Questions and Answers 2013

Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters

Here are some of the questions sent to the BCEMC email hotline in 2013. You can send your own questions to compost-questions@nmcomposters.org.

Please keep in mind that composting is an art as well as a science. Different solutions work for different people and in different circumstances. Each composter must find his or her own way. Also, note that we are composting in the desert climate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and nearby. If you are composting in a different climate, some answers might not apply to you.

Names and identifying information about questioners have been removed. Questions and answers have been edited to modify some formatting and correct typos in the original email. Apologies for awkward formatting and typos that remain.


Did My Compost Get Hot Enough? November 23, 2013

Question:

Hello. I am a farmer at ___ in Albuquerque and have a composting dilemma. We have 3 large piles that are fairly large and of different ages. Our oldest one is probably 8 months old and I have been checking its temperature, watering and turning it regularly. The pile peaked at about 135 degrees in August, but now the temp is down to 50-60 degrees. I just recently turned it and it hasn't changed. Is the cycle complete? Or should I just add more nitrogen-ic materials? Thank you for your help!

Answer by JZ:

If you are doing hot composting then a reasonable target temperature is 150F maintained for about 7-14 days, then turn it. If your pile initially did not reach that temp. then the issue may be one of carbon to nitrogen in your mix and / or adequate air flow. A mix of C:N may be 1:1 that is for every pound of brown you would add a pound of green material. The bottom of your (pile) operation should be 12" of sticks, twigs, pine cone, corn stalks, cobs. This serves as an air intake medium also referred to as bulking. Additional bulking material should be added as the pile is built. The pile should be covered to reduce evaporation. If your pile has produced humus, then you could screen that out and recycle the un-decomposed material in another pile with the above C:N proportions as a simple guide. See our info. on hot composting in desert: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/desert-composting.html. Scroll down to bottom of page. Hope that this is helpful. Write back if you have further questions.

Answer by JE:

The cycle is complete if you a can no longer distinguish what was put into the pile except maybe some very large pieces such as wood chips, corn cobs pine cones. If you feel it isn't there yet then you may want to just turn it over making sure it isn't too dry by watering. If that doesn't kick start it then you might want to combine it with another pile.


Composting Huge Amounts of Manure and Composting With Worms September 13, 2013

Question:

We are starting a project in a Mexican border village where we work. Local stockyards generate 400 to 500 cubic yards of manure per year. We want to compost the manure for use on gardens and orchards. We want to feed some of the manure to red worms to produce castings to further improve the soil. The local soil is an ancient sea bed and is a salty mix of clay and sand. My questions: (1) What is the best way to compost large amounts of cow manure? (2) How do I know when it is safe to put on gardens? (3) Worm castings, I want to produce about 50 to 75 cubic yards per year. How do I do that? A final note on biochar made from pecan shells. We add it to our gardens at a rate of about 1 pound per square foot. It seems to have good results with the 50 or so gardens we have put it on.

Answer by WR:

It's wonderful what you are doing. I'm not sure if you've heard from anyone else on this. I'm not experienced with such a big project as you have. You might contact Fred Hermann at fred@nmcomposters.org. He's our "Community Composting" expert. See picture of some bins he built for Tijeras Pueblo on this page: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/ask-a-master.html. Please let me know if you aren't able to get in touch with Fred and I'll help you make contact with him or someone else whose had experience with big composting projects like yours. Best wishes on your project.

Answer by JZ:

It's good to learn of your excellent project!

  1. CAFO manure and mixed-in urine would be a high nitrogen material, you could add an equal volume / weight of a carbon eg. wood chips, straw, shredded cardboard / paper, saw dust, dried leaves. There might be a local municipality which has wood chips easily available(?). If this is a big operation you may need a front-end loader. You could set up wind rows and do a "hot" composting process.

  2. You need to find out what (all) medications are being given to the animals. Metabolites may end up in the urine and manure. Once determined, you would need to research how these particular meds are biodegraded. There are a few broad leaf herbicides eg. Picrolam and Aminopyralid that may get into the food stream of the animals, if the hay / alfalfa have been sprayed by the farmers that grow them. All that you can do is inquire if the farmer used them. They persist thru the animals gut and the composting process, then may contaminate the compost. This is a long shot, but you should be aware of the possibility.

  3. CAFO animals may be fed salt, which may end up in the manure and in the compost end product. Our desert soil is already "salty", so you would have to test the end product for percentage salt before adding to garden soil.

