Hot Compost at Last!

One of my earliest improvements at Panther’s Hollow was a real compost bin built out of old pallets that were lying on the property. I had it built in a convenient spot between my house and the storage shed.

Soon after, a visitor remarked that I probably shouldn’t have my compost so close to the house (about six feet away), in case it would catch fire. I looked at her incredulously. “I wish I had to worry about that!” I said.

Despite my efforts, I had never been able to get a compost pile to heat up noticeably. I know you’re supposed to have at least 9 cubic feet, and as an urban gardener my piles rarely approached that size, if at all.

But after moving to my homestead I was able to build larger piles, and still no heat. My friends offered various explanations, such as too little nitrogen, or too small a pile.

But with all the poultry litter and greens I was composting I didn’t think nitrogen could be the problem. And the piles would eventually exceed 9 cubic feet, for a time, at least.

Occasionally I would feel a bit of warmth emanating from the pile while turning it. But the next time I turned it, I’d find it had cooled down. Still, the materials weren’t breaking down fully, and I would end up putting half-finished compost on my garden beds, which is sometimes worse than not adding anything at all.

Finally, this year I’ve been getting really hot compost! Not hot enough to be a fire hazard, but when turning it I feel heat coming out of it — not just once, but on successive turnings.

When I open up the center of the pile it’s like opening the door of a sauna. Steam comes out, and if I put my hand in there it feels hot — like a steaming bathtub. Plus the material that was in there is black and charred-looking.

The secret? No one thing, necessarily, but here’s what I’ve been doing differently: First, I stopped using pine shavings for poultry litter, because it takes forever to break down. I still have some decomposing pine shavings on the bottom, but the top layers are straw.

Also, I’ve changed how I’m managing the litter. Instead of just turning it frequently and removing some every now and then, I’ve been scooping out any concentrations of manure every day, especially under the roosts, where most of it collects. That provides a higher nitrogen content to the compost, while leaving the litter cleaner.

Then, when it gets too smelly I rake back the straw till I find a layer of partly decomposed material caked on the bottom, which I shovel into a bucket and remove — usually four to six five-gallon buckets at a time.

Another thing that occurred to me was that I might need to build the pile faster. By the time the pile would reach a sufficient size I would find that much of the material was already broken down, which was probably why it wasn’t heating up.

Removing all those buckets full of broken-down poultry litter at one time was a big help. Between that and the scooped-out manure, the pile began to have too much nitrogen, and was smelling of ammonia.

I was also making more of an effort to keep up with the mowing and weeding, and to collect any not-too-seedy stuff for composting. But to raise the carbon-nitrogen ratio I’ve also had to resort to adding leaf litter (even in summer!) or using yard cuttings that have been allowed to dry out.

And I’ve been turning the piles at least partially almost every day, so as to place the new material in the hottest part, with more finished material on top.

Here’s my most-finished compost yet:

… And another batch still cooking:

Photos property of Jennifer Quinn.

  • Published on Oct 15, 2020
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