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Compost FAQs

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LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
I went to check out the Compost Resource Page at
http://oldgrowth.org/compost in FEB of 2004 and found an announcement there that the site has been "retired". So I decided to post here the Compost FAQs that used to be there.
These are collections of postings about compost to the rec.gardening usenet newsgroup from 1994. They are replies to questions by a guy who calls himself Mr. Compost. He has some interesting advice about using compost to renovate lawns.

There are 2 documents - Compost Using FAQ and Compost Making FAQ. There is a size limit on posts here - about 10,000 characters, so I'll have to chop these up. The Making FAQ may be in 5 pieces and the Using FAQ in 3 pieces.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Compost Using FAQ

Downloaded 02/25/02 from http://www.oldgrowth.org/compost

From mem7c@fermi.clas.Virginia.EDU Tue Nov 29 19:38:53 EST 1994
Article: 48605 of rec.gardens
Newsgroups: rec.gardens
From: mem7c@fermi.clas.Virginia.EDU (Michael E. Matthews)
Subject: Using Compost FAQ (long)
Message-ID: <Czzy2K.K4F@murdoch.acc.Virginia.EDU>
Sender: usenet@murdoch.acc.Virginia.EDU
Organization: uva
Date: Mon, 28 Nov 1994 21:23:08 GMT
Lines: 516

The following is a collection of composting advice from Jim
McNelly, aka Mr. Compost. Long-time readers of rec. gardens
will know him well. It is a compilation of some of his replies
to various questions from this group. It contains the
essentials of composting. If anyone has other of his posts
saved, I would sure like to recieve them.

Michael Matthews in central VA


Newsgroups: rec.gardens
Subject: Composting 101
From: jim.mcnelly@granite.mn.org (Jim Mcnelly)
Organization: Granite City Connection St. Cloud MN 612-654-8372

Denys is about to buy soil instead of compost :-(

DC>I am planning on hiring a landscaper to install lawn on my
5,600 sq foot yard. The thickness of the loam makes significant
difference in cost. Some landscaper told me I need 6 inches'
loam, while another said I only need 3. Someone even said the
quality of lawn has little to do with the thickness of the
loam. I am really confused. How do you think ?

For the beginning lawn or garden, there is no substitute for
tilling in 3" of compost 9" deep. I have been in the organic
fertilizer business since 1975 and have helped thousands of
yards. They all have lusher yards and lawns with a healthy soil
system. Once the lawn is planted, it is very difficult to go
back and add compost later. Most homes had the topsoil scraped
off and sold, leaving subsoil with a token layer of black dirt.

Most topsoil sold is low in organic matter and is worthless for
soil building. A rich application of compost will pay for itself
in a few years in water savings and increased property value.
All else is secondary. If you have a lawn that you are starting
to reclaim and don't want to start all over, then applying 1/2"
of compost and reseeding in the spring for the next ten years is
a way of building up the lawn gradually over time. Remember to
leave the clippings to lie. Organic matter is the only way to
build up a soil.

Mr Compost~~~
Jim~ McNelly
Granite Connection 612-259-0801
* May 22nd - Nitrate: Lower than the day rate.

>>My girlfriend told me that the sticks and twigs poking out of
the gound had been pulled in by worms.I laughed of course but
last night we crouched down in the garden and sure enough worms
were grabbing stuff and trying to pull it down their
holes!>They were yanking on the dead tulip leaves, the cosmos
and whatever they could get their mouths on!


Nightcrawlers, lumbricus terrestris, live in permanent burrows
in the soil which they excavate from childhood. They can go as
deep as sixteen feet and typically have around seven openings
on the surface. When it is moist, dark, and cool, they rise to
the surface, keeping their tail in the burrow, and forage for
scraps of organic matter. This material they tow back into the
burrow where it is stored in "root cellars" for eating at a
later date.

The mass of organic scraps in the underground chambers are
tended carefully as the worm excretes enzyme rich "coleomic
fluids" that cause the matter to be digested over time. This
is why worms are called "exodigestive" organisms as contrasted
with mammals that are "endodigestive". When the mass of
organics is properly composted, full of protozoa and other
earthworm delicacies, the worm finally eats it.

As such, earthworms do not "eat" soil except to excavate. Nor
do they "eat" organic matter, unless it has been fully
decomposed in their underground chambers. Without a burrow
network, the nightcrawler has no habitat or a means to prepare
their food. This is why I do not recommend adding soil worms
to compost piles, as they must have a burrow network underneath
in order to be of any use. Redworms, or manure worms can be
added to compost piles past the cooking phase. They do not have
permanent burrows and must eat with other worms en masse~,
relying on their fellows to pre-digest for them just as they
pre-digest for others.

Redworms fare poorly in mineral soils just as nightcrawlers
fare poorly in compost piles. The best way to increase worm
populations is to add mulch! The worms will mix it with the
soil and effect its decomposition. A healthy virgin prairie or
deciduous forest soil may have up to 1,000 pounds of worms per
acre, compared with about 5 pounds of all other large animals
combined. Depleted soils that are overmuch tilled and eroded
may have fewer than 100 worms per acre.

