Compost turning and screening


I have been enjoying my time at the Wheeler Farm Farmer’s Market talking to people about composting.  It seems a lot of people have a real interest in learning organic principles and getting more involved in growing their own nutritious food in their backyards.  I also encounter skepticism of the composting process due to people having bad experiences with plastic compost systems.  People also believe the composting process is complicated and a lot of work.  In reality the process is simple but there is some work to the process.  Building and turning the compost bins can be an enjoyable experience as is screening the “black gold” and using it throughout the vegetable garden and flower beds.  A new layer of compost really perks up the soil and makes the garden soil much more rich and visually appealing.

People ask why they should compost.  Compost adds fertility, feeds all the beneficial organisms in the soil and creates the “tilth” ie: the looseness of the soil needed for a healthy garden. The reality of garden soil is that most of the organic matter in the soil is used up each year by plants, worms and other microorganisms.  If new organic matter is not added regularly the soil becomes gray and hard pan which reducing the fertility, water absorption and retention ability and beneficial microorganism activity.  Thus, productivity will decrease and the number of hard to kill weeds will increase as weeds love compact, low fertility soil.

A person can buy organic material from stores, or find a good source of compost or horse, cattle or poultry manure.  If you don’t have a cheap or free source of manure or compost, you will have to spend a lot of money for organic matter if you want to keep your soil healthy and productive.  Why not make your own compost from free leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste?  Seems funny to think of throwing out the very ingredients you are driving to the store to purchase.

People who have had bad experiences with composting usually make one of two (or both) common mistakes.  The first is to utilize a single compost bin when trying to make a lot of compost.  Problem with a single bin is that you cannot separate new material from older material so coming up with separated finished compost is very difficult.  Also it is harder to mix the materials without a new place to move it to (flip it). The second mistake is that people don’t use the proper ratio of brown and green material when “building” the compost piles in the bins.  No, you don’t have to be perfect in ratios and measuring material is unnecessary.  You just have to have a good eye and layer build your piles with three parts brown material (leaves and yellow grass clippings) to one part green material (fresh plant material and grass clippings).  Start with brown material on the bottom of the pile to eliminate any slime and smell from green grass clippings.  Limit your layers of brown material to about one foot thick followed by a three or so inch layer of green material.  Wet each layer but don’t make is soppy.  Keep layering and wetting the material as described until the bin is heaping with material.

Going back to the first problem (single bin), don’t use a single bin unless you have a very limited amount of yard/kitchen waste to compost.  A multiple bin system (two, three or more bins), is the ideal way to compost as you can keep similar aged material composting together while always having a bin to place new material.  My bins are made of cedar and redwood which are rot resistant.  I enclose my bins with hardware cloth which maximizes the air flow essential to the composting process and the front cedar slats are removable to allow easy access to the materials.

Lack of oxygen causes anaerobic decomposition which is smelly, slimy and nasty stuff.  People experiencing this situation would naturally be skeptical of the process.  A properly mixed compost pile does not smell and the finished compost actually has a pleasant, sweet soil smell.

Once you have a full bin you simply flip the material with a pitch fork to the next bin which mixes the green and brown material together (with water) which quickly activates the composting process.  Each week you need to flip the bin or mix the bin again to keep the decomposition process going.   The piles will shrink as they compost.  You will be amazed to find the newly turned pile steaming with an internal temperature of around 160 to 170 degrees.  This temperature is essential in killing the potential pathogens in the raw materials while at the same time being hot enough to kill weed seeds.  Essentially the bins are cooking the compost at this temperature for a week to ten days.  The material actually turns gray and it appears singed.  Each week you turn the piles the temperature will rise (but not to the extent of the initial turning).

People who put raw materials in the ground without composting do not take advantage of these benefits which puts their health potentially at risk (especially root and leaf crops), and also adds to the hours or weeding.  Raw materials also rob nutrients from the plants as the microorganisms in the soil are hard at work breaking down the material rather than dying off and supplying the plants with the subsequent nutrients.

Once the material has been flipped (turned), four to five times, you will have compost material that is ready for screening.

I use a compost screen that fits on my wheelbarrow.  I use a pitchfork to place a limited amount of material on the screen at a time.  I use my hands to move the material over the screen which has quarter inch hardware cloth.  The material that screens into the wheelbarrow is finished compost and the material that does not screen through goes back into the bin for further decomposition.

The very act of screening helps break down the material, thus speeding up the decomposition process for the remaining material.  Screening the material also allows for the separation of the red worms from the compost to put back in the bins.

