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Composting leaves with worms, moles, and cold weather.

I have 3 plastic bins of worm composting going that can use all of my kitchen scraps, etc. They do a good job & have been a good education. I started the first one in July, 2012.

My gardening produces a mountain of compostables in the fall, and I have leaves to compost. My finished compost goes in a variety of beds of perennial flowers and traditional kitchen garden. I never have enough since my garden is large and my soil is poor.

Last fall (2012) I tried hot composting leaves and lawn clippings and in 3 piles achieved temps of 140F to 150F that maintained through 3 turnings or about 4 weeks. The finished product had a lot of twigs and many leaves still unfinished. I laid this on a concrete slab in a 8' x 4' bed 16" deep mixed with about 50 lbs of coffee grounds. I also turned in a small bed of compost that was loaded with red wigglers.

Within weeks the worm count had dramatically increased. As winter came I covered the bed with leaves, and then with plywood. Our mild Virginia winter did not hurt them. In the March I uncovered, and there were zillions of worms doing their thing.

then in May I went to turn these beds to prepare them for harvest and found that moles had invaded. The worm count was way down, and vermicomposting there has been set back.

In August I turned them again, and soon I will spread this compost, ready or not. Worm count was low and It looks like about 40% worm castings. It will have to do.

So now I am planning to do this process again, only with coffee grounds for the hot compost of leaves. I have collected about 300 pounds of coffee grounds, and leaves are about to fall.

As soon as this bed is empty I will rebuild it with mole-proofing in mind.

I have been studying how to hot compost leaves using coffee and grass. I will again put the finished in beds and put in worms. Hopefully voles will not thwart our plans.

I would appreciate your input on any aspect of this process.

What formula would you suggest for chopped leaves, new mown grass, coffee grounds?

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Welcome to the forum, Daniel. I'm afraid I've forgotten all the formulas for hot composting, but Bentley probably has info on his old non-worm composting site:

I'd be interesting to see the difference between hot composting first vs letting the worms go straight for the leaves & UCG. New mown grass would make it too hot for our wriggly friends, but some kitchen scraps would probably be welcome.

I have no specific formula - chopped leaves with grass will heat up well, mixing with other food sources will be welcomed by the worms, and other than that I'd just make sure the grass/leaves combo is mixed. In a big pile worms will figure out which parts are safe but you may want to 'add' them after the hottest initial phase. If it doesn't get super-hot it will still eventually compost.

My lazy formula is to do more or less exactly what you do, and after the winter the whole pile gets turned over for air. There will be some uncomposted bits at the end of the winter, more from matting then from anything else, once turned it will finish nicely. The only real variable I find is how much time it takes, and I'm not in a rush, but if you want everything finished and ready right when it first gets spring-warm it might require more organised efforts. Will also depend on how cold your winter is, of course.

If I had your ingredients (1 brown, the leaves, and 2 greens, the grass and the UCG) and wanted to create a hot composting pile, here is what I would do.  When I hot compost I think more of layers of ingredients.  Greens (nitrogens) need more browns (carbons) by volume to break down quickly, and the following is what works for me.  Sounds like you had some good success with your piles last year.  Change it up if you want, or not.  I rarely hot compost to the point that the materials are completely unrecognizable.  I figure that the soil getting the compost with some leaf and twig parts are getting some food value for the microbes and critters in the soil to feed on, and it'll act as a form of slow-release amendment.  Best of luck however you make compost! 

Don't mix anything as you're building the pile, just layer them.  All will get mixed at the first turning anyway.

Start with a 6" layer of dry leaves; sprinkle/mist the top of this layer with water until wet, not soaking/sopping wet.  If the leaves are wet to begin with, don't add water to them.  

Then layer on about 1-2" of grass clippings; no more than 2".  Do not water as grass is mostly water and will release it's moisture soon enough.  Depending on the type of leaves, if they're whole, or chopped with a mower, or torn up with a shredder, the top of the leaf layer may be pretty uneven.  It's kind of hard to get a layer of anything to be at a consistent depth when put onto a really uneven layer, so just try and imagine if the amount  of grass clippings you lay onto the leaves are about 1-2".

Then add a 1" layer of UCG.  Most of the UCG I collect from Starbucks tend to be on the dryish side, and bone dry if I've had them sitting on the ground for a month or two waiting to be used.  If they're dry, or only somewhat damp sprinkle this layer with water until the top is visibly wet.  UCG absorbs a lot of water so making the top of them wet looking is not too much.

Repeat the layering as stated above but don't make the pile much more than 3 feet high.  The layering and not adding too much water is key to keep oxygen available for the decomposition to get started, and not compressed out of the pile by the sheer weight of the materials added; water being the heaviest by volume.  I would probably turn this pile at about day 5 or 6, letting the materials mix as they're forked, shoveled, or scooped onto the new pile.  Be aware of the moisture of the materials and mist lightly with water as you go (every 4-6" layer is fine) if it seems dry.  

Nice process you have.  The worms and moles like it.  I've had moles get under compost piles before.  They must like the worms that eventually come into the pile, but I bet there are more ground dwelling worms under the pile than before it was built due to the organic matter being so available for them to rise up, take a bite or two, and drag stuff back down.  Are you going to bury hardware cloth along the edge of your garden bed(s) to keep them out?  I've never tried that but have heard of folks doing it.

Good luck.

Thank you guys for your informed responses! I think I will learn a lot here!

My main reason to hot compost is to control weed seed. I get my chopped leaves from a lady who collects and bags using her mower. I have seen her lawn & it is weeds & wire grass (an enemy!!) so her mower picks up weed seeds, twigs, etc. The grass clippings are also seed rich from my neighbor's lawn. In a perfect world my leaves would be hand raked, and the clippings would come from a weedless yard.

Thank you, Steve Lambert, for the excellent description of pile building. In addition to what you have said, I cover the pile with clear poly in the sun to retain heat and moisture, especially in cool weather. This reduces the "outer shell" of material that is too cool & dry to change much.

My leaves come in black bags. I wet the leaves in the bags, which works better if the bag is still whole. I put as much water in each bag as it will stand, and tie it back up. When I am ready to compost I slash a hole in the bottom of each bag to let it drain. Then I pile and mix & let it stand a day. This seems to achieve an optimum leaf wetness.

I build the pile as a cone with the top about waist high. This will settle quickly. This gets covered and left for several days. By then the pile is about 2/3 its original height. The new pile is always smaller than the original.

I turn the pile by making a new pile beside the old. The cone shaped pile gets "skinned" layer after layer, so that the outside of the old pile becomes the inside of the new. This helps insure that all material gets the best chance of composting.

All this is done an a concrete slab. I have no need to protect the bottom from moles, just the sides and top of my finishing beds. Being on a slab, moisture is greatest in the bottom of the pile. This very moist bottom is where the highest concentration of worms is consistently found.

In my gardens I do not mind the moles even though they feed on worms. They help with aerification and reduction of Japanese Beetles, etc. Unfortunately mole tunnels are opportunity for VOLES which are herbivores. Voles eat the roots of hosta, daylilies, dahlias, and many other fatty roots. I fight them all the time with traps and rodenticides, which moles will not touch because they are carnivores.

About hardware cloth: my main garden bed is 13 x 160, and has a concrete curb on one side and a buried 2x8 on the other side installed to control wire grasses. Moles have runways on both sides of the board and along the concrete. The are very trap resistant. I have used the solar sonic stakes, but they are useless.

I will see if I can post some pictures.




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