The Dirt Whisperer ™

Finished compost

There was a plea for help from our friend Bryan, over at askbryan.com:

Dirt whisperer, I am not.

Compost pile thawed. It’s a big heaping stinking pile of rotten leaves at the bottom. Not compost at all. I need some cover and food for my garlic, I think. Thought I could use my compost, but it’s more like a primordial sludge with untransformed leaves in there.

I’m new at this, give me a break.

Never had so many deciduous leaves to deal with before. Specifically Oak and Maple. They don’t break down. Just wet and shiny. They’re more like super-thin robust pieces of shale than a plant. I’m impatient and tend to blow out before careful consideration.

I mean I’m so impatient I sometimes stare into my worm bins expecting some kind of magical transformation to happen while I stand there. (We know. We know. If you want, check out this post.)

The outdoor pile is less than a year old, so I don’t know what I was expecting to have happened. It’s been frozen half it’s life!

So we emailed him to check-in:

Hi Bryan,

This is Kevin over at Backyard Ecosystem. I have a couple of questions for you and I may be able to troubleshoot your compost pile problems.

How much of what you have left is leaves?

Is anything else recognizable or is it all just a sludgy mess?

What else originally went into the pile besides leaves?

If you can it would help to take a couple of photos and shoot them back to me as well. Then I will put on my master composter hat (yes I really do have one) and see if I can help you out.

Regards,

Kevin

The response from Bryan:

Thanks.

Started with a large pile of leaves leftover from fall added to a small pile of food scrap compost we’ve had going since last May.

Continually adding food scraps I find unsuitable (onions, citrus) or that would overflow my indoor worm bin. No meat, oil, dairy in either. The food has composted OK.

Only pieces of ridiculously large stuff and recent additions. But the leaves are a hardy bunch. I guess I should have never added them. They are heavy and nearly unmixable. Guess I need a real pitchfork too. The bottom of the pile was just a sludge swamp, but also that part of the yard is low and Grandpa calls it Lake George. His last name is George. (LOL… Awesome!)

We just had our first thaw and I went out to thoroughly mix the pile. Got all the way to the bottom and then kind of stretched it out longer rather than higher. Pile is probably 6’+ long, 3 feet wide, 3 feet high.

And it is now snowing steady, so nothing to take a picture of, except a heap covered by snow. Could be me laying there under the snow. (Don’t do it… it’ll all be okay. You’ve got so many things to live for.)

Thanks for reaching out.
Not a lot of compost support out there.

Also, I added a bit of ash from the fireplace today. Maybe, 2.5 gallons, maybe 3 lbs?
My best guess is that this is less than 1/2 to 1% of total weight.

Thanks again.

– Bryan

The fix:

Regarding your compost pile:

No more ashes. Keep them out of the compost. Bad stuff in more than trace amounts. Don’t worry about what is in there now, just keep it out going forward.

Turn the Pile. I know it will be hard with matted wet hunks of leaves. But this is the only way to save the situation and is part of the next steps.

You need to add more browns while you are turning the pile. I know what you are thinking, “But all those leaves are browns”. You need something with a different texture than the leaves. Branch trimmings run through a chipper, or a bale of straw (not hay, hay is a green and would make the problem worse). Paper, cardboard, egg cartons, newspaper shredded (like 1″x1″ or so squares) will also help. Stay away from receipt paper. They are coated with BPA, a cancer-causing resin. The goal here is to soak up the extra water by mixing in something dry.

You want to move the pile out of the low spot while you turn it, just fork it one pile width over as you turn it to mix in the straw. Next time you turn it move it one pile width further away.

You want to cover the pile with a tarp. You need to keep things dryer for now and once things dry out the tarp will keep things from drying out too fast.

Wait. If this week was the first time your pile thawed out then you are worrying about it way too early. While the pile was frozen during the winter it was not really breaking anything down. After things are done freezing in your neck of the woods, wait for at least two weeks before adding any more kitchen scraps.

Leaves (and browns in general) will benefit from being run through a chipper. If you don’t have a chipper you can run leaves over with a lawnmower before raking them up or better yet mow them into the lawn to help the grass. Keep the leaves to less than one third the total volume of the pile. You don’t want them to be the only brown in the pile.

Next time you have a huge pile of leaves check out the post on leaf mould and consider using some of them for a leaf mould pile.

Really the two biggest problems were Bryan’s pile was too wet and had a lack of variety in the browns. Different browns will bring in different textures and keep things from clumping up as well as drying things out by absorbing the excess water.

We’ll pass on any updates for Bryan’s pile, but in the meantime, send us your questions. What’s going on with your pile? We would love to post photos of your compost success and your most spectacular failures.

Saving the world one compost pile at a time.

6 Comments on “The Dirt Whisperer ™

  1. Wow–I feel like I got a course in composting by reading your post. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment. I hope the post will come in handy for your composting endeavors. If you know anyone who is struggling with a pile gone wrong, encourage them to post a question here!
      -The Dirt Whisperer ™

  2. I’m running an experiment. My husband made a pile of leaves in the fall and dumped them all into a wire cage. (He did this when I wasn’t looking.) Rather than admonish him, or move the pile, I’m just peeing on it. To be more precise, I’m just adding the first pee of the morning to it. That’s supposedly the most concentrated stuff. (I’d like to have a full humanure system going, but don’t have easy access to enough cover material. I figure pee diversion is the least I can do.) I know that leaves are mostly carbon, and pee has lots of N, so I’m curious to see what happens. I’m in no particular hurry about this, and besides, temperatures are still often below freezing here at the moment. I’m just going to keep at it, and see what the pile looks like in, say, late summer.

    Any predictions? Warnings?

    • Hi there Kate. Thanks for the question. You may want to check out this post. Unintentionally or not what you husband created is a leaf mould pile. Other than an occasional turning or watering (no pun intended) it won’t really need any help. We did occasionally add coffee grounds (also high in nitrogen) to our leaf mould pile.

      I experimented for a while with using urine to fend off ferocious squirrels. No such luck and it took caging everything in bird netting to protect our garden. Adding a modest quantity of human urine to compost or leaf mould should not hurt anything. Before doing it on a daily basis I would check the The Humanure Handbook which I believe Erik and Kelly recommend over at Root Simple. Composting involving human waste is outside my training as a Master Composter and is more than I intend to tackle anytime soon.

  3. Pingback: So you say you want a revolution? | Seasons in the Soil

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