A full wheelbarrow is about 25 gallons of compost.  Think how much you would spend on this amount of material in bags at the store.  Probably at least twenty dollars as a conservative estimate.  I have a four bin system and I literally screen thousands of gallons of compost each year.  To make this much compost I have to stock pile a lot of leaves in the fall to use throughout the summer when brown material is scarce.  I also collect a bag or two of grass clippings from neighbors each week.  Just make sure the grass has not been recently treated with chemicals and herbicides as chemicals stay in the clippings for weeks.

When I clean out my chicken coop and pen I throw the straw and manure in the first bin.  This material contains both brown and green material (fresh manure) in about the right ratio mixed together so I just use this material as a complete layer.  I utilize red worms (commonly called red wigglers) in all my bins. These are special species of worms that live in leaf litter and manure.  These are not the big earthworms you use for fishing.

Red worms greatly help in the decomposition process while also adding their nutrient rich castings that are readily absorbed by plants.  The worms rapidly reproduce and my chickens love to dig in the compost bins for the tasty treats.

I can start getting finished screened compost in about four weeks.  The smaller the size of the organic matter makes decomposition quicker so shredding leaves and collecting grass from a mulching mower speeds up the process.

That is the long and short of the compost story.  You will get a little exercise and the savings of making your own compost will quickly overcome the cost of a multiple bin system.  With all the news stories about food borne illnesses it is nice to know where your food comes from.  What’s better than from your own backyard?

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About urbancompostsystems

I am a retired law enforcement officer who is an avid gardener. I have a compost bin business named Urban Compost Systems. I believe strongly in the concept of growing healthy food and I utilize chickens and redworms in my "compost system". The only ingredients that I need from outside my system are leaves in the fall and some supplemental grass clippings from neighbors. I make hundreds of gallons of compost in my four bin system. I thoroughly enjoy the summer bounty I get from my yard and I take great pride in knowing that I am using my yardwaste to make healthy compost for my yard.
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34 Responses to Compost turning and screening

  1. Tom McCoy says:

    I would like to order some compost bins from you. Cam you give me the details, I.e cost and how many you recommend? Thanks

    • Hi Tom. I appreciate your interest in the compost bins. I would like to talk to you to determine your needs. My cell phone is 801-718-4007. If you would like to see pictures of the bins I have adds on KSL.com. Just type in a general search for compost bins and the one, two and three bin systems should come up. Feel free to give me a call. I am around tonight (Wednesday) and I will be available to answer the phone after 12:30 tomorrow as I teach a morning class. Thanks again. Scott

  2. susan Cushing says:

    Hey scott, I am finally getting around to reading your blog again. Great information. I seem to be on target with everything but the worms. I don’t know where my red worms have gone, but they have disappeared from my compost bins entirely. Not sure what I did wrong. Maybe you can give me some pointers. Do I need more worms? I don’t think they have died, I just think they left my compost bins. Darn! Susan

    • Hey Susan. I think I need to stop by and do some detective work. If I can’t find the critters we will get you restocked. Let me know what you are doing on Friday morning. That would work for me. Talk to you soon. Scott

  3. susan Cushing says:

    I wanted to write this blog for everyone who reads your blogs. I am so amazed at how my garden looks since using your composting bins and composting system. Everything has grown better than ever before. The bins make it so much easier. I started with two compost bins and realized that three keeps the system going much quicker than two. Well, worth the money! I had bought a metal compost tumbler online a couple of years ago and have had no luck whatsoever. This last time I had leaves and grass in the tumbler for two months and there was very little decomposition. I give up!! Anyone want to buy my compost tumbler? I feel fortunate and lucky to have happened on to Scott and his bins. Thanks so much, Scott.
    Susan

    • Susan, thanks so much for taking the time to share your success with the bins. I am glad that I was able to help you but you did all the hard work, I just had to give you the right compost system and a little advice. You were my first compost bin customer and your success gives me confidence that I am on the right track with my business. Thanks again for your kind words.

  4. susan Cushing says:

    Scott, I have a question about insects I hope you can answer. My chard and beet greens are being eaten by something I thought were slugs. I put down slug bait and to no avail. The leaves look like something is literally sucking the life out of them. I can’t see anything on the leaves anywhere. I do notice, however, that there are white moths playing around the garden all the time and landing on the leaves. Not sure if it could be them. The other greens are not being affected. Any ideas? Thanks Susan

    • Hi Susan,

      The white moths are probably cabbage moths which lay eggs on the underside of cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower plants. The eggs turn into little green caterpillars which then turn into the moths and the cycle goes on and on. I don’t think that is the culprit with chard and beet greens. You probably have a lot of holes in the leaves which may be a leaf miner or another form of insect. Check the underside of the leaves in the early morning after you have watered to find the culprit. It could be several different kind of bugs. Look in the early morning before the bugs go into hiding.

      Good luck and let me know what you find.

      Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        I went out to look at the garden this morning and there are millions of aphids on the collards which I usually don’t see til fall. I don’t know what is happening out there it’s crazy. I am wondering if what to do to get rid of them. The only thing organic I can think of right now is washing the leaves with a mild detergent and water. The leaves on the beets and chard look like the leaf is still there but the life has been sucked out so to speak. All that is left is a membrane. It’s happening so fast I don’t know if I can save this stuff. Susan

      • Aphids are a big problem when they show up in mass. The insecticidal soap is part of the answer along with ladybugs if you can find them at the nursery. If you find them you need to water the garden well and release them at dusk so they stay put. Aphids are not always a problem but when they are they are a real problem. You may want to cut all your chard back to an inch above the ground and then destroy the foliage (don’t put it in the compost as their are eggs there). Hopefully with nothing left to eat they will move on.

      • susan Cushing says:

        Well, Scott, I made some detergent water and went out and washed the leaves of all the collards so hopefully that will help. I looked that up online as a way to get rid of them. I think maybe my other problem with the beets and chard leaves could be watering them with the sprinkler once in awhile in the day when it’s way too hot. I think the water that sits on the leaves may get hot and burn the leaves leaving a membrane looking pattern on them. We’ll see. I will no longer water them in the day. I did actually put some leaves in the compost, but I will go get them back out. I didn’t think about eggs. Thanks so much for a listening ear and your good advice. Susan

      • It very well could be the sun baking the wet leaves. I spent an hour pruning and tying up my tomatoes on stakes at the school garden and I have noticed a ton of ladybugs. Upon closer inspections I have several more tons of aphids. Hope I have enough ladybugs to keep them in check. I have never seen that many aphids on tomatoes before. Maybe I just have not been looking close enough as they don’t seem to do much damage to the tomatoes. In any event it appears this is a bad aphid season. I can’t do anything about them chemically in the school garden so I will just have to wait it out and see. I did shake the tomatoes to rid the plants of some of them. Good luck and thanks for your comments and support.

        Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Scott, I don’t have a lot of greens so I just went ahead and washed all the leaves with a mild detergent water to get rid of the aphids and low and behold they pretty much disappeared. I have washed them a couple of times and it really seems to do the trick. Also, I discovered that spraying the leaves of plants in the day does indeed cause the water to sit on the leaves and burn. All my plants are recovering since I started only watering after the sun went down. susan

      • As hot as it is it does not take much to burn the plants. Glad the detergent killed the aphids. My ladybugs at the school garden seem to be getting the upper hand on them in the tomato patch. Hope I answered your compost question from July 4 on your voice mail. Give me a call if there is anything else you need help with. Thanks

      • susan Cushing says:

        How much does it cost to get ladybugs, how many do they give you, and where did you get them? Will they stay in your garden if there aren’t a lot of aphids? Susan

      • Hey Susan, local nurseries usually sell ladybugs in packages of about 100 I think. They come in a mesh bag and you can see that they are alive and kicking. I am uncertain of the price as I have not purchased them for several years but I don’t think they are very expensive (under $10 probably). I have not had great success introducing them and having them stay in my yard. They say the secret is to water your garden well and introduce them to your aphid infested area at dusk. That way they have a good environment to hang around rather than immediately flying off. At the school garden I noticed several ladybugs before we even planted anything in the garden. For some reason I have a ready made army there without having to do anything. I am never that lucky at home. It’s worth a try but they only stay where there is a lot of food so they will go where the aphids are. Hope this helps. Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Scott, do you put compost on your garden every time you have during the summer? Susan

      • Hi Susan, I use all the compost I make. I seem to always have a project or an area in the front or back yard that needs some organic matter. I don’t think you will every run into a time when you use too much compost so go ahead and keep top dressing your vegetable and flower beds. Hope your bug problem is under control. Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Hi Scott, another question–explain to me how composting works int he winter? Or do you still add things but they don’t break down very fast? Seems like everything would freeze. Susan

      • Hey Susan,Sorry it took awhile to get back to you.  I just got back from a week long vacation to northern California.  In the fall you want to fill up all three bins with the right ratios and just let them sit all winter.  They will compost down slowly and in the spring you will need to combine piles.  The first piles compost really fast once the weather gets warmer.  The piles don’t freeze in the middle as the piles will stay warm.  That is where the worms will hang out.  Just collect all the leaves you can this fall and stock pile them.  You will be amazed how much more compost you will get with leaves as your brown material.  Grass breaks down to hardly anything but leaves have a lot more substance to them.  Hope this makes sense.Scott

      • Susan Cushing says:

        Scott, Susan here. It has been a couple of years since I have talked with you and I am well into composting but still have not utilized red worms. Actually, I haven’t been able to find any. I think I need a step by step instruction guide as to how not to kill the worms and still utilize the compost bins. Is there any way I can call you and talk for a few minutes about this process? Thanks so much. (I am the lady you helped out in Draper a couple of years ago..)

