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Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

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Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  debbiecrocker on 4/27/2015, 11:04 pm

Hi y'all, I need some help.  I started an open bin compost pile last September.  It was moving along, doing its thing nicely all Fall.  Autumn ends around December here in VA, so it had a few months to cook before the winter.  I added a lot of brown leaves in late November, and now, almost into May, they're still whole and the pile is cold.  (I know now that I should have broken down the leaves a bit!)  I stopped adding anything to the pile in January, hoping that the compost would be ready for Spring planting.  Alas, it was not.  Sad    So, my questions are: 

1.  Should I run over the large bits now with a lawn mower to break them down?
2.  I have been adding greens (kitchen scraps), but no browns.  Is this right?
3.  Can I restart the pile and get it hot again?
4.  Should I just scrap the whole pile and start over?

I have also discovered quite a lot of ants in the pile the past 2 times I turned it, as well as numerous weeds.  I'm assuming that the ants and weeds would disappear on their own accord if I could heat up the pile again...

Thanks for helping a newb!
Deb

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  yolos on 4/27/2015, 11:23 pm

@debbiecrocker wrote:
I have also discovered quite a lot of ants in the pile the past 2 times I turned it, as well as numerous weeds.  I'm assuming that the ants and weeds would disappear on their own accord if I could heat up the pile again...
What kind of leaves are you using.  I have live oak leaves and they take a lot of green or nitrogen rich material to break them down.  They have to be shredded and kept moist or they will just sit there.

It is my understanding that if the pile is adequately moist, the ants will stay away.  I have one pile of just shredded oak leaves and coffee grounds.  I went out to the pile last weekend to check it out.  I noticed a ton of ants even though the pile was moist from all the rains we have had this spring.  I noticed that the ant nest was underneath a piece of cardboard that kept that part of the pile dry.  I removed the cardboard and after the next rain, the ants were all gone.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  debbiecrocker on 4/28/2015, 12:26 am

I believe they are mostly oak leaves.  

I had thought that the pile was pretty wet from all the rain recently, but I will recheck and turn it again tomorrow.  (Before we're supposed to get more rain Wed- Fri!)  

Yolos- I love the vertical garden in your profile picture!  This is my 2nd year small-space gardening and I am branching into more vertical growth.  Pole beans and sugar peas are in already, and am working on a plan for cucumbers.  Last year I had bush cukes, but will try vining ones to save space this year.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  sanderson on 4/28/2015, 1:04 am

It sounds like you are doing the cold compost method that can take a couple years to get compost.  Hot method composting can provide usable compost in 18 composting day plus 7 resting days = 25 days.  Mine usually take 30-40 days because of not tending on schedule.

http://www.klickitatcounty.org/solidwaste/fileshtml/organics/compostCalc.htm

Selecting dry or wet leaves and vegetable waste:  plug in 10 for leaves and 1 for veg waste, should give a nice hot compost.  The bottom number should be 30 or a little less.  Wet while building and do it in one day.  Frequent turning and wetting when too dry, should give you usable compost within weeks.  This means ten 5-gallon buckets of leaves and one 5-gallon bucket of veggie waste.

Plug in leaves and horse manure, 2 for leaves and 1 for manure, also works.  Two 5-gallon buckets of leaves to one 5-gallon bucket of horse manure.

I think oak leaves take longer so I hope someone else jumps in and comments on your situation.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  yolos on 4/28/2015, 6:35 am

Leaves - all depends on the species and if the leaves are fresh or old.  New fallen leaves have more nitrogen than older leaves (or so I have read on the internet).  When I first started composting and couldn't get a hot pile, I visited many composting forums.  Some tidbits - the components should be measured by weight not volume ????  But virtually nobody weights things.  Therefore I was told that 3 part leaves to 1 parts grass (by volume) would get it hot.  That does not work for my leaves/grass.  I have to do 1 part leaves to 1 part grass and I can get a hot pile.  But all the grass is long gone before all the leaves are composted.

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Add manure

Post  Razed Bed on 4/28/2015, 12:21 pm

By all means, any time you can, shred everything you can as fine as you can.  Leaves take a long time to break down on their own.  Shredded leaves with grass clippings can be quickly composted with enough heat.

Add nitrogen, like chicken poop, and add things that will encourage the organisms you need to break it down.  From another post, I explained how we use nutritional yeast, blood meal (we are now out of this, so we now have hen/cow/horse poop), and unsulphured molasses (soon to substitute sucanat).

If you want to see a non SFG guy make fast compost (10-14 days), check out this video online. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDPAbkUUT-o

Warning: Once you start making compost as fast as this, you cannot stop.  It becomes addictive.  When you get to the point where you go out at Midnight to pull some weeds to fill up a garbage can, you are ready for composting anonymous.  Hello, I am Razed Bed, and I'm a Compostaholic.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  sanderson on 4/28/2015, 12:27 pm

Razz

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  CapeCoddess on 4/28/2015, 12:30 pm

HAHAHA, RB!  I used to be a compostaholic, too. 

