Compost piles are food for your garden, the evolution of my compost pile

For most people, the compost pile is not something worthy of a blog post.  But for the true gardeners, there is an understanding that the compost pile is the heart of the garden.

At the most fundamental level, composting is easy.  You throw a bunch of organic matter in a pile and leave it there to rot.  But as you spend more time gardening, and seasons composting, you start to learn that there is composting and then there is composting.  I am not going to go into the chemistry and process of composting.  I have nothing to add that hasn’t been spoken about before.

But what I can do is share with you the evolution of my composting pile.  When I first started out I decided to use a wire frame cylindrical frame.  This was easy to set up and did a good job of containing the compost, but it was hard to mix, and the good stuff was down at the bottom out of reach.  That combined with placing it in a shaded area meant I didn’t get the results I wanted as fast as I wanted.  I needed more compost than I could produce, so I moved on.

Wire Bin Compost Pile
This wire circle was my first compost pile. I made the mistake of putting it in the shaded corner of the yard where it didn’t get enough light to really heat up.

The next evolution of the compost pile found me out in a sunny area.  I had learned about the three bin method, where you migrate the compost from one bin to the next as it aged.  This process allows you to turn over the pile and aerate it as you move it from one bin to the next.  And that is the way to keep your compost hot, make sure it gets plenty of air down in the composting materials.  You also need to have the right combination of green and brown materials, but the real key is air and moisture.

Pallets used to make 3 bin compost pile
The pallets were used to create a three bin compost pile.

This worked pretty well, but I still found myself needing more compost than I could produce in this way.  So, I went to the next version, they straw bale enclosure.

The idea behind the straw bale compost is pretty easy.  You use straw bales to build the container that the compost goes into.  This provides a barrier that helps keep the heat in during the colder months so you can compost when other methods would have shut down.  Along the way, the straw bales start to compost themselves and provide additional carbon materials (brown) to the compost pile.  I would cover it with a black tarp to trap in the heat and keep out excess water, and I would hold the  plastic down with, you guessed it, old pallets.

straw bale compost
This shows how the pile covered in plastic.

I got a couple of years out of the straw bales, but they eventually broke down into compost. The image below shows it the second and last year that I used straw bales.  That year I decided that I still needed more compost than I was producing.  That fall, after watching truck after truck drive by bringing leaves to the dump, I decided that it was silly for them to drive by my house on the way when I could use them for my compost.  So, I invited a few of the neighbors to bring me their leaves and I ended up with a much bigger compost pile, and a tradition that continues today.

Straw bale compost pile
The straw bales break down and the pile becomes less contained.

I now had a reasonable amount of compost, and it allowed me to leave some there during the year.  And what I found out, is that during the summer, the location that normally holds the compost pile, really want things to grow.  So I have experimented with things like potatoes, and squash, pumpkins and tomatoes, and really anything that wants to grow there.  At the very least, it will become next year’s compost.

Plants growing in compost pile
For some reason, things want to grow in my compost pile.
Plants growing in compost pile
Another view of the compost pile in relation to the rest of the garden

This last fall I went all the way and put up a sign that said “taking leaves” beside the road inviting the entire neighborhood to bring in their leaves.  And several did.  I ended up with a very large compost pile.  It is big enough now that it takes up the whole area behind the white fence, and is about 5 feet deep in the fall, and about 3 1/2 feet deep in the spring.  Then a couple of weeks ago I had a friend call and ask if they could bring in their leaves, grass clippings and pine needles to throw on my pile.  “Well yeah!”

So now I have this really massive compost pile.  It is a bit of work to turn it over, but I do that to keep it composting hot.  Last Sunday I reached my hand into the middle of the pile and it was HOT!  That is exactly what you want.

Big Compost pile
The pile at the beginning of spring, and before a friend brought in another truck load of stuff.

I think this year I may have enough compost.  It still has some rotting to do, but another 4 weeks and it should be mostly ready to spread.  And my garden is going to love it.



Day 24