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For the past year I have been piling up branches and limbs on a border of the yard and now it is about six feet high. I had wanted to experiment with a hugelkultur but the limbs are not very large and include twigs as well as grapevine cuttings, dead sunflower stems etc. My question is whether I can compost all of this with minimal effort or whether I should do something else with this as the winter comes. I also wonder if I add organic materials and scraps as I do with my compost whether the rats and other critters will bed down in there and cause me trouble later.

  • I would imagine that rats and critters are already in there. – That Idiot Oct 5 '16 at 17:49
  • What's the climate in your area? Wet or dry? Warm or cool? If you can get the right kind of mushrooms growing, they will break down the cellulose faster. – JimmyJames Oct 6 '16 at 15:40
  • @JimmyJames it is zone 8 eastern PA, I cultivate Stropharia mushrooms as a matter of fact, but they demand chips for their beds as well. Might be able to do this with a lasagne technique, though. Thanks for the thought. – ychirea1 Oct 6 '16 at 18:56
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My personal experience is a bit different than what @Bamboo indicates, but I'm not trying to get there by adding kitchen scraps, either.

Once upon a time I rented a chipper - it was an overall miserable experience since dis-assembling a pile that was not stacked specifically with chipping in mind is a slow, tedious process, and chippers can be fussy (the one I got liked to jam on grapevines, which many of the branches had entwined, for instance) as well as noisy and dangerous.

I have found that pulling a truckload of horse manure up the pile of brush and shoveling it on top makes a very significant contribution to the speed of breakdown - not only does it add nitrogen, it also helps to maintain moist conditions that favor breakdown/rot of the wood in the way that an open, airy pile does not. If it's a big pile or a small truck, use 2 or 3 loads. Revisit it in a year or two. If you can get and can stand to shovel chicken manure it may work even better. Horse manure is easier to come by and more pleasant to handle, for me.

I don't see anything against a "hugelkulture of smaller twigs" if you'd rather do that. Or, plant tomatoes/squash on the paragraph above and you've kinda got that - both plants are typical "happily growing in the compost pile" plants, so being planted in pure manure won't bother them a bit, particularly if it's been aging all winter (pile now, plant in spring.)

  • sorry, @Ecnerwal is what you are talking about a euphemism for manure? If so, I have no supplies nearby to acquire that. I wonder if a bag from home depot would suffice? I have wondered about planting atop this pile eventually, but it is deep in the woods at the border, with little sunlight. Perhaps shade plants? – ychirea1 Oct 5 '16 at 13:27
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    Yes, that is the byproduct of animal food. You'd need more like a couple of pallets of bags, and theirs is pre-composted so it would not work as well as the fresh stuff. Horses and/or ponies are usually not as far away as you might think, once you start looking for manure. Enormous quantities of grass clippings would also work. – Ecnerwal Oct 5 '16 at 13:31
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    @Ecnerwal Would you be willing to edit this answer to actually say "manure"? I thought you might have been talking about some byproduct of the feed manufacturing process, not the byproduct produced by the animal. – Tanner Swett Oct 5 '16 at 14:31
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To compost a brush pile in-place you have three problems:

  1. Lack of nitrogen.
  2. Lack of water.
  3. Lack of surface area.

One way to solve #1 is to gather lawn clippings or other green matter (leaves, etc) and add them to the brush pile. This will help with #2 as the clippings have water in them, and will act as a sponge to collect and hold rain water. #3 - without chipping the wood you're kind of stuck with what you've got. If you've got a tractor that has a front-end loader on it you could use the loader to crush the pile and break up the wood in it a bit. Anything will help, but not much besides chipping will help much.

Be patient - it's going to take quite a while to compost down an unchipped 6' tall brush pile. I suspect that "quite a while" means "multiple years". Best of luck.

  • I do have plenty of lawn clippings and leaves. I might be able to break up the wood as you say. Not many responses here that don't involve machinery. I might have to do this by hand? – ychirea1 Oct 5 '16 at 21:20
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    Getting wood to break down faster generally means either machinery or being Superman, because somewhere you have to add energy to the system in some fashion. Big pieces of wood generally take a long time to break down - think about a tree falling in the forest (whether it makes a sound or not is immaterial here :-) and how long that takes to decompose. As far as wood chippers go, in many areas these kinds of things can be rented, which is actually a good way to go as you get a piece of machinery that's been properly maintained and generally works as advertised. YMMV. Best of luck. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '16 at 2:44
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    @ychirea1 I've read of using a machete for this purpose but I haven't tried it. I think it goes without say that you should be careful if you go that route. – JimmyJames Oct 6 '16 at 15:38
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    @JimmyJames - given the tendency of the wood in the pile to move and rebound when struck I'd guess that a machete would be ineffective, and probably more danger to the wielder than to the wood. (I own and use a machete semi-regularly, and it's probably The Most Dangerous Tool in my barn. My scythe is sharper, but at least it's on the end of a very long handle :-). – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '16 at 16:40
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    @BobJarvis Yeah, you wouldn't be able to just hack at the pile. You'd have to pull pieces out and lay them on something like a stump. Probably a pretty tedious thing but maybe manageable if did it as you go. As far as dangerous tools go, I've got a 100,000 BTU weed torch so I'm not sure whether a machete would be in contention in my collection. – JimmyJames Oct 6 '16 at 16:52
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If you have what is basically an untidy woodpile, it will eventually decompose not by composting but by rotting. However unless you have a very "rot-friendly" climate that may take 20 years or more, and in any case the end product will most likely be full of organisms, like honey fungus or so-called "dry rot", that you don't want to spread around the rest of your garden (or invade the wood used in building your house) unless you want all your other plants to decompose faster than the woodpile did!

