Troubleshooting Your Compost Pile

Reader Contribution by Melodie Metje
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Having problems with your compost pile? Here are some common issues and tips for getting ‘em fixed and back on the road to beautiful black gold for the organic garden. What can be better than recycling all the nutrients from kitchen scraps right back into the garden to feed your next crops?

My Compost Pile Never Heats Up

Is it dry? Sprinkle some water over it.
Is it really wet and smelly? See bad smells below.
Is it really cold outside? For the tumbler types, put a hot water bottle or two in the heap to get it jump started. Next time you take out some compost, make sure to leave some behind.  Your finished compost has all the good microbes in it to keep the compost a comin’. In winter, it is good to have your composter out of the wind and where it can get good sun.

I Have Maggots!

Is it really wet? Add some “browns” like wood pellets, dried leaves, or sawdust and mix well to get your pile at the right moisture level. If it is cold outside, you can add a hot water bottle to get the heap cooking again.
Is the pile chilly? See above.

I Am Growing Mushrooms. Is This Okay?

Mushrooms are a natural occurrence. No need to worry.

I Have Big Lumps

Your scraps are too wet. Add “browns,” break up the clumps, and mix well.

My Compost Pile Smells Like Ammonia. Phew!

The pH of your heap is too high. Add browns and mix well.

It Smells Like Something Is Dead In There

Scraps are too wet or there is too little “browns”. Add more “browns” and mix well.

It Smells Like Cheese or Acidy

Not enough air getting in to let the microbes do their thing. Can be caused by stuffing too much in your composter. Remove some material, add “browns” and mix well. If you are using the heap method, add browns and mix well.
Scraps are too wet. Add “browns” and mix well.
If a new batch of scraps, add some finished compost or compost starter and mix well.

How Can I Tell If My Compost Has the Right Moisture In It?

If you squeeze a handful together and it doesn’t stick, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and nasty liquid runs between your fingers, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and you can only wring out a few drops of liquid out, it is just right.

Browns are dried leaves, hay, straw, wood shavings, grains, crackers, corn chips, bread, wood pellets, sawdust or coir. Greens are the rest – manure, food scraps, fresh grass clippings, fresh plant trimmings, coffee grinds, meat, fish bones, cheese, eggs. For good nitrogen, if you don’t have manure, meats or coffee grinds, add another organic nitrogen source like blood meal.

If you are using wood pellets, you should have about 1 cup of pellets to 10 cups of food scraps. Sawdust or coir should be used in a ratio of 1 cup of coir to 3 cups of food scraps or other green materials.

For more on composters, see my earlier blog: Composting is possible in small spaces or even indoors.

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