How SoilGuy Composts
The first part of this presentation is "show and tell" - a kind of a 'historical' presentation about what it took for me to be able to compost, while homesteading my present location on the southern Texas coast, known as the "Coastal Bend".
I grew up on the coast of Texas (Freeport), so the coastal environment has been 'home' to me before. But that was on sandy soil. Where we are now, it's a whole 'nother 'ball game' since my 2.5 acres is pure 'gumbo' clay - and salty since I live on the shore of a saltwater estuary.
This page is dedicated to how I compost on MY private property, MY way, and for MY purposes ONLY. If you came to this page to specifically learn about the Frame Technique that I specialize in - go to the Frame Technique page.
Just trying to make a point - that this page is NOT presented to show how YOU should compost. If you want to copy some of the ways I do things - or modify them to suit how you do things - that's fine with me, but YOU are the only person responsible for the way YOU compost.
I've been composting for 60+ years, and just because I compost whole 'road kill' and lots of fish carcasses does NOT suggest that you should too. At least until you learn how.
You might want to start with dairy products and kitchen meat scraps - unless you fillet fish and have carcasses left (lucky person). Fish bones compost just fine - faster than warm-blooded animals, actually...
Best to use the hot, aerobic Batch method for meat, but is possible using a 'cold' aerobic method also - just requires turning/screening more often to maintain high mesophilic microbe activity and encourage other (larger) decomposers.
HOW feedstock is C:N layered is a KEY to composting meat, and understanding the nitrogen/protein relationship. But I'm not going to instruct how to do that here...
The way you compost, should be based on YOUR experience level, which means you should read up on things, and try different things, and ask questions - before you jump into doing something different. One of the places I recommend you visit is: http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/soil/?18145. Granted, there's some 'whacko's' on the forums, but many knowledgeable and experienced composters too. I don't post there as SoilGuy much anymore - I'm way to "scientific" for most of those folks...
If you post there, remember - the most important things are (1) How you PRESENT your question on the gardenweb forum, and (2) how you RE-PRESENT your question farther into the thread, to keep things "on track". Learn who you can contact privately by email or phone for answers. But some folks will want to find out if you are serious about composting, before giving you their contact information. That's a normal expectation. I recommend you visit the gardenweb site at least once per week. Get to know some of the 'regulars' there... Tell Val and Lloyd I said 'hello'.
The photo you see directly below - and also at the top RIGHT SIDEBAR ----->> is a snapshot taken of ORG Master Composter Mr. Herman Bidwell of Ingleside, Texas - standing in front of a (unfinished) 3-bin composting structure that he helped ORG members build on (and donated to) a county property for use as a demonstration facility to help train county residents.
Herman is featured here because he has taught me a 'thing or two' about composting with a Mantis Cultivator. Point is that this type of wood bin structure is the way I recommend building 'em with plywood. I also build pallet bins, cinderblock/concrete and wire bin composting containments and platforms which you can see/read about in the section on Composting Containments (still working on getting that section finished).
When I get time, this photo above, will link to a page that describes this method of constructing such a wood structure with 4" PVC split-pipe on the platform edge, to collect leachate (the liquid run-off from watering a pile) from the slope-to-front bin platform floor. You don't have to be a carpenter to build this type, but it's more expensive than a simple pallet containment - but it's also more permanent and requires less effort and cost to maintain.
The second-from-top photo is one of my Frame Technique compost piles. Some people call this a "blocked" pile. Whatever.
I originated the Frame Technique 35+ years ago, while living in south central Florida. Because of the way it's made, the pile stands on its own, even under heavy rainfall, without any support needed, even throughout every turn (as the feedstock decomposes). And is faster than most bin techniques, and produces better quality leached tea.
You can read about the technique HERE (as soon as I get the information uploaded. Hopefully soon). It's my favorite way to compost. Most of my compost piles using the Frame technique are Finished in 90 days - but that doesn't mean the compost is mature, or aged. Read about the definitions elsewhere.
