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Questions and Answers

Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters

Here are some of the questions sent to the BCEMC email hotline. 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.


Creating a Worm Bin

March 20, 2014

Question:

I have access to leaves, alpaca manure, and coffee grounds. I want to create an outdoor worm bed. What would be the best mix of materials (and layering) to get the most worms and compost?

Answer by JZ:

Here is my (opinion) response:

  1. Be sure that you use composting worms - red wigglers.

  2. An outdoor worm bin is an excellent idea. The worms are closer to their natural environment and under good conditions they will breed and also be making humus throughout the seasons.

  3. It would be good to consider the location/orientation for your bin, eg., in the summer sun would not be the best location. 85F is about the highest temp. you want in the bedding.

  4. Outdoor bins partially submerged in soil are then well insulated for our climate both winter and summer.

  5. Worms will breed under ideal conditions of moisture, at least 50%, adequate organic material to ingest and a temperature in the bedding material of about 65F. Under good conditions they can double their population in 3 months.

  6. Composting worms ingest dead/decomposing organic material, so leaves, alpaca manure, and coffee are fine additions. I do not know if alpacas occasionally get vermicide medication? You might ask the owners. If so, manure with meds in it should be allowed to decompose in the sun for 3 months so that any meds would be biodegraded. Then you could add the manure to your bed.

  7. The "speed" at which your worms will make humus will depend on the number of worms reference the amount of organic material that you feed them. So it would depend on the size of your bin and how many worms you add right at the beginning. One pound of composting worms (about 2 cups) can ingest about 1/2 lb. of organics in 24 hours. So you could do some calculating with that approximation. Then observe how the worms do the job.

  8. All the organic material mentioned would be fine to feed them. Mixing all 3, then making sure that the mix is 50% moist should get you going in the right direction. In my opinion you could feed them just about any organic material that you have available. The rate at which all this is going to happen depend on managing the variables of moisture, bedding temperature, available food and the number of worms working for you. Just get started, the worms will teach you the rest.

Hope this is useful. Let us know if we can help.


Adding Worms to the Garden

February 24, 2014

Question:

Is it ok to put red wigglers in a regular garden or are they just for composting. What is the best worm for a garden in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque?

Answer by WR:

Red worms do best in very rich organic matter with plenty of moisture and microbes. I.e., they do best in the compost. They don't do so well in the garden, at least here in our climate. (I'm not sure about other places.) You've probably noticed the earthworms you dig up in your garden/lawn are different than the red worms that you might see in your compost. I ended up with lots of red worms in my compost (not a hot compost pile) and I didn't put them there. They just showed up and were happy there and reproduced (and reproduced!). But I've not seen red worms in the garden itself. Just those brownish earthworms. As you build up your garden with compost, then the right type of earthworms will come, the kind that like to live in the garden. I don't know about adding earthworms to the garden explicitly. Happy gardening in this crazy, challenging but fun place to garden, Albuquerque.

Answer by PB:

I put earthworms in my raised bed when it was built in 2007. They have multiplied nicely. Red wriggles/compost worms like to live in damp decaying environments. They can be found in nature under rotting tree stumps and piles of leaves. WR is correct, they will come to your compost pile if the conditions are right.


Getting Started with Composting, Choosing a Method

January 19, 2014

Question:

I live in El Paso and am looking to begin composting. We generate a lot of kitchen scraps (vegetable trimmings) and would like recommendations on how to get started with composting. I am leaning toward a plastic compost tumbler. Do you have recommendations for what tumblers work best in this region?

Answer by JZ:

Our website nmcomposters.org has several "handouts" on the left menu bar that might be helpful in making your choice and also address the particulars of composting in the desert. Plastic tumblers probably work best for a batch method (hot) of composting. A less controversial container is the manufactured plastic bin that has an opening on the top and one at the bottom to make for easy removal of finished product. This type of bin works well for dump-n-run (easy, cold) composting. Since you, too, are in the desert, in order to decrease evaporation from the bin, tape over about 50% of the holes, being sure that the bottom holes are open. A good quality bin costs about $100 new.