Debbie, I use mowed oak leaves in my pile.  Back when I used to turn it every weekend it would get really hot and take about 9 mths to be ready.  Now I turn is about twice a year and it takes about 9 mths to be ready.  Shocked  So I have 2 piles going almost all the time - the one I'm using and the one that's cooking.  

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  Cajun Cappy on 4/28/2015, 12:40 pm

Oak leaves are slow to break down and they lay flat and make a mat that sheds water.  So think for a while.....hmmmm sound like something that would be good repurposed??  Oak leaves make great mulch.  Think about it.  Put your coffee grounds and house hold greens in your compost pile and things that do not break down good use for mulch.  Oak leaves are great for mulch cause they do not break down fast Bananna leaves are bad mulch cause they break down fast so which one ya think goes where??

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  debbiecrocker on 4/28/2015, 1:29 pm

Hmmm... perhaps I could build another container and start a hot pile and just leave this one cold.   I do have a neighbor who has "aged" chicken poo that I could probably gather and add. (We are, unfortunately, not allowed to have chickens in our neighborhood.)  

The only time my pile was hot was last year after my son added the grass clippings from mowing.  Guess I'll have him dump those in again now that we're in mowing season again.  

I went ahead and used some of the leaves from the compost bin like leaf mold when I worked my garden soil.  But sadly, I did not have lovely homemade compost to add as well.  Sad

Oooo, thanks for the links, razed bed and sanderson.  I'll check them out tonight.  For now, though, it's outside to the garden!  (Tee hee!)

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  debbiecrocker on 4/28/2015, 1:40 pm

Thanks, everybody!  You've been very helpful.  And oh my, how you make me laugh!!   Laughing

Here's a new question:  If I mow over all the contents, will I kill any worms that are present? Also, what about buying some worms and tossin' them in?

Alright- I'm really heading out to the garden this time!   Razz

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  sanderson on 4/28/2015, 5:05 pm

Quick reply, Debbie.  For a hot pile, don't intentionally add worms.  They will flee the hot pile.  For hot compost, add fresher manures.  They will kick up the temps.

Old, aged manures are basically like fertilizer and for poultry manures, use sparingly.  Also, well aged manures can be one of 5 parts of compost for Mel's Mix or for replenishing or top-dressing.

If you want to compost your own materials, invest in a 20" probe thermometer.  Cost with shipping is around $30, maybe more this year.  That way, you will know exactly how hot the core of the pile is.

Size for hot composting:  minimum of 3' x 3' x 3' or maximum of 4' x 4' x 4'.  There is a "critical Mass" needed to really heat it up.  135* - 160*F.

This is the hot method that Audrey and I use. http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t18500-compost-berkeley-18-day-hot-method?highlight=The+Berkeley+18


Last edited by sanderson on 4/30/2015, 12:50 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  debbiecrocker on 4/30/2015, 12:24 pm

Update:

After all of your insights, I decided to remove my old pile of compost from my bin.  I piled it next to the bin so it can continue doing its cold thing for a while.  Then, I started a Drunken pile (using directions from Razed Bed's attached video) since I need finished compost ASAP!  I'll let you know how it goes in a few weeks! 

Thanks for all your help everyone!
Deb

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I forgot to mention

Post  Razed Bed on 4/30/2015, 1:25 pm

We add ground alfalfa to our piles sometimes, and it is like adding an extra five charcoal briquettes to a charcoal grill.  If you are brave enough, try putting a little in a smoothie too.

Alfalfa is an excellent addition to compost.  It is one of our key ingredients in our compost teabag.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  Zmoore on 4/30/2015, 1:31 pm

I'm a newbie "composter" and I'm still trying to figure some stuff out, but one neat thing I discovered that I'm really pleased with results so far.  I needed a new leaf blower, so I bought one that also had the vacuum attachments, basically allows you to run the blower backwards.  Anyway, that really dices up leaves nice.  I used it to clean up a few "corners" around my house where leaves tend to pile over the winter and then dumped the diced up leaves on my compost pile.  Looked good.  
Anyway, so there I was standing next to a pile of straw I had waiting to be incorporated into the compost pile... I wonder... Yep, works great on straw too!  The vacuum attachment I have comes with a little shoulder bag that collects the material.  Doesn't take long to fill it up, so I wonder... the material is already where I want it, what if I just took off the bag..... Yep, works great.  
Don't let your neighbor see you though because they'll think you're crazy, vacuuming up straw in front of you and blowing it all right back on the ground behind you.  Can get a little... "dusty" too as all the diced up material starts to float all around you.
I've done the "lawn mower" thing and that works fine too.  The new blower/vacuum cost me about $250 total ("tax-title-walk out the door"), so it's not an economical "solution" to go by one just for mulching, BUT if you're getting a blower Anyway.... at least that's how I rationalized it to my wife affraid .
 I started a couple compost piles late last year.  Kind of a half-hearted start, hey I piled some stuff together, how difficult could it be.  I even flipped the piles a few times.  At the beginning of this spring I was looking forward to "homemade" compost, I didn't have it.  Went to Home Depot and bought compost.  So, I'm trying to "play" with my piles a little more.  Just amazes me the little nuisances.  I'm trying to grow some things, I can't even get things to rot right.  How am I gonna grow anything Evil or Very Mad .