Just prior to retiring, my wife and I purchased a couple of acres of land with 150' of shoreline on Port Bay (a saltwater estuary), NW of Rockport, Texas, because fishing is one of my favorite 'other' hobbies and this place is well-protected from hurricane tidal surge.
The water you see in the photo below is pretty - but is NOT usable for plants or composting. Water table on our property IS the level of the saltwater bay, that fluctuates some with tides and wind. With land only 6' over mean high water level, digging down more than 5' meets salt water. ?At present, all our plantings have to be in raised beds, since not enough clay has been changed with compost to establish our at-grade garden yet - which means that I need to make about 40 tons of compost a year.
To my way of thinking, fishing is at least as important a hobby as composting/gardening. Both hobbies are relaxing and feed us. The redfish in the photo below are usually what I fish for, and catch - in the 24" to 32" range. Very tasty. Also catch flounder, sea trout, black drum and an ocassional black-tip shark in the 3-4 foot range - fun on light tackle. Also verrry tasty when marinated in buttermilk & black pepper.
The water in the background is my 'backyard'. Under the water is MUD, OK for wade fishing, while walking in the sea grass. Water depth in this bay is only about 3' with some unmarked 'honey holes'. Bait mullet is plentiful.
But, the quality of soil on dry land, is the same. VERY salty clay. Really 'sucks'. Literally. Will hold a boot hard & fast when wet. Hard as a dang rock when dry.
8.4 pH (very alkaline), hard black gumbo clay. It is not good dirt (with less than 1% organic material in it). Very little air in the clay (because of microscopic particle size) and high salt content and high pH are the three main reasons that few plants can grow in that stuff.
In heat of dry summer, the clay has cracks 2" wide going down 2+'. Can rip plant roots asunder. When it rains, the clay turns into 'jelly' as far down as rainwater goes. Has a PVR (swell/shrink) of 3.25 inches per 10' of depth. Awful stuff. Very, very salty. But that's the kind of challenge I like to tackle - because I KNOW what high-grade compost can do to make even this mucky soil productive.
Our 80' deep well water is so salty/nasty a swallow will make you barf. The neighbor's well at 450' depth, isn't much better. The water table IS the level of the saltwater bay. Deepest I can dig on our property is about 5 feet, without having nasty saltwater come up in the hole.
We got electric power to our place, but being in the 'boonies', there's no city water (we live on rainwater harvesting), no sewer service (aerated septic system), no mail delivery and no phone line. We're on satellite for cell phone, TV and computer.
Below is an early 2007 shot of the property toward the evening sun, taken from on top of our 5th wheel next to water's edge. The pile of dirt (seen behind the tractor in the photo) is left over from installing the road. Water well had just recently been drilled, and I had constructed the Pumphouse slab around it. Way down at the opposite end is where the WindScreen and Compost Area are. Behind the pile of clay and to the left of the Pumphouse slab, is where the house was built 2 years later. We moved in May 2010.
Yeah, boonies. But awesome wildlife, especially birds. Deer walk around the house and coyotes howl closeby. Regarding composting, I have to put up with possum, armadillo, skunks and such critters digging into my compost piles for grubs sometimes, but that's not messy, with the way I compost.
Being a professional composter, I KNOW that this land can be changed, to be capable of growing beautiful strong plants, and I'm in the process of proving it. The only thing that grows in the unamended clay now, is saltgrass and some weeds. Mesquite trees are native in this area, but if any survive germination out here, they only grow to about a foot tall. Very stunted and sickly. Much of the property near us is wetlands. Soil test was not complimentary. Awful stuff.
Point is, composting is absolutely necessary for gardening out here. Much of my compost is used to make planting soil and container media. There's a difference in the recipes - depending on the kind of plants I'm gonna grow. Some compost is also used for amending the clay, so roots in raised-bed planters have a 'transition' zone before getting into the hard salty clay below. I have to be especially cognizant of drainage issues when planting.