Since you mention kitchen scraps, another choice is the Bokashi bucket composting method, see: www.teraganix.com. Another option is to compost your kitchen scraps in a bin with composting worms. The bin could be kept indoors or put in a pit outdoors. Composting worms may be purchased on-line or from a local source.

Let us know if we can be of further help to you.

Answer by JH:

Alan, here is a link for the composting training module on the El Paso County Master Gardeners website: http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/video/compost.wmv. It is best that you refer to local sources due to climate differences. I am thinking El Paso is more humid and certainly hotter year round than Albuquerque which is high desert. Basically your kitchen scraps are the nitrogen source (greens) and you will need to add a carbon source (browns) such as fall leaves or wood chips along with water. Turning the tumbler as directed should keep the contents aerated and well mixed. If you find you have an odor, the mix is either too wet or is not getting enough air. If the mix is not breaking down, it is not a good ratio of nitrogen to carbon or is not heating up sufficiently. Without knowing more about your yard space and intentions I would not comment on other methods except that if you will not be able to find sufficient browns, you may want to try vermicomposting or the bokashi method. And if you have not already purchased a tumbler, you might first want to investigate whether one of these methods will be better suited to your situation


Plastic Turn Bins

January 28, 2014

Question from a Master Composter:

I've never used one of those plastic turn bins and don't plan to get one. But I often have friends ask me about them. Since I don't have experience with one, it's a hard question to answer. I've gotten a vague impression that expert composters don't like them, but I'm not sure. I was wondering what you guys think about them and what I should tell friends when they ask about getting one.

Answer by PB:

I also do not have one but have gotten plenty of feedback about them. The most frequent criticism is that the material tends to compact and it ends up clanking around like drying tennis shoes in a dryer. Also this is definitely a batch type Composter so does not meet the needs of a dump and run type of person. Another comment is that it is hard to keep the right moisture levels.

Answer by JH:

This type of bin was my introduction to composting because it was advertised to make compost in 2 weeks! Boy, was I a sucker!!!

Pros:

  • Takes up little space

  • Looks tidier than a pile on the ground

  • Relatively easy to turn even when full

  • Easy to move if on wheels

  • Regular turning of the bin contents and maintenance of proper moisture will eventually be rewarded with a small amount of compost

Cons:

  • Initial cost is significant

  • Capacity limited

  • Frequent turning of tumbler required - much more than advertised

  • Doesn't seem to be any more efficient than other methods

My advice: a tumbler is a quick way to compost a few hundred bucks. I would recommend vermicomposting instead of a tumbler for those with limited materials. For those needing greater capacity, you just can't beat straw bales or the handmade wire bin held together by clothespins. Even with the cost of the tarp needed to line and cover this kind of homemade system, it's much less expensive while also being easier to manage.

Answer by JZ:

I bought a big tumbler, secondhand. Then I filled it with wet horse manure and bulking material. Now its too heavy to turn it! JH and PB have some good points. Purchased new, i think they come with instructions. Best thing for a friend considering a composting method is to attend one of our classes. My preference, so far, is the dump-n-run bin with a flip door on top and a opening at bottom to harvest finished product. It's neat, great for static (no turn) composting and produces humus.

Answer by RR:

I started serious composting using a compost tumbler I got passed down from my father-in-law. I thought it was great. Granted, it is a batch process, but it worked great. When it rusted out, it cost big bucks for replacement parts. Then I got a bigger used one on Craig's List, and it rusted out, also. So I had some stainless steel parts made and rebuilt it for less than half of what it would cost for the new parts. They are not for everyone. I use it in addition to my wire ring (lined with carboard) batches, but I also have a lot of room to store materials while the batches are working. I like it, and I think it makes better compost, but the initial investment is a lot higher than homemade. Plus, like I said, you have to have room to store the materials for the next batch. But that's the method I use, and it works well for me.

