Sheet Composting – Final Tips ~ Part 8

Is Compost a Fertilizer?
No, and yes – but not in the true sense of the word. Though compost usually contains varying amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the concentrations of these nutrients are lower than what you’ll find in common fertilizers. It is more properly described as a super soil amendment that returns valuable organic material to the soil. Added pluses when using it are an improved soil structure that has better aeration and water retention. ~~The Shoestring Gardener eBook

Part 8

Well, I’m at the end of this eight part series on my experience with my first Interbay Mulch technique compost bed. (You can find the other sheet composting posts here.)

Let me finish up things with some final thoughts and tips that I learned along the way and feel you’ll benefit from too.

Building the pile tips:

  • I made my pile 16 inches high at the center and mounded it up as high as possible on the sides. It REALLY sinks down over the winter as it decomposes and you’ll be surprised at how there will be the right amount left come springtime.
  • If you’re going to use brown leaves as part of your mix, then shred them! I used a weed trimmer to do the job. I stuck it down into a 30-gallon plastic trash can that I filled up about 1/3 of the way with leaves. It took a few tries to get the hang of doing this — such as how to keep the can from rolling or moving as I was pulverizing the leaves — but it was well worth the extra effort. Perhaps you have access to a mulching mower. That would work great too — just drive over a small pile of leaves and voila! Easy shredded leaves.
  • I used 2 layers of coffee sacks**, as recommended by the P-Patch Community Gardens (Interbay Mulch originators). One layer of any type of burlap or all-natural cotton or jute material will work, but two layers are even better for moisture retention and an increase in microbe and worm levels. **The sacks’ seams were not cut open — I covered my compost bed with one layer of sacks, then laid down another layer on top of those.**
  • When laying the sacks, lay the 2nd layer in a different direction than the first, so as to better hold down the edges of the first layer of sacks.
  • Probably my biggest mistake was with the consistency of the cow manure I used. There were many hard clods mixed in with the large truck-bed load I got for free. When the young man was scooping it up out of the stalls, he was digging down a little too deep into the semi-fresh manure, and it wasn’t till I got home and could really inspect it that I saw all the clods. And let me tell you … they were almost rock hard. I tried to hand pick and eliminate the hardest ones, while also trying to break up the clods into smaller pieces as I went along shoveling the manure onto the pile. When spring rolled around, some of the clods were still there. I just picked those out of the garden bed as I tilled everything over. It all ended up working out OK, but I suggest you get manure that doesn’t have clods. ;)
  • After the final layer of coffee sacks were in place, I watered down the bed thoroughly, as I figured it was a good final thing to do, and I wasn’t sure when the next rain storm would come along to help moisten it.
  • About moisture for the pile over the winter: If you live where there isn’t a lot of snow and/or rain during winter months, I would suggest you wet down the pile every now and then. I strongly believe that my pile would have benefited from more moisture than it received. Middle Tennessee (where I lived at the time) does get some snow and rain, but I do believe I should have gone out and provided extra water during the drier stretches. But still, everything did turn out fine.
  • Use rocks, bricks or similar items to hold down the corners of the coffee sacks in strategic places. I found that the first good winds that came along lifted up and flipped around some of the sacks. I didn’t have to hold down all the edges, but there were about 6 places where flat heavy rocks did the trick for me.

Springtime tips:

  • Remove the sacks and start to turn over everything to get it all nicely mixed up. I used a 4-tine garden fork to do that, as I didn’t have a rototiller. (Sure would’ve been nice if I’d had one!)
  • Save those coffee sacks for use again on your next compost bed! The sacks did not completely decompose, even the first layer that was in contact with all the greens and browns. As a matter of fact, they only completely decomposed where the rocks had been used to hold down corners or edges. The first layer of sacks did, or course, have more decomposition occurring than the top layer, but from what I’d learned from the P-Patch gardeners, this is to be expected. Many folks reported that they could get 2, even 3 more uses out of the sacks.
  • If you do have very ragged pieces of sacks remaining, incorporate those into a new compost pile. The sacks will fully decompose and add more good stuff into it.

That’s about it. Tending to a sheet composting pile using the methods I’ve been discussing in this series of posts isn’t much different than what you need to do to a “common” type compost pile. Ample quantities of green and brown matter and enough water to provide a good moisture level in the pile is about all you need to focus on, in the simplest terms.