Knew I'd need LOTS of compost for this land, so began composting in just piles on the ground, soon after we got set up in our 5th wheel trailer (that we lived in for 3 years before finally finishing our home). The first set of photos below, were also taken back in early 2007.
The green 'wall' behind the pile of grass and the Sears 3-bag riding mower is called my 'Windscreen Area' where I keep containerized plants out of the wind, (which averages 15 mph most days (and nights). The riding bagging mower is essential equipment to produce the dry grass clippings I use for 'brown' (along with shredded live oak leaves) and some 'green' clippings as well. Although trampled hay that I collect from local ranch pasture is also a 'staple' feedstock. I can tell you how to find local trampled hay around where you live, if you're interested...
Prevailing wind is from the SSE, so the Windscreen Area is angled on the property to provide maximum windbreak while working in the Compost Area. Some early planning that has paid-off, bigtime.
Next step was to dig out a pattern of pads framed with 2x2 pressure treated lumber (protected from termites, which amazingly, can live in this clay) and got tarps positioned on them, then capped the tarp edges with 1x2 P.T. lumber held with PrimeGuard screws (for harsh environment). Then began building piles on them, shown below.
Pads are easy to build, but if you're thinking about doing that (even for a wire frame bin), contact me for some advice before you get started.
Pads are 5' wide x 7' long because I use an 8' x 10' heavy-duty tarp to cover the pads, in which to collect compost leachate. No, leachate is not 'tea'. 'Tea' is aerated, while leachate is not.
The trench around the pad is flat-blade shovel width, to make cleanup easy. Trench holds about 35 gallons of tea at a time. One end of the trench is only about 1" deep, sloped on the sides toward the other end which is about a 10" deep trough big enough for a 5-gallon bucket to dip tea. Really easy to make - but figure you'll have to replace the tarp every two years. Takes about an hour for one person. There's a 'trick' to replacing, so ask me how.
My compost piles start at least 48" high and 5'x 7'x 4'=140cu.ft., divided by 27 (cu.ft. in a cubic yard) = 5+ cubic yards per pile. At average 900 pounds per cu.yd., each new pile weighs over two tons (about 4,500 pounds wet). And at over 65 years old, I do all that with a long-handled pitchfork with a 'bad back' - it's all in the technique, not so much physical strength.
Each pile decreases in volume about 45% to 50% through the entire decomposition process (depends on the composition of feedstock), but gets denser (weighs more per cubic foot), so by the time a pile is harvested, it's only a bit over 2 cubic yards, but weighs well over one ton. Lots of material to move with a pitchfork and flat shovel. But that's what I enjoy, and it keeps me fit as I get older. Learning how to compensate for age is important.
I have 7 pads, and usually have 6 piles working in various stages. At an average of 3 yards, my Framed piles account for about 18 yards of compost in process - over 8 tons.
I harvest a pile every 3-5 weeks. Depends. Sometimes on how the fish are biting...
And have other piles working too. For instance my Critter Bin (roadkill, fish carcasses, dead birds, whatever), a cinderblock set with 3/4" front slats. Don't want coyotes or other critters getting into that pile. I don't put roadkill in my regular Frame piles, but I do use all of our kitchen scraps and garden refuse in a new build, and the organic material from the 'critter' bin gets into new piles too, as innoculation material. Very rich...
I use the Batch method for all Frame piles, so only add a variety of raw organic material ingredients layered into a NEW pile. Only. I may use some molasses and/or DRY dog food in a 1st turn pile if it needs the stuff to 'fire up' again to over 135F, but nothing else gets added to any other turned piles as they age.
I'll talk about how I go about working my composting later on, but EVERY turn gets properly aerated. I started using a section of galvanized chain-link fence to aerate pile material about 25 years ago, and still do. Framed with 2x4 lumber. Photos of that later...
Because there was little freshwater available for composting, I had to haul rainwater collected from drainage ditches and small holding areas, in 55-gallon barrels to water plants and compost piles. Serious PITA (Pain In The ***. Badly needed a supply of fresh water on the property. Rainwater harvesting was the only long-term option 'cause the water company can't pipe to our place because of land access restrictions.
