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Composting > Curing Your Compost Heap

Curing Your Compost Heap

The easiest and most sure-fire improver of compost quality is time. Making a heap with predominantly low C/N materials inevitably results in potent compost if nitrate loss is kept to a minimum. But the C/N of almost any compost heap, even one starting with a high C/N will eventually lower itself. The key word here is eventually. The most dramatic decomposition occurs during the first few turns when the heap is hot. Many people, including writers of garden books, mistakenly think that the composting ends when the pile cools and the material no longer resembles what made up the heap. This is not true. As long as a compost heap is kept moist and is turned occasionally, it will continue to decompose. "Curing" or "ripening" are terms used to describe what occurs once heating is over.

A different ecology of microorganisms predominates while a heap is ripening. If the heap contains 5 to 10 percent soil, is kept moist, is turned occasionally so it stays aerobic, and has a complete mineral balance, considerable bacterial nitrogen fixation may occur.

Most gardeners are familiar with the microbes that nodulate the roots of legumes. Called rhizobia, these bacteria are capable of fixing large quantities of nitrate nitrogen in a short amount of time. Rhizobia tend to be inactive during hot weather because the soil itself is supplying nitrates from the breakdown of organic matter. Summer legume crops, like cowpeas and snap beans, tend to be net consumers of nitrates, not makers of more nitrates than they can use. Consider this when you read in carelessly researched garden books and articles about the advantages of interplanting legumes with other crops because they supposedly generate nitrates that "help" their companions.

But during spring or fall when lowered soil temperatures retard decomposition, rhizobia can manufacture from 80 to 200 pounds of nitrates per acre. Peas, clovers, alfalfa, vetches, and fava beans can all make significant contributions of nitrate nitrogen and smart farmers prefer to grow their nitrogen by green manuring legumes. Wise farmers also know that this nitrate, though produced in root nodules, is used by legumes to grow leaf and stem. So the entire legume must be tilled in if any net nitrogen gain is to be realized. This wise practice simultaneously increases organic matter.

Rhizobia are not capable of being active in compost piles, but another class of microbes is. Called azobacteria, these free-living soil dwellers also make nitrate nitrogen. Their contribution is not potentially as great as rhizobia, but no special provision must be made to encourage azobacteria other than maintaining a decent level of humus for them to eat, a balanced mineral supply that includes adequate calcium, and a soil pH between 5.75 and 7.25. A high-yielding crop of wheat needs 60-80 pounds of nitrates per acre. Corn and most vegetables can use twice that amount. Azobacteria can make enough for wheat, though an average nitrate contribution under good soil conditions might be more like 30-50 pounds per year.

Once a compost heap has cooled, azobacteria will proliferate and begin to manufacture significant amounts of nitrates, steadily lowering the C/N. And carbon never stops being digested, further dropping the C/N. The rapid phase of composting may be over in a few months, but ripening can be allowed to go on for many more months if necessary.

Feeding unripened compost to worms is perhaps the quickest way to lower C/N and make a potent soil amendment. Once the high heat of decomposition has passed and the heap is cooling, it is commonly invaded by redworms, the same species used for vermicomposting kitchen garbage. These worms would not be able to eat the high C/N material that went into a heap, but after heating, the average C/N has probably dropped enough to be suitable for them.

The municipal composting operation at Fallbrook, California makes clever use of this method to produce a smaller amount of high-grade product out of a larger quantity of low-grade ingredients. Mixtures of sewage sludge and municipal solid waste are first composted and after cooling, the half-done high C/N compost is shallowly spread out over crude worm beds and kept moist. More crude compost is added as the worms consume the waste, much like a household worm box. The worm beds gradually rise. The lower portion of these mounds is pure castings while the worm activity stays closer to the surface where food is available. When the beds have grown to about three feet tall, the surface few inches containing worms and undigested food are scraped off and used to form new vermicomposting beds. The castings below are considered finished compost. By laboratory analysis, the castings contain three or four times as much nitrogen as the crude compost being fed to the worms.

The marketplace gives an excellent indicator of the difference between their crude compost and the worm casts. Even though Fallbrook is surrounded by large acreages devoted to citrus orchards and row crop vegetables, the municipality has a difficult time disposing of the crude product. But their vermicompost is in strong demand.

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