Tilling my experimental compost bed with a rotary tiller to plant potatoes

Tilling half of the compost bed to see if there will be a difference in potato harvest this fall

Finally we have finished the fence around garden 3, so the dogs can’t get in anymore, and it is potato planting time. I have been looking forward to finally starting to plant potatoes.

A little over 2 months ago we flail mowed over this experimental compost bed, hoping to improve the decomposing process. On top the result looked nice, but underneath the straw was untouched. At the time we did not have a rotary tiller, which we would have preferred to use, so we just let the compost bed be and see what happens with time.

Now, 2 months later, after doing some digging we found the compost bed looking quite ok, but obviously the material has not broken down completely. At least the rainwater could soak in and all of the material was wet and the decomposing process has progressed. There are a lot of earthworms in the compost bed, which is a good sign.

The compost bed is not finished decomposing yet and I hope it will be good enough for the potatoes to start in. Since I have way to little planting space for all of the potatoes it will have to do.

Rotary tilling a part of the compost bed

Recently we found a used rotary tiller for an acceptable price and where able to purchase this. Not quite curtain about the usability of the compost bed and I was worried that the rotary tiller would kill all of the earthworms, we decided to rotary till half of the compost bed and see if it will make a difference in harvest once the potatoes are done.

Tilling a compost bed with a rotary tiller

The rotary tiller we have purchased was modified by the previous owner, who had fixed the retaining board in a certain position. Normally the retaining board is hung up with some chains enabling the board to move up and down as needed. Using a rotary tiller for the fist time we just left that how it was. We tilled over half of the experimental compost bed twice and noticed that we need to do something about the rigid retaining board. Since the compost material is very moist the rigid retaining board pulled grooves in the material, which I closed by hand.

Compost bed has grooves after tilling with a rotary tiller

Starting half way the compost bed some material was thrown over back wards on the part of the compost bed we did not till. I shovelled that back and made the tilled part of the compost bed nice and evenly. The tilled part of the compost bed looked nice and fluffy and was much higher as the part we did not till. All of the different material was mixed together well (small parts, bigger parts, already decomposed material).

Now to planting potatoes

I only have a lot of small potatoes left in my storage and these are al sprouting. (Unfortunately I am buying potatoes for eating at the moment) This means I have more than enough seed potatoes and I did not buy any.

Sprouted potatoes

This does raise the question as to where on earth am I going to plant all of these potatoes? Well, I am starting in this experimental compost bed and just go from there.

In the part of the compost bed that we tilled, it was very easy to make a trench in the loose material.

Woman making a trench for planting seed potatoes with a hoe

On the other hand I very much regretted not to have tilled the entire bed while making a trench in the part that we have not tilled. This material was ratter compact and hard work to make the trench.

I made two trenches about 50-60 cm apart. The distance in the row could have been a bit more, but the compost bed is not wide enough for that.

2 trenches in a compost bed for planting seed potatoes

My son helped me and we planted the potatoes about 25-30 cm apart, paying attention to positioning the potato with the shoots pointing up. These shoots are going to be the leaves once grown out of the ground and need to be handled carefully. Some seed potatoes do not only have the shoots, but even already made some roots.

Last thing is closing the trench again. We planted different varieties and marked them with a number pack.

Experimental compost bed planted with seed potatoes and marking the different varieties with number packs

I only planted a fraction of the seed potatoes I have, so I am going to have to find some more solutions for all of these potatoes, but more to that in a different post.

Fixing the compost beds with a manure spreader

The compost beds in Garden 4 are needed this spring, so we need to do something for them to decompose better

As announced in my previous post about making compost beds, our manure spreader has arrived and we made us up to work on the compost beds that where only air raided.

We want to lay the beds new with the manure spreader to get the long material of hay and straw shortened, to get everything well mixed and loosened and to get the whole compost bed well air raided trough and trough. This way the compost bed should decompose better.

We made a mistake while building up the first compost bed new

Well you would think easy said and done. What’s more to that than loading it up and spreading it out?  Well we did make a mistake with the first bed (Garden 4 compost bed II). We loaded the manure spreader until it was full. Than we pushed aside the rest of the compost bed to make room to lay the compost bed new. So far so good. Then we started laying the compost bed new.

Spreading decomposing straw and hay with a manure spreader

Since I find it very hard to estimate the amount of compost that should be laid down, it turned out to be too thin. And here comes the mistake. We had to drive over the freshly laid compost bed again, partially compacting it again, to build up more compost.

