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Compost Q & A; Chunks, Clips, Chicks, Yeast &…Urine?

Q. My compost pile is squidgy, has big chunks of stuff in it, and doesn't resemble dirt as much as I would like. I've got coffee grounds, kitchen waste and leaves in there (un-shredded leaves, as I'm lazy). It does get turned when the weather is nice...

    ---Jess in La Vergne, Tennessee

A.To greatly misquote Rick in Casablanca, 'you're not lazy, you're misinformed'. Turning is work! It's much easier (and ultimately a great deal lazier—and smarter) to shred those leaves in the fall as you build your pile and then just turn it once—when you collect the finished compost in the Spring.

That finished compost will be on the bottom; use it where you need compost the most, especially as a mulch under tomatoes, roses and other disease-prone plants. The shredded-but-not-yet-fully-composted leaves can then be re-piled to finish composting, or used as-is as a mulch. Shredded leaves are a great mulch for non-disease-prone plants.

The thing to avoid is starting with whole leaves; they take forever to break down, and they tend to clump up badly. And adding too much 'cold' kitchen waste will always make the process slower and the clumps bigger. That's why my coffee grounds (the only real 'hot' kitchen waste) go into my shredded leaf piles, but all the other kitchen waste goes into my worm bin. Worms can make much better compost from garbage than you'll ever achieve in an outdoor pile.

Q. I listen to your Podcast and love it. Recently my neighbors, who have an urban farm with goats, ducks, and chickens, gave me some of their composting piles of manure and straw bedding. But the compost is wet and clumpy; very different from both my worm castings and the compost I've purchased. Should I plop the mud-like clumps of compost around my plants? Or try and dry it out first?

    ---Fon in Portland, Oregon

A. What you have are piles of manure, not 'compost'. What I call "yard waste compost" can be achieved by mixing a little manure in with your shredded fall leaves. But if the raw materials are only barnyard manure and its bedding, the result is composted manure. And that phrase only applies if it's fully composted, which yours is clearly not.

You should never use any kind of manure that's still even partially raw. So let those piles sit for awhile, turning them a few times if you're able. When it looks like the kind of finished material you're used to, mix it half and half with your worm castings or 'regular' compost to balance out the nutrients. Manure from birds like those ducks and chickens is so Nitrogen rich it can inhibit fruiting; if you were to use it 'straight', it might grow the legendary 30 foot high tomato plant with three tomatoes on it.

Q. I have some yeast that has passed its expiration date. I don't want to risk making bread with it and was wondering if it should go into the compost bin.

    ---BJ from Oriental, North Carolina

A. Absolutely—especially if that bin is mostly filled with shredded leaves; yeast is alive with the kinds of organisms that naturally move the composting process along. Mix the yeast into all parts of the pile and make sure that the 'dry browns' in the pile are good and moist. Turning the pile and mixing the yeast in as you go would be doubly ideal.

Q. I just watched Mike's TEDx talk on composting on YouTube and learned so much. But I am hungry for knowledge on this subject and have a few 'follow up' questions. #1) How much sunlight should a black plastic compost tumbler get each day?

    ---Josh in Northern Florida

A. I can't believe that we're up to our fourth question already; we're cooking faster than a well-made pile!

Anyway, in my experience, sunlight doesn't seem to matter much, whether it's an open pile, sealed bin, drum, or tumbler. It's having the right mix of ingredients and moisture levels that counts.

Josh: #2) "How 'much' coffee grounds should I use in relation to leaves?"

Mike: Well-shredded leaves alone will make very good compost; adding Nitrogen in the form of coffee grounds makes it happen faster and gives you a richer finished product. 'How much' generally depends on the volume of grounds that are easily available—but I wouldn't exceed a five-gallon bucket's worth of grounds per four cubic feet of shredded leaves. (The 'classic' Lehigh compost bin is a four foot cube.)

Josh: #3) "Should I continue to add more grounds and leaves as the pile reduces in size, or let one batch finish completely and then start another?"

Mike: It's always best to make single batches at a time. If you keep mixing materials into a single pile or tumbler, you'll never get completely finished compost to apply.

And #4) "Can I use grass clippings and brown leaves from plants that aren't trees?"

Mike: An emphatic 'no' to grass clippings. Removing clippings from a lawn starves the lawn of the nutrients it needs. And if the lawn was treated with chemical herbicides, the resulting compost can kill garden plants.

But 'yes' to brown leaves that aren't from trees. Not everyone has lots of deciduous trees to supply the necessary dry brown material, so they have to be creative—like the folks who shred up old palm tree leaves in Florida and Southern California.

Q. Loved your TEDx talk! Do you have any thoughts on using human urine in a compost pile or directly on plants?

    ---- Jordan in San Francisco

A. 'No' to direct use on plants; urine is very high in Nitrogen and could 'burn' the plants--and urine can be very salty. (Using urine directly on plants is not allowed in organic agriculture in Europe.)

But if you're free of infection and not taking prescription medications, I see no harm in peeing into a pile of well-shredded leaves to provide nitrogen; it should have pretty much the same beneficial effect as coffee grounds or animal manure. But not too much, because of those salts.

Want more salty talk? Here's the Wikipedia article we got most of our info from.

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