Compost – What Should it Look Like? Looks can be deceptive!
Compost from you compost heap, compost bin and indeed your HOTBIN composter can vary an awful lot.
With many HOTBIN® composters coming up to their first autumn, there will be a lot of hot compost being taken out and used in the garden. We thought it would be good idea to let you know what to expect as ‘looks can be deceptive’!
To do this we will look at several batches of compost alongside some HOTBIN composts. Suggest how they might be graded based on common expert visual assessments. Then we will take you on a journey beyond the first look to give you some insight into compost stability and maturity tests (we’ve done them for you!), discuss what happens when you dry and sieve HOTBIN compost (don’t worry no-one is suggesting you need to do this) and finally do a bit of mud pie play to demonstrate a property called ‘colloidal behaviour’’. Finally we will tie these properties back to humeric substances and suggest that what you really need to look for in fabulous compost is high humeric substance content.
This blog is a little more scientific in nature than some of our others – so if you want the headline without the science it is this:
What a compost looks like can be deceptive. HOTBIN compost is often very sticky and very moist/wet and looks lumpy and perhaps even needing further composting. Tests show rather than it being ‘poorly’ composted, quite the reverse – it appears to have a very high humeric substance content and this is good news for your soil and plants – humeric substance is known as ‘black gold’ for a reason!
If your compost looks like (Fig 4&5), or even (Fig 6) below it is OK to dig in to your soil and does not need ‘more composting’. If you only want ‘fine’ particles of compost e.g. looking like (Fig 1) or (Fig 2) – the solution is fairly simple – dry your compost and then sieve it – you will surprised by how much fine material there is in HOTBIN Compost.
Our analysis tour includes;
1. Visual inspection
2. Carbon / nitrogen maturity test
3. Visual after drying and sieving
4. Pliability / colloidal behaviour
5. Humus test
6. Result to quality – is it fabulous?
1. Visual inspection – Below are 6 samples of compost
- (Fig2) Garden centre compost laid out dry
(Fig 3) Typical cold compost
- (Fig4) HotBin compost at 3 Months
(Fig5) HOTBIN compost that is it too wet
(Fig6) HOTBIN compost that has gone
anaerobicNow in our earlier blog (good, bad or fabulous compost) we outlined details on how different experts defined good compost. If we asked this group of experts to visually judge the samples above here is what we would expect:
(Fig1) Vermicompost – looks fine and rich, super
(Fig2) Garden centre compost laid out dry – looks very fine and free flowing, uniform and has probably been sieved
(Fig 3) Typical cold compost – looks mature, maybe 2 years old and as expected,
(Fig4) HotBin compost at 3 Months – looks ok, dark brown and a little lumpy
(Fig5) HOTBIN compost that is it too wet – looks water logged, lumpy, immature and soggy
(Fig6) HOTBIN compost that has gone anaerobic – definitely looks anaerobic, it’s black sludge not compost
2. Carbon / nitrogen maturity test
Industrial producers of compost (i.e. compost sold in garden centres) do a check to establish how active the bacteria are. Above a certain level and the compost is too active (i.e. not mature & stable) it needs to be left longer otherwise it can draw nitrogen from the soil as bacteria continue to use the carbon in the remaining compost. The maturity and stability test can be undertaken via the Solvita compost test method. You can do these at home, although it gets expensive!
Garden centre compost (Fig2) would not have gone on sale without passing the C/N maturity and stability tests. How did HOTBIN (Fig4&5) compare? Well they both fall in the stable and mature range. This will surprise a lot of experts as they look lumpy and lumpy normally means large pieces of non-composted material which is highly likely to result in an ‘active’ rather than stable result.
3. Visual after drying and sieving
We recently tested a range of compost sieves (see guide to compost sieves post). We know wet and sticky compost is a complete pain to sieve. When testing the Compostsifter it failed to sieve any of HOTBIN (Fig5). So we dried the compost and tried again. This reminded us of an old saying – ‘looks can be deceptive’. Below is the result of the sieving test.
HOTBIN compost sieved
The result was about 80% of all the compost went through the fine (8mm mesh) sieve. There is about 15% of wood chip pieces (0.8-1.5mm), and 5% oversize non-composted items (notably pampus grass roots – these are possibly going to take the record for the hardest most difficult material to compost – but that’s another blog!). I’d just like to say this sieve result is not a one off – we have seen it many times, same results.
If we visually compare the sieved HOTBIN compost with the sieved garden centre compost they now look very similar. So was the problem just that the HOTBIN sample has been stuck in the base and got wet? Is the difference just about one compost being very wet and another compost being dry? No!