I do hope this sheet composting, aka Interbay Mulch, technique has opened the door to a new method you will be trying (and loving the outcome of) in the near future. Happy composting and gardening! :)

If you want to learn more about composting, and lots of other eco-friendly gardening methods and great DIY projects, please head over to The Shoestring Gardener information page. Thanks!

Comments

  1. Hi, Claudia, I have been planning a winter “lasagna”process to get rid of a big heap of cardboard and paper I piled up after moving from Hawaii to the central coast of Oregon (still unpacking, in fact). I have lots of brown stuff but the green stuff will be a bit harder to come by until I can get a mower. I think we will have enough rain to make the cardboard break down, and the “glue” in that stuff should lure the local earthworms upward. Hopefully, I’ll take a few photos as I go. It won’t matter if the decomposing takes longer, but I haven’t found a coffee roaster who will sell any burlap. It seems others have already gotten first dibs on them. I did find a cheap big wide roll of heavy brown paper, though, so maybe that will hold things down when the winds kick up.
    I could also try a roll of deer fence over that if the price is right.

  2. Hi Barry:
    Thanks for posting this information. I am concerned that you’re going to end up with a mess on your hands if all you’re going to do is heap up cardboard and hope it’ll decompose. My experience with either too much “green” or too much “brown” without the balance of the other type of material to properly assist the decomposition process has been a gookey (is that a real word?? lol) mess!

    Plus, that cardboard’s going to decompress over time, causing a big thick layer of cardboard. There will be no air circulation in the heavy compressed pile. While yes, the worms may be in worm-heaven up near the bottom layer or two, I don’t foresee much more happening.

    You’ve got to have at least a 50% – 50% ratio (or there abouts) of greens and browns for decent decomposition. Can you sprinkle garden soil in-between the cardboard layers? Can you get a lot of left-over produce scraps from a local grocery store?? Can you go to a local Starbucks, or other coffee house and get a lot of used coffee grounds – those are “greens”? Or a combination of all 3 to provide you with enough total greens??

    About finding used coffee bean sacks – I bought mine from a roaster out west – just checked their site and don’t see mention that they offer them for sale anymore. But found these folks online just now: fundraisingcoffee.blogspot.com/2012/02/used-burlap-coffee-bags-for-sale.html. (I’ve NO affiliation with them.) Just trying to help point you in the direction of affordable used sacks. It took me some effort with online searching to find the bags I bought for super-cheap, back when I built my sheet composting bed, as discussed in the posts here on my blog. Try this search query if you’ve not already: “used burlap coffee sacks for sale.”

    Good luck Barry – I just hate to see you with a super-stuck-together mess on your hands come springtime. Let us know how it goes for you. ;)

  3. I agree with you, Claudia. I didn’t mean to say I’d only rely on the cardboard – I have several acres of rather robust dandelions plus the hundreds of mole piles. which will be used to get the green ratio up and the air spaces into the cardboard sheets. We are getting some good soaking rain now, and I’ve been playing with ways of crumpling the stuff a bit. I do get a can of coffee grounds once in a while at a local sandwich shop, but they are just a bit unsure about setting a 5 gallon bucket in their kitchen (very cramped already) for me. They won’t put it outside due to the raccoons, which make a mess in no time. Thanks for the web address for the sacks, too. I guess I could fudge a bit by scattering in some ammonium nitrate, too, but I think it will be better to just try for many layers of “pasta, sauce, and cheese”, using what’s here. There must be some nearby horses that produce many more “apples” than their owners need, too. Next year I hope to run a mini-herd of chickens, if the coops can be restored (two coops but they are half-buried in blackberry vines and asorted other weeds).

  4. Hi, Claudia, I just hibernated through winter, and BOOM! it’s summer already. The cardboard, whole-root dandelions, and cardboard have been happily transforming, even though I haven’t set up rows – just made a couple of test heaps that rapidly decomposed to brown, and I turned them under to finish. Worms were already climbing in at the outer edges. I really think the row composting will succeed. I did finally get a mower to help add chopped green stuff. No gooey mess, as the cardboard was layered with dandelions and attached root dirt – The Fiskars “uproot” weeder does the job but I try not to force it, since the plastic base is reported to break (Fiskars has a lifetime warranty, only asks that one send them a close-up photo of the break).

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