Meg’s Guide to Gardening: The Best Use for Old Hay

Once old hay bales start to turn funky, the best thing you can do for them is turn them into compost. Those growths of mold and other organisms are terrible for bedding but they’re just what nature needs to turn plant life into dirt. And you can use your compost pile to get rid of more than just hay. According to the experts at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University, you should also use your hay compost pile to recycle the rest of your home and garden waste.

The Compost Container

The best way to compost is in a container. Big, open compost piles have a harder time holding in heat than enclosed spaces. The best size for your compost container is between three and five cubic feet. You can buy a compost bin to fit the bill, or build one out of scrap wood or cinder blocks that you may have lying around.

Build the Hay Layer

Before you put the hay into the compost pile, chop it up into smaller pieces. If you have a shredder or mulcher you can make short work of a lot of hay. If you don’t, lopping shears will work in a pinch. The smaller the pieces, the more quickly it will compost. Once the hay is chopped, spread an 8-inch layer of it in the bottom of the compost bin. Moisten that layer with a few spritzes from the hose to create the moist conditions you need to break the hay down.

Organic Material

You need 16 inches of organic material for the middle layer. Any organic, vegan (no meat, cheese, milk or other animal byproducts) yard or kitchen waste will do. You can add the waste as you gather it. Or, while you get your other materials together, set aside a lidded trashcan to collect waste as you produce it. Again, for the quickest compost, cut the organic material up into smaller pieces.

Soil Layer

Top off the organic material with a 3-inch layer of soil. You can get this soil right from the ground near the compost bin. Soil contains the microorganisms the compost pile needs to break down its contents. As you mix and turn the layers, the microorganisms will breed and multiply in the moist, warm environment and feed on the hay and organic material.

Animal Manure

Six inches of animal poop will add a nutritious layer to the compost. The best manure is from horses or cows or other vegetarian animals. If you don’t have any on your property, drive by the nearest farm or stables with a big garbage bag (you’ll want to double bag) or trash can. They’ll happily part with their poop to help out your garden. Stay away from dog, cat or pig waste. It contains pathogens that could make you sick. If the poop layer is dry, sprinkle it with water from the hose to moisten it.

Final Steps

Dust the top of the compost pile with lime or wood ash. Then mix the ingredients with a pitchfork. Wear work gloves and yard clothes. This is going to be a little bit smelly. Mix the ingredients until you have an even consistency. Then reach a (gloved) hand in and squeeze a handful of the compost. It should be as moist as a wet sponge. If it’s not, add water, mix and test again.

Place a tarp or lid over the moist, mixed pile and let it sit for four weeks. Then stir the pile, restore some moisture if necessary and let it sit for four more weeks. Keep stirring and checking at four week intervals until your hay and yard waste have turned into rich, crumbly compost.

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