Spreading decomposing straw and hay with a manure spreader, while partially driving over the already freshly laid compost bed

This, obviously, was a little disadvantageously. Since we already partially drove over the compost bed, we decided to add some more material (we found the volume of the bed a bit small). We loaded some more straw bales on the manure spreader. On top we added a shovel of horse poop to give the bacteria, that do the decomposing, some nitrogen to feed on.

We spread a layer of this over the entire compost bed. Afterwards I was not very happy with this last layer, because compared to what was already there, the new added straw was still too gut and was more like a mulch layer over the compost bed. The straw stayed very long, compared to the older material which was nicely shortened by the action of the manure spreader. Therefore we decided to flail mow over the compost beds after we finish setting up the second bed new.

Fixing the other compost bed

With the second bed (Garden 4 compost bed III) we did a much better job. We started with loading the manure spreader and removing all of the material from the compost bed.

Clearing a compost bed with a tractor with a front end loader with a grapple, with a tractor with a loaded manure spreader in the back

Then we started to build up the compost bed again, building up more material at once so the compost bed would have a nice thickness and we would not have to come back with more.

Spreading decomposing straw and hay with a manure spreader, while building up a compost bed

In between we left the manure spreader where it was and loaded it again where it stood. This way the compost bed was in a line and the material stayed nice and loose as we like to have it. The compost bed ended up shorter as it was, but that is no problem. We will add more length as material comes available next year. Generally we did not add extra material to this bed (no straw and no horse poop). We are curious to see if this makes a difference in the decomposing process.

The wind gave us some problems and we had to ad a bunch of material from the side back on the compost beds by hand.

A man and a woman raking straw, which was divided by the wind, back onto the compost bed

And this is how the compost beds look after laying them new with the manure spreader.

Compost beds after laying them new with a manure spreader

Flail mowing the compost beds

To make sure the top layer will not form into a roof, leading the rainwater away, we flail mowed both compost beds.

Flail mowing a compost bed with a tractor with a off-set flail mower

I am not sure if this would have been necessary, but this gave a nice evenly result.

Compost beds after flail mowing them

Sowing some green manure

To get some extra nitrogen in the compost beds I decided to sow some green manure. I sowed some mustard and some lupines, since these already sprout at low temperatures and it is still very cold here. These compost beds are for corn, pumpkin and different other things, so there is still some time before I will plant in there. The green manure will be cut of before I start planting and the material will serve as mulch.

Stay tuned for up-dates as the season will progress.

We also made a video of building these compost beds.

Why are my compost beds not breaking down?

My compost beds are not composting. Why is that?
Here’s what we found & what we did to solve the problem

In the summer we made 3 new garden beds for growing vegetables to increase our self sufficiency. Since we mainly have rubble and concrete the beds need to be made out of enough material for the plant roots to grow in. The compost beds are make out of straw, hay and some sawdust. If you would like to read more about how we made these beds you can find the link here. The idea was that these compost beds would compost over winter and we would be able to plant in them in the spring. At least so we thought….

Checking up on the progress of the compost beds

In February we went to check upon our composting beds and found that they are not composting. As you can see on the pictures the top layer functions as a roof and prevented the rainwater from soaking in the composting bed. (We had more than enough rain in the fall & trough out the winter) The straw and sawdust underneath is completely dry and at the bottom there are some fungi. Only in this bottom layer we found some earthworms, but not many, and in the rest of the composting bed there where no earthworms at all.

What is the problem?

So first things first. We need to do something about this, since we need these beds in spring to grow more vegetables to get closer to our goal of self sufficient living.

The compost beds are made out of long material and the material is to compact. So that is what needs to be changed in order for the rainwater to soak the compost material. Ideal would be to use a rotary tiller to work trough the compost beds, but since we do not have one we decided to flail mow over one bed to see what that brings.

Flail mowing one compost bed

We mowed a few times over the composting bed in garden 3 (this was middle of Feb.). This needed to be done at a very slow pace, since the flail mower got jammed other wise.

At first site we where satisfied with the result. Nice short and dark material where the rainwater would be able to soak trough.

Compost bed after its been mowed with a flail mower with short dark material and a white dog on top

After doing some digging we found that underneath this, very promising looking thick layer, the straw was still untouched. Obviously a flail mower isn’t a rotary tiller and works only on the surface. So we decided to wait and see what this does the coming weeks and treat the other beds differently.

Air raiding the other 2 compost beds

We only loosened and air raided the other 2 compost beds in garden 4. This way at least the rainwater can soak into the material and it is accessible for earthworms and other creatures helping with the decomposing process. We did this with the tractor and grabble.

Watch these actions on video here (second half)

By the time we finished air raiding these compost beds, we found a manure spreader within our budget and plan to send the material from these 2 compost beds trough the manure spreader as soon as we have it on our property. So stay tuned for that.

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