  4. Organic material that has gone thru a hot composting process should be screened and set aside to cure for at least one month. This is the cold phase of the process which finalizes the production of humus. Then you could take samples of the finished product for lab testing for salt, residual meds, etc. There are labs that do this type of testing.

  5. I do not have expertise in large scale worm composting, but I think that in your area a requirement will be be a set up that protects the worm bedding from temperatures that exceed 80F. Your set up would need to designed for easy harvesting of the castings. There is expertise out there on large red worm harvesting. You will eventually find it.

  6. Some local worms farmers: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/composting-worms.html You might contact them and then do a site visit.

  7. The magazine "BioCycle" (BioCycle.net) is a publication which has articles that would be of help to you.

  8. Yes, biochar is an excellent bacterial growth stimulator.

  9. You could take the compost facility operators course coming up in Oct.: http://www.recyclenewmexico.com/cert_compost_october.htm This course is repeated a few times per year. You would meet a many people who are involved in large scale composting in NM. Good place to network.

Please let me know if this has been of help to you. You are welcome to phone me after 7PM. This is a long discussion. There are many variables that could be discussed. You have an excellent idea. Keep up.


Contributing to and Using City Compost August 27, 2013

Question:

Good morning. I've called 311 to find the answer to this question and they are checking. Do you know if there is a city-wide composting effort? I'm a single person and don't produce enough to really compost at home and thought if I could contribute to a community-wide compost I could make an annual withdrawal.

Answer by ME:

Unfortunately, there is no municipal composting program in Albuquerque. Compost is sold locally through the ABQ water authority and a company called Soilutions also sells compost. If you feel you don't have enough organic material to compost, you can also compost on a smaller scale indoors using the vermicompost method with red wiggler worms. Let us know if you have any further questions.


My Compost Smells and Has Maggots and Cockroaches August 21, 2013

Question:

This is the first year I have ever tried my hand at composting and also a first time gardener. It has all gone pretty well, but lately the bin smells like sewer. It also has a million fat white worms that look similar to maggots, and has constantly attracted roaches. I don't put any dairy or meat products in the bin, but I do add paper, grass clippings, scraps and water. Any suggestions?

Answer by ME:

The other composters will also send you additional suggestions. I do a cold compost with soil. So I have a mound of soil and bury my kitchen waste under this loose soil. That takes care of any smell from the waste. You might be keeping the pile too moist and there is too much nitrogen (green fresh stuff) and not enough carbon (brown dry stuff). So keep the compost moisture like the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Another tip is I collect the end of toilet paper and paper towel rolls and cut the rolls up and add to my pile (for additional carbon).

As for roaches, turning the pile with a pitch fork occasionally helps disrupt them and move them out of the pile. Place the bin or pile at a little distance from your home so they don't go inside. Cockroaches are unwanted but their activity helps break down the compost. Again turning the pile should help to keep their numbers down. Hope this helps.

Answer by JZ:

I agree with what ME has said. Yes, you need to "bulk" your layers with sticks, twigs, pine cones; this will decrease compression of the wet material and allow for air flow in the pile. My guess is you have June beetle larvae in the pile; they cause no harm. Just bury them deeper. They add organic material to the pile! Keep up. You are doing a fine thing by composting.


Adding Worms to the Garden June 13, 2013

Question:

Within the next week I will be amending my garden soils with red wigglers (from Quality Baits). I have 3 questions: (1) When is the optimal time to toss those suckers out into the dirt? (My spidey sense tells me to do it "in the evening" so they can burrow into the ground before the birds get to them). (2) Right now the "soil" is bone dry (and I do mean BONE dry). Should the soil be dry, wet or "damp" when sowing the wigglers? (3) Roughly how many worms per square foot or per square yard? (Quality Baits sells them by the 100 count) (4) Can you put too many worms in an area / volume of soil / ground? If yes, explain, please. (5) If there are left-over worms, what is the best way to "save" them? (Or can they be saved?)

Answer by JZ:

  • By adding composting worms to your garden bed you will be continuously amending your garden with humus in the form of worm castings - Good for you!

  • Composting worms live in the top 6-12" of soil. They need about 50-60% moisture in the soil and decomposing organic matter to eat. So, you might consider working in organic material before adding the worms, eg shredded leaves, compost, aged manure, yard clippings then moisturize everything well, then add worms, then mulch well with a few inches of straw, newspaper or cardboard or a combination of all three on top to keep the moisture in the soil.

  • Consider waiting until Fall to add them; it would be less stressful for all concerned unless your garden bed is in full shade. Once acclimated (about 2 weeks) and under good conditions they will breed and double their population in about 3 months. If you add now, by all means wait until the PM. Just sprinkle them on top of amended soil, they will go down, then mulch well.

