Troubleshooting Your Compost
Composting is a great way to turn all of those uneaten leftovers and piles of leaves into safe, nutrient-rich fertilizer. The process couldn’t sound simpler – just throw all your kitchen and yard scraps into a bin and let nature do the work for you. But sometimes even the best composting piles can run into problems. Fortunately, there a number of simple steps you can take to give nature a hand when something goes wrong with your compost.
Problem #1: Your compost is taking too long.
Compost needs to reach temperatures around 150° in order for the hard-working microorganisms responsible for decomposition to do their jobs well. While the materials in your compost pile will continue to break down at cooler temperature, it will take much longer to get finished compost. So if you find your compost is taking more time than you’d like, the quickest way to get things moving is to turn up the heat. Start by making sure you’re pile is big enough – bins or piles should be around a cubic yard (3ft. by 3 ft.) to ensure there is enough material to trap the heat being given off during decomposition. If you need something smaller, try a solar heated compost bin to keep the temperature up. Your compost can also cool off if there isn’t enough nitrogen-rich green material, so add waste like vegetable peels or grass to help jumpstart decomposition. The last thing to look at is the size of the waste you’re putting in your compost bin or pile: anything that’s too big will slow down the composting process. Try breaking or grinding the materials to speed things up.
Problem #2: Your compost smells bad.
While it’s normal for your compost to have an odor, too strong of a smell can mean something is off inside your bin. If your compost has a strong ammonia odor (like a dirty cat litter box), that usually means the concentration of green material in your bin is too high. Try mixing in carbon-rich brown materials like paper, sawdust, or coffee grounds until you find the right balance of nutrients. If your compost has an overly rancid smell (like rotten eggs), that probably means it’s too wet. You should be able to squeeze a handful of compost and wring out only a drop or two of water – if your compost has too much water, add brown materials like cardboard or sawdust to absorb the excess moisture. A rancid smell can also be caused by poor ventilation, so make sure to aerate or turn your pile so that the compost has access to the oxygen it needs.
Problem #3: Your compost attracts pests.
While we might find compost unpleasant, other creatures are attracted to the smell of decaying food. If you have an uncovered pile, you might find raccoons, dogs, deer, or other animals rummaging through your compost. The easiest way to handle scavengers is to use a container with a secure lid. If your compost bin is still attracting pests or you want to stick with an uncovered pile, avoid adding meat products, including bones and diary, and cover any food scraps you add with a layer of soil or brown waste to cover the odor. Compost piles make a natural home for other, smaller critters like worms, beetles, and slugs, so you shouldn’t be concerned about finding these guys.
Problem #4: Your compost pile is too small
Yard waste can be troublesome for composters since bulky branches and leaves initially take up lots of space and can be hard to pack in tightly. Looking at that big pile in your yard, it can be tempting to invest a bigger bin than you really need. But as compost breaks down it’ll shrink and settle—what started out as an overwhelming pile of waste can quickly turn into just a few buckets full of soil. If your compost pile is settling too quickly and you’re having trouble keeping it big enough to sustain heat, try switching to a smaller, well-insulated bin. You can also keep a couple of smaller bins on hand if you need to handle a lot of waste only every once in a while. If you want to keep your big bin active, try covering the waste with a 2 inch layer of sandy soil for insulation.
Remember, composting is a natural, sometime unpredictable process, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t go as planned. A little experimenting can be all you need to find the perfect balance of nutrients, air, and moisture for your compost bin.