So be glad your worms are eating, for soon there will be young
worms hoping for more food to be found on the surface.

In my estimation, all successful gardening and farming can be be
narrowed down to one key concept...... Feed Earthworms!

Mr Compost~~~
* June 13th - Old musicians never die, they just decompose.


It is the lousy clay soil that killed your grass to begin
with. Tilling in the old sod is a noble organic gesture, but
will not solve your fundamental problem, which is the lack of
organic matter in the soil.

You need to till in 3" of compost 9" deep before replanting.
All else is treating the symptoms, not the cause.

My first organic soil business was in the Denver area and I
prepared hundreds of lawns this way. I will guarantee, that
even after over ten years have passed, that these lawns are
still green, lush, and drought resistant. You could see the
difference the very first year when they watered less and still
the grass stayed green during the summer.

Face it. Your topsoil was stolen by the contractor. The
topsoil that was there was poor to begin with anyway. Build a
new soil from scratch. Call E&A fertilizer, Arts, Colorado
Mushroom, or A1 Compost out of Greely. There are plenty of
organic sales companies in your area. Don't get talked into
the "sheep and peat" mix. Go for the pure compost.

Mr Compost~~~
* April 9th - Recycle! Today's Garbage is tomorrow's America.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Subject: Re: Soil denseness
S. responds further>>>

SM>Thanks for your advice!

SM> I hope your yard can withstand the raising of the soil
level, which will be a net of around three inches when all is
said and done.

SM>Well, that _is_ problematic, actually. The soil level has
already risen over the years to the point that it is roughly
even with the basement window sills.... And of course it is
not a good idea to dig this out, because you want the land to
slope away from the foundation.

In the years when I was an organic landscaper, I was amazed at
the number of homes that had poor drainage! The lousy grading
plans of instant housing builders is criminal in my opinion. I
think that a builder should be liable for lousy drainage for at
least twenty years. They should also be required to post a
bond for remediating lousy drainage.

Homes should be built on elevated platforms and water should
not drain through the neighbor's yard. One friend of mine has
a garage floor that is at the same elevation as the curb.
There is no drainage whatsoever and his basement floods every
time it rains. I had to install a gravel sump and french drain
to help solve his problem.

SM> Just spread the soil/leaf mix over the entire area to be
amended and water thoroughly.

SM>No forking at all?

That's right. Let the worms do the work of mixing.

SM> It is important to keep it *very moist* thereafter,

SM>Yes, I plan to put in some sort of irrigation system. What
do you recommend? Rubber soaker hose? Tyvek soaker hose? Drip

Regular surface irrigation that waters evenly from the top, not
a sub or drip system. Your goal is to water the soil, not just
the plants.

SM> ..It will take over a year, but the worms will eventually
increase in population proportional to the new food level....

SM>Is it worthwhile to buy worms? If so, what kind and from

No. Native soil worms like nightcrawlers live in permanent
burrows which they excavate from youth. They live in these
burrows all their lives, if they leave such as after a severe
downpour, they are homeless and usually die. It is too
difficult for an adult worm to excavate a new burrow network
once they have left. Although the thick mulch layer can give
them a transition zone to live in while they excavate a new
tunnel network, adding worms is largely a waste of money.

I assume that you already have a native worm population. As
such, they will immediately begin reproducing to catch up with
the increased food level. Let them multiply on their own.

If you do add worms, you might add some redworms which are not
native soil worms. They do not have permanent burrows and will
live in the moist surface mulch layer. They compete for food
with the nightcrawlers, however, which is the opposite of your
goal. The redworms will not survive a solid freeze nor will
they burrow or live in a mineral soil.

Mr Compost~~~
Jim~ McNelly
Granite Connection 612-259-0801
* June 5th - Start your own revelation and cut out the middle

Subject: Soil denseness

Donald bemoans the eternal clay: DLH>My garden soil is dense
clay (apparently) and I can't get it to loosen up. I have put
composted stuff in to try to break it up, but it doesn't work.

DLH>Does anyone have any suggestions?

Sure Donald,

It took nature 500 years to make one inch of topsoil. Even
adding 3" of compost and tilling it in 9" deep is only the
start of creating an organic soil that is a suitable habitat to
soil organisms.

If you really want to get the soil enriched, hire a backhoe and
dig out eighteen inches. Mix 1 part compost, well aged and
fully decomposed as that is the most concentrated, with two or
three parts old soil.

Replace and you have an instant soil. At roughly 6" of
compost, that equates to around one cubic yard per 54 square
feet. I would bet that your compost application, if it was
even compost, was fairly light and you are giving up too easily.

Mr Compost~~~

Jim~ McNelly
Granite Connection 612-259-0801
* June 1st - Composters have heaps of fun.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Marc asks an excellent question:

MR>I am confused about peat moss not being a good source of
plant food.
>It is dead vegetation so why no food value? Why is it not
the same as composted vegetation?

