Posts Tagged ‘compost’

Layered Compost Pile

Monday, October 10th, 2016
Compost Pile

Compost Pile

It looks like a pile of straw, but it’s really a very structured compost pile. I built it over the weekend. It’s layered and there is actually not that much straw in it.

My raw ingredients included a pile of two seasons worth of garden debris – weeds, stalks, trimmings and anything else organic collected around the yard and garden that was not super woody. It was mostly already broken down and partially composted. I had a completely broken down 55 gallon drum of household scraps, which was now only about 40 gallons, full of worms, and no stink left. I had a huge collection of recently pulled still green weeds, consisting mostly of galinsoga (quickweed), which I’m letting become my weed of choice in the garden. I had a couple small square bales of rotting straw, lots of stalks of sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, and finally, comfrey, which I harvested and layered in as I was building the pile.

I made a platform of soil with raised up edges. The base of the pile is 6 feet by 10 feet. Then I started layering everything. We had just finished a couple weeks of very rainy weather so I didn’t add any water, it was wet enough. My first layer was sunchoke stalks, followed by a layer of compost, followed by green material, either weeds or comfrey. After the pile was about 18 inches tall, I began working in layers of straw. Between each layer of straw, green material or stalks was a layer of compost or partially composted soil. As I was building the pile, I walked on top of it to compress it, trying to keep the pile as square as possible and leave no gaps or air pockets.

I ended up with a very dense pile almost 4 feet tall. I put a lot of straw on the top layer so it would shed water. By the time I finished, the pile had already begun to heat up and this morning most of the lower half of the pile had reached a temperature of 85 F., so I’m not worried about it breaking down. It will cook very quickly.

Compost Pile Tools

Compost Pile Tools

Here’s a picture of the tools I used to make the pile. The garden cart was used to haul straw, the wheel barrow used to haul garden debris. The manure fork is a most perfect compost fork for tossing everything but loose soil. The small pointed “SpearHead” shovel is better than a wider traditional spade for slicing into soil and moving a lot of soil without wearing yourself out.

And my favorite tool, the antique five-tined cultivating hoe, was used to clean the ground to prep the pile bed, rip apart debris, and loosen compacted soil. It would have been a lot more difficult without it. This tool will let me easily keep the paths around the pile weed free.

Compost is the key to successful gardening and is the safe and sustainable approach to garden nutrition. One doesn’t need an elaborate pile like this. Compost as they say, just happens, by letting organic material break down, but the process can be sped up and the finished product made more usable when a structured system like this is used.

Comfrey for Compost

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

Comfrey and Compost Piles

Comfrey and Compost Piles

I can’t remember how comfrey (Symphytum officinale L.) got introduced into my garden, but it probably came from Geoff when he worked at Nokomis Gardens in East Troy, Wisconsin, about sixteen years ago.  It’s now firmly established  just north of the garden beds and west of the compost area.  The plants are gradually expanding their area of control and comfrey can become a pest with its ability to spread, but I’m welcoming what I currently have and I won’t worry about it taking over just yet.

I took advantage of a drizzly Saturday morning to turn over a compost pile without having to drag hoses or carry in water to get the compost slightly damp.  I thought that layering in a lot of comfrey leaves would bring in some more moisture while adding beneficial nutrients of the leaves to the pile.

The pile I turned had been sitting for a year.  I usually have three piles going simultaneously.  The current year’s pile on the right of the picture is everything I’ve pulled out of the garden this year, mainly weeds and crop residue.  The pile from a year ago was turned once and mixed with a 55 gallon drum of household compost.  That’s the one I’m working on.  And the remainder of a two year old pile is being stored and kept dry in two garbage cans.  It has been screened and is ready for use yet this year or next spring.

Comfrey Plants

Comfrey Plants

The benefits of comfrey as a compost plant are well documented.  Its deep tap roots bring up an exceptional array of nutrients and make comfrey leaves a rich source of nitrogen, potassium, calcium and a whole shopping list of vitamins and minerals.  Organic gardeners and permaculture disciples consider it a most perfect plant.



