When I was a kid, our ‘compost pile’ was a heap of vegetable and fruit scraps cast onto a piece of ground surrounded by a short wall of cinder blocks. It was regularly investigated (and sometimes raided) by the dog and various resident small mammals and birds. Every year or so, my mother threw some lime on it. Occassionally she dumped wood ashes on it as well. I don’t think any one of us knew what we were doing. We thought, we’re ‘composting’ ; it’s ‘good for the garden’. Was it? I don’t know. I can tell you that one shovel full of it contained hundreds of red worms. The soil beneath the unrotted pile of orange peels, onion skins and coffee grounds (among other things) was black, crumbly and fecund.
I have never purchased worms. All I ever did (and continue to do now), is throw junk on the ground and the worms find their way to it. Keep in mind that temperatures created by hot piles repel worms. Red worms like cold compost piles rich in organic matter. Both styles of composting eventually break down into crumbly beautiful soil. See the tight white bands on these worms? Those are the kind you want eating up your organics. BTW this is a stock photo. I just wanted to load something so you could see a red worm.
How To Create a Hot Compost Pile
Later in life, I discovered if I placed fresh grass clippings in a pile, the pile quickly heated up (24 hours or less) and gave off a peculiar, hoppy smell. Within a day, the temperature inside of the pile could become too hot to touch.
Now at the ripe old age of 53, I am well acquainted with how composting works and how to do it. I won’t bore you with my understanding of the science behind composting. I’ll leave that to the experts. Certainly, this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the topic.
Recipe for Hot Compost Pile
So I thought I would show you my recipe for an extra hot composting pile. It’s a pleasure to be master chef to such wonderful organic chemistry and the building blocks of soil with tilth and texture. This recipe will give you a pile that gets very hot (155 degrees) within 24 hours and that decomposes rapidly (but not fully) for use in the garden (about 30 days…and faster if you turn it).
Step 1: Collect freshly mowed grass.
Ideally, the grass clippings will contain some dried leaf or grass matter as well as the green grass. The best compost is made with a combination of a nitrogen source (fresh grass) and a carbon source (dried leaf matter).
Step 2 (Optional) Add manure.
If your mixture of grass clippings is heavy on the carbon side, you can use manure as a nitrogen source. This is a waste can with some dried chicken droppings. Chicken droppings are an especially high source of nitrogen because the chickens excrete urea along with their solid waste.
Step 3: Layer the clippings and the manure
And then give each layer a solid spritz of water. No need to get the grass soaking wet. In this photo, the water is helping to wash the manure into the pile.
I hope that thermometer isn’t going in the steaks we’re having for dinner.
Step 4: Watch the pile heat up.
If you finish your pile in the evening, by the time that you wake the following day, you will see the pile steaming and see that a circular portion of the top of the pile has turned brown. This is because the extreme heat of the pile’s interior is venting to the top and cooking the vegetation. This thermometer is registering a temperature of 150 degrees approximately 6 inches into the pile. The temp will remain this high for about 3 days before cooling. For more information on this process, I encourage you to read the Illinois Extension Service article on the topic (the link is above)
Finishing the Composting Process
This kind of composting won’t degrade into beautiful, crumbly earth without frequent turning. In the fiery beginnings that I create with grass and manure, the vegetable matter cooks down into thick layers that prevents oxygen from entering the pile. Without oxygen, the best composting bacteria die off and the pile becomes home to less effective anaerobic bacteria.
Additionally, the cold pile I had as a child was a close friend to the redworms that lived just below the soil surface. They could munch away at the pile from the ground underneath never having to worry about getting scorched by composting heat.
So here’s what I do. After about 3 week, the pile is reduced to about 1/4 of the size it once was. I lift the slimy, half-decomposed layers from the pile and use them to create tiles of weed and drought protection in the garden. These permeable mats allow water in, but hold moisture and weeds down. Additionally, they become a food source for all kinds of insects, including earthworms (though red worms don’t seem to like my raised beds). Inspect my garden at the end of a growing season and you’ll see the reminants of these compost tiles amidst beautiful coffee grounds of soil…the left over spoils of many a worm banquet.
So Tell Us about Your ‘Cold’ Compost Heap
Next to my Bechtel crab, I regularly throw a considerable number of eggshells and various vegetable peelings and discards. Interestingly, depending on the time of year, that location IS home to a decent population of redworms (though nothing like we had in the garden back home (lack of food maybe? Soil structure? Growing zone?)
Another great way to compost is the trench method. I’ve been using this in the garden for a few years and the results are favorable. In the fall, I dig a trench in the garden, and then dump whatever compostable materials I can find into it: manure, kitchen scraps, grass, slimy compost, etc. Then I cover each row with the newly dug earth from the next row.
These rows winter over. Surprisingly, depending on the site, it can take awhile for worms to compost this material. If you plant in the spring, make sure the soil has settled sufficiently, to prevent air pockets below emerging roots.