Hi Marc,

It is not so much that peat has *no* food value, just that it
has very lttle. The nitrogen level in compost, for example
ranges from .8% up to 2%. Uncomposted manures and other high N
products can N levels around 1% for horse manure through 3% for
dairy manure up to 8% for human manure.

The N level in peat moss is typically below .1%, less than
1/20th of a well made compost. The P and K values are not so
much lower than compost, but these minerals are typically low
in organic sources from plants anyway.

Peat is accumulated from a single source moss, typically
sphagnum, reed-sedge, or hypnum which are mostly fiber, low in
nutrients. Depending on where and how it was mined, it may
have mineral contents from 80% (mostly soil) to 10% (true
moss). It takes thousands of years for peat to accumulate and
when the mosses die, they fall into the soil to decompose very
slowly. Since mosses grow in wetlands, the decomposition is
anaerobic, and anaerobes are notoriously poor at attacking
carbon like the aerobes are. What little N is there is used
within a few decades to support the meager anaerobe population,
after which time the moss just sits there, concentrating.

When humans come in and mine the peat, the degree of
mineralization is dependent on where in the bog, which can
often be up to 40 feet deep, the peat was removed. The top few
feet is mostly living moss, the next layer is the peat we are
used to purchasing, and the lower layers are more of a
texture-less muck, high in mineral content, not unlike a black
topsoil. Of course sphagnum behaves differently from the other
mosses and each bog is unique.

When the peat is mined, it is then used in various soil mixes
or as a landscaping amendment. It is then exposed to N from
the other soil it is blended with and the aerobic decomposition
process begins. This actually starts the peat to compost in a
manner of speaking, although it is actually a poor source of
carbon for composting since it is in a physical structure that
is resistant to microbial attack due to the cell structure of
the moss.

As an organic matter substrate for soil amending, particularly
for helping a soil drain or hold water, it is equal to compost
or manures, perhaps better in some respects. As a food source
for a healthy soil ecosystem, it is rather inert and low in
value. Compost is a true bacteria food and immediately
stimulates active beneficial soil cultures which in turn
produce pheromes and other beneficial byproducts not measured
by NPK or humus analysis.

I treat peat like an organic mineral, an inert buffer with low
value other than its physical structure. As an
environmentalist, I oppose the wanton mining of wetlands and
the indifference of highway designers and farmers in draining
peatlands. Over 90% of the reed-sedge peat resources in the 48
states are lost or severely damaged, particularly in the
mountain states. Most uses of peat would be better served by
recycled products such as bark and compost. I only use peat
for certain planter mixes when I can find no substitute.

MR>I read that it will slowly disappear in the soil over time.
What happens to it? Does it make the soil more acid?

Peat, like all organic matter, oxidizes in the soil over time
leaving various humus compounds. The chemistry is basically
one mole of CO2 and one mole of heat is produced by bacterial
action (composting) or chemical oxidation. Its acidification
properties depend on the source and initial pH level of the
peat. Some sphagnum peat is in the high 4 range, some sedges
are neutral or even alkaline. There is no way to know the acid
properties of a particular peat without a pH test. The
acidification effect is also lost over time, depending on the
ambient pH level and other soil conditions.

MR>Gardening books are not clear on this.

They are not clear on most issues related to the use of organic
matter in any of its forms. They tend to be chemically focused
with the notion that all soil is inert media, a necessary evil,
which is used to hold roots in order to feed the plant with
chemicals. Hydroponic gardening with rock wool and chemical
solutions is the ultimate example of this narrow view of the
humusphere and its relationship with plant growth. The carbon
respiration cycle is rarely taught in schools, whereas the
cycle of H2O from surface water to clouds is universally taught.

The carbon cycle goes from atmospheric CO2 to plants to humus
and back to CO2.

Hope this helps.

Mr Compost~~~
* May 8th - Let's see what this one does... &%$/()"@# NO


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
The question came up: E I bought some Milorganite to put on my
lawn (6-2-0). Somewhere in the past I have read that
milorganite contains traces of heavy metals. Is there any truth
to this?

To which Eric replied:

>On the bag (lower back-right corner, I think) it says that it
should not be used for consumption as it may contain heavy

To which the mysterious Mr Compost~~~ chimes in:

Not all sludges are created equal, and what might be true for
one wastewater treatment facility might not be true for another.
But as far as Milorganite goes, my understanding is that years
ago, Milwaukee let their industrial sewers blend with their
residential, and there were occasional moderate levels of
cadmium and other heavy metals of concern.

Milwaukee modified their entire sewerage system during the past
ten years and now produces Milorganite from a relatively clean
source. This upgrade cost tens of millions of dollars and was
designed to ensure a consistent, and safe sludge based product
for residential use.

As far as heavy metals go, they are found everywhere in various
concentrations. They are in leaves, background soil, peat,
manures and the food we eat. The number one source of heavy
metal contamination in the environment is cigarette smoking,
which contains high levels of cadmium. Another source is lead
>from outlawed lead based solder in copper pipes. Still another
is zinc from multivitamins.

