Troubleshooting

Composting ProblemsGot some trouble in the pile? We’ve got answers to many of your composting problems.

Q: Help! I’ve created a stinky monster. Where have I gone wrong?

A: If your compost pile is smelly chances are it has an overabundance of anaerobic microbes. They’re doing a great job feasting on your garbage, but at the same time are creating a big stink. Usually, stirring and turning your compost pile regularly will put a stop to it.

Aerating the compost pile puts a check on the anaerobic microbes while encouraging the less smelly aerobic microorganisms to grow and prosper. Give it a try! You and your compost pile will be happier.

Q: I’ve noticed that my compost is damp and warm only in the center of the pile. What’s going on?

A: When it comes to composting, size does matter! Your pile is too small. Go out and collect some more composting materials and make sure to mix the new stuff with the old.

The ideal compost pile size should be in the range of 3′ x 3′ x 3′ to 5′ x 5′ x 5′. Smaller piles can’t generate the heat necessary for plant material to decompose. Larger piles are harder to manage and may not decompose uniformly.

Q: Recently, while aerating my compost I noticed that the center of the pile was dry. How could that be?

A: Looks like you’re being skimpy with the water. Next time you aerate the pile make sure to water while turning the pile. Better yet, consider moving the pile next to your garden so when it gets watered… your compost does, too!

Q: I just noticed maggots in my compost pile. What’s the deal?

A: Some fly species lay eggs on decomposing plant material. Try adding a layer of hay to the pile and cover with screening. I’ve also heard that a 2 inch layer of sandy soil spread over the surface will work. Read more about effective fly control here.

Q: What can I do in the dead of winter to keep my compost pile active?

A: The bacteria that work to break down organic garbage into compost do not do well in freezing temperatures. One thing you can do to offset the cold is to keep your compost pile in a black bin in direct sunlight or you can insulate it using organic materials like hay bales.

If you live in a place that has significant cold — like Montana where I live — you may have to let your compost go on hiatus in the winter months. You can still recycle your kitchen scraps by using an indoor composter or worm bin.

Q: Arrgh! I don’t understand what’s going on. My pile is damp and has a pleasant smell… but it’s not heating up. What do you think the problem is?

A: Happy composting is all about balancing the brown stuff (carbon) with the green stuff (nitrogen). To keep your pile “cooking” you want to maintain a C:N ratio somewhere around 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. From your description, I’d say you’re running low on nitrogen. Try adding some fresh grass clippings, manure or blood meal. You can also “recharge” a cool pile with a compost activator. I bet you notice a big difference.

Q: What’s that ammonia smell?

A: Too much nitrogen. Add some high carbon materials, like straw, sawdust, or peanut shells to the pile and mix them in well.

Q: Yikes! What can I do about shrinkage? My compost pile keeps getting smaller.

A: As organic material goes through the composting process it takes up less space. You’ll be surprised at how long it can take to fill a bin. When you do reach maximum capacity, dig down to the bottom of the pile and you’ll probably find finished compost, which can be removed. If not, then you’ll need to wait. If a full bin without compost is a continual problem you may need to invest in a second bin.

Still having problems? Visit the City Farmer’s Compost Hotline.

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