When we first moved out here, one of the goals we had was to learn how to compost.  We read, we studied, we tried to mix different amounts of organic materials and layer appropriately.  After about 4 months, however, we discovered that the good, rich, humus soil we were aiming for, just wasn’t happening.  So, S pulled out his books yet again, and found a few problems with what we were doing.  He made a few quick and semi-temporary adjustments to experiment, and VOILA!  2 months later, we have a huge pile of beautiful, rich soil, just waiting to go into the garden.  Here is the final system he came up with, with pictures being taken during his last “stirring” of the pile:

This pile originally consisted of weeds, branches, sticks, twigs, manure, hay, straw, wood shavings and chips, garden and kitchen wastes, and even a few, small, dead animals.  In the beginning, as it was being built, it looked like this:

First, there is the crucial, basic set-up.  Mind you, if you simply throw a pile of material on the ground, it will eventually compost.  However, it will take months, or even years, to fully compost, and it will most likely use the less efficient means of anaerobic fungi to do most of the work.  If you want compost to be made quickly and efficiently, it requires an aerobic process that uses all sorts of bacteria, heat, and live critters eating and moving the components around.  You can’t control those components, but you can make the atmosphere inviting to them by creating your pile with several key ingredients: oxygen, nitrogenous materials, carbonaceous materials, and moisture.

The first problem we discovered with our original system was a lack of oxygen.  When he stirred the pile, S found lots of anaerobic fungi, slime, and stink in the pile–signs that no air is getting inside.  A healthy, well-made compost pile should NEVER stink!  Rather, it should smell, rich and earthy, which is more of a pleasent, natural smell.  In the below photo, S has ensured plenty of oxygen by creating a “bubble” of air all around the pile.  In this case, he used pallets, and fencing.

Next, he added back a few layers, thoroughly mixing some soil (which contains needed organisms) with animal manure, leaves, pine needles, straw, hay, etc.  Once that layer was several inches high (no more than about 18 inches), he added more air inlets by way of pvc piping with holes drilled into it.

He then continued layering the pile back together, effectively stirring it up as he did so.  Once the pile was built, he sprayed it down with water to ensure it was moist enough.  He had discovered another, big problem, we had was a lack of moisture.  The atmoshere is so dry here, and the humidity so incredibly low, that moisture just gets sucked right into the air around us.  Our original pile dried out very quickly.  It’s a great thing if you are hanging quilts out to dry, but not if you are trying to compost!  You don’t want the pile soaking, dripping wet, but you do need it damp.  A good way to tell is to grab a handful from inside the pile somewhere.  If you squeeze it, the soil matter (humus) should stick together in a semi-clump, as well as stick to your hands a bit.  If water actually squeezes out through your fingers, it is too wet, and you are risking setting up anaerobic conditions again.  If you open your hand and the matter is more powdery or dry, with no “sticky” or clumping factor, then it is too dry.

In the next photo, you can still see the upper part of the pvc pipes sticking out the top of the soil, and you can just see the spaces under the top section of the bottom pallet, all to help circulate the air.

Because it is so dry here, he also found that keeping our pile covered helps retain the needed moisture.  So, he places a tarp over it, and then has to spray it once or twice a week (dependent on rain and temperatures).

You can see the change it has gone through….from a pile of debris and mixed, individually indentifiable materials, to what is now almost entirely humus with a bit of straw mixed in.  It is quite literally clean and good-smelling enough, that you could sit on top and eat your lunch with no problem!  It was quite fascinating watching how quickly nature broke this stuff down and essentially sterilized it.  This set-up now allows our inner-pile temperatures to get up to 160*F, where it will stay for a couple of days, then gradually taper down.  Once it gets below 100*, S will stir it by digging the whole pile out and simply shoveling it back in, re-assembling as he goes.  These photos were his last stir of this pile.  The temperature doesn’t go as high any longer since most of the breakdown has been accomplished.  Thanks to the temperatures though, most of the unwanted weed seeds should have been killed off.  Within a week or so, it will be ready to add to the garden.

I am greatly looking forward to seeing the difference in next year’s garden, as compared to the weak production from this year.  Plants will have some awesome, natural fertilizer to pull nutrients from, which, hopefully, we can then use to nourish our family.  It is always such a neat reminder to watch something like this and realize, yet again, that God designed things to work a certain way.  That way is so much better–in every aspect–than anything man could ever develop.  God created nature to be a miraculous, highly efficient thing in itself.  We just have to learn how to work with her instead of against her.