The question about heavy metals is based on the parts per
million (concentration) and the pounds per acre
(accumulation). These two limiting factors are determined by
detecting, according to the EPA rules governing the beneficial
use of sewage sludge, the "most affected individual". This
might mean a child eating pounds of the sludge and taking in
lead, or it might mean a farmer whose crop is inhibited by a
zinc/iron imbalance. Or it might mean a two pack a day smoker
who eats twenty pounds of lettuce from their sludge amended

These concentrations and extreme cases are the basis for
determining "safe" levels in the soil as far as plant growth,
pollution, and human health are concerned. I can state without
reservation that the current levels of heavy metals in
Milorganite are nothing to be concerned with, even if you use
the product every year for hundreds of years. I would use the
product (if it were not so expensive) in my garden without a
second thought.

The notices about heavy metals and the restrictions posted are
for liability protection to the sewerage district and are
posted by lawyers, not scientists. They are designed to
encourage the use of the product in lawns, which is where the
retail money is anyway.

Mr Compost~~~

* April 9th - Coincide. What you are supposed to do when it
Darin McGrew comments:

M>For those of you who grow your own seedlings in soil blocks,
what soil mixture do you use? When we bought our soil blocker,
we also bought a soil block mix from the same company (so we
could start using soil blocks quickly). However, now I'd like
to mix my own soil block mix,and I'm curious what works best
for others.

M>The mix that we purchased was made of refined perlite, reed
sedge peat, sharp sand, dolomitic lime, and beneficial bacteria.

I don't prefer reed sedge peat. For one, it is strip mined out
of fragile wetlands and varies widely in quality. Sphagnum is
mined in a more renewable manner from vast expanses of bogs in
Canada. Hypnumn peat is my favorite, but it is hard to find.

Sharp sand is a misnomer, usually referring to #8 masonry sand.
Occasionally it means true silica sand, which costs up to ten
times more.

I add limestone, usually as 38% CACO3 only after an accurate pH
test and then according to clear formulas to increase the pH up
to the desired level. I shoot for 6.5 pH in my potting mixes.

Beneficial bacteria? I hope they aren't talking about packaged
"inoculants". They don't hurt, but I am not convinced they
help, either. To me, "add bacteria" means add a well made

M>Here are some recipes that I've seen in books:

M> 1 part peat moss
> 1 part compost, leaf mold, soil, commercial potting soil
> 1 part sharp sand, vermiculite, perlite

M> 1 part compost, leaf mold
> 1 part sharp sand, vermiculite, perlite

M> 1 part compost, leaf mold
> 1 part commercial potting soil
> 1 part sharp sand, vermiculite, perlite

M> 1 part compost, leaf mold
> 1 part commercial potting soil

M> 1 part compost, leaf mold
> 2 parts commercial potting soil
> 1 part composted manure

M>At this point, I'm leaning towards equal parts of peat moss,
compost, and vermiculite, but I haven't tried it yet. What
works for you?

I *love* using leaf mould (I prefer the British spelling), and
*never* use any of the commercial potting soils, unless I know
*exactly* what is in it. As a mixer and packager of potting
soils for twenty years, I have been to many of these
"commercial" facilities and some of them throw in whatever they
happen to have available at the moment. If you like what goes
into hot dogs and non dairy creamer, you will *love* some of
these so called potting soils.

In *any* planter mix, there is no substitute for at least 20%
earthworm castings, but not more than 33%. Not only to the
worms fully cure the compost, helping to prevent damping off
and root rot, they add growth hormones that are guaranteed to
help the plant grow like crazy, 20% to 200% over conventional

Here is my secret universal soil mix formula.

5 parts hypnum peat
2 parts decomposed bark (pine or hardwood usually)
4 parts worm castings
1 part sand either silica or #8 masonry
2 parts coarse compost (preferably leaf mould; mushroom is ok)
2 parts funny white things (usually vermiculite)
CACO3 only as needed
Add a dusting of diatomite & seaweed to taste for

Screen at 1/2"

Mr Compost~~~

Jim~ McNelly
ReSourceNet and GardenNet 612-654-8372, 656-0678 v.32bis
* April 9th - Please let me know if you did not receive this.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Compost Making FAQ

Downloaded 02/25/02 from http://www.oldgrowth.org/compost/

From mem7c@fermi.clas.Virginia.EDU Tue Nov 29 19:37:38 EST 1994
Article: 48571 of rec.gardens
Newsgroups: rec.gardens
From: mem7c@fermi.clas.Virginia.EDU (Michael E. Matthews)
Subject: Making Compost FAQ (long)
Message-ID: <CzzwHC.J88@murdoch.acc.Virginia.EDU>
Sender: usenet@murdoch.acc.Virginia.EDU
Organization: uva
Date: Mon, 28 Nov 1994 20:48:48 GMT
Lines: 641

The following is a collection of composting advice from Jim
McNelly, aka Mr. Compost. Long-time readers of rec. gardens
will know him well. It is a compilation of some of his replies
to various questions from this group. It contains the
essentials of composting. If anyone has other of his posts
saved, I would sure like to recieve them.

