodmeal and feathermeal are _way_ too costly,
and better used as fertilizers in the garden, imho.

Composting is, essentially, microbe farming. The
microbes eat the leaves (energy source, AKA carbon)
and use the N source for making DNA and proteins, and
leave behind their 'microbe poop' -  rich, dark,
stable humus-like material. As with any farm animals,
you need provide shelter, air and water as well as
food. Shelter is a big enough pile - you got that. 

Water isn't a problem, given than you've got a hose. 

But air may be a problem - leaves pack down, and that
shuts down the breakdown. Traditionally, the solution
was (and still is in most cases) to 'turn' the
compost, by mixing it up (this also redistributes
areas of lots of food with areas of lots of microbes).
When you design your cage or holding area, make sure
you leave space for turning - unless you just want to
do the 'slow compost' number and get leaf mold in 2-3
years. (There are now high tech ways to blow air
through compost piles, or turn them in big 'cement
truck on steroids' contraptions, but no need to go
there... just leave some 'chunky' materials (sticks,
etc) in 'static' piles so air can move around).

I like the 'windrow' approach for larger scale
composting rather than bins - it's like making a long
triangle-shaped "loaf"  of compost, where you can add
fresh materials to one end, and keep progressively
turning the compost on the other. This enables you to
add things like all those dead broccoli now breeding
aphids (just had this problem...), bad tomatoes, etc.

Anyway, let me add my voice to the chorus proclaiming
the value of composting and salute you for taking the
initiative on bringing it to your garden. Big scale or
small, you are on to something important.

Good luck!

Don Boekelheide
Charlotte NC

> On 3/16/06, CarlHenn <CarlHenn@comcast.net> wrote:
> >
> > We are starting a community garden in Rockville,
> Maryland and are kicking
> > around ideas about composting.  One idea is to put
> in a chain link fence
> > bin
> > big enough to dump a garbage truck load of leaves
> into.  Our city pays $36
> > dollars a ton to get rid of yard waste.  If a
> garbage truck carries 20
> > cubic
> > yards and a cubic yard weighs 500 pounds, one
> truck load would cost $180
> > to
> > get rid of.  We could save them that amount and
> get free compostable
> > leaves
> > and grass clippings.  20 cubic yards should fit in
>  a bin 10 by 15 by 5
> > feet
> > high, big enough to back the truck into and dump
> the yard waste.
> >
> > This is all based on internet research rather than
> experience.  Has anyone
> > tried something like this?  Any words of wisdom to
> share?
> >
> > Carl Henn

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