It seems like everywhere you look these days gardeners are raving about the benefits of compost, with good reason. Adding good compost to your plantings not only helps retain moisture, it can be the only food that a majority of your plants really need. Hot composting can easily be done by anyone! There are many different ways to go about composting, but for hot composting this method works just fine.
Around here we use, use, and re-use darn near everything! This is a very helpful mind-set to have if you plan to garden for season-long bloom and production. Collecting decomposable items that you have available and providing the proper conditions for partial breakdown will yield a lovely growing medium for your plants!
First, before we begin actually building the pile, there are a few items you may wish to have on hand. One of the best times of year to start a hot compost pile is in the waning days of summer. The hot, humid conditions will help your pile get off to a rip roaring start. To help you abide the heat as you gather and pile, you may wish to have a really ugly, lightweight, button-up over-shirt.
Why ugly, you might be asking? Well, you then won't mind using one corner as a perspiration wipe, and the other as an oily tool wipe! Plus, if you're really feeling the heat, you can dampen the shirt and wear it wet. It helps me immeasurably! There are a multitude of summer tasks I'd probably not complete if not for a damp shirt and hat!
Next, you'll want to have a good set of hegde trimmers, and maybe a rake. You'll also need a means of transporting your materials. This big sled on top of a wagon is just about ideal. Pulling this around the yard may cause you less back strain than the bent over position you must use with a wheelbarrow.
Next on the agenda is to gather together greens, browns, and if you wish, some organic additives. Blood meal, bone meal, and wood ashes are good choices. Why add them to your pile, and not directly into your gardens, you might ask? Animals, for one example. Dogs are attracted to blood meal. Skunks are attracted to bone meal. Better to have them dig in your compost pile than to dig up your plants!
This wagon load is comprised of recently chopped vegetation, mostly weeds that haven't yet set seed, although it isn't necessary to be all that concerned if some seeds find their way into your pile. Properly built and tended hot compost piles should destroy most seeds.
Here is an example of some browns. Bagged leaves from last fall, saved paper towel rolls, slightly used paper towels, and plain old cardboard. Rip and shred the paper products fairly small or they may cause you a backache if and when you try to turn your pile.
Okay! Now that we've gathered together our materials, let's build the pile!
Dump in roughly a quarter of your stockpile of greens. They will supply the heat, in the form of decomposing nitrogen. In this view the pile on the left is the one we're beginning. The other is previously made compost mixed with soil and kitchen scraps to use as a micro-organism supply, topped with grass clippings which we'll use momentarily.
Next, layer in some browns, topped by more greens.
Next, if you have compost already on hand, add some. If you don't have compost just add a few shovels full of moist soil. This is a very important step! Adding soil introduces the micro-organisms responsible for decomposition throughout the pile. It also facilitates better moisture retention in your pile. A dry compost pile cannot attain the higher temperatures required for hot composting.
Add another layer each of greens, browns, soil (or compost) and sprinkle in some organic additives if you like. Adding at least blood meal to your pile will cause it to reach higher temperatures at a much quicker rate.
Continue adding layers until your pile is at least three feet high, by five feet wide. Bulk of the pile will aid in retaining moisture and allow it to maintain high heat conditions. If you have it available, otherwise useless spoiled hay makes a great bulking material. Make sure you pull it apart first though, don't just toss in the squares! The whole squares are almost impossible to lift and turn without back strain and way too much effort. You may also wish to dump leftover pots of soil from container plantings in your pile, that's recycling at it's best! Just toss it in and give it a smack or two with whatever tool is handy to break it up.
Once you've finished building your pile, add water. Make sure that everything in the pile, and all the way through, get's a really thorough wetting. You'll want to wet it a bit each day for the first week or so, just to ensure that the whole pile is good and damp. Too much water later in the decomposition process can leach out valuable nutrients which would be better saved for your plants. Once this step is complete, if you have something available to cover your pile with, do so. The micro-organisms responsible for decomposition of organic matter prefer to work in the dark. In addition, the cover, if draped down the pile will aid in channeling excess rainwater out and away.
Other than adding more water, you're done for now! In approximately five to ten days you should thrust the tines of a garden fork deep into the pile and push down on the handle. This done a few times at weekly intervals will allow air to directly enter the pile which will aid the decomposition process and keep your pile hot. When the pile begins to noticeably decrease or sink in the center, it's time to add more materials, and/or turn the outside edges into the middle. When your pile has diminished to a very small heap, and you can no longer differentiate between components, your compost is ready to use. Good, finished compost has an earthy, rich aroma and is crumbly and fairly fine.
Here is a partial list of materials that you can use for composting. Use those that are readily available to you; it will make the process more efficient, and therefore more enjoyable and rewarding. Happy composting!
Dry leaves, weeds, cover crops
Small twigs, broken up
Shredded bark, no Walnut
Fresh grass clippings, or other vegetative material
Manure from fowl or herbivores
Seaweed/ pond weeds
Additives that I like to use when available
Wood ashes, (only a little sprinkle)
Forgotten too long in the refrigerator fruit juices, vegetable juices, out-dated yogurt and other dairy products. (Some sources recommend keeping dairy products out of the compost pile. If in doubt, leave it out.)
Notes from the Author ~
All images included in this article are my own.
Reference, book resource: Bradley, Fern Marshall, Ellis, Barbara W., and Phillips, Ellen, eds. Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener, revised edition. Rodale, Inc. New York, NY. (2009).
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[Edit] 08, January, 2011. (Credits)