Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the September 30, 2012 Newsletter issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

At this new location I'm favored with having neighbors who have lots of straw they're eager to have removed from their freshly mowed properties, and other neighbors glad to rid themselves of horse and chicken manure, and yet another neighbor with an excess of unneeded shipping pallets. To me this situation means one thing: Good composting potential. You can see my newly wired-together compost bin made of shipping pallets above.

On the left I've forked in seven double layers of alternating hay and manure. After depositing each double layer I soaked it with water. The picture was taken a couple of weeks ago and I water the heap from time to time, keeping in mind that when the compost turns black and smells like a sewer it's too wet, and when the straw turns white, it's too dry. Occasionally I dig into it to see how things are going and I'm always impressed by the heat, in some places so intense I can't hold my hand there for long. The heat is caused by microbes doing their jobs of decomposing the heap. During two weeks the heap has diminished by about a quarter of its size in the picture, as hay and manure gradually becomes compost.

The bin has three compartments because once the decomposition slows down and there's less heat produced in Bin #1 I'll pitchfork the whole heap into the middle bin, placing straw that's been on the heap's outside -- and thus not getting "cooked" like straw inside the heap -- inside. Redoing the heap also aerates the whole thing. This will cause the "cooking" process to start all over.

The aeration is important. You can think of composting as following a recipe in which you have to balance just right the ratio of carbon (carbohydrates in the hay) with nitrogen (urea and other nitrogenous compounds in the manure), plus water and air. If any of these four major ingredients is missing or not of the right amount, good composting won't take place. Once the heap is reconstituted and its decomposition is begun again in the second bin, a new heap of fresh straw and manure will be piled into the first bin. Eventually the entire forking and reconstitution routine will be repeated, moving both heaps to the right. At the end of that cycle, what comes out of Bin #3 will be high-quality, spongy, nutrient-rich, sweet-smell compost.

In those black bags at the right in the picture is chicken manure. That's such powerful stuff that I keep it aside for side-dressing leafy crops needing nitrogen.