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  CapeCoddess on 4/30/2015, 5:05 pm

Zmore, that post really got me laughing!  Laughing With you, not at you. hehe

I have one of those blow/vac/mulch things and I used to put the shredded leaves back on the perennial beds.  Now I don't bother to take the fallen leaves off the perennial beds...or the strawberry bed.  But I love the idea of leaving the bag off...and I KNOW it's going to be a dusty, which really made me laugh just imagining that, coz it can even be a bit dusty with the bag on on dry days.  Too funny, but a great idea.  I'd have to wear a mask and goggles...and something to cover my hair...and all my skin...and clothes.

You could bag mow some grass and get that compost pile cooking!
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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  Triciasgarden on 4/30/2015, 6:05 pm

Great ideas people!

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  Elizabeth on 4/30/2015, 7:04 pm

I have only scanned the post.  I hope I am not repeating someone else's advice. 

Leaves do best shredded prior to adding to a compost bin.  Oak leaves, especially live oak leaves take longer to break down. 

You need a lot more green.  If you have a bagger for your mower add grass clippings and toss.

If you do not have a bagger you can source greens from your local produce market and grocery stores.  They toss vegetable trimmings. What a waste. Talk to the owner/manager.  Bring bags or other containers and ask for the trimmings. The trimmings are usually rather large so you will need to cut them down to 1" size.  Toss into your leaves.

Query rabbit breeders in your county.  There are 6 breeders in a 5 mile radius of my home.  I show up with 5 gallon buckets and a spade.  I get all of the rabbit poop I can use FREE.  Toss that into your pile. 

Query horse farms and horse breeder in your county.  They have piles of manure.  Visit with a truck or a trailer or both.  Ask for the oldest, most cured manure.  Add to your compost.  Some breeders have a tractor with a loader and will load for you.  Bring a spade in case you have to load it yourself.

Consider bins instead of a loose pile.  My DH built 2 adjacent bins from scrap lumber and chicken wire.  He helped our neighbor build bins with pallets that she got free from big box stores.

I like having 2 adjacent bins.  Much easier for me to toss from bin to bin rather than try to turn my compost in one bin.

WARNING:  Composting is addictive! Shocked

Good luck

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  littlesapphire on 4/30/2015, 9:26 pm

I just wanted to add, about leaves not breaking down.  I've read in several gardening books and especially in the book The Complete Compost Gardening Guide, that fallen leaves have lots of tannins in them, and that the leaves won't break down until the tannins are leached out.  The leaching part usually happens over winter, and then starting the following spring, you can start composting them.  If your leaves were covered or bagged through the winter, they might not have fully leached their tannins (I accidentally did that with some of my leaves last winter, oops!).

My composting operation goes like this: in the fall, I fill  my open compost bin with shredded leaves, garden debris, grass clippings, and then I add my kitchen scraps to the top all winter long.  Then the following spring, I start turning it every week or so.  In the mean time, I start adding my grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and any extra leaves I have left over to a second pile.  After about a month or two of turning, my first pile is just about done and I set the whole pile aside to cure, and focus on adding as much to the second pile as I can.  By fall, I have a huge heap of completed compost; I add some to my garden and bag up the rest.  The second pile of compost material gets all the shredded fall leaves, and the whole thing starts over again.  Honestly, I like the cold composting method.  It's a lot less work, and I still end up with a cubic yard of compost in the end (which is a lot for a small garden).

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  jimmy cee on 4/30/2015, 11:30 pm

Take these leaves out of your compost pile, spread them out and dry them ( they'll dry rather quickly on nice days )
I take mine and drop them ( dried ) into a large garbage can, then I shred them up with a weed whacker being careful to wear a respirator. and safety glasses.
I have 15 large bags to do as my compost grows. It grows with horse manure, cow manure, discarded veggies, kitchen waste from all of winter, cardboard, shredded paper, used coffee grounds,
I love composting ....WHY ??? it helps bring me closer to S.F.G.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  yolos on 4/30/2015, 11:37 pm

After I finish building my fall compost pile, I keep shredding extra leaves (live oak leaves) until I get a big bin of them.  I water them as I put them in the bin and cover with black plastic.  I look at them every once in a while to make sure they are still damp and stick a pitchfork into the pile and move the leaves around.  When spring gets here, they are then ready to start composting with green material.

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Re: Last Fall's leaves not breaking down in compost

Post  jimmy cee on 5/1/2015, 8:47 am

Yolos
Isn't that great, a refreshing way to bring back our young lives when we frolicked in large batches of leaves.
I loves leaves, however, kinda sad when they drop from the trees. I wish they stayed on trees all the time.

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