For you folks that use chlorinated city water on your compost piles - think about this: Chlorine is designed to kill microbes. It's very efficient at doing that. So why would anybody put poison on their compost pile, to kill the microbes they are trying so hard to raise? Is it any wonder that some folks are having so much trouble composting?
First question I ask somebody is: what do you water your compost pile with? They don't say "poison" because they don't know any better. For goodness sake, if you use city water to irrigate your plants in the ground, that's one thing. It does hurt the microbes in the dirt, but because they are in the ground, they will survive. But your compost pile is not just dirt - yet, and it's not in the ground with underlayers, that the chlorine does not get to, before it is neutralized.
Neutralize. That's the key word. Either purchase and use an Activated charcoal filter on that particular compost water hose (about $35 and lasts for up to 20,000 gallons) to remove the chlorine in your water - or use an open-top barrel to let the water sit for several days before you use it, or buy an (aquarium) chemical to change chlorine to a non-toxic state for your barrel. Rainwater is best. Buy a rainbarrel to set under a house downspout, raised up on 8" blocks. Or make a rain collection barrel - I can show/tell you how to do that and there's plenty of instructions/directions online if I haven't got around to doing that on this site yet.
In my case, there was no city water near our property, and would not likely be, in my lifetime. Rainwater was my only option, and I needed a LOT of it. Needed 75,000 gallons of it to have a consistent supply based on our local rainfall. I'm a ARCSA rainwater catchment systems professional, so I know how to do that.
I had 'done my homework' to design a layout of the entire 2.4 acres in Excel, so had a good to-scale property plan to start with. Knew where the 75,000-gallon pond was to be excavated, but needed a machine to help get that done.
About that time, my nephew-in-law decided to move, and was willing to sell his 45-hp tractor, with backhoe, which we purchased with trailer and 6' bushhog mower. In my situation (actually 'homesteading' a piece of raw property in the 'boonies'), the tractor/backhoe is essential equipment with construction. Below is a picture of my tractor. A serious maintenance commitment if you use one over 100 hours per year.
Below is a shot of the front of he property where the country road turns into our driveway. Had dug the front drainage ditchs and harvested enough compost by then, to make planting soil to install a couple of raised-bed planters. My wife is standing on the rock road.
And for goodness sakes, if you're gonna make a planter bed, remember to ask me for some advice before you do that. Some people buy some landscape timbers, make an area and fill it with bags of potting mix or delivered 'topsoil' and plant in it. NOT a good thing to do. Think like a plant... What will a plant respond when it's in too-wet potting media then roots begin to enter into the native soil with no 'transition zone'? Think about it...
Planters need irrigation regularly, which increases need for a water supply, so I'm ready to 'get down to business' with some serious rainwater harvesting. First had to get ditches dug where they were supposed to go - especially around where the house would be constructed. And then culverts installed to access certain areas of the property across the ditches. The entire property being essentially 'flat', required grading all the ditches to drain water toward the to-be-excavated rainwater catchment pond. A site-specific design based on elevations is essential.
I'd done a rainwater survey, so knew that the properties on each side of mine would drain into mine with ditches placed appropriately. With all that surface area, one inch of rainfall would provide over 10,000 gallons of pure water into the pond for irrigation and composting. In an hour. And it does.
So began digging the pond. Slow going with that little backhoe, and took shoot-from-the-hip planning, but perseverance prevailed.
The pond photo below shows the first 3/4 of the pond excavated. Needed to excavate the pond in two sections, since I needed rainwater quickly, but could not build the Pumphead underwater. Had to construct a concrete pumphead, because the land is solid clay and very mobile when wet. Got enough rain to fill the pond about half full, not long after the first section was completed. Thereafter had water for compost and irrigating plants onsite.