Michael Matthews in central VA


Newsgroups: rec.gardens
Subject: Composting 101
From: jim.mcnelly@granite.mn.org (Jim Mcnelly)
Message-ID: <36.2009.2817.0N42A21F@granite.mn.org>
Date: Thu, 19 May 94 02:51:00 +0600
Organization: Granite City Connection St. Cloud MN 612-654-8372

As requested, here is my recipe for home composting.

Mulching (leaving things in layers) is easier than "piling"
organic residues, but there is a place for passive compost
piles as well. But for those who desire to make an active,
hot, compost pile that is ready for curing in three to four
weeks, here is my tried and true formula for cooking hot

Active composting is a BATCH process. It differs from passive
piles that just sit there or continuous flow systems where
stuff is periodically dumped on top of the material already in
the bin.

1. PREPARE THE AREA: Avoid walls and fences that can rot and
discolor. Stay within reach of the hose. Choose a spot away
>from drainage swales and roof overflow. Avoid low spots where
water can stand or pond. Leave plenty of room to access with
pitch fork and wheel barrow. The area should be from 6'x6' up
to 12'x9'.

2. CHOOSE YOUR BIN. Small yards use enclosed plastic,
preferably insulated bins. Large yards use larger open air
designs without covers. Large doors are better than small ones.
Three stage systems are best, but only one, maybe two bins are
active at any given time. The three stages are stockpiling,
active composting, and curing. Curing piles do not need bins.

3. STOCKPILING: Since active composting is a batch process, it
requires a full bin of material and this usually requires
stockpiling. Materials easy to store include leaves, wood
mulch, pine needles and cones, old compost, and shredded paper.

4. INOCULATING: Active composting is helped by adding old
compost or leaf mould as an inoculant. This can range from 10%
up to 50% from the curing pile or the still-cooking, last
batch. Avoid soil except as a last resort. Use bagged compost
or manure if starting for the first time. Packaged inoculants
do no harm, and may even help, but are not a substitute for old

5.MIXING and 6. WATERING: Layer your various ingredients
OUTSIDE THE BIN, watering each layer as you go. Think "Green
and Brown". Add 10% bulky matter like wood chips to keep the
pile loose to avoid matting. THEN fork the layers into the bin,
mixing as you go, blending wet with dry, watering as necessary.
Water like a seed bed, avoiding runoff. The mix should end up
50% moisture like a damp sponge. Now and during the 3 weeks of
active composting is the time to add table scraps. Avoid adding
lime, it can disturb the natural pH shift and delay

7. AERATE: Like any other form of livestock, your "herd" of
bacteria needs food, air, and water. You have added food with a
balance of carbon and nitrogen, which is the green and brown.
You just added water. Now the bacteria need air. Old compost
theory suggests that you "turn the pile for aeration; recent
studies show that a pile uses up its oxygen in as little as 1/2
hour after turning.

Like a barbecue or a fireplace grate, a pile needs ventilation.
This is provided through a passive aeration base. Some use
brush, stalks, screen on boards, rocks, wood chips, flat
aeration pipe, other mechanism to let air infiltrate at the
base from outside. The air will rise up due to the convection,
chimney effect, of warm air rising. With wood chips added, the
pile will self aerate with an aeration grate without turning.
Poking the pile from the top down to the base with a piece of
rebar or 1/4" rod every 6" will break up mats and provide extra
air channels.

The pile will begin active composting within 48 hours and cook
by itself. You can help the process by mixing at least once
after a week, sort of like stirring the coals, adding moisture
as necessary. When it is not frozen outside, I make a compost
batch every 2 weeks, often using half cooked compost from two
weeks previously to mix with the fresh grass clippings.
Personally, I bag my grass because I like making and using
compost, but letting the clippings lie is a fine way to avoid
the effort of active composting.

Follow these steps toward batch composting and you will see the
pile heat and cook, giving off the steam of life as it
decomposes. I think everyone should experience the pleasure of
having a compost pile cook well at least *once* in their lives.

Two last tips, *underwatering* is the largest single cause of
slow composting. Piles in *standing* water is the number one
cause of odors.

Have fun!

Mr Compost~~~

Jim~ McNelly
Granite Connection 612-259-0801
* May 19th - What's all this fuss about endangered feces?


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
DF>Problem: I have a "by the book" compost heap that is not
generating heat.

Sounds like you should compost that book Dave. (g)

DF>Contents: Lawn clippings, kitchen scraps, wood chips from my
shop(possible problem since they contain redwood, aromatic
cedar, and fiberboard, which contains formaldehyde) and plant
food (Miracle Grow).