Answer by RB:

My husband and I have two of the plastic turn bins--as JH said: pricey! I have had poor luck with them which mostly has to do with laziness. We do have the directions which are quite specific (and accurate) about the amount of moisture. It was easy to let it dry out--way too much ventilation for this climate. The result is the tennis balls in the dryer effect. JZ suggested taping over the ventilation screen and adding bulking material. That combination helped a lot in preventing the lumps from forming. We used the dump, add water, turn, then run method rather than a batch method, but once a barrel is full, you are stuck which no place for waste materials a few weeks (of turning and watering) until the composting is complete. As JZ says, the barrel is very heavy and hard to turn with it's full, and as JH says, there is a pathetically small quantity of finished compost when you're done. The bottom line is the barrels are effective if used properly, but the process takes a lot of work and fussing over--in my opinion, more that turning a hot pile every week!

Answer by SB:

I'm with RB. I have two different barrels in addition to a tower. The barrels are faster but do take more attention, watering and turning (which can't be done in the winter when my barrels freeze up). The compost is good if I remember to turn them but, as has been already said, they are heavy. My tower used to shut down in the winter but now I have some red wrigglers in the tower, it works all winter. The only problem with the tower is I have to get on my knees to dig out the finished compost, putting as many red wrigglers back as I can, while I can just tip the barrels into a wheel barrel to sift.


The Worms in My Compost Died and My Compost Smells Bad

January 17, 2014

Question:

I have successfully composted kitchen and yard waste in my backyard here on the west side of Albuquerque for at least 12 years. Summer before last, all the worms in my compost died and I began having problems I never had before. I purchased earth worms last year to add to my compost, and they had died by the next time I turned my compost (about a week to 10 days). Since that time, it is not composting (smells, rots, my cucumber got fungus (?) and died). Can you give me any ideas? Thank you!

Answer by WR:

Is it possible that you added some horse manure to your compost? If horses have been de-wormed, the medicine can go into their manure and can kill worms in a compost. Also manure can really heat up a compost, good for the compost but bad news for the worms. Another thought, did you buy actual earth worms or red worms (aka fishing worms, red wrigglers)? The latter are happy in compost but earth worms are not. If the above doesn't explain what happened to the worms, if your compost is not covered and/or is in a hot/dry spot and not getting enough water, that might explain why the worms are dying (too hot and dry). Or, if you are making hot compost, again, this is a good thing but not a good place for worms.

In general, if compost is smelly and gross, one or more of the following is probably true: (1) needs more browns (high carbon materials) to balance your greens (high nitrogen materials), (2) needs less water, and/or (3) needs to be stirred more. On the following page you can click on "What Can I Compost" to get a list of browns and greens: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/composting-information.html. The page, near top, also has link to our new flyer "Composting in the Desert" with some good information.

If your cucumbers got a fungus from the compost it could be that the compost was not finished when you put it on your plants. Could it have been a virus? If you have put previous plants in the compost that had a virus, unless your compost gets hot enough, the virus can be transmitted to new plants planted in the compost. In general it is best to not to put diseased plants into a compost.

You're welcome to attend any of our free classes. We have several on the schedule in upcoming months. Here's a list. Check it often, we keep adding more: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html. I hope this helps. Feel free to write back if you still have questions or feel free to call me if you'd rather discuss this by phone. Also will you let us know how it goes? We want to help you get your compost back on track and we'll continue to work with you on that.

Answer by CS:

My sense is that the pile is too rich in kitchen waste, nitrogen, the clue being smell, rots. Find some good dry leaves and turn them into the pile along with some sticks cut up branches for bulk and if nothing else, some cut up newspapers to add carbon. Keep moist, cover. Add worms when the pile becomes balanced. Note workshops on the nmcomposter.org web site as noted earlier. An overall picture of the composting process could be helpful.


Composting in a Barrel Tumbler

January 4, 2014

Question:

I have attached my CAD drawing for a compost barrel I am building. I have heard from many sources that New Mexicans over aerate their compost and dry it out. There will be (12) 1" holes around the whole barrel. I was wondering if I have too many aeration holes?

Answer by JZ:

Nice tumbler. Some thoughts:

  • When that barrel is full of moist organics it will be heavy to turn; you might consider larger/heavy duty wheels.

  • Holes: go with 12, then test out the process. If you get too much evaporation then you could tape over a few holes.