      • susan Cushing says:

        Again Scott, wondering about composting in the winter. Do you keep layering with leaves and kitchen material during the winter? Also, when do you plant your fall crop of spinach? What other seeds can you plant so they will come up in the spring? I know you are super busy no doubt but would love to hear from you. My garden is doing great. Washing the leaves got rid of the aphids and not watering in the day was the answer to burning and dying leaves. Thanks, susan

      • Hey Susan,

        In the late summer, (late July to middle of August I try and plant a fall crop of peas, lettuce mixes, spinach, carrots, beets, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage (if you can find plants), and radishes. I plant garlic by the end of August which will sprout this year but needs to overwinter to form bulbs for next July harvest. I would plant your spinach in early to mid August and let it grow until thew cold hits at which time you need to mulch it with straw and by late February to early march you will start seeing the plants growing and you will have an early spinach salad.

        In the winter keep putting your kitchen scraps in the bin. They will compost some in the winter and will break down quickly in the spring.

        Not everything you plant will get to full size but small veggies are the sweetest anyway. Hope this helps.

        Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Thanks. Also can you plant greens like collards, kale, parsley etc. to get an early start for next year? Do you plant them say mid august? susan

      • I am growing collards for the first time in the school garden and they are doing great. I have a neighbor who grows them and some of his overwintered. I think you can mulch the collards and kale and have them overwinter. Parsley is considered an annual but mine comes back the next year but not nearly as nice a plant. Parsley usually seeds out so you will have some volunteer plants coming back. I would plant the collards and kale in mid August and mulch it well with straw when it gets cold. Great experiment to see how they do. I would take some parsley inside as I do with basil to extend the season.

      • susan Cushing says:

        Hi Scott: Fall is here and it brings the question about composting in the winter. You may have answered this along the line somewhere but here it is again: Do you continue putting compost from the kitchen in your compost bins layering it with leaves during the winter? Do you still keep turning it every week when it fills up the bin or do you leave it until spring and then turn it? Hope you had a great summer. thanks Susan

      • Hi Susan, Hope the gardening season was a big success for you. To answer your composting in the winter question, in the late fall I go through my bins and screen out all the compost that is ready. I then try to use the right ratios with what material I have left (running out of green material). I heap my bins with leaves to keep my worms well insulated. Keep adding your kitchen scraps all winter and fill the bin with more leaves when it shrinks down. I do not turn the compost in the dead of winter but I try to turn it in early March. Having it sit all winter, it will shrink down and in the spring this material will finish composting pretty fast. In the spring I combine both piles into one (right side bin) and then I start a new pile in the left bin. Keep stock piling all the leaves you can this fall to use next year. If you have any more questions feel free to give me a call. Thanks Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Hi Scott, can’t believe where the time has gone. I have so enjoyed my bins and composting for the garden, it’s amazing how much better it does. I do have another question. I sifted through the last compost pile and got out what was ready. My daughter did some of the layering on this compost pile and I notice it’s pretty sticky and gooey. I think she put too much green stuff, water and not enough brown. Can I mix leaves in with it to further compost it or just let it sit til it breaks down? Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and experience; it’s so helpful. susan

      • Hi Susan,  If the pile is too slimy just add another eight inch layer of leaves and mix it all together.  I would then fill the bins with leaves to insulate the worms.  I am glad you have enjoyed the composting process and hope you are saving a ton of leaves for next year.  You will be amazed how much material you can make if you have a large supply of leaves.  Thanks for your support.  I am already looking forward for next year.   Take care,  Scott.

      • susan Cushing says:

        I went all out on the leaves and have probably 60 bags. But ;last year I ran out early so I am now more than prepared. Worms you say? I have only seen one worm all year and that was just this week. They migrated somewhere. I found some in the garden and threw them in with the pile I was just telling you about. It seemed my compost was great even without worms. I’m sure it would have been nice if they would have stayed in the bins but alas, they left their new home for some greater comfort out in the world (hopefully the garden). thanks susan

      • Now that you have your bins going, and as long as you separate the worms from the compost when screening (putting them back in the bins),  the worms will stay in the future.  Next spring I will give you more to get the population going.  It’s hard to establish worms when just starting a compost bin due to the lack of mixed material they like.  It sounds like your compost did great anyway.  We will get that situation remedied next spring.  Thanks again for all your support with my business and blog.  I really appreciate it.  Scott

      • susan Cushing says:

        Thanks Scott. You’re great!!! Susan

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