You need some old compost as an inoculant first off. Secondly,
tell us what proportions of each. My guess is that you are
heavy in the wood chips, of which I do not recommend more than
10% unless composting heavy muck like sewage sludge or wet
chicken manure. Why did you add the chemical fertilizer and
how much? Don't worry about the compounds in the wood products.

DF>I keep it wet and cover it with black plastic. The frame is
a box (3` x 3`) made by stacking cinder blocks. It is in the
north side of the house. I turn it daily with a fork.

Turning daily is never recommended. After the initial mix, I
don't turn my piles at home at all. In commercial operations,
I turn maybe three times in three weeks, twice in the first ten
days. Turning lets out the heat. I assume that the two
dimensions also mean that the box is 3' deep too, for a total
of one cubic yard. Wood chips add structure, but little
available carbon since it is still locked up in the wood fiber.
Adding wood chips to a compost pile is like giving a thirsty
child an eight pound block of ice.

Why did you cover it with black plastic? That is like throwing
a wet cloth on a fire, halting ventilation. Covering a pile
also keeps moisture from coming in. I recommend plastic sides
to keep too much air from coming in from the sides where it
dries the pile and cools it. Air should come in from the base,
like a kettle barbecue or a fireplace grate. It should then
rise out the top, with the chimney effect. Keeping the pile
covered halts the natural ventilation.

DF>Each time I add the lawn clippings it heats up a bit, but it
is short lived.

Yep. The pile is suffocating, and probably lacking nitrogen
>from more green stuff.

Mr. Compost~~~
* May 8th - I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers

Subject: Is this a compost pile? #

Papa Pilgrim writes:

JK>Or What? I have a pit in the far corner of my backyard.
(great stories deleted) All in all, what I am doing seems to
be right and is certainly too much fun. But--is it compost or
just rotted stuff?

Yo bro!

Your pile is a decomposing pile of rotting stuff, not a true
composting pile. True compost is made in batches where the
organic matter heats up, feeds abundant organisms that like the
hot environment, then they cool down.

But most people call any old dark organic stuff "compost". I
saw a commercial for the Troy Built chipper that claimed that a
man can put brush in one end and "compost" comes out the
other! Many of my clients in my composting consulting business
bought large tub grinders thinking that they "made compost".
When they start through the learning curve about making piles,
adding moisture, keeping it turned, they gradually come to
appreciate true compost.

But many people get upset when I tell them that they do not
have true compost, so I maybe have to think of a new word that
means *only* organic matter made from hot, active piles.

But there is no *better or worse* as far as the plants are
concerned. Nature does not make piles, she makes thin layers.
God does not teach bears and other animals to use pitch forks,
carry water, and turn piles. Nature is simple, doing her thing
in layers, a bit each year. The worms do the dirty work.

Humans seem to *need* to make piles. Once we do, we start
composting. When we are done, we put nature's life back to the
soil in layers.

I say do what works for you. Let it grow. We all should be

Mr Compost~~~

* May 23rd - Let me see.... Now how does that twit filter work?

Subject: Sawdust in compost

Michael asks an excellent question:

M>What advice can anyone give in using sawdust (oak and birch
>primarily) in composting. Can sawdust be the "brown" and grass
>the "green" effectively or do I still need to add larger wood
>chips for areation purposes?

The distinction between carbon as bulking material for aeration
and carbon as food was largely lost in the early 1970s when many
sludge composting sites failed due to foul odors. Wood chips
are not "available" carbon whereas sawdust is. Sawdust tends to
compact, however, and too much can "smother" a composting pile.

Too little or too much of a good thing can be a problem.
Composting is largely a process of finding a balance of various
ingredients. I read something about "fuzzy logic" where
numerous variables in cooking, brewing, and composting can be
managed via computer programs, something akin to master chefs,
brewmasters, or composting gurus.

I know that it took me many years and trials and errors before
I became confident in what and how much of various materials to
add. A computer program will rarely tell you *why* it is
recommending a particular mix.

Back to your question, sawdust varies as to its age and moisture
content, but adding around 20% by volume is a lot. I add about
10% wood chips, usually older compost "overs" screened out from
previous batches. I add anywhere from 10% to 50% old compost
as an inoculant, less if the compost is mature, more if it is
fresh. Most piles are deficient in Nitrogen, not carbon.

M>Finally, although I do keep sawdust generated from plywood
>separate from that generated from hardwood, is it OK to use
>plywood sawdust in the compost pile?

I wish I could give a pat answer to this question like I can
paper products, where I say use them all you please. But not
all plywoods are made the same, and I have seen some disturbing
levels of formaldehyde which have me a bit wary at the moment
about particle and plywood boards.

There are so many other sawdust products which are not under
question so I suggest that you follow my general rule, which is
"when in doubt, keep it out." These sawdusts may be perfectly
fine, and I would use them in a mixed waste compost, but in my
own garden? Probably not. When I have more conclusive data
like I have on the safety of paper, I will vary my position

Mr Compost~~~

* May 24th - Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Subject: Composting grass

Waldek writes:
WT>Has anyone had a good experience with composting grass
>When I put it in my compost pile it turns into a sticky mess
which takes ages to decompose. I wonder if there is something
the grass could be mixed with to help the breakdown process or
should I join my neighbours in the weekly routine of hauling
bags of the stuff to the curb? Help, help, I'm drowning in hay!