  • If you continue to mulch the bed during winter they will be somewhat active as long as the soil is well above freezing and has moisture.

  • You have not said how big your garden area is, so I cannot comment on the amount. My guess would be to start with 1-2 lbs. of composting worms. As I said they will breed under good conditions.

  • If a worms become overpopulated they would decrease breeding to reduce the population.

  • You should have no left-overs, just buy what you need and put them down.

Hope that this is helpful.


Roaches in the Compost May 30, 2013

Question:

I live in Albuquerque. I am currently learning how to compost. Right now I am just putting dry dead yard waste with kitchen scraps. I do not compost any meat / animal products or oily foods. I started my compost pile in January or February. My first problem was a bunch of sprouts growing in the garden so I stopped watering it for a while and tried to turn it more so that the heat from the sun would dry the sprouts out and kill them. I was turning my pile today to check on it and did not see any more seedlings or plants but there were a bunch of roaches coming out of my pile (I have not turned or watered it in about a week or two). I was reading about this problem on the internet but could not find anything concrete. I am wondering if I should be concerned. I definitely don't want a roach problem to spread into my house but I was reading that there are a type of roach that helps breakdown dead wood (which I have put dead tree branches and dead rose bush branches). Should I be concerned about these roaches? And if so, how should I start trying to get rid of them? I would appreciate any advice. Thanks.

Answer by WR:

Even though it's a bit creepy, it's not unusual to have cockroaches in your compost and nothing to worry about. (I've gotten used to them in mine.) They do help in the breakdown process. Unless your compost pile is right against your house, I wouldn't worry about it bringing roaches into your house. A couple of years ago, I bought a used mini-greenhouse from Craig's List. I put it on my patio, temporarily, to clean it up and when I took it apart, literally hundreds of cockroaches swarmed out of it. The patio was right next to my house and I was worried they would end up in my house, but that didn't seem to happen. I think the same would be true of a compost pile, especially if it is some distance from your house. Don't worry about sprouts in your compost either. Just keep the pile moist and turn the pile regularly and be sure the compost is finished before you put it on the garden. It's important to turn the pile, not to get heat from the sun, but to be sure oxygen is incorporated into the pile. Then the beneficial bacteria in the pile can breath and change the sprouts and everything else in there into compost. It is very important not to put weed seeds in your compost unless you do hot composting. Cold composting won't kill all the weed seeds. Also don't put in roots/stems of perennial weeds such as bermuda grass or bind weed. That might not completely break down either and you don't want to spread those into your garden. We offer a short, free basic composting classes you might be interested in taking. Keep an eye on this page as more classes are added: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html. It's great that you are composting. Feel free to write back if you still have questions.

Answer by JE:

The answer to the roach issue is that roaches are a natural part of the compost cycle. I don't mind having them in my compost piles but not in my house, However, they don't come in from the piles because that is where the food is and I keep my piles away from my house. It sounds like you are doing cold composting vs. a hot composting method. I understand about the sprouts but if you dry out your compost pile your material start to desiccate and will not decompose into humus or "black gold." I would continue to make sure your compost is moist and either don't worry about a few sprouts as they will eventually go into compost or turn the pile when you see them. There is no right or wrong way, just what you feel you can do. Please let us know if you have any further questions. Also, you might want to attend one of our free course offered around the city. They are posted on our website. Good luck and keep composting.


Lazy Composting with a Bin May 29, 2013

Question:

I attended a very interesting Saturday seminar a few weeks ago, held at the City / County (?) facility on Coors. A gentleman - whose name I did not get and was not on the card he passed out - gave a very informative talk on composting. As I am very lazy, the "cold composting" technique caught my attention. His presentation included a picture of a plastic-type, pre-made container in which you "put in at the top, and many months later, take out from the bottom" (my kind of composting!). I wonder if the manufacturer of that composting bin could be obtained from the speaker? I have googled and seen bins somewhat similar, but nothing looked identical to what the slide showed. Thank you for your help and I look forward to hearing the results of your "detective work"!

Answer by JZ:

I think that you may be referring to the "Garden Gourmet" composting bin. See attached web site. It is also available at Amazon.com.

http://www.gardengourmet.com/


Where to Get Worms May 7, 2013

Question:

Do you happen to know of any places in Albuquerque that sell red wrigglers? I recently moved here and would like to set up a compost bin.

