Problems With Compost: 7 Composting Mistakes You’re Making

By Bonnie Grant | May 25, 2020
Image by Joe_Potato
by Bonnie Grant
May 25, 2020

Composting just feels good. Not only are you reducing waste but you get this juicy, nutrient rich source of amendment for your garden. However, if you aren’t careful, certain compost issues may arise. Even when the pile is carbon and nitrogen balanced, lightly moist, warm, and full of beneficial organisms, problems with compost are still common. Trust me, I know. I’ve made my own share of compost mistakes.

Learn to avoid these top composting mistakes so you can avoid a nasty, smelly pile that won’t break down.

  • Lack of variety. While you may have a ton of downed apples that need to be broken down, simply trying to compost these without a nice balance of carbon items will make for a slimy, slow to compost mess. Compost requires at least a balance of brown and green items. Green items would be the apples, while brown items might be shredded paper, dried leaves, or other “brown” items.
  • Size. Chopping up composting items to smaller bits does give maximum surface area for beneficial bacteria and organisms to attack easily. However, it also denies air which fuels the process and can result in a compacted pile. Allow some larger chunks to remain or add in sticks and other larger items to aerate the heap.
  • Moisture. Too much moisture is a bad thing but too little will retard decomposition. Keep your mound of compostables lightly moist but not soggy. In the summer, that means you may need to sprinkle a bit of water on the pile and then turn it. Avoid waterlogging the heap, as this could drown all those good little organisms that are working hard to break down your debris.
  • Heat. Don’t situate the compost pile where there is no sun. Although the actual process of decomposition releases heat, the whole affair will work much better and more quickly if you have some solar exposure. Where there is only a few hours of sun per day, try covering the pile with black plastic to maximize the heat entering the mound. Remove it after a few hours so air can get in to the tiny beneficial organisms doing all that hard work.
  • Wrong additives. Be careful what you add to the mass. Items that are extremely large, like tree branches, should be avoided. So should animal waste, meat, fats, and bones. Avoid weeds with seed, as some may not completely die and will sprout a mess of fresh weeds when you spread your finished compost.
  • Lack of microbes. Brand new piles need a jump start to get going. You can buy a compost starter or simply mix in well-rotted compost or manure that is filled with microbes and bacteria that will enhance the break down process. Encourage these good guys with careful management of the pile. Turn the material frequently, keep lightly moist, add a balanced amount of nitrogen and carbon.
  • Layering. Simply piling on a mass of kitchen scraps could attract pests, gets smelly, and will not have the proper balance of carbon and nitrogen. Layer kitchen scraps with dry leaves or other carbon sources. Other options are wood chips, sawdust (not from treated wood, though!), shredded newspaper, straw or hay, dried corn stalks, and pine needles. Add pine needles in small amounts as their resinous nature makes them hard to break down.

The recommended ratio of brown to green items is 30:1. Even a 25:1 ratio will work fine provided the compost heap is managed. Monitor the moisture, heat, size and aeration of the pile and soon you will have “black gold” for your garden simply by repurposing organic garbage in the home and landscape.

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