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Adding a "trowel full" of compost? Really?

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Post  tajames01 on 10/28/2020, 12:15 pm

Hi all, 
I'm in my 2nd year of SFG and have had great success and learned a lot along the way. Here in Georgia, you can grow year round so I am continuously succession planting or converting from spring/summer to fall/winter veggies.  My question is regarding "the trowel full" of compost that is all we are supposed to have to add to each square after harvesting.  Either Mel as a much bigger trowel, or I have mysteriously disappearing dirt, because I'm having to add WAY more than that.

When I first set up my boxes (4 cedar 4x4 boxes 8" deep) I followed Mel's instructions to the letter regarding 1/3 compost (5 different types) / 1/3 peat / 1/3 course vermiculite.  I put down landscape fabric before installing. This was all more expensive than I'd expected, but I figured it was a one time deal to get all of my boxes set up. I've been really happy with the results and am hooked on gardening.  As careful as I am to not waste a morsel of this gold-mine of dirt when I remove plants, there is naturally some loss, but it seems I'm having to add buckets rather than trowels to keep them full.

After the first full year, I was concerned that I must be adding too much compost, so I made some batches of Mel's mix again to add back in periodically in addition to the compost.  I'm getting lots of produce, but this isn't cheap!  Has anyone else found that "1 trowel per square after harvesting" doesn't seem to cut it?  Is it possibly due to the thunderstorms we typically get in this part of the country? The boxes are on level ground and surrounded by pine bark mulch.  Is this is a weird phenomenon or something others also experience and I just need to live with it?  Thanks! 
Theresa from Atlanta.
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Post  OhioGardener on 10/28/2020, 12:42 pm

Well, Theresa, my "trowel" is a shovel.  Very Happy   All of my beds drop 2" to 3" per year, and I fill them back up with compost yearly. The more microbial life you have in your soil, the faster the compost is consumed by them and requires refreshing. I never remove plants from the beds, I just cut the plant off at soil level and let the roots decompose to add more carbon to the soil.

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Post  markqz on 10/28/2020, 1:11 pm

@OhioGardener At the heart of tajames' concern is the expense. Are you still able to do your Starbucks run in the time of Covid?
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Post  yolos on 10/28/2020, 1:19 pm

Two points - the first is that after the first year there is a need to add some Mel's Mix.  The level of the MM is reduced by mainly settling so there is greater need after the first year.  After the first year,  the level is dropping as Ohio Gardener states due to decomposition of the compost.   I also add a lot more compost than one trowel full.  I think part of the reason is our long growing season and heat makes the compost decompose faster than some other areas of the country.  Because I make a large portion of my compost, the expense is not that great.  I have more leaves than I could ever use each year.  It takes a couple years to decompose these live oak leaves even trying to do hot compost.  Also, as Ohio Gardener states, I use large amounts of Starbucks used coffee grounds to help with the compost pile.  Before I start my fall garden, I bring the level back up to near the top of the box leaving just enough room for a layer of wheat straw on top.

I am located in Brooks, Ga, about 30 minutes south of the airport and have been doing SFG (sometimes modified SFG) since 2012.
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Post  OhioGardener on 10/28/2020, 2:08 pm

@markqz wrote:@OhioGardener At the heart of tajames' concern is the expense. Are you still able to do your Starbucks run in the time of Covid?

Now I am, starting about a month ago. Starbucks was not making their coffee grounds available for a long time "to reduce human-to-human contact", but they said they would restart "soon".  I periodically called them to check on the status, and about a month ago they said, "yes, we have several bags full if you want them."  I've been picking them up a couple times a week since.

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Post  tajames01 on 10/28/2020, 4:40 pm

Thank you for your helpful comments!  I am planning to do more research to try composting myself.  I was put-off when my neighbor (who is a master gardener) showed me her bin and it was full of maggots..eewww!  I'm hoping that was due to something not being done properly. As long as that is not the norm, I'd like to give it a go. (I'm a bit of a baby about creepy-crawly things).  I have plenty of leaves, and I make Starbucks coffee every morning Smile  so between Google and the info on this forum, it may be time for me to conquer my fear and save some money.  

