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Composting > Size for Compost Piles

Size for Compost Piles

It is much harder to keep a small object hot than a large one. That's because the ratio of surface area to volume goes down as volume goes up. No matter how well other factors encourage thermophiles, it is still difficult to make a pile heat up that is less than three feet high and three feet in diameter. And a tiny pile like that one tends to heat only for a short time and then cool off rapidly. Larger piles tend to heat much faster and remain hot long enough to allow significant decomposition to occur. Most composters consider a four foot cube to be a minimum practical size. Industrial or municipal composters build windrows up to ten feet at the base, seven feet high, and as long as they want.

However, even if you have unlimited material there is still a limit to the heap's size and that limiting factor is air supply. The bigger the compost pile the harder it becomes to get oxygen into the center. Industrial composters may have power equipment that simultaneously turns and sprays water, mechanically oxygenating and remoistening a massive windrow every few days. Even poorly-financed municipal composting systems have tractors with scoop loaders to turn their piles frequently. At home the practical limit is probably a heap six or seven feet wide at the base, initially about five feet high (it will rapidly slump a foot or so once heating begins), and as long as one has material for.

Though we might like to make our compost piles so large that maintaining sufficient airflow becomes the major problem we face, the home composter rarely has enough materials on hand to build a huge heap all at once. A single lawn mowing doesn't supply that many clippings; my own kitchen compost bucket is larger and fills faster than anyone else's I know of but still only amounts to a few gallons a week except during August when we're making jam, canning vegetables, and juicing. Garden weeds are collected a wheelbarrow at a time. Leaves are seasonal. In the East the annual vegetable garden clean-up happens after the fall frost. So almost inevitably, you will be building a heap gradually.

That's probably why most garden books illustrate compost heaps as though they were layer cakes: a base layer of brush, twigs, and coarse stuff to allow air to enter, then alternating thin layers of grass clippings, leaves, weeds, garbage, grass, weeds, garbage, and a sprinkling of soil, repeated until the heap is five feet tall. It can take months to build a compost pile this way because heating and decomposition begin before the pile is finished and it sags as it is built. I recommend several practices when gradually forming a heap.

Keep a large stack of dry, coarse vegetation next to a building pile. As kitchen garbage, grass clippings, fresh manure or other wet materials come available the can be covered with and mixed into this dry material. The wetter, greener items will rehydrate the dry vegetation and usually contain more nitrogen that balances out the higher carbon of dried grass, tall weeds, and hay.

If building the heap has taken several months, the lower central area will probably be well on its way to becoming compost and much of the pile may have already dried out by the time it is fully formed. So the best time make the first turn and remoisten a long-building pile is right after it has been completed.

Instead of picturing a layer cake, you will be better off comparing composting to making bread. Flour, yeast, water, molasses, sunflower seeds, and oil aren't layered, they're thoroughly blended and then kneaded and worked together so that the yeast can interact with the other materials and bring about a miraculous chemistry that we call dough.

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