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I'm new to composting (and cleverly started in the winter ;-)

I've heard (and seen) that a thin layer of leaves on top of vegetable scraps keeps the bugs off. However, I recently watched a TED Video on Composting that suggested you compost the kitchen scraps separately because that's done mostly by worms, whereas the leaves compost differently. And a post on StackExchange indicates that the leaves will "hot compost" and be too hot for the worms"

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Currently, I have a 6' x 6' compost heap 4 feet high layered up from last year's compost, the Maple leaves and Mulberry leaves from our back yard, garden green waste cleanup, etc. Using a pitch fork, I slit into the top of the pile down a foot to make a trench that the kitchen bucket goes into.

This time of year, with the cold, the compost gets hot enough to gently steam, but the worms move out of the warm areas to consume leaf matter and kitchen waste. As long as there's warmth, they have the mobility to take care of themselves.

I've turned the pile twice since September and have a quite heavy worm population consisting of angle worms (yellow banded), standard earth worms and night crawlers.

The Maple leaves have quite a bit of sugar which the bacteria likes (heat), the Mulberry leaves promote quite a bit of fungal growth, you can see the mycelium strands. Night crawlers eat leaves, bore into Kale and Cabbage stalks and do a number on anything they can ingest.

Basically the amount of heat depends on the leaves and the grass content. Something like Sycamore creates a pretty cold pile that needs quite a bit of fungal growth to break down unless you shred them and layer in greens. In the spring, this can produce a pretty hot pile that would be a worm killer with 2 inch leaf to 3 inch grass layers.

The coldest pile I ever put together was Oak and Sycamore stacked about 4 feet high. The leaves got wet and compressed so tightly together that it resembled the "Shoe Event Horizon" per one of the Hitchhiker's Guide skits. Trying to turn it did nothing. After two years, I had to sharpen a shovel and chop into it to break up the leaf matter so it would start to break down at which point it went into the main pile as a grass mix and got so hot it cooked everything out. Not worm friendly.

Basic decomposition process: Green or high color sugar bearing with protein, eaten by bacteria with lots of heat. Brown, mostly cellulose and lignins, eaten at a cooler temperature by fungi. Once the rot sets in, worms will eat everything that still has food content.

So, depending on managing the content, yes you can toss it all in the same pile and have a broad range of stuff the worms will eat. They're omnivorous.

  • Fantastic answer! Very helpful overview for someone contemplating composting. – emsoff Jan 19 '14 at 5:29
  • You're welcome! My father showed me that you can build friable, arable soil where conditions are pretty horrible. Also that you are in control of your heap's environment in by aeration and contents. In a month, I'll be screening out black humus and leaf chips for the cure pile. The large remains get put back between layers of new material so the old cultures the new. It's pretty much a year 'round continuous multi-pile process once you get established. – Fiasco Labs Jan 19 '14 at 6:20
  • Sifted out 9 wheelbarrow loads on schedule which are now in the finish heap for this year's gardening. Will be doing another 6-8 in about a month. It's grown to 6x10 as the spring growth is pretty prolific at the moment. The top's a hot pile keeping the lower half warm. Viva continuous composting, The upper property pile will be producing fungally broken down chipped leaf matter soon to be put in the lower heap. – Fiasco Labs May 10 '14 at 19:47
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On the assumption you're talking about broadleaf tree leaves which have been shed in autumn/fall, yes, you should compost them separately because, as you've found out, they break down differently. I've given this advice before on here, but I can't remember/find where it is, so I'll repeat it here.

Hopefully you've got enough space to do this - you need black plastic bags, the sort you put rubbish in will do. Get the leaves up, cram them into the black bags - if they're dry when you bag them, chuck some water in to get them damp (just use a can with a rose, put in about half if its a 5 gallon can, depending how dry the leaves are, you don't want them swimming about). Tie the tops tight shut and get a trowel or a knife and just poke a few holes in the bottom of the bags. Store them somewhere out of the way, on soil if possible or something that won't stain (and preferably out of sight) and leave them to sit - in the UK, it takes up to two years, but in warmer countries, it can be a year. You'll know when its ready for use - the bags will look saggy and only have something heavyish in the bottom - when you open and look, you should see what seems like rich, black soil. It ain't called black gold for nothing - it's a humus rich mix and improves your soil.

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It sounds like you're talking about two different kinds of composting. Vermicomposting and what everyone knows as just composting.

In vermicomposting you're adding waste like kitchen scraps. This is high nitrogen stuff. If you added carbon material to it, like dried oak or maple leaves, you're going to start "hot composting." This obviously isn't good for the worms so you only add the high nitrogen material.

In "hot composting" you aim for a 50/50 ratio of "green/brown" or N/C or nitrogen to carbon. Then you make sure it gets enough air and the right amount of moisture/humidity and a little of the right species of aerobic bacteria and you've got the ideal conditions for breaking down compost fast but not ideal conditions for worms. Worms will go to parts of the pile with conditions that suit their preferences or leave the pile, if it's on the ground/ they have somewhere to go.

As to TED I avoid them now. They've aligned with Monsanto and lost all credibility in my mind.

  • corrected link: to Monsanto alignment :goo.gl/XzvWKH but I have to say that article lost me when they claimed TED nearly all Neuroscience was considered "psudeoscience" and not allowed. There are lots of talks on that. And "hands on healing" seems pseudoscience to me. Any studies on Reiki ? – Clay Nichols Jan 19 '14 at 18:26
  • @Clay Nichols Yes, did you read the letter put out by TED? They've edited it since the article was written but near the end of section 2 the letter says "2. Red flag topics..." "The neuroscience of [fill in the blank] — not saying this will all be non-legitimate, but that it’s a field where a lot of goofballs are right now" – hortstu Jan 21 '14 at 4:54
  • @Clay Nichols The fact that they are so cautious about "anti GMO foodists" but not cautious about the safety of the masses consuming GMOs as a large portion of their diet is disturbing – hortstu Jan 21 '14 at 4:56

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