Maintaining a Healthy Compost Pile

Maintaining a healthy compost pile, including: communication, components (air, water, food), layering and what not to add to the compost heap.

| February/March 1997

The do's and don'ts of maintaining a healthy compost pile and building a better garden compost bin. 

This planet has been making dirt for a long time: decomposing carbon-based organic matter through a series of complex chemical and biological processes. Carbon-rich organic matter interacts chemically with nitrogen in a moist, aerated environment and is further broken down with the help of biological agents like fungi, worms, bacteria and other micro-organisms. If we want to re-create the kind of soft, fertile soil we find under the leaf carpet of a forest rather than the gooey muck of a marsh, we need to think of a compost heap as a living thing that requires the essentials of all living things: air, food, and water in a balanced combination when maintaining a healthy compost pile.

For a stretch last summer, after local ordinances barred garden waste from landfills, I gave my neighbors an open invitation to feed my compost bins. The result was massive indigestion. Like grandparents spoiling the kids, they loaded all kinds of food into the bottomless pits without thought for the consequences. Grass clippings were the worst. Mountains of Kentucky Blue Grass were reduced to Okeefenokee swamp, stinking and oozing in black-green puddles. Meat and cheese scraps made my compost smell like a garbage dump. Woody, heavy-stemmed plants extended the decay cycle enough that I couldn't predict a steady harvest of soil supplement. It appeared, as the marriage counselors say, that we had a failure to communicate—on two fronts: between me and the compost bins, and me and the neighbors.

Compost Communication 101: The Pits

The first failure was my own. I needed to listen more and pay more attention to how each pit was doing. I began to check more frequently for moisture, watering when necessary. I layered with dirt or previously harvested compost . . . and I studied compost theory a bit . . . soon discovering that I had basically starved my bins of their three absolutely essential nutrients.


My compost bins smelled like a swamp last summer because of a lack of air in the compressed pile of glass clippings. The grass was decomposing all right, anaerobically—without oxygen, septic tank style.

The composting microbes that make for clean-smelling, aerobic decomposition need air and lots of it. That's why we layer compost ingredients—to create breathing spaces in the pile and then "tease it," as a beautician would say, to keep the layers from matting down. I find, after ten years of trial and error, that the pile decomposes more quickly when I turn it over or pitch it into adjacent bins once a week.

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