  • Do you plan on doing hot or cold composting?? Hot method is a high energy process so high oxygen requirements, so 12 holes may be just fine. The downward holes will always be covered with contents material, actually modifying air flow just a bit. Be sure to add bulking material: sticks, twigs, pine cones, etc. as you add moist organic material this will prevent compaction and allow for air flow throughout the contents.

Hope this is helpful. Other MC's may respond to your question too. Let us know if you need further help.


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 distingish 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 cobbs, 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.


Testing Compost for Pathogens

November 6, 2012

Question:

I am searching for someone who can test my compost for E. Coli and Salmonella before it goes into my vegetable garden. Is this something you can help me with?

Answer by JE:

I've been giving your email a lot of thought and I would refer you to environmental labs if your feel this is what you want to do compost testing. Just look under laboratories/environmental in the yellow pages or you can contact Universities that have an agricultural department such as NMSU. However, I feel an obligation to provide you with some further advice before you go through the expense of testing the soil. First you should ask yourself why you want to test for these organisms. Did you have some sort of contamination that you are worried about?

  • Testing soil is very tricky and can be expensive. First you need to consider how are you going to sample it to make sure you get a true sample and not just a pocket. A good lab will provide you will detailed instructions. When I worked as a microbiologist, we would always say the test in only as good as the sample. If you don't sample and transport it correctly the results are worthless.

  • E. Coli is a huge family of bacteria and not all E. Coli is pathogenic (disease causing). All mammals have E. Coli in our GI system as they provide us vitamins and have other essential roles. They are a part of the "natural flora" of our GI system. Also E. Coli can be found in almost all dirt samples. If I tested a 100 shoes for E. Coli I bet everyone will be positive but very few will be shiga-toxin producing (this one cause the most trouble in GI problems) As an aside, E. Coli is the number one organism in urinary tract infections but are usually from the person's own GI tract not from other sources.

  • Salmonella is a water loving organism so you can save yourself a lot of money from testing by just letting your compost dry out completely for several months.

  • Also if you are doing hot composting, any pathogens present will be destroyed by the heat. Pathogens do best at body temperature and will die above 120 degrees F. In addition, most pathogens can't stand UV light so if you are in a place with lot of sun light it will also destroy pathogens.

If you have further questions, please feel free to email me back.


Can Worms Decontaminate the Soil?

October 15, 2012

Question:

I'm a 12 year old girl in the 7th grade. for my Science Fair I am going to conduct a science experiment on composting with red wiggler worms. I am going to see if they will decontaminate soil that has been soaked with a contaminant. Please tell me if the following would harm the worms; used motor oil, used canola oil.

Answer by JZ:

You have selected an interesting project! I'll suggest that it might be OK to use used canola oil, but not motor oil with worms. That said, in the interest of science you might try the motor oil with a very small batch of worms and see if they survive the environment, then proceed from that result. For motor oil you might consider using fungal and/or bacterial cultures for decontamination.

Answer by PB:

You might want to rethink your idea of using worms. Worms have no lungs and breathe through their skin. Oil clogs their pores and they will suffocate. We never advise putting oil cooked foods in a worm compost bin for this reason - even potato chips can be deadly to them. Therefore, trying to use them to decontaminate oil would not give her the result she is looking for as they would not survive long enough to prove or disprove her hypothesis.


Where to Place a Composter

October 9, 2012

Question:

I'm a new county resident and I'm looking for the best location in my Sandia Park (Sandia Knolls) yard to place my composter. Are there any rules out here that dictate distance between a composter and lot lines or standing structures (or any other rules)? I'm planning to use a wood box rather than a plastic thing or an uncovered pile.

Answer by PB:

Not familiar with Bernalillo County/ABQ. Just know that there are easements that need to be respected as far as the construction of permanent structures - in Rio Rancho it is 5 feet. Some HOA's also have regulations for permanent structures. I would just caution you to be respectful of your neighbors as far as smells and the potential for pests. Also it should be near a water source and kept covered.


