Secrets of hot compost in winter–I think. I hope.

How’d I get hot compost in winter? I’ll tell you: I cheated. I added lots of nitrogen-rich bloodmeal to replace the green stuff that provides nitrogen in summer. “Lots” here means a sprinkling over the whole pile—maybe a couple of tablespoons—after adding four inches or so of material. Cotton-meal should work just as well, but be sure it's organic: pesticides, which are used heavily on cotton, concentrate in the seeds, which are ground to make the meal.

Perhaps I should define "winter" here: for days last week highs were around freezing, but they've been warmer recently, with rain melting last week's snow. So it's cool rather than cold, but temperatures are predicted to drop again tomorrow.

The bin is of course central to successful composting, and I’m a little reluctant to reveal mine, since even a glimpse of it will probably reduce most of you to envious teeth-gnashing. However, if you promise to restrain your wails, I’ll bow to the inevitable. Here it is, a high-class affair cobbled together years ago from a few boards and some chicken wire, built near one of the West's loveliest fences:

Compost pile_1

Yes, I know–you can't really see anything in this photo. Thank goodness. The handles at the far right are part of the ancient wheelbarrow reincarnated as a strawberry bed this past summer, pictured in an earlier post. It's parked next to the furthest compost pile and mulched heavily with pine duff.

This year for the first time I insulated the pile, putting straw between it and the fence, straw bales in front, and another, mostly brown pile outside the fence at the west end. This “brown” pile, built several days ago, currently weighs in at about 60°—not exactly hot, but clearly active. Since it’s built almost entirely of pine duff, leaves, and straw (plus bloodmeal), I’m pleased. 

At the other (east) end stand a couple of boards between the really hot pile and the other half of the compost bin, where I’ve started a third pile. I don’t have enough straw bales to surround the whole bin, but I’ve covered the east end with a tarp which I plan to pack with leaves. The photo below shows the west end of the pile, straw bales on the left, boards covering the compost-bin proper in the center, and the straw-covered brown pile at the lower right.

Compost pile

When building all these piles, I followed the advice found in several places, avoiding thick layers of leaves, since they merely pack together in slick, slimy masses, as do thick layers of grass. Instead, I’d lay about as many leaves as I could gather in my arms—not much, really—on top of the pile, sprinkle it with water and bloodmeal, then add a thicker layer of pine duff or straw. One source all but requires that one mix ingredients BEFORE putting them in the pile, and I did some of that too, using my excellent, big wheelbarrow as mixing bowl.

I’m a little low on material this year, because that hail-storm last summer (remember the hail-storm?) cut my windfall apple collection (not to mention my fall apple harvest) hugely. But I’ll make do.

The temperature of the first pile, which hovered near 140°F for about a week, fell to 120° by Friday, Nov. 28, and to a little over 80° by Sunday the 30th. I’ve read in a couple of places that a pile can stay at 140° for weeks, though most people say only a few days. One source recommends poking “breathing holes” into a pile for aeration, and claims (I think—it wasn’t real clear) that this makes turning unnecessary. I have poked and poked, using the crow-bar hung over the edge of the compost-bin in the second photo, but have not managed to boost the temp again, so this afternoon I hurried out before a physical therapy appointment and turned the big pile bit by bit onto the small one, fluffing it up as best I could with the gardening fork.

I didn't add any more bloodmeal, because I want to find out if it's actually necessary at this point or not. If the pile heats right back up again within a day or two, then the problem was a lack of oxygen. (It sure felt compacted.) If it doesn't, it needs more nitrogen as well. Since the east end of the bin isn’t as well insulated as the west, it’ll be interesting to see how it does. Clearly, this is not a controlled experiment.

I got the pile turned just in time; my physical therapist said yeah, the crutches I'd used after foot surgery had probably caused the problems I was having in my shoulders (!) and pronounced a ten-day moratorium on heavy lifting etc. (Ten days!) So I'll need to recruit some help if more nitrogen is needed. Anyone out there accepting bribes these days?

7 Responses to Secrets of hot compost in winter–I think. I hope.

  1. You need a compost auger.
    There are some that can be attached to an electric drill therefore saving strain on shoulders or lower back. These can, however, be a bit feeble. Even better is a beefy one with a big wooden handle.

  2. I agree with James—a compost auger would be handy. I’ve read the same advice about breathing holes. All breathing holes do is prevent the pile from getting too compacted–I’ve never had a pile heat up just from poking holes into it.

  3. this is so wicked! I am going out to buy hay bales right now. i live in London, I may be some time

  4. LOL…compost bins and piles are always beautiful to us gardeners no matter how fancy or plain!
    I’m in the process of building a new bin out of straw bales so soon mine will be as pretty as yours and I won’t have to have compost envy, lol!
    Luckily I have so much chicken, llama, and camel manure that mine is always hot…that and I live in W. Washington State where it rarely gets below freezing!!! Kim

  5. Yes, James, I do. I’ve got an aerator (the type with wings), but have never been very happy with it. I tried the “punch a hole” technique partly to test it–and my verdict is the same as yours, Colleen: it doesn’t work.
    BTW, welcome, Colleen. Do you use an auger yourself, or an aerater, or an old-fashioned pitchfork? If you answer a), auger, do you know where to find one that doesn’t have to be attached to a drill? If you do know, would you be willing to share the information for less than the cost of the item itself?
    If we don’t see you back online by Friday, Emma, we’ll send out a posse. I got my bales very cheap because they’d started rotting. Since I’m not trying to feed them to livestock (or my family, I hasten to add), this is if anything an advantage.
    Envy all you want, IAF, you can’t have mine. But I sure envy you your manures. What do you think the U.S. Mail would do to us if you shipped me some?

  6. Emma, come here! We have bales a plenty!
    And Kate – our local farmer delivers trailer loads of poo to our allotment for £15 (about 20USD at current conversion rates) from an ORGANIC farm!

  7. VP–I am sick with envy. One of these days, I’m going to have to get a truck, so I can get stuff like this myself.

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