Find a way to convert it into chipping-sized pieces and either compost them over time mixed with "green" material, or just spread them on any bare ground for weed-control. Or (the simplest option) just get somebody to take the stuff away. If you have substantial sized pieces of timber, somebody with a wood-burning stove may be happy to take them away for free.

With the benefit of hindsight, next time keep the more compostable ingredients (leaves, plant stalks, etc) separate from the "wood."

Incidentally, if you rent a chipper, also rent a chainsaw. That will make "dis-assembling a pile that was not stacked specifically with chipping in mind" a much quicker process - and if you accidentally try sawing into a few rocks, it's not your chainsaw that you are damaging!

  • Rocks don't damage a chainsaw unless you drop a big one on it. They'll dull the chain but that can be fixed in 15 minutes if you know how. If you own a chainsaw you should know the basics of sharpening the chain, if for no other reason than it saves you a bunch of time and money. For extra credit learn to sharpen and set your handsaws - you might like using them once they're sharp. A good carpenter can cut a 2x4 just as quick with a sharp handsaw as with a circular saw - PLUS a handsaw is safer, and is quicker-n-easier to set up and take down (or hang up, as the case may be). – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '16 at 16:51
  • A follow-up to my comment above about hand-saws: when I was a kid my dad (nice guy, good provider - thanks, Dad - but clueless when it came to tools and how to use them) gave me a small saw that I was allowed to use to cut 2x4's etc with. Dang thing was a bear to use! When my mom passed a couple years ago I found that saw, took one look at it, and burst out laughing. All those years I had been cross-cutting wood with a RIP SAW! No wonder the it wouldn't cut worth a d*mn! (It was also dull as dirt, which didn't help). 30 minutes later it was all sharpened up and cuts easy IN RIP. :-) – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Dec 15 '16 at 19:25
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If its lots of woody stuff, it'll take years to compost down, regardless of any 'greener' additions you may make to the pile to supply nitrogen. Adding kitchen scraps may well increase the risk of unwelcome creatures in the pile as it stands too.

If you're not going to use it for hugelkultur, and you want to turn it into useable compost relatively sooner, the best thing to do is chip all the wood by running it through a wood chipper, then build a compost pile, ensuring that you don't add too much so the C:N ratio is kept within bounds. Woody materials count as 'browns' or carbon, so you need to balance that with 'greens', or nitrogen to create a C:N of 25 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen, see link below for more detail

Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios

UPDATE: If you can't borrow or hire a chipping machine, the other option is to burn the pile, if you're allowed to where you are. Some of the resulting ash can added to a compost bin or heap.

  • ahh, unfortunately very little possibility of acquiring a wood chipper, otherwise I would surely use that. but thanks – ychirea1 Oct 5 '16 at 13:24
  • @ychirea1 - see updated answer – Bamboo Oct 5 '16 at 14:47
  • Sunflower stems and a lot of the smaller branches can be fed to a lawn mower and turned to chips. This is a terribly unsafe practice and no one should even consider doing it. – Wayfaring Stranger Oct 5 '16 at 15:12
  • @WayfaringStranger I do not follow you. I would not feed these large stems to a lawn mower. – ychirea1 Oct 5 '16 at 21:18
  • @Bamboo I would not burn a wood pile at the edge of a forest. There seem to be no good answers here other than moving the darn thing. – ychirea1 Oct 5 '16 at 21:19
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Have you ever thought of planting some sort of climbing rose or ivy at the base of the pile? This would add beauty and also provide shade to the pile which would speed decomposition.

  • I like your thinking! I did that before, with annuals like morning glory. They shade the pile and keep it more moist, – J. Musser Dec 15 '16 at 16:50
  • my pile is already in a shaded area. If there were some shade-loving running plants I would. – ychirea1 Dec 16 '16 at 17:50
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Branches and twigs are terrible for the compost bin. I put them in when I was new to composting and not only does it take a long time to break down but it also gets in the way of turning the pile. I would not recommend using branches and twigs in your compost bin unless you can shred those into very small pieces. I generally just put those in my green bin for the waste management company to recycle

  • It's true that they can complicate things but I've found that by pulling them out of finished compost and throwing them back in to cook more, they eventually break down. If you've ever seen wood that has completely broken down to dust, it's a pretty attractive addition to compost. – JimmyJames Oct 6 '16 at 15:45

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