Roaches in the Compost

August 17, 2012

Question:

I live in Albuquerque. I got your email from the City of Albuquerque's link on "Ask a Master" in their composting section. I'm sure you've had people asking you about this problem, but I just need to know what would be the best steps. We have a composting pile that is well established in our backyard into its third year (using the soil once it's become rich, of course). It's in the back corner of our back yard but not far from our house maybe 50-60ft. I will admit the compost has been neglected recently as far as watering and turning it. So when I was watering all the gardens today I decided I needed to tend to the compost. I watered it down to give it some moisture and then started to turn it. Just under our recent fruit/veg scraps looked to be hundreds of small roaches about 1 in long reddish orange looking and almost still translucent looking. I suspect they are roaches because they look like roaches and move fast like roaches. I hate roaches, and my main concern is if I deter them from their current habitat, I don't want them coming into our house. They can't really get any further from the house, but maybe ten feet back. I've read on some websites to first get them the furthest from you house as you can, but in this case I wouldn't want to just move them 10-15 feet back would I? Or I could move it more lateral across the yard, it would be further from the doors/windows, but not really any further from the house. I have read some info online, but what would you recommend being my best option at this time?

Answer by WR:

Yep, sounds like roaches. They give me the creeps, too. I've been told (and have observed) that roaches don't like to be disturbed so if you turn the compost fairly often, they'll stay away from it to some extent. I'll still see them occasionally but not in huge numbers, unless, as you experienced, I haven't turned it in a while.

As far as them coming into your house, it's good that you are maximizing distance from the house as much as practical. However, there are so many roaches in ABQ just on the streets, in our yards, in the water mains, etc. I'm not sure that the ones in the compost have a huge impact on what goes in your home. Last year I bought a little mini-greenhouse (about 2 x 4 feet) from someone on Craig's List. It had rocks in the bottom for drainage. I decided to clean it out and started dumping out the rocks, and, to my horror, they were teaming with literally hundreds (thousands?) of cockroaches. This was on my patio right next to my house. I, of course, thought, oh no, my house is going to be filled with these roaches. But, the amazing thing was, I didn't end up seeing any roaches in my house from that. Since you disturbed all those roaches in your compost, have you noticed more roaches in your house? For some reason that I don't understand, I've seen fewer roaches in my house the past couple of years. I'm wondering if the city is doing something?? If I start seeing more than one or two in my house, I put out borax in shallow plastic lids (like cottage cheese lids) and tuck them out of the way such as under the refrigerator, stove, washing machine, bathroom shelf. This does seem to help.

I'm going to copy this response to the folks who answer compost-questions@nmcomposters.org and see if they have more to add. It's great that you haven't let the roaches deter you from composting! Thanks for writing and please write back or call if you'd like to discuss this further.

Answer by WR, Addendum:

PS. From what you read on-line, you probably read that if you can stand the creep factor, roaches are beneficial in the compost, helping break down the materials in the compost. But, then if you turn it frequently you won't have as many hanging around. But, it is better to turn at least occasionally. That's even more beneficial to the compost. I know your big concern is turning it and driving the roaches into your house. I'd be interested to know if you have noticed more roaches coming into your house since you turned it. If you are, let's talk about other approaches!


Stinky Compost Pile

August 14, 2012

Question:

Recently, a woman called me at the Valencia County Environmental Health Department to complain that her neighbor's compost pile stinks. I'm a NM Compost Facility Operator, so naturally I want to head to her neighbor's house and go play in the pile to make it work! Of course, I'm with the government (and not in Code Enforcement), so I can't do that. Are you guys in any position to help out in this situation? In what ways could we collaborate for future compost promotion and improvement?

Answer by JZ:

Thanks for your inquiry. I'm copying to one of our masters who lives in Bosque Farms and may be able to consult with you on the situation.

Some people smell with their eyes! Some composting is unpleasantly fragrant when an operation goes anaerobic and produces methane and hydrogen sulfide gases. This may be related to inadequate aeration due to compaction and/or increased amounts of nitrogenous material which is moist and easily compacts. The question is is the "offending" home owner open to advice on the situation? One would have to contact that person to find out, then go from there.

The Bernco Master Composter group is always available to you for consultation and teaching: www.nmcomposters.org

  • We could present a basic home composting class (s) in your community in the future- free/open to the public.

