Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Black Gold Factory In My Back Yard

I’m a big fan of both compost and mulch. Since I live in the Las Vegas desert, I have to do things that will keep the water I spend so much money on in the soil instead of allowing for evaporation. I plant close together so that the leaves of the plants will form a green shade on the soil. I use straw to cover the dirt between the rows and plants so that until the leaves grow in, the sun won’t have anything to heat up. I use a lot of organic matter in my soil and add to it every year so that it becomes more sponge-like and holds more water. You have to do what you have to do in the desert. King Midas couldn’t afford enough water not to guard what he puts into his garden and I’m no King Midas. But I can cook compost.

I have found that the more compost and organic matter I add to the soil in my garden, the less I have to water it, even in the ridiculously hot summers we have here in Las Vegas. I have gone from twice daily watering to daily watering (50% reduction) to every other day watering (75% reduction) simply by increasing the amount of organic stuff in the soil. When I added straw the first time, I cut that down to half again. In the area where I have added wood chips, I'm averaging less than once a week, or about every 10 days. And my plants are healthy and have no water stress. (More on the wood chips later.)

I have a concrete pad where I hope to build a shed one day. It’s about ten feet by six feet. On this, I have built a three-sided enclosure to hold my compost materials. The ends of the enclosure are a couple of pallets. The front is a frame of two-by-fours with some pickets made from some other pallets. There are spaces between the pickets and, of course, in the pallets to ensure a lot of airflow into and out of the pile. The forth side is a cinderblock wall. This is where I cook my compost.
The 4' x 10' Compost Factory on the 6' x 10' concrete pad.

I put together a lot of organic materials into a big pile and add some water and some of last year’s compost for a starter and off it goes. I keep it covered with a blue tarp so it doesn’t dry out too fast. I turn it periodically when it cools off, add more water to it, cover it again and it heats up again. As it cooks down, its size reduces and I get more room in my compost bin. After a few weeks, and a couple more turns, it’s small enough to add more materials, wet it down again and cook it some more. I do this several times during the year.
The day after I turned it. If you put your hand down into that hole,
you will notice how hot it is. I couldn't hold my hand in it and
that's just after about 14 hours.
 Once a year, I pull out the pile and sift it through a screen I made from a wooden frame and some ½-inch hardware cloth. I find that I can put all of the other, larger materials back into the pile and cook it some more. It’s an ongoing and continuous process that I don’t think will ever end. It’s a lot of work, but it provides me with a lot of composted materials to add to my garden.

About 2 feet by 3 feet. Any bigger and it gets too heavy
to shake back and forth to sift. I put it on the wheelbarrow
and do my sifting into that. 
Here’s the recipe that I use. It varies depending on what I have available. The important thing is that I keep putting in stuff and it keeps putting out compost.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a guy near me that has horses and he gives me horse manure. I drive my pick-up truck to his yard and he uses a small tractor to pull it out of the stalls and dump it into my truck. I don’t even have to load it. Free and he does the hard work. How cool is that? I do have to wheel barrow it from my driveway to my back yard, but that’s not bad at all. It’s easy to pull it out of the truck.

I have way too much grass in my yard so I have lots and lots of grass clippings each week. That really heats things up during the summer, especially if the grass is green. Once it turns brown and dries out, it isn’t as much a nitrogen ingredient as a carbon ingredient, but it is bulk and does add a lot to the pile. Again, it is free. If it’s free, it’s for me.

We put a lot of kitchen scraps into it, leftovers from processing our meals. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting some grocery store waste from the produce section and adding it. I wonder how much I can process in my pile. I’m sure a store would produce much more than I can handle on a normal basis.
Every fall, I rake the leaves from my trees and my neighbor’s trees and put them into the pile. 
Eventually, I’d like to get a power shredder and grind them up into a fine powder before I add them. That would break them down much faster. As I dig into the pile and turn it, I still find leaves from the previous fall well into each fall. Plus, I want to harvest some of the leaves from a landscaping area near where I work to add to the mix. I figure I could fill my truck bed up four or five times from that spot after they are shredded. That’s a lot of leaves.

I add straw from the feed store. Originally, I got several bales of straw from a church that had a harvest festival celebration one fall and they advertised on Craig’s List that anyone who wanted it could come and pick it up. I got about a half dozen or so that time. It works great as mulch and great in the compost pile.
Just waiting to be mulch or compost stuffing or worm food.
Pretty versatile stuff.
I like to put it in as mulch first and get a season or two use out of it in that form and then as it has broken down some, I throw it into the compost bin. It’s light and airy and adds a lot of oxygen to the pile. Really lets it breathe. I have found that the pile gets very hot when it has access to lots of oxygen.

I also add coffee grounds from work, weeds my neighbors pull from their yards, bad food from the refrigerator, just about anything organic that I can shove into the pile. This is a small percentage of the bulk, but it all gets cooked down quickly.

I also add a liquid nitrogen booster in the form of, well, pee. I keep a gallon jug in my bathroom and use that instead of the toilet. I dilute it with water to fill the jug each day and add it to the pile early in the morning. Several gallons of nitrogen booster goes into the pile each batch, almost a gallon each day. I’ve read lots of material that shows how beneficial it is, but what I have found for myself is that it really gets the pile cooking hot. The hotter the better.

Yesterday, I turned the pile and watered it down. It was quite cool, as if the bacterial action had totally stopped. Today, it is really hot again. All fired up. Plus, the pile is about a foot shorter than it was yesterday. Some of that is from settling, but a lot of that is a direct result of the cooking down of the materials and the breaking down into its component parts. In a month or so, I’ll pull it out, sift it and apply it to the garden. Then, I’ll get some more manure, rake up the leaves and start all over again.

It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

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