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Compost is good for the garden and reduces waste. What’s not to love? Well, turning it. That’s not an easy job. It can cause achy backs, and with some composter shapes, it’s awkward to downright impossible.
How often do you need to turn compost? Is it even necessary? Can you just stir it with a stick or poke it with a pitchfork to aerate it?
How often you turn compost if at all, depends on what is being composted and the method. A hot pile that smells must be turned immediately. A regular hot pile needs to be turned every 2-4 weeks, where some can wait 4-5 weeks. However, there are cold composting techniques that require no turning.
Turning compost has many benefits, including speeding up the process and avoiding overheating. However, turning it too often, more than every two weeks will sabotage your composting efforts.
Also, some aerating techniques and composting methods can limit and even eliminate this potentially back-breaking work.
3 Reasons to Turn Compost
When it comes to composting, gardeners are full of opinions, and there is little agreement. Even if you should turn your compost is of huge debate. But those in the pro-turning compost camp have some compelling reasons for the practice.
1 – Keeps Compost From Overheating
So, your hot pile slowly builds up heat over a week or so and will reach up to 130 F (54 C) and do a lot of great work over 2-4 days. Then it begins to cool back down slowly.
Ideally, you turn it once it is cooled below the 70 – 100 F (21 – 37.7 C) your fungi and actinomycete adore. This whole cycle takes between 2-5 weeks, depending on compost size, container, and climate.
However, not all compost starts cooling down after hitting 130 and will keep cooking. Once it reaches 160 F (71 C), a lot of your helpful critters are going to die. (You can buy compost thermometers if you want to keep track of this.)
Turning your compost will not only cool it down but will also redistribute the surviving microbes that were hanging out in the cooler areas so they can get back to work.
2 – Prevents Compost Compaction
As more and more material is added to the compost pile, the stuff in the middle and bottom becomes compacted. As a result, compaction reduces space for air, which your helpful microbes require.
Compaction is part of why waste in landfills mummifies rather than degrades, even if it is a newspaper or a carrot. You don’t want to preserve yesterday’s kitchen scraps; you want them to become the gardener’s black gold.
3 – Reduces Microbe Deaths and Odor
Frying your microbes isn’t the only way to snuff them out in your compost. They also require oxygen. As they are gorging away at your compost banquet, oxygen is being depleted. Eventually, there isn’t enough oxygen left in there to keep the helpful microbes alive.
This is when compost goes anaerobic and begins to stink, often like rotten eggs. Or the compost begins giving off excess nitrogen and starts to smell like ammonia. Thus, turning your compost reintroduces oxygen to depleted areas and reduces the chances of stink.
Alternative to Turning Compost
Turning compost can be hard work that many would like to avoid. Some decide it isn’t necessary, don’t care if it stinks, and are happy to wait for however long it takes.
Some just poke their compost every month or so. You can do this with a long sharp stick or pole. Others buy compost aerators. These look like giant corkscrews or harpoons and are used to jab into the heap so gas is released and the air gets in.
However, there are also clever ways to build your compost that eliminate the need to turn a heap. These methods tend to take a bit longer than the traditional turn every 2-5 weeks. But they still do the job.
Airflow Tube Composting
Airflow tube composting is when you build your compost with some airflow tricks built-in. The compost is layered over a wooden pallet to allow circulation below. The base layers have the bigger debris, such as wood material, and then the lighter garden and kitchen refuse is higher up.
While constructing the compost, and adding the layers, have at least two tubes in the center. These need to be at least 2 inches in diameter (2 cm), long enough to reach the bottom and have holes in them throughout their length. These tubes can be made out of PVC pipe or constructed out of chicken wire.
The tubes will allow air in and gas out while also providing a very easy way for you to provide any moisture, should it require.
Lasagna gardening, also called sheet composting, prepares a future raised bed for vegetables or flowers. You can do this at any time, but most like to do it in autumn, so it is ready for spring planting.
Step 1: Build the Frame to the Lasagna Garden Bed
Mark out the area you want to use for your future bed and build a foot-high border.
Step 2: Layer with Newspaper or Cardboard
If using newspaper, you need it to be black and white print and 3-4 sheets high.
If using cardboard, use a single layer and dampen it.
Step 3: Green Layer
Over your paper or cardboard, layer your softer “green” waste. This can be coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps, or manure. It’s generally advised to use at least two types, such as grass clippings with fruit and veg scraps.
Step 4: Brown Layer
Now add your tougher materials. These include leaves, shredded paper, straw. You can also use sawdust but makes sure it is thinly layered.
Step 5: Repeat Layers
Repeat the layers, alternating between green and brown until your “lasagna” is about a foot high.
Step 6: Cover Your Lasagna Garden
You can stop with a final brown layer and leave it. However, some find there are fewer pests and potential mess if dampened burlap bags are placed over your final brown layer.
Step 7: Spring Planting
Come spring, check and make sure all has broken down. If so, you’re ready to plant.
Trench composting doesn’t eliminate the need for a shovel. However, you only use the shovel at the start and, depending on your choice, at the end of the process. People generally do this in early autumn, so the soil is ready for spring. You begin just like it sounds: you make a trench.
Step 1: Dig A Trench For Your Compost
Your trench should be 1 to 2 feet wide and the same deep and for as long as your sanity lasts.
Step 2: Fill Your Trench With Compost
Fill your trench halfway up with softer composting items such as kitchen scraps, weeds, and dead flowers. (Wood chippings and branches are not ideal for this method.)
Step 3: Cover Your Trench
Yes, just cover it up with the soil you dug out to make the trench. Do not compact it. The soil will gradually sink as it rains, and the materials below break down.
Step 4: Wait Two Seasons
People usually do this in autumn, so it is ready for spring planting.
Step 5: Plant Over or Dig Up Your Trench Compost
Now plant over your compost trench or dig it up to spread that black gold goodness all over your garden.
Tumble or Rotating Compost Bins
Another way to avoid the pitchfork or shovel method is by buying a tumble or rotating compost bins. These are off the ground and barrel-shaped, often resembling giant rock polishers. When the compost is due to be turned, you crank the handle and give the contents a good tumble.
How often you give the tumbler, a churn depends on the model and size. But they usually have their own instructions. Also note, not all models are equal. There are styles folks find easy to turn, and then there are those that are a misery to use.
Other Advantages of Tumbling Compost Bins
- Reduces attracting vermin
- Saves your back
- Saves space
While people still turn compost, there are other methods if turning a heap isn’t for you. If you are going to keep a hot-pile, do not turn it over more than every 2 weeks, and you can often wait for as long as five weeks.
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