  • We could encourage Kyle Tater, the Valencia Co. horticultural agent to identify/encourage some from the community to take our master composter training in the future, so that you would have help locally.

I will follow up our Valencia Master Composter then get back to you. Let me know if this is helpful to you so far.


Composting Fruit Pits

July 5, 2012

Question:

Can apricot and cherry pits be composted? I bought a compost bin and have been saving vegetable and fruit scraps along with coffee and tea grinds, but wasn't sure whether to throw in the pits of fruit. I'll hold off on throwing the pits into my pile until I hear from you.

Answer by WR:

I throw my apricot and cherry pits into my compost. They do take quite a while to decompose, but they will eventually break down, especially in compost that doesn't get hot (like mine). What I do is, after the compost is finished, I put it through a screen (with about 1/4 inch mesh). This will take out the pits, twigs, avocado peels, etc. that haven't broken down completely. Just throw those back in to the next batch of working compost. If you don't want to bother to screen your compost, you might want to avoid putting the pits into the compost or hand-pick-out the worst offenders. They won't really hurt anything but will end up in your garden or wherever you use the compost. Or, I guess you can soak/boil your pits and grind them. I've never tried this but, hmm, might be interesting: http://www.gardenguides.com/111612-compost-cherry-seeds.html. You might want to do a Google search for "screening compost" (without the quotes) to see some pictures, etc. about that. I liked this page: http://www.composterconnection.com/site/finished-pile.html.

Your compost is "finished" when it smells good, the original stuff is unrecognizable (except the big woody things you'll be removing), is completely cool, and looks like rich crumbly earth. If it still has any sliminess, smells, etc. it should work a little longer.

It sounds like your compost is rich in nitrogen-rich things: food scraps, coffee, tea. If it starts smelling bad or is slimy you might want to balance it with carbon-rich things such as dry leaves. I think the seed pits are carbon rich, but they might not be enough to balance it, especially since they take so long. I'll attach a flyer that lists nitrogen vs. carbon things to compost.


Maggots in the Compost

June 24, 2012

Question:

We just discovered maggots or black fly larvae in our compost pile and initial research says that's a good thing. We only use kitchen veg and fruit scraps, no meat, dairy or oily foods. My question is, can we use this compost on our veg garden? Do we want to be distributing BFL into veg that we will be eating?

Answer by WR:

If you have a good hot compost and stir it up good, the maggots, or their "remains" should just compost along with everything else. Just more good organic material. Same is true for cold compost, but will be a little slower and they'll probably turn into flies or something at some point, just as they would if they laid their eggs elsewhere. You could try scooping them out, but they are not hurting anything. I wouldn't worry about the finished compost in your vegetable garden. Just, as always, be sure that you use compost that is "done" and and smells good like finished compost should. I remember the first time I saw maggots in my pile I was quite concerned and creeped out, too. That was quite a few years ago and I've since come to learn that, while I don't particularly welcome them, they aren't a problem. Good luck and be sure to write back if you have any other questions.

Answer by GM:

Fly larvae are definitely ok in your compost pile. Sounds like it is healthy. You may also find some other "disturbing" insects, just be assured that your friendly bugs are doing the business of decomposition. If you feel very uncomfortable with the larvae, your option might be to purchase a bin type of composter which would eliminate the pesky problem. However, you needn't worry about the fly larvae contaminating anything and they won't bother your veggies. The flies that are produced are usually very slow and if you want, some yellow sticky fly paper seems to work for me. I get it at the feed store or at a hardware store. By the time you start to use the compost, the larvae should be gone. Your compost is going through a process and the fly larvae are pretty much normal. I know, ick. And I don't use meat/dairy or oil either. If you would like to learn more about the decomp process, please go to http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html to see the current class schedule. You are welcome at any of these events and there is no fee. If you have any other questions, please feel free to write us back.


C:N Ratio and Keeping Compost Moist in Our Climate

June 16, 2012

Question:

We are just starting to compost and I was wondering if in the southwest do we still use a 20/1 ratio of brown to green? And should we have an enclosed composter or will a fenced area work? My concern is the pile drying out.