4. Pliability / colloidal behaviour
When we sieve and handle HOTBIN compost we notice something else – it is very sticky. It rolls into balls in the sieves, when you grab a handful you can make a ball. It is ‘pliable’ just like a potter’s clay or children’s plasticine.
HOTBIN Vs Garden Centre on compost pliability
There are two common substances in soils and composts that create a pliable mix – clay and humeric compounds. Both these are ‘colloidal’ materials and it is this property and the resultant way they hold water that leads to the pliability.
We can take the pliability test a little further. If we make a ball of moist compost from Garden centre compost and HOTBIN compost (Fig5) and leave then to dry in the sun for 4 days. Now what happens when we try and squeeze each ball?
HOTBIN Vs Garden Centre – compost pliability after drying
The garden centre compost sample behaves more like peat – it sticks when wet, dries fast (i.e. looses water 2-4 times faster) and then the organic material falls apart when the dry ball is pressed. Whilst the HOTBIN sample is still damp and pliable, it forms a very hard solid outer layer material with soft inner. Even after 100% drying and re-wetting the pliability returns.
At this stage we should mention that HOTBIN composting (and certainly the batch of HotBin compost above ) had no soil added – hence the pliability is not believed to be due to soil clay.
5 Humus test
We think (and we mean ‘think’ because we have no laboratory proof) that it is possible that HOTBIN compost has more humeric substances than many other composts.
HOTBIN compost – Pliable humus
Can we test for humeric substances? The answer is yes but not easily outside a fully operational soil testing lab. There is a relatively simple humus soil test – targeted at measuring the concentration of humeric substances in soils. The HOTBIN samples are off the scale – but a note of caution – the test aims to give a reliable field test for soils with 0.5-6% humeric substances. It cannot be relied on for concentrations well above this.
6 Result to quality – is it fabulous?
We believe there is a real difference between compost and compost that contains very high amounts of humeric substances. Partly decomposed material (compost) will continue to decompose when added to the soil and eventually the carbon cycle completes and it is returned to carbon dioxide and a small amount of recalcitrant humus in the soil. Humeric substances do not decompose in the soil (to any great extent) so adding a concentrated form will improve your soil faster.
HOTBIN compost – drying out
As a company we are not into making claims about our products we can’t substantiate – to be clear – we believe we can explain the appearance and behaviour of HOTBIN compost. We believe we can trace (but not prove it yet!) this back to higher humeric substance content in HOTBIN compost. One day we will have the evidence – until then we believe our logic and science has merit, you can do your own testing, contribute to the debate or ignore our findings as just marketing waffle!
Can I add Autumn LEAVES to compost in my HOTBIN
Leaves can go in the HOTBIN and they make great humus.
If you have a lot of leaves (>10 litres, a bucket load), you need to tweak the recipe to ensure they HOT compost.
If you only add thick layers of leaves into the HOTBIN, it is unlikely they will rise above 20-30C as the woody nature means they are hard for bacteria to digest and hence heat is released slowly.
To HOT compost autumn leaves, see the recipe below:
How to HOT Compost Autumn Leaves
There are two parts to successful composting of autumn leaves.
1) Adding a nitrogen source to balance the high carbon in leaves
2) Ensuring that there is enough ‘easy to digest’ waste (e.g. greens, food waste, shredded office paper’ (which creates heat quickly) to keep things hot whilst the hard to digest woody material (in which heat is released slowly) are also digested. In some cases solving (1) & usually solves (2).
Here’s what you need to do to ensure you get the best out of your HOTBIN
Step 1: Shred leaves
Leaves tend to form a dense matted layer that restricts air and oxygen flow within the HOTBIN. We advise shredding the leaves (e.g. using mower or a hedge trimmer).
Step 2: Mix leaves with easier to digest materials like food waste
Many people simply will not have enough food waste to mix with high volume autumn leaf fall. You can cheat a little by adding another easy to digest waste to go with the leaves such as chicken poo, chicken pellets, or a sprinkling of blood bone meal.
The ideal waste to mix with autumn leaves is grass lawn mowing – unfortunately, it is rare in UK to be able to get the mower out in Autumn as it is too wet and compacts the lawn soil. If you have room storing leaves in a wire frame box ready for spring and first grass cut can work really well . (Avoid sealing in black bags – the leaves will go anaerobic (see below for anaerobic method).
Step 3 – Do not add too many each time – little and often is best
More than 10cm (20 litres) of cold wet leaves in one go will “stall” the HOTBIN. The cold leaves will lower the temperature of the HOTBIN below 20°C and the heat production falls below that needed to re-heat. So store the leaves in a pop up bag, protected from rain and add over a couple of weeks – you’ll be amazed how fast they compost.
