The Vegetable Garden

Why is compost special? - Turn or Not Turn

To Turn or Not to Turn

Unless speed is a priority, frequent turning is not necessary. Many people never turn their compost piles. The purpose of turning is to increase oxygen flow for the microorganisms, and to blend undecomposed materials into the center of the pile. If you are managing a hot pile, you'll probably want to turn your compost every 3 to 5 days, or when the interior temperature dips below about 110 degrees F.

After turning, the pile should heat up again, as long as there is still undecomposed material to be broken down. When the temperature stays pretty constant no matter how much you turn the pile, your compost is probably ready. Though turning can speed the composting process, it also releases heat into the air, so you should turn your pile less frequently in cold weather.

There are several ways to help keep your pile well aerated, without the hassle of turning:

Build your pile on a raised wood platform or on a pile of branches. Make sure there are air vents in the sides of your compost bin. Put one or two perforated 4-inch plastic pipes in the center of your pile.

Worm Composting

Employing worms to make compost is called vermiculture. Manure worms, red worms, and branding worms (the small ones usually sold by commercial breeders) are dynamos when it comes to decomposing organic matter -- especially kitchen scraps. The problem is that these worms cannot tolerate high temperatures. Add a handful of them to an active compost pile and they'll be dead in an hour. Field worms and night crawlers (common garden worms with one big band) are killed at even lower temperatures.

To maintain a separate worm bin for composting food scraps, you need a watertight container that can be kept somewhere that the temperature will remain between 50 and 80 degrees F. all year-round. Ready-made worm bins are available, but you can also make your own. Red worms are available by mail.

Tips and troubleshooting
* Keep a stash of straw, kitty litter, dry leaves, or peat moss near your compost pile. Sprinkle a little on the top of the pile each time you add fresh weeds or kitchen scraps. These high-carbon materials will help keep the C/N ratio in balance.

* Try burying your kitchen scraps right in the garden. Just dig a 12- to 15-inch-deep hole in the pathway, pour in the scraps, and cover with soil.

* Hunt around your town for a plentiful source of free organic material. You might try a horse farm, food processing plant, local wood shop, or grounds maintenance service.

* Cover your pile for best results. It will deter pests, hold in heat, and keep the moisture level more constant. A pile that's dry or too water-logged takes a very long time to break down. You can use a tarp, piece of plastic, hunk of old carpet, or piece of metal roofing.

* In northern states, cover your pile in late fall to avoid leaching nutrients and to prevent the pile from becoming water-logged. A drier pile will thaw more quickly the following spring.

* Don't add compost to a seed-starting mix unless you are sure that the pile got hot enough to be sterilized (140°-160°F). Seedlings are very susceptible to bacteria that are harmless to more mature plants.

* Shredded materials compost very rapidly. The more surface area for microbes to attack, the sooner you'll have usable compost. You can chop your materials with a machete or shovel, run them through a shredding machine, or run over them with your lawn mower.

* Compost piles that are smaller than 3 feet by 3 feet will have trouble heating up - especially in cool climates. Piles larger than 5 feet by 5 feet may not allow enough air to reach the center.

* If fruit flies are a problem indoors, your compost container is probably not airtight. Make sure it has a tight-fitting lid that gets sealed shut after being opened.

* If skunks and burrowing rodents are hanging around your compost pile, try using a powdered or spray repellent. You can also bury hardware cloth up and around the bottom of your compost bin. Avoid putting meat or fatty foods in your pile: they attract all sorts of animals.