Answer by WR:

I think most recommend 25:1 or 30:1. But 20:1 or 40:1 also work. It's hard to be exact anyway. I'm not an expert on the C:N ratio but checked the numbers with slides on this page on our website: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/compost-mix-calculator.html. I'm not sure, but I don't think the C:N numbers in the southwest are particularly different than other parts of the country. Of course, keeping compost moist is a big issue here in the southwest and an enclosed composter helps with that. But most of the composters I know here in Albuquerque use fence-type bins and often keep them covered with a lid or blanket or tarp. Check out some of the pictures on this page: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/meet-the-composters.html. If you can put your bin in the shade that really helps. I compost without a bin. I'm lucky to have a shady spot in the corner of my big back yard, away from the house. During the summer, I do water it a bit nearly every day with the garden hose. It's part of my morning routine in the garden. That seems sufficient to keep it moist. Of course, it would be better if I covered it, but since the pile is visible from my house, I wouldn't want to look at an old rug or some such. I do enjoy seeing the pile. This is a recent picture of it: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/ask-a-master.html. I had lots of red worms appear in my pile many years ago and at some point I added a few more. So, I'm doing a combination vermicompost and regular cold compost, I guess. It seems to work well. The worms seem happy and I get great compost. It's great to hear you are starting to compost. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Please don't hesitate to send more questions.

Answer by WR, Addendum:

I just reread your question and see you asked about ratio of browns to greens (vs carbon to nitrogen). The ratio of browns to greens would depend on how much carbon or nitrogen are in the actual material you are using. Be sure to check out Omar's slides: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/documents/carbon-nitrogen-ratio-simplified.pdf. The 9th slide talks about mixing greens and browns. But please don't worry too much about these ratios. If it starts smelling bad, you probably have too many greens (or need to turn the pile). If it's just sitting there not changing into compost, you probably have too many browns (or are not watering and turning often enough). I find that if I just throw in what I have available it works well nearly all the time.

Answer by JZ:

I think that WR has answered your questions. You are very welcome to attend one of our classes which are open/free to the public. See this link: http://bernalilloextension.nmsu.edu/mastercomposter/schedule.html


Nitrogen in City Compost

April 8, 2012

Question:

Does anyone know about the nitrogen content of the free compost at the city recycling center? I would like to use it in my tomato garden, but I am afraid it could inhibit fruit production. Any ideas?

Answer by JZ:

Best to contact the person who oversees the composting operation for the city. Most finished compost has an NPK of about 1:1:1.


Putting Moldy Food into Compost

March 13, 2012

Question from a Master Composter:

I have a friend who recently bought a compost bin, the kind that rotates. She said the people who sold it to her said not to put moldy food into it because it would introduce bad bacteria. I've certainly never heard of such a thing. (For one thing, isn't mold a fungus, not a bacteria?) It seems like moldy food in your frig just has a head start in the composting process, and I wouldn't hesitate to compost my own moldy food. Any thoughts about this? Was she given bad advice or am I wrong about this?

Answer by JE:

Mold is a fungus and not bacteria. However, if something smells bad, then it is probably from anaerobic bacteria. The bacteria that spoil food don't make us sick as much as they gross us out. Most of the bacterial food pathogens don't smell at all! The deceptive little buggers. I agree that putting spoiled food into any compost pile means the microbes are already getting started at the process.

Answer by PB:

I agree with this too. Just spoke to a group this morning and the subject of mold came up. I have them basically the information WR and JE have stated below.

Response from Original Questioner:

Yes, thanks a lot JE and PB for your thoughts. I did a google search for "don't put moldy food in compost" (without the quotes) and most that came say it's fine to compost moldy food. The one person I found who said not to compost moldy bread also said to not compost bread at all as it "adds nothing to the compost heap". Of course, I don't agree with that at all, so don't consider that person to be a credible source. A major reason to compost is to keep organic waste out of the landfill. Also, bread contributes plenty of organic matter to the pile, per volume. The only reason I wouldn't compost bread would be if I were concerned about dogs or other large animals eating it. Which wouldn't be a problem in a tumbler bin.