Composting is not an exact science, it occurs naturally in our backyard heaps, just as it does on every forest and prairie floor. While maintaining ideal temperatures in a bin or pile takes some attention, the problems that arise when making compost are few and the solutions are many. Here, when needed, are the problem solvers.
A compost pile that smells is not working properly. The two main smells associated with a compost pile are rot and ammonia, which can be easily diagnosed and treated.
If the pile emits a strong, ammonia-like smell, it contains too much nitrogen-rich material (such as raw manure with lots of urine). It may also be too wet for aerobic bacteria to thrive. If it just smells bad and there are a lot of flies around, you probably added a lot of kitchen scraps or canning wastes without chopping or mixing them in well enough. In either case, you should remake the heap to fix the problem.
If you mix in absorbent materials such as chopped straw or shredded tree leaves, your pile of manure and stable bedding will start to heat up quickly. Your pile will then smell just as sweet as compost can.
If you have large amounts of kitchen scraps or canning waste that are emitting offensive odors, turn the pile over without adding anything, and break up the material into smaller pieces as you mix it in. To avoid having to do this in the future, finely chop up the material and mix it thoroughly into the pile so that it won’t decompose and cause odors.
The Pile Won’t Heat Up
Old, Unmaintained Piles
Freshly built or freshly turned piles are the only ones that will get hot. Continuous piles will not heat up because there may not be enough nitrogen, oxygen may have been depleted over time, or there may not be enough of the right materials.
The second solution is to literally turn the pile; that is, to move the entire thing over and start a new one where the old one was. There are two ways to heat up such a pile: add an enormous amount of new material on top, or turn it. The first solution is equivalent to building a new pile on top of the old one, but building it with the intention of generating heat. As the new material heats up and is turned into the rest of the pile, it will raise the temperature of the old material as well. The second solution is to literally turn the pile; that is, to move the entire thing over and start a new one where the old one was.
The second method of composting, simply turning the pile, may be all that is required. However, if the conditions are too wet or too dry, or if there is a lack of nitrogen, the pile will not heat up. If moisture drips out when squeezing a handful of the material, it is too wet. The material can be spread out to speed evaporation, turned daily, or left to dry out in summer weather. If the material does not look or feel damp, it is too dry and needs to be watered.
If you don’t think that moisture is the problem, try adding nitrogen. The best way to do this is by turning the soil and adding grass clippings, corn gluten meal, or blood meal to it so that it is evenly distributed.
Newly Built Piles
After building a hot pile, you may find that it isn’t heating up as expected. This could be due to a number of factors, such as the material used or the size of the pile.
There are several reasons why the composting process might not be working. It could be because there is not enough moisture, nitrogen, oxygen, or micro-organisms. The problem is figuring out which one of these things is missing from your pile.
Piles will not heat up if the surface to volume ratio is too small. If there is less than a cubic yard of material, the pile will not heat up. The area where the pile rests should be at least 3′ by 3′ and it should be at least three feet high when it is first assembled.
Then it might be a good idea to loosen the pile with a pitchfork before turning it. If your compost pile is new, it is unlikely that a lack of oxygen is the problem, unless you packed the pile down and drove a tractor over it. The exception would be if it contains large clumps or layers of material, like leaves, sawdust, or grass clippings, which tend to form dense mats. In that case, it might be a good idea to loosen the pile with a pitchfork before turning it.
Raking leaves and grass clippings is a common fall chore, but did you know that these items can actually be good for your compost pile? Dead leaves compost slowly under any conditions because they’re so high in carbon. If they’re not mixed with other ingredients, they’ll compress into a nearly oxygen-free lump. So will grass clippings, which will quickly go anaerobic, turning slimy and stinky. In both cases, it’s best to turn the pile, mixing these ingredients in with others. When adding new materials, don’t leave them in a clump but mix them in throughout the pile. Using leaves? Shred them.
The easiest way to tell if your compost pile has enough moisture is to do some exploratory surgery. Get out a pair of gardening gloves and dig into the pile in several places. If the pile seems dry, add water. Actually, stick the hose into the pile in several places and let it run for thirty seconds or so, then sprinkle the top liberally. Check it each day for a while to be sure you’ve added enough.
If your pile is too moist, it will stop hot composting. However, this is not very likely to happen with a newly built pile since it usually contains plenty of air pockets and its ingredients don’t absorb water as well as finished compost or partly composted material.
If your pile of compost doesn’t heat up within the next few days, it is likely that there is a nitrogen deficiency. This means that you might have to rebuild the pile, incorporating a material that is high in nitrogen throughout. Another option would be to sprinkle a substance that is high in nitrogen, such as blood meal, organic cottonseed meal, kelp, or manure, on the pile and then water it in. This material will not be distributed evenly, but it should help. When you turn the pile, the booster will get mixed throughout.
If you know you added plenty of green stuff and the pile is not decomposing, the problem might be that there are not enough micro-organisms. This problem is rare and usually fixes itself, but one circumstance makes it more likely. If the pile is isolated from the ground, the microbes that live in the earth cannot get into the pile. Sometimes people will build a compost pile on a sheet of plastic, which makes it easier to distribute or collect the leachate, but this also prevents the microbes from getting to the pile.