Then excavated for the concrete PumpHead, designed to keep the fine clay from filling in the pump intake (which can be cleaned). After excavating, then formed and poured the slab, then used ICF (foam panels connected by plastic webbing as permanent forms) in which to pour the 4" thick concrete walls. You can barely see my two helpers in the photo below, to give an idea of how large the PumpHead and pond is. Exposed portions of the white foam will receive an acrylic finish after all the backfill is in place around it. Have lots of construction photos in case anybody is interested in how this one was done.
Then had to excavate the dam between the two excavations, to release water into the finished pumphead. Photo below shows excavation of the dam almost completed, and Pumphead with pond water in it. In 2010 I plan to introduce talapia fish into the pond, which means I'll need to install an aerator. Talapia breed every 3-4 weeks, so I'll have freshwater fishing too!! After a few year the pond will 'stabilize' and will be able to support freshwater bass as well.
The next period of time was mostly spent building the SafeHouse and then our home, as I continued to make and harvest compost for planting dirt, to construct planters such as the one shown below, and for containers in which to plant veggies (seen in the background).
Below is a photo of our containerized veggie garden still in the same place, but now with a makeshift windscreen to protect the plants.
The 20-gallon containers were previously used to feed cattle mineral supplement and purchased at $2 each, a hundred at a time. Drilled holes in the bottom sides for drainage and filled with my 'veggie dirt' recipe planting dirt. We get really good harvests in containers, considering very salty, high winds.
Each season I empty the container dirt and remix it in my Mixing Bin with the tractor front loader bucket with fresh compost, with dusting sulfur (if needed to lower pH), more river sand if needed (for efficient drainage), and perhaps with other organic amendments depending on what veggies will be planted in the series of pots for the up-coming season. I usually add a bit more Endo Mycorrhizal as well.
A mixing bin is a time and energy saver when needing to mix quantities of materials, even with a shovel. Many mixing bins are constructed with easy-to-build concrete-filled cinderblock walls, but I needed an even stronger construction, so designed a 7' solid reinforced concrete bin that would take the force of my hydraulic 6' tractor front loader bucket.
Have plenty of construction photos if anybody is interested in the design and building of this one.
In this bin I mix initial compost feedstock and planting dirt, two cubic yards at a time. It's also where I usually do my shredding with the 10-hp Mackissic shredder since it faces the prevailing wind. The two lead-in 'runways' are for the tractor tires, so even in a muddy situation, the tractor is stable when lifting/mixing materials.
The next thing I needed were material bins. You will too, but probably a smaller version. I needed 7' wide bins strong enough to load material from them, with my 6' tractor front loader bucket.
That calls for concrete-filled cinderblock walls. Easy to construct for one person. Lumber for the slab form, cinderblock, rebar and bagged concrete. And an electric mixer powered by a gas generator. I needed a concrete slab for tractor loading, so poured for a 3-bin section at one time, for adding onto later. Again, I have many construction photos available.
The photo below shows the 3-bin slab poured, with wet-set rebar sticking out of two courses of cinderblock. Three courses of cinderbock to go, to make 48" high walls.
Stagger-set the cinderblock over the rebar, then when lined-up with a rubber mallet, simply pour the cinderblock cells full of concrete, wet-set the rebar, and done. Very strong.
Even before the cinderblock walls were fully set to final height, I began using the bins. In the left and center bins, there is a pile of harvested compost each. In the right bin is a pickup load of horse manure to make another pile.
In the background you can see our 5th wheel trailer on the right, and the SafeHouse has been built. The SafeHouse was our refuge during severe weather, and was where our household goods were stored. Now that our home is finished, the SafeHouse is where my compost/tea testing laboratory is located.
Since the photo above was taken in December 2007, I've added onto the bin set which has tripled in capacity and done a lot of other work - which will be continued in this section as I have time. Until then, you are welcome to use the Contact link to say 'howdy' and ask any questions about how I compost.
At present, am building a bulkhead and fishing pier, so it may be a little time before getting back to this...
Now January 12, 2010 - bulkhead is completed and pier is 2/3 completed - will get back to this soon.