Composting: To Turn or Not To Turn?

Turning Up The Fork

Turning Up The Fork

If you have been reading this blog you know that my gardens have been thriving in the no till fashion of growing which means, for those of you who are new to this blog, that I grow without turning, tilling, compressing or in any other ways disturbing the soil in my gardens. This allows the myriad life forms in the soil to exist successfully which in turn means that my plants can take advantage of the natural Soil Food Web to feed themselves. I am free from buying and applying any fertilizer for plants, and they grow strong that way. I simply make sure to provide food for the soil organisms in the form of mulch (leaves, straw, hay, manure bits) and I add some compost once in the beginning of the growing season.

No till growing is relatively new to me. Just a few years ago I used to turn in the organic matter on top of my gardens before planting every fall, disturbing the soil organisms that had begun to colonize my soil throughout the long summer months.

So I quit all of that garden turning, and the result is fabulous. Now we are up to speed.

A few months ago while tending my booth at the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market I met a man who told me that he doesn’t bother to turn his compost. He simply makes a pile, and adds to it until it is large enough, and then moves on to the next pile. He said that by the time he has finished piling up his third compost pile the first one is ready to harvest. You can just imagine how hearing this has begun to work on my mind! Since then I have begun reading the book Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles by Ellen Sandbeck.
In that book she writes a few paragraphs about compost, in one, referencing studies done on large-scale compost piles in Quebec and Pennsylvania that showed unturned compost contained up to 13 percent more nitrogen than piles turned twice a week. “More nitrogen escapes as ammonia gas when compost piles are turned frequently. If the pile is left unturned microbes can convert the ammonia into a more stable form of nitrogen.” she writes.

I teach people how to compost. I have always turned compost, and I have instructed others to do the same as do publications on composting from most cooperative extensions. I learned that turning compost brings oxygen into the pile, and helps to chop and mix the components of the compost, but my compost piles are full of earthworms, other invertebrates and all sorts of fungi and bacteria. If those organisms are capable of thoroughly aerating and structuring my garden soil why would I imagine that they are not doing the same for my compost. Furthermore, I notice that when I turn my compost piles it is clear that I am disturbing the worms in there just like turning garden soil disturbs the earthworms there.

The conventional approach to composting is that we should turn our compost piles. I have already discarded the conventional approach to gardening: I won’t turn the soil. It occurs to me that it is past time to re-examine my approach to composting.

I have already begun to take a less aggressive approach to making compost. I have decided that once it is well mixed, and well on the way to curing I will no longer bother my compost except to harvest it. At the Community Garden at Heathcote Botanical Gardens where we have a 5 section compost bin we are no longer turning the last 2 sections. I expect as we observe our compost piles both at my home garden and at Heathcote we will probably further amend our approach to composting to better reflect our no till practices.

Is this exciting or what? I am going to have to turn my fork tines up, and use it more for photos, and less for work!

12 Responses to Composting: To Turn or Not To Turn?

  1. Adina says:

    Kari, No matter how the weather is, 50% moisture, or wrung out sponge like is still proper. To help retain moisture, and nitrogen, stop turning that pile. Turning will dry the pile out, and unnecessary turning causes the release of future nitrogen in the form of less stable ammonia gas. With regular turning you could be diminishing the available nitrogen in your finished compost by as much as 15%, and you will see far fewer worms in a pile that is constantly being turned.

  2. Kari says:

    Hi Adina!

    Thanks for the response. :Last summer I had piles that were about 3×4′ and they dried out and they were well watered (to wrung out sponge stage) and turned once a week. We did have a drought as well as 110 degree weather for 2 months, so that certainly didn’t help. Hopefully, we won’t have a repeat of that this year. That was unusual.

    So, if the weather is in the 100s, should I just wet it more than the wrung out sponge stage?

  3. Adina says:

    Hi Kari, If you water your compost pile whenever you add stuff, or if you are layering in lots of material at once water each layer as you add it, you will not have trouble with uniform moisture. When ever I dump a bucket of kitchen wastes into the compost I rinse out the bucket and pour the rinse water into the compost. Then I cover over the new addition in a few inches of carbonaceous wastes and rinse and pour once more. Huge deep piles of compost are an excellent way to deal with holding water in droughty conditions.

  4. Kari says:

    Hi Adina,

    Since I’m in TX and the summers are very hot, how would I keep a pile moist with out turning? I know I could water the first couple inches, but the only way I could think to water the rest is with turning.

    Thanks!

  5. Adina says:

    Thank you for your comment Rupa.

  6. Rupa says:

    I’ve been composting for around 3 years.Throughout the year I begin collecting various green and brown stuff.I just remember the 3 to 1 ratio of carbon found in brown and nitrogen found in green.I throw the stuff in an old rubbermaid trash can with wheels(helps when dragging to bottom of my veggie garden).But I have never turned my bin. I just let it sit throughout the year and let it do its thing. It always turns out rich black perfect compost. Its wonderful:-) Just remember to add holes to the bottom of bin!

  7. Adina says:

    Hey Howie, thanks for the comment. I am sorry to hear you are laid up for a while. Sound like great things are happening at your place.
    I hope you have a speedy recovery, Adina

  8. Howie says:

    Sounds great to me Adina, especially since I’ve been hospitalized for a week now with cellulitis.
    The Doc says I’m gonna be here at least another week. The NO TURN METHOD works for me.
    Another case of less is more. I love it ! When I’m able to, I figure in 3 weeks. I’ll Zip lock my 2nd compost bin together that I got from Tri County ( of course I’ll be putting hinges on the 4th pallet to act as a gate too ! Fill er up and start on my 3rd. Oh Hey, THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP, LOVED YOUR CLASS AT HEATHCOTE oops, cuess me gotta go……………. Here comes da nurse with another bag
    of antibiotics, MORE NEXT MONTH

  9. Adina says:

    Hey Lisa, Thanks for your comment. I really like the pallets for my compost piles. You can get decent pallets at Tri County Feed for $3 each. If you tell Glen you need them for composting he will find ones with smaller spaces between the boards which is desirable for us.

  10. Lisa Bell says:

    I’ve got a bad back and less turning sounds wonderful.

    I’m looking to get some of those wooden flats to make something in my yard like what is at Heathcote (my side yard would be a good location since it is near the kitchen and in a relatively unused part of my yard. Does the Tribune still advertise when they are giving away old broken flats?

    I currently make circles of chicken wire for composts (in addition to one bin that I can spin). They work OK but I think the bins with one open side are good for shoveling the compost out when it is done.

    Thanks for this great information!

  11. Adina says:

    Me too Danny!

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