I have composted literally hundreds of thousands of tons of
grass clippings, and bag my grass at home too. I believe that
composting clippings and applying compost to the lawn is better
than letting the clippings lie. (although mulching the
clippings is better than landfilling any day!)

My recipe is the same for home and commercial alike. I have
two active batches going and one curing pile. Each week, I
stockpile the clippings in a holding bin. The next week, I add
the current week's clippings with last week's along with some
old compost (10% up to 50%) which is coarse with old wood chips.

These materials are layered OUTSIDE the active bin, watered
layer by layer. THEN they are forked into the active bin,
mixing thoroughly, watering dry areas. My active bin has an
aeration mat at the base allowing air to infiltrate from the
base. Once the bin is full, since I make *batches* of compost,
I "poke" the pile from the top to the base with a steel rod
every six inches to help it breathe.

Two weeks later, I take half of the older pile and put it into
the curing pile with half going into the new batch as the
compost inoculant. Once the material in the curing pile is
dark and crumbly, I screen it and use the oversize material as
a bulking material. Occasionally I add wood chips to help keep
the pile loose. I never turn the pile, but splitting it in
half to make old and new is a kind of turning. The piles are
always sweet smelling.

Have fun!

Mr Compost~~~
* May 23rd - Please let me know if you did not receive this.

Don asks,

D>I would have to agree with the low yield from table scraps,
vegetable peelings, coffee/tea wastes.

I must have missed the first part of the post. Are you talking
about low volume (total amount of compost) or the low nitrogen
value of compost in general, or compost from these ingredients?

Let me try to answer all three questions. The volume of
finished compost is typically 1/3 of the original volume, more
if there is free air space in the original mass. Brush shreds
down to about one tenth the original mass, for example. Mass
reduction is another matter. Net dry weight loss is typically
one third. This is actual nitrogen and carbon conversion to
ammonia, heat, and CO2. Most weight loss is from moisture
reduction from 80% moisture original matter such as wet grass
clippings or fresh garden scraps down to 40% moisture compost.

As far as fertilizer values, I have yet to make a true compost
that is over 2% nitrogen. Sure, I can have unstable compost
which is higher, but a cured compost will not be over 2% due to
the inherent biological restraints of the carbon to nitrogen
equation which is essential for proper decomposition. Higher
carbon ratios will result in lower net nitrogen values. Higher
nitrogen in the original feedstock will result in the release
of air borne ammonia and other nitrogen compounds and water
borne nitrates and nitrites.

Compost N values are stable so the can automatically be doubled
when compared to chemical nitrogen values, of which 50% or more
is lost in the first 24 hours of application. Compost N values
also have an accumulated fertility quotient, of which 60% is
available the first year, 20% the second, 10% the third, 5% the
fourth, and so forth. Chemical N has no accumulated value.

As far as the low volume of incoming table scraps as compared
to the net demand of they typical yard, I can state with
certainty that even if you bag and compost all of your yard
trimmings, leaves, and table scraps, your organic matter demand
for the yard is still greater. I recommend 1/4" of compost as
a top dressing PLUS letting the clippings lie in order to keep
a lawn organically sustainable. If you are trying to increase
the lawn's humus content, that requires an additional 1/4 inch
to make the soil richer.

One quarter inch of compost is one cubic yard spread over 1232
square feet. The typical lawn at 3,500 square feet requires
three cubic yards to be sustainable (with letting the clippings
lie) and twice that amount to build the soil up, usually
applied as a top dressing in the spring and fall. If a person
was improving the soil *before* the sod goes in, then 32 cubic
yards spread 3" deep would be called for.

You can see why I believe that it is important to support
municipal composting, as the single homestead is hardly capable
of generating sufficient compost to keep up.

As far as recommending good small composters, I recommend any
of the small, plastic, enclosed bins such as the Earth Machine
or Green Genie. I recommend round ones over square ones as
square bins have cool corners. Table scrap bins should be
covered to inhibit rodents and should not have too many
openings on the side. I do not recommend open air designs for
passive, table scrap bins as they let in too much air, dry out,
and let in vermin.

Pay no attention to the supposed door underneath to take
compost out. They are hard to use and compost does not "flow"
so well. Use instead bins which act like "jello molds" which
can be lifted off when full and the composting process started
new in a different spot. The old pile keeps its shape and will
cure just fine in the open air. Remember to use some old
compost mixed in with the fresh table scraps. This inoculates
it with active bacterial cultures and helps cover it from flies
and vermin.

For the best home composter, I recommend indoor redworm boxes.
Check out Mary Appelhof's book "Worms Eat My Garbage" for tips
for the budding vermiculturist.

