Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fast or Slow Composting? Part 1

Whether you want to compost material quickly with a "Hot" pile (which requires more work on your part) or are content to let nature do most of the work, (slowly, over a longer period of time), determines how to set up your compost pile.

Hot Composting:

Why would you want to go through the extra effort required to establish and maintain a hot compost pile? Well, there are several reasons.

1. You can create a considerable amount of compost in as little as 3-4 weeks.
2. There is less smell from a hot pile.
3. Hot composting will kill most weed seeds and other pathogens.
4. Hot, quick composting preserves more nutrients in the finished compost. It is better for your plants.
5. Hot composting will reduce the size of your pile quicker. This frees up space to make more compost!

Ok, so how do we do this?

First, you need a clear site to establish your composting facility. The size will be dependent on what type of bin or container you use.

There are commercially available "Barrel Composters" that do a good job of hot composting small batches of material. For a small yard and garden owner these might be ideal but they do cost quite a bit of money. If you are handy with tools you can make these yourself and save hundreds of dollars. All you need to do is partially fill the barrel with the ideal mix of brown and green compost material (see previous Blog Composting 101), adequate moisture, and then spin the barrel a couple times each day.

Advantages: Barrel composters are neat, pest free, very quick and hot.
Disadvantages: Limited size and thus quantity of compost, require lifting material up to small door, require daily turning, can be expensive.

Standing bins require more space because you will want at least two and preferably three bins at least 4'x4'x3' in size. This example has 1/4" hardware cloth (wire) on the side and back panels. I used this method once but the wire only lasted four years before it rusted out. It was a quick build though and that is what I needed at the time. Alternately you could use pallets, cement blocks, or used deck boards (5/4"x6" floor boards for outdoor decks). Used deckboards are often available for free on Craigslist.

Advantages: Can create large quantities of compost quickly, provide long-term storage capacity, allow multiple stages of the process.
Disadvantages: Can be expensive depending on materials used, requires a lot of forking or shoveling to mix and move product and materials.

A simple and cheap, but not necessarily long-lasting, enclosure is a column made from wire fencing. These can be set up and taken down in just minutes. The wire has to be close enough together to hold the materials inside but otherwise these can work pretty good. If you use a quick release method to tie the ends together you can unwrap the pile, re-create the wire bin, an fork over the material to mix. This creates a hotter pile.

Advantages: Simple, cheap, easy to set up and take down, very well aerated, can hold as much material as you want based on the size of the bin you create.
Disadvantages: The finished compost will fall through the wire and be outside the bin, short life-span of the fence, piles tend to dry out quickly.

The last choice would be an un-enclosed pile. A loose pile would need to be about five feet across at the bottom to have enough mass to heat up properly. If you have a front end loader you can create and aerate very large piles to make tons of compost in a short time. These piles though, are often neglected and attack mice and other wildlife. They are also a bit unsightly for a yard. These are great though if you have large quantities of Green material such as grass clippings and manure. Turning the pile every day or two prevents odor.

Advantages: Massive quantities of compost can be made, easiest pile to use mechanized help (tractors, loaders, or a Bobcat), well aerated.
Disadvantages: Most susceptible to animal pests, loss of nutrients due to rain leaching, unsightly in a yard.

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