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Making a plan for lousy clay soil--help a newbie get on track?

13 years ago

My 18x25' back yard is mostly covered with a concrete patio that I'd like to remove so I can have a vegetable garden.

Around the edges, the soil is exposed. The top 8" or so is slightly crumbly and fairly easy to dig, but doesn't absorb water very well and doesn't have worms in evidence (as opposed to the front yard, where I see a worm every time I stick a shovel in). Below 8" or so, it's very hard.

If I pour water into a depression, the water goes down very slowly and doesn't soak in evenly. After the puddle is gone, I can scratch the wet surface and find spots that are bone dry half an inch down.

I'm considering making a gigantic compost heap, and next spring (if that's soon enough) removing the concrete and some of the lousy soil (AKA "clean fill" for somebody on Craiglist) and digging my great heap of compost into the rest.

Things I can easily get in large quantities for free:

-Coffee grounds; the local coffee shop will give me fifty pounds or so as often as I go over and ask.

-Used rabbit & guinea pig bedding, mostly dried timothy hay with a bit of "Carefresh" cellulose bedding material, lightly pooped and peed upon. Small-animal rescue place generates many bags of this.

-Fallen leaves will be available from many neighbors in fall.

What if I made a great big heap of these things and let them decompose till spring, and then dug it all into my yard? Would this be a good way to improve the soil?

If so, I have a few specific questions...

Just how big a heap should I make? (I don't mind if it takes up half the yard.)

What proportions of the different materials should I use, and am I missing anything important? (I did see the note in the FAQ about not using more than 25% coffee grounds.)

How low-maintenance can it be? Would a cold pile be likely produce usable stuff by, say, April or May next year? I'm going to be inordinately busy with other things for a few months between now and then, and it would be really great if the compost heap could mostly take care of itself once I got it going.

And a question on a related note: I've been led to assume that compost doesn't get hot unless it's turned or some such, but I recently got some mulch (bark and leaves) from a Craigslister who'd gotten a free delivery from a tree company, and the mulch pile (which wasn't receiving any attention) was *very* hot inside. What's the magic there? Could I use a load of that stuff instead of the things I thought of? I know wood chips are much slower to compost, but maybe the heat would offset that...

Anything you can suggest would be very much appreciated! Thank you!

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