If you’re having trouble getting your compost pile to start, one possible solution is to try adding more micro-organisms. This can be done by adding some fresh finished compost, which should be rich in microbes. Another option is to add ordinary dirt, which contains composting bacteria. Adding dirt will introduce the organisms, but it’s not as effective as adding compost or an inoculant. In all cases, turning the pile and mixing in the new microbe source gets the best results. If you’re in a pinch, you can sprinkle the micro-organisms on top of the pile and water it thoroughly. And to avoid problems in the future, try to add micro-organisms, finished (but fresh) compost, or thin layers of soil to your piles as you’re building them, to make sure they have enough of the bacteria that do the composting.
Old, Maintained Piles
However, possible causes can be divided in to two groups. The first group concern possible three dimensional problems with the dike, the second group is concerning possible problems with the geotechnical work. Examples of three dimensional problems are material deficiencies due to incompetent construction, lack of compaction (resulting in poor bearing capacity), poor filtration and seepage, and foundation settlements. Possible causes of problems with newly built piles can be divided into two groups. The first group concerns possible three-dimensional problems with the dike, such as material deficiencies due to incompetent construction, lack of compaction (resulting in poor bearing capacity), poor filtration and seepage, and foundation settlements. The second group is concerned with possible problems with the geotechnical work.
Oxygen: If your compost pile is not heating up, try turning it to introduce new oxygen. If that doesn’t work, check the moisture level and add water if necessary. A lot of compost piles stall out because they dry out.
New piles of manure are seldom so wet that the moisture impedes microbial activity. However, older piles, especially ones left open to the weather in a rainy season, may develop problems from too much moisture. Water can fill the gaps and spaces inside your pile, driving out the oxygen aerobic bacteria need.
The ratio of carbon to nitrogen in a compost pile is important in order for the composting process to occur efficiently. If there is too much carbon, the process will take longer. To turn the pile, mix in plenty of hay, dry leaves, or other dry, absorbent material. This will help to add nitrogen to the pile and keep the carbon to nitrogen ratio in balance. If there are no dry ingredients available, the compost pile may need to be spread out to dry.
You can stop this problem from happening again by making a cover for your compost pile, like using a tarp during wet weather.
One problem that an older compost pile is unlikely to have is a lack of microbes. If a pile has heated up even once, it means it already has plenty of microbes in it. The population of microbes doesn’t die off. However, it’s still beneficial to add finished compost to a cold pile, in order to encourage the growth of the microbes that are already present.
Nitrogen is not usually the problem when composting. If the compost is not heating up after turning, it may be too dry or too wet. Try turning it again and adding nitrogen.
If you’re compost is not heating up when you turn it over, and it looks and smells like soil or compost, then it is most likely done. Screen out any remaining materials, twigs, etc. before using, and it is best to let it cure for a week or two.
Compost is wet, soggy, or slimy
Three factors that often result in cold, slimy compost are poor aeration, too much moisture, or not enough nitrogen-rich material in the pile.
A compost pile that is too full of materials that get compacted when wet – like grass clippings, spoiled hay, or large amounts of unshredded tree leaves – can become so dense that the center of the pile doesn’t get any air. If you leave a pile like this uncovered during a long period of rain (without turning it to introduce some air into the center), you’ll end up with a cold, wet mass that won’t decompose.
In a compost pile that is low in oxygen, the aerobic bacteria cannot survive. This environment is better suited for anaerobic bacteria, which don’t need oxygen to live. Although these microbes will eventually produce compost, the process takes much longer than with aerobic bacteria (approximately 2-3 years). The finished compost will be slimy and soggy.
If you don’t want sow bugs, pill bugs, and earwigs in your compost pile, you need to make sure it is aerobic, not anaerobic.
If you have a soggy compost pile, you can fix it by doing the following: -Place a loose-fitting lid or tarp over the pile -Turn the pile over and fluff it up -Add some hot, nitrogen-rich ingredients like shellfish shells, and some fibrous, non-matting ingredients like shredded corn cobs or sawdust Your pile should heat up within a few days, and you can keep it cooking by turning it every week or two.
Compost is dry and dusty
You need to add moisture to your compost pile if it is too dry and dusty. This can be done by simply turning on a spigot and watering it.
-Your compost should have the consistency of a damp sponge. -To moisten your compost, place an oscillating sprinkler on top of it and run it for an hour. -Check the center of the pile to ensure that it is moist. If not, turn the pile and water the layers as you go.
Fruit flies & fungus gnats
If you don’t mind a few fruit flies and fungus gnats, they won’t be harmful to your pile. However, if they start to become a problem, they can damage your plants, especially the roots, and can spread to your garden. If you add the compost to the potting soil of indoor plants, it can start an infestation inside your home. Therefore, it’s a good idea to get rid of or at least reduce the number of flies and gnats before they become a problem.