Comfrey’s huge leaves can be harvested up to four times a year merely buy slicing them off at ground level.  I use a little Japanese hand axe called a kama, pictured above, and it’s quite easy to chop the soft stems.

Layering in Comfrey Leaves

Layering in Comfrey Leaves

Another benefit of this remarkable plant is that the leaves break down quickly whether in a compost pile or when used as a mulch.  Here is the pile being layered with comfrey.  Compost purists will argue that compost piles have to be built just right and that they must be brought to a specific temperature to kill weed seeds, but I don’t worry about the technical details.  My gardening technique allows for lots of weeds, which I keep in control with shallow cultivation.   So if the piles don’t reach a specific temperature, I really don’t care.

Finished Compost Pile

Finished Compost Pile

Here’s the finished pile.  Next spring it will be ready to screen and put back into the garden.  You can’t have too much compost so I make a lot.  Working it back into the garden has made my beds softer, more manageable, and of course, more fertile.

Plenty of Compost

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
Lots of Compost

Lots of Compost

Compost solves everything!  Well, not quite, but one can garden in compost alone and you cannot have too much.  This year I’m way ahead.  I’ve got a pile of ready to apply material (the smaller pile in the picture).  And even though it’s still too wet in the garden beds to do much work, I took advantage of two unexpected warm and dry days to turn the pile I had created throughout last year.

Last Year's Compost Pile

Last Year’s Compost Pile

This is what I started with.  The picture was taken in December.  The pile is all the plant residue left from the harvests, all the weeds I harvested,  plus the contents of a 55 gallon drum of household compost we collect.  I talk about using the barrels to save household compost here and here.

I took last year’s pile and moved it over about 10 feet.  Turning the pile will speed up the decomposition and accelerate the cooking process that breaks down plant material into compost.

Turning the pile could be very difficult and time consuming.  The layers of spent plants, twigs, stalks and stems form a matted layer that is woven together and very hard to separate.  Trying to scoop it off and separate it with a fork or shovel approaches futility.

Manure Fork, Spear Head Spade, 5-Tine Cultivator

Manure Fork, Spear Head Spade, 5-Tine Cultivator

That’s where the old five-tine cultivator again shows itself to be a multi-dimensional tool that should still be made.  I used that tool to rip apart the matted mess.  Then forking the compost to the new pile becomes quite easy.  The third tool I use is a shovel with a novel design that I was introduced to two years ago at the Philadelphia Flower Show.  It’s sold under the trade name Spear Head Spade.  Its small sharp and strong head makes it ideal for slicing through hard soil and plant material.  It’s very easy to use to cut compacted soil and cut into and through plant material.  So with these three tools, a manure fork, an old fine-tined cultivator, and a Spear Head spade, I turned over this very large pile of compost in just a few hours.

I also used the old five-tined tool to loosen and level the soil where last year’s pile resided.  I laid down some stalks from the semi-wild patch of Jerusalem artichokes I have growing in the area.  That’s where I’ll build this year’s compost pile to keep the process going.  Compost is extremely easy to make.  It’s a naturally occurring process and good gardeners covet it.  I’m lucky I have a large area and ample inputs to have almost all the compost I could want.

Compost Mountains

Friday, December 14th, 2012
Twin Peaks, Wisconsin

Twin Peaks, Wisconsin

Geologists tell us that Wisconsin was once a land of huge mountains with crests as tall as the Rockies.  That Precambrian topography has since gone through quite a few changes.  While the state still has some gorgeous and impressive hills, spectacular snow capped ranges are not part of the scenery.  I’m working to change that.  Here are two mountains of compost covered  by our first significant snow of the winter.

Just last year, the smaller pile – elev.  53″ (1.34 M), was taller than the large one is now, but a turn and a burn have reduced it to less than a third its original size.  It’s still cooking very slowly, but is pretty much ready to start feeding the garden next spring.

The large pile – elev. 72″ (1.83 M), is this year’s collection of weeds and crop residues.  I’ll give it a turn next year and work in the sludge I’ve created in a 55 gallon drum, where I collect all the household compostable materials before I work it into the pile of drier outdoor material.

I talked about the sludge and the worms that miraculously show up in my compost in two previous posts:  Noel’s Sense of Snow and Compost and  Working Worms.