Answer by WR:

Hi Julpa, look in left column list of links on our website, nmcomposters.org. In the "resources" section, see last link "worm sources". Hope this helps. Let me know if not.


Composting in a Tumbler, Nothing is Happening March 17, 2013

Question:

My wife and I bought a Lifetime Dual Compost Tumbler at Christmas. There are two 50 gallon bins mounted side by side that have an air pipe going through the middle of them and they rotate. We had been saving "brown" and "green" material for the last year so we filled both containers on 23 Jan 13. Since that date, it seems like nothing is happening in both bins. The material looks the same as it did on 23 Jan. We used a ratio of 20 parts "brown" to 1 part "green". We turn them every couple days. It seems like the material is very dry so we occasionally add some water. We have the composter on the south side of the house where it gets direct sunlight (i.e., heat) all day long. We were really excited about composting but our enthusiasm is deteriorating as each day passes and it seems like nothing is happening. What are we doing wrong? Any/all help would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by WR:

Hi Jeff, it could be that by the time you put the materials in the tumbler, the "greens" had turned "brown". Greens need to be pretty fresh. I think if you can find some fresh greens to add this will help. Perhaps you can visit your closest coffee shop a few times and ask for their leftover coffee grounds. (The Starbucks near me is nice about giving me theirs.) It might take quite a lot to get the process going. Certainly add all the kitchen scraps you can get your hands on. Here's a list of greens and browns: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/documents/handout-what-can-i-compost.pdf. You are correct in adding water. It needs to be moist, about like a wrung-out sponge. Heat from the sun doesn't really help. You'd probably do better to put the composter in the shade, at least this time of year as it starts to warm up. This will keep it from drying out so quickly. I don't think you'll be able to get your compost to heat up inside your tumbler. To get a hot compost pile you need a very large pile...about 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. The heat inside such a pile is not from the sun but from bacterial action inside the pile and from the insulating properties of such a big pile. So, what you are making is "cold compost". That is fine. It's perfectly good stuff but won't turn to compost as fast. (If there is a lot of weed seed or perennial weeds such as bind weed or bermuda grass in the compost, that might not totally decompose in a cold compost.) With a tumbler, since it's not going to get hot, you'd be better off to just add materials as you collect them, trying to keep a decent green/brown balance. Doesn't have to be exact. If it's slimy and smelly, add more browns. If it's just sitting there doing nothing, add more greens. In either case, keep stirring and keep moist but not over-moist. Don't worry if it is temporarily out of balance. You can always get it back into balance over time. We offer free composting classes here in Albuquerque. If you live here or nearby you might consider taking one of them: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html. Hope this helps. Let us know how it goes. Hope you won't be discouraged. Once you get the right balance, I think you'll find it's really fun and easy and rewarding to compost.

Answer by JZ:

Here is my opinion:

  1. Where do you live? Composting in the desert requires that we moderate air flow in a bin in order to decrease evaporation. You may have to tape over some of the holes in your tumbler.

  2. If you are intending to do a "hot" composting batch method, then you need to increase the nitrogen in your mix. You could start with a mix that is 50%: 50% C:N or 60:40 or minimally 75:25. You should consider adding bulking materials: sticks, twigs, pine cones, corn cobs, corn stalk. Bulking will decrease compaction in the total mix in the tumbler as you need to maintain 50% moisture throughout the composting process.

  3. See our recommendations for desert composting: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/desert-composting.html

  4. With a little bit of "tweaking" and practice your composting operation will be fine.

  5. You are welcome to attend any of our free classes: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html


I Have Organic Material to Give Away to Composters February 27, 2013

Question:

I'm not sure if you are the right person to contact or not. I own a fresh raw juice bar in ABQ and have a bunch of great composting material everyday that is perfect for the right people. The material is nothing but raw fresh fruits and vegetables that have been washed in a mixture of fresh water, white vinegar, and lemon juice and rinsed with fresh water. The materials have been run through a juicer and chopped up nicely. I understand that the volume I produce would overwhelm the everyday backyard compost pile. My hope is to find some way to use this stuff rather than throw away. I am not looking to sell it. If you cannot help can you please get the word out and I am happy to give it to customers like Starbucks and the coffee ground basket.

Answer by WR:

This sounds great. So good that you are not just putting this great organic matter in the trash to turn into methane in the land fill. I saw you also forwarded this to JZ and he has put the word out to the composters in our organization. Is it possible for individuals to just stop by occasionally and take what you have on hand, without an appointment? I think this is what you mean by "like Starbucks" but wasn't sure.


Also See Questions and Answers from Other Years