If you have a large garden with lots of trees and mounds of leaves then possibly doing a little bit each week in the HOTBIN is impractical. Try the following – shred the leaves (e.g. using lawn mower), store in a wire frame or cold compost heap until spring. Mix with first grass cuttings in large volume piles. Turn occasionally.
Leaf Mould Versus Composting
If you are collecting leaves into a wire frame then you might go down the route of just leaving them in the box and waiting 1-2 years for leaf mould.
Leaf mould versus ‘bagging’ i.e. anaerobic digestion
Many compost sites note that ‘bagging’ leaves in black plastic and tying off will create a black slime that can be used as compost. What this really means is you are anaerobically digesting the leaves down to compost. To an extent this is ok, our point would be AD creates methane and you are releasing a GHG that is 24 times more harmful than CO2. And we hope you would agree that every little bit avoided helps.
Aerobic composing is carbon neutral. Also to be honest – the black bags absolutely stink when you open then!
You can now successfully compost large amounts of Autumn leaves in your HOTBIN.
This AUTUMN could be the time to RETHINK composting?
Autumn is coming – It’s will soon be time to start that big garden clear up again! Should you start to RETHINK your composting method now too?
You may well have wheel barrow loads of plant and weed being removed over the next few weeks.
What are you going to do with all your autumn garden waste?
1) Pile it all up as normal in that big heap – come back in spring hopeful of compost but most likely disappointed that you face the prospect of waiting another 12 months for your compost?
2) Take a different approach – join the HOTBIN composters and be sure of a fabulous batch of compost ready to dig in with you spring planting preparation?
3) Leave it out for the council green waste team to sort out – Oh dear! All that fuel, cost and effort to centrally reprocess it. Taking all that goodness from your soil this year, which means next year it has to be replaced by buying even more fertiliser, that takes even more energy and resources to make?
Composting during the cold autumn, winter and early spring months can usually be a very slow process. Especially when the temperature falls below 5C, the rate the bacteria work is almost nonexistent. The secret to fast composting is heat – and lots of it. Compost forms 64 times faster at 60C than it does at 10C. If you can keep your waste hot (between 40-60C), it will compost in 20 to 90 days!
There are many help sites that recommend building huge piles (minimum 1X1X1 m3), and then turning them regularly to keep them aerated and hot. But even this technique will struggle in winter as the heat produced by the bacteria is quickly lost to the cold air. (And it requires quite a bit of effort and space too)
This is why so many HOTBIN composters are happy – all the hard work to help support natural high temperature composting is provided by the HOTBIN. As long as you keep feeding it every week with enough waste – it will keep running at 60C. It has been tested and proven even with outdoor temperatures as low as -15C.
Not only can you get rid of all that garden waste, you will also be able to compost all your food waste over winter too.
Now if you were an early HOTBIN starter, your HOTBIN might be full already! If the bottom layer has been in there for 90 days, now is a good time to empty it to make room for your Autumn garden clear up.
It is always best to shred as much as you can (the smaller the pieces, the larger the surface area, the easier it is for the bacteria). Now if you don’t own a shredder then you can always use your lawn mower!.
Now you are ready to fill up HOTBIN to the top and get it back up to 60C .
If you have a large garden you may still have too much waste . So the best thing is to store it in pop up bag or on another heap. Remember to keep it covered to protect it from the rain. Where possible we suggest you store bags on stones/gravel so water drains out and some air can get in through the holes in the bottom.
You can add the excess waste every 4 days (about 20 litres 10 cms depth). As the ‘waste pile’ gets colder and older, reduce how much you add each week – But keep adding your food waste! (The bacteria need some easy to digest waste to keep the temperatures at HOT composting levels between 40-60C).
Keep going until all autumn waste is gone.
As soon as you start to collect a lot of autumn leaves – check out the ‘composting autumn leaves post’ as you need to tweak the recipe to hot compost leaves.
Remember the key to keeping it HOT is a BALANCE of ‘easy to digest waste’ made up of green stuff, food waste, plus shredded office paper’ (which creates heat quickly) with the hard to digest woody cuttings (heat released slowly), or partially composted waste (energy depleted).
Why not take up the challenge – find out what others have experience by visiting our ‘product reviews’ at www.hotbincomposting.com. Explore more about how it works by looking at our extensive ‘how to compost’ database, for example our ‘principles of hot composting’ article.
The HOTBIN is a simple design that helps maximise what nature does by bringing together the right conditions to make HOT composting easier. It does this by providing effective aeration between the bottom air inlet plate and the air outlet rotating valve, removing excess water through the valve as steam and allowing you to control the rate of heat loss.