I leave lots of small roots from plants, but I wasn't sure about the huge ones from eggplant, tomatoes, etc..  I thought they might interfere with what I'm planting next because they'd take too long to breakdown.  I will try leaving more roots and see if that helps preserve more of the dirt.  It sounds like the shrinkage is due to our climate more than anything, so I think you guys have motivated me to try my own composting.  
Cheers,
Theresa
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Post  OhioGardener on 10/28/2020, 5:15 pm

@tajames01 wrote:I was put-off when my neighbor (who is a master gardener) showed me her bin and it was full of maggots..eewww!  I'm hoping that was due to something not being done properly. As long as that is not the norm, I'd like to give it a go.

That is not the norm for compost, that is because it was mostly "greens" with not enough "browns".  When the mixture is mostly nitrogen, it doesn't compost, it just rots and smells putrid. If it is composting correctly, it is too hot for flies, etc., and they can't lay their eggs in it. Good compost will smell earthy and fresh, so it does not attract insects.

The ideal Carbon:Nitrogen ratio is 3 parts brown to 1 part green, or 6 inches of browns to 2 inches of greens. But, I must admit, I don't stick to any strict mixture ratios. Since I don't have a lot of browns available, I use pine pellets which are sold for animal bedding. Each time I add kitchen scraps, etc., to the tumbler, I throw in some pine pellets to provide the carbon. Since the pine pellets are compressed, they expand significantly when they meet moisture, so I have to be careful that I don't add too much at one time, though.  Note: Coffee grounds are "green" in spite of being brown or black colored, and there must be adequate carbon added to them for them to compost.

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Post  GardenLikeMad on 10/29/2020, 11:46 am

@OhioGardener wrote:
@tajames01 wrote:I was put-off when my neighbor (who is a master gardener) showed me her bin and it was full of maggots..eewww!  I'm hoping that was due to something not being done properly. As long as that is not the norm, I'd like to give it a go.

That is not the norm for compost, that is because it was mostly "greens" with not enough "browns".  When the mixture is mostly nitrogen, it doesn't compost, it just rots and smells putrid. If it is composting correctly, it is too hot for flies, etc., and they can't lay their eggs in it. Good compost will smell earthy and fresh, so it does not attract insects.

Maggots are the larvae of flies which are NOT attracted to your compost pile due to the Carbon:Nitrogen ratio.  Your neighbor is putting some type of meat in her compost pile - meat, grease from meat, meat scraps from a plate...something.  I have been composting for 20 years and teach composting classes.  Never put meat or dairy in your compost pile.  You won't  have maggots, flies or rats.
Also, a good, healthy compost pile is FULL of crawlers - springtails, potato bugs, worms, etc.  These are your secondary, mechanical composters.  Primary composting happens at the microbial level.  These secondary composters will feed on the primary composters (don't worry, they don't eat them all and it all balances out).  Crawlers in your compost pile are a sign it is healthy on a microbial level.
Yes, too much nitrogen will cause your pile to rot and smell putrid - think if you pile up grass clippings.  At first they smell good and get hot, then they just get slimey.  Too much nitrogen and no oxygen once the pile collapses = rot, anaerobic microbes taking over = stink.[/quote]
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Post  sanderson on 11/6/2020, 4:39 pm

Theresa, You have brought up a good question. A trowel-full works for small plants like a head of leaf lettuce, beets or bok choy. For year around gardening, adding more compost by the bucket or shovel is the norm.

I'm in central CA, Zone 9A. I used to make most of compost, but last summer I retired that project and now only buy bags of compost. I stock pile the bags on pallets under a blue tarp, searching for various composts throughout the year. Home Depot usually has a 50% sale on torn bags, so watch for those!