Mr Compost~~~
* April 9th - Man, that lightning sounds clo#A#v!&^#v?##vNO


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
benefits of organic matter in the soil far outweigh any real or
presumed biohazard from residential residual biocides in
municipal yard trimmings.

If you want *real* environmental concerns to address, try
arsenic in treated lumber, salts from road de-icing, motor oil
>from crankcases, household batteries in solid waste, lead in
wine bottle wrappers, mercury in electric shoes, runoff of lawn
fertilizers, nitrates in drinking water, rural burn barrels,
on-site dumping, unlined landfills, agricultural nutrient
runoff, incinerator emissions, and 1001 other documented
environmental concerns.

I get tired of people bashing compost and sewage sludges over
perceptual biohazards such as lawn chemicals in grass clippings
and inks in newsprint. It is difficult enough to permit and
operate composting facilities when people we environmentally
concerned composters would think would be our allies, the
organic gardeners, turn out to be some of our biggest opponents.

* June 21st - The Universe is over. We can all go home now.


LawnSite Senior Member
Norman, Oklahoma
Subject: cold composting

Mike writes: MN>Hi: Being aware of your wisdom from following
your posts to rec.gardens, I imagine you might be able to
provide me with some help regarding info on `cold composting'.

Well, my propaganda proceeds me or my paid supporters need a
raise. But thanks for the kind words anyway. (g)

I saw and pursued a reference to a recent Audubon
>Magazine article on an interesting gentleman who got his
county in an
>uproar by bringing in huge amounts of wood waste to his
land. He carried
>out what was referred to as `cold composting' to speed the
breakdown of
>the woody material (without any shredding or grinding) by
fungal action.
>Besides keeping the material moist, are there other tricks?

My understanding of the story was that the amounts were not
quite so "huge", like great tire stockpiles ready to be hit by
lightning, but were fairly normative mulch layers. The "huge"
terminology might really more aptly be called "out of the
ordinary". Huge, to me, implies thirty foot high stockpiles
such as one might find at a sawmill. Even then, people are
hardly in an uproar over these "huge" piles. The concern it
seems, is the fact that the material is deemed to be "waste"
and therefore subject to the NIMBY or NIMTOF (not in my term of
office) syndromes.

> My personal interest in this is not so grand as this
>I've just got whole lot of branch wood and prunings that I
am slowly
>making a dent in with a 7 hp Mac chipper/shredder. I mean a
whole lot--
>a pile 40 feet long by 12 feet wide by 5 feet tall. It's
daunting to park
>the chipper next to it and wonder how many hundreds of hours
it will take
>to reduce it all to mulch.

Ah yes Grasshopper, Master Po said to Quai Chang Kane, when this
stockpile of brush is reduced to humus, then it is time for you
to leave.

The first point is that nature does not compost; nature
mulches. We do not see piles of organic matter in nature,
aside from a few notable exceptions of mound building reptiles,
nesting birds, rhinos in dung etc.

Nature deposits organic matter down in thin layers where it is
"cold" composted, if ambient temperatures can be called
"cold". Years ago, it was called "sheet" composting, but one
rarely sees such a term anymore.

But the fact of the matter is that it is the mesophiles,
organisms which function from 40F to 120F that are the true
decomposers. The thermophiles, those operating over 120F up to
the pasteurization temperature of 147F, are lazy sons of guns
who thrive on the heat of their cooler brothers, but do little
to aid the decomposition process themselves.

When a carbon compound is broken biologically, one mole of CO2
and one mole of heat is released. In layers, this heat is
dissipated through convection. In piles, this heat is retained
due to the self-insulating properties of the composting mass.
It seems that the best temperatures for decomposing carbon,
which wood mulch represents, are in the 110F-120F range. Much
of this carbon is bound by cellulose which is highly resistant
to decay. The best means of attacking cellulose, aside from
hiring termites, is to enlist the aid of fungi.

This is what termites actually do in their gut, and is what the
gentleman referenced in the Audubon report is also doing. I
would suggest adding around 10% old compost to the wood mulch to
assist the inoculation process so that the decomposition can
proceed in earnest. Keeping it moist as you note is also

The real question is whether or not the organic matter is being
processed for a beneficial use or if it is being "disposed on
land". If the person is simply stockpiling in order to garner
"waste tipping fees" with no plan for the ultimate beneficial
use of the mulch or resultant decomposed organic matter, then I
would challenge the plan, just as I would stockpiling tires.

The greater crime is sending organic matter to the landfill
where it serves no beneficial use at all. Even worse, it
decomposes into explosive methane, merges with toxic leachate,
shrinks the landfill causing cracking in the clay cap, and
benefits no soils at all. So even a farmer making an extra
buck spreading wood mulch is better than the landfill

Mr Compost~~~

Jim~ McNelly
Granite Connection 612-259-0801
* June 22nd - The dinosaurs quit while they were ahead.

Granite City Connection (612) 259-0801
Email: jim.mcnelly@granite.mn.org (Jim Mcnelly)
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