I have a larger property so I have the advantage of an easy-to-work open site, but compost can be made on a very small scale, and enclosed in containers.  If you garden and you can make compost, you should.

It’s Wisconsin. It’s March. It’s Summer!

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

The average March high temperature where I live is 42 degrees.  The average minimum is 24, with an average mean temperature of 32 degrees.  Today, a high of 82 is predicted.  We’ve had highs of upper 70’s to over 80 for the past week.  The lows have been just below 60.

I don’t know if this portends oncoming climatic disaster, but the warm weather is sure making it easy to get a jump start on a lot of this year’s preparation tasks in the garden.  I’ve been taking advantage of the warm weather to clean out my beds of last year’s growth.  It is something I’d have to do anyway, but it’s more pleasant working in a T-shirt.

In the past week I’ve pruned and cleaned out the raspberries, cut back all last year’s asparagus fronds and weeded the asparagus bed, pulled out all the corn stalks from last year’s two beds of corn, and cut down all the stalks in the Jerusalem artichoke bed.  Yesterday, I hauled most of the debris to this year’s new compost pile and worked in the contents of one of the 55 gallon drums of household compost that will fire up and help break down the new pile.

Cold Frame and Compost Piles

But before I went to work on the compost, I moved my cold frame and seeded it with a mix of salad greens.  I first had to harvest the greens that had already sprouted in the frame, left over from last fall.  There was more than enough for Judy and I to enjoy a very nice spring salad of spinach, arugula, mache and lettuce.

After moving the frame to the new area I that had cleaned and raked up, I seeded it with several mesclun salad mixes, various lettuces, spinach, arugula, endives and mache.  I watered it down, and with luck, we’ll be harvesting greens in a few weeks.

Old Compost - New Compost Pile

My new compost pile will reside where I had a three year old pile that was almost used up.  I had previously sifted 6 five gallon buckets of compost to empty the old pile and cleaned out and raked flat the area.  I laid down several inches of stalks and dry material and alternated layers of stalks with a couple 5 gallon buckets of the sludge from my compost barrel.

I’m getting much lazier about diligently following any rules for my compost piles.  I rarely even turn the piles any more.  I now have three piles:  the new one, last year’s, and a pile two years old that is pretty close to being mostly broken down without ever being turned.  I’ll sift that one into buckets and anything that won’t go through my one inch screen gets will get tossed back into the new pile.

As the year progresses, I’ll keep dumping green  material, mostly weed harvest, onto the new pile.  I always have a supply of compost if needed for adding to a bed or for making some soil mixes.  I know my method is not perfect for killing weed seeds because I don’t get it to temperatures hot enough, but I live with my weeds.  I believe that weeds are actually a very good thing to have in the garden and you have to control them just enough so they don’t get the upper hand.

Brand New Bed

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

It’s been a slow start getting the beds ready for spring planting because of the frequent rain.  It’s not raining right now, but everything is wet and muddy.

I did manage to get a brand new bed shaped up for planting last weekend.  Its only 12 feet long versus the 21 feet of most of my beds.  I made it in my compost area and I have another bed the same size about half shaped up right next to this one which I’ll finish off as soon as the ground is dry enough.

Because I’ve been moving my compost piles through this area for years, the clay soil was actually quite soft and the bed ended up looking pretty good.  Untypical for most new beds, the soft soil was quite deep and required no extra loosening.  I just needed to define the paths, clean out the weeds, and shape it up.

I planted squash throughout this area last year on flat unshaped ground.  As much as possible, I’ve been following Elliot Coleman’s 8 year crop rotation which I originally found in his book, The New Organic Grower.  In Coleman’s system, root crops follow plantings of squash, so carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, and other root crops should logically be planted here.

I’m a little worried about wire worms, which seem to be more concentrated in areas that have not been under constant rotation.  I’m definitely not going to put my potatoes here, but I think I’ll take a chance on carrots and beets.  I’m hoping the carrots will love the soft soil.   I’ll seed the beds directly after April 15th.  It will be another experiment and I’m hoping the super fertile soil will give me good results.