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Post  dlabrie on 11/12/2020, 8:42 am

@sanderson wrote:
I'm in central CA, Zone 9A.  I used to make most of compost, but last summer I retired that project and now only buy bags of compost.  I stock pile the bags on pallets under a blue tarp, searching for various composts throughout the year.  Home Depot usually has a 50% sale on torn bags, so watch for those!
I am in NH and just finished building and filling  my first raised beds, about 124s/f,  to plant in next spring. I just started making vermicompost and have a new barrel composter(not much use in the winter) but I won't have much to work with in the spring.  I can get a cubic yard of compost from the feed store for around $35. Is this good to 'trowel' in when I plant?
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Post  OhioGardener on 11/12/2020, 12:39 pm

@dlabrie wrote: I can get a cubic yard of compost from the feed store for around $35. Is this good to 'trowel' in when I plant?

Do you know what the compost is made from, or what is in it? That would be important to know.  If if has animal manure, it would possibly be fully of worm medicine, antibiotics, etc., that you would not want in your garden. If it is made from old grains or plants, it would probably be a good compost.

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Post  vincepachiano on 11/12/2020, 2:59 pm

I also put down landscape fabric, and then laid my SFG beds on top of the landscape fabric.  I notice about half-way through the year a significant amount of Mel's Mix was  being flushed out between the bottom of the 2x6's and the fabric.  Over the winter I emptied the bed and took a knife and cut-away the landscape fabric inside the box and about an inch outside the box, so that the 2x6's were resting on the bare earth.  This seemed to help slow the seepage of Mel's Mix.

I'm no longer a fan of Landscape fabric, as it stops you own plants from establishing deep roots, and your still left with weed-seeds that are blown in or dropped by birds.  Few (if any) of my weeds came from beneath the Mel's Mix.
If I were a fan of Landscape fabric, I would probably STAPLE the fabric to the underside and half-way up the outside of the box.  This would 100% prevent seepage
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Post  sanderson on 11/12/2020, 5:04 pm

Let's stay on the topic: how much new compost needs to be added? a hand trowel? a bucket?

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Post  Johnnye36 on 11/13/2020, 7:34 am

This question of how much compost to add caught me by surprise.  As a west Texas resident, I garden year-round and find my garden constantly needing more soil.  Of course, this could be because I pull lots and lots of weeds--so now I wonder:  do I dare just cut the little boogers' heads off?
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Post  OhioGardener on 11/13/2020, 7:47 am

@Johnnye36 wrote: Of course, this could be because I pull lots and lots of weeds--so now I wonder:  do I dare just cut the little boogers' heads off?

Off topic again, but it "depends".  If it is a perennial "weed", you cannot cut the top off and leave it. It must be removed, and the hole filled with more compost (back on topic? Smile ). If it is an annual, such as vegetables, just cut the plant off at soil level and let the roots decompose.

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Post  stevenfstein on 11/13/2020, 10:18 am

Hopefully "on topic" but have a question about compost storage. Will not be making my own, relying on store bought from Home Depot or Lowes. Bags will be worm castings, composted cow manure and composted mushrooms. Maybe something else if they have it. My plan would be to take x amount from each bag, mix up in garden cart then put into garden. Neat and tidy are the buzz words but how or where do you store the opened bags? Inside garage not an option. Suggestions appreciated with links, if appropriate.

Much appreciated.... Steve
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Post  Scorpio Rising on 11/13/2020, 7:04 pm

@stevenfstein wrote:Hopefully "on topic" but have a question about compost storage. Will not be making my own, relying on store bought from Home Depot or Lowes. Bags will be worm castings, composted cow manure and composted mushrooms. Maybe something else if they have it. My plan would be to take x amount from each bag, mix up in garden cart then put into garden. Neat and tidy are the buzz words but how or where do you store the opened bags? Inside garage not an option. Suggestions appreciated with links, if appropriate.

Much appreciated.... Steve
Hi Steve!  Welcome

Do you have any covered space, or even a tarp available?  I have thrown a tarp on my old fashioned Rodale style compost pile before (tarp was even camo—Walmart).  The goal would be to slow the leach of nutrients from the bags due to weather/rain/precipitation.  I weighed my tarp down with bricks/old broken terra cotta pot chunks.
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