Compost: Come On In, It's Warm Inside


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

It's an ongoing, living process, the making of compost, and the pile doesn't care if this is a Sunday morning. It likes to have its temperature taken, and if the reading is between 150 and 160 degrees, by gosh, the pile wants to be turned. A compost pile is full of living beings, you know, and while the tiny critters don't complain, they do want to keep on living.

An inch of compost represents probably a foot of dry leaves and manure, so it's like a diamond: tiny but valuable.

The thermometer is rather long, about two feet, as if it was designed to take alligators' temperatures. Looks threatening actually, but it must be long to get to the core of the pile. The mountain of dead leaves donated by neighboring landscapers, mixed with water and contributions ("Poo de Poulet") from the hens, is about six feet tall, twenty feet long, and eight feet wide.

I climb up on to the top, filling my boots with leaves and twigs as I go, and dig as deep a hole as possible in the mixture. Into this cavity I plunge the thermometer, scraping back debris so that I can keep the dial readable.

Steam rises around me on this cool morning. I think to myself, if ever I find myself homeless and freezing in the winter, I will find a big compost pile like this one and burrow into it for the night. Not too far inside of course, as with temperature in the mid-one-hundreds, one could turn to stew pretty fast.

The instrument says 160 degrees. The mountain must be turned. The steam rises up like clouds around me as I work the tractor back and forth in low gear, tilting the bucket in and up, dumping the entire pile gradually over to one side by about three feet. I aim to place what was on the outside of the leafy mountain on the bottom and interior of the new formation, so that the entire pile will process at roughly the same time.

By organic standards, the pile should reach at least 130 degrees in the first two weeks to kill pathogens. Between 100 and 130 degrees is a very active window, when microbes are working the leaves and manure into something tasty to microbes and eventually to plants. If we let the pile surge past 160 however, many of the little fellows will die.

After about six weeks of turning the pile about every three days, the temps will be in the low one-hundreds; most of the pile's materials will look like compost, and the mountain will shrink to the size of a hill. It's ready to use.

We spread about an inch on the top of every bed. With more than 100 beds; we have to be stingy. A little is better than nothing. And an inch of compost represents probably a foot of dry leaves and manure, so it's like a diamond: tiny but valuable. It will bring fresh life -- rejuvenation -- to the soil.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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