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Troubleshooting a Compost Heap

By Larraine Roulston: 

Composting is as easy as 1-2-3. It is simply the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria and other organisms into a dark soil-like material. By layering approximately equal amounts of nitrogen (wet greens), kitchen food scraps, and carbon (dry browns) such as leaves, with a little moisture and air, you will produce compost. A good balance of  “greens” and “browns” is essential for a healthy pile.

However, sometimes problems do arise. If you experience the following, here are some troubleshooting solutions:

A compost heap should smell like the sweet aroma of a forest. However, if yours has an unpleasant ammonia odor, it compost-materialscontains more nitrogenous material than the microbes can handle. Aerate to allow the gas to escape, and add more carbon. Any combination of dry leaves, twigs, straw, sawdust from untreated wood, brown brush, and ripped up cardboard will help. As well, by topping your pile with soil, you will suppress odor and at the same time introduce more microorganisms to speed up the composting process.

If you find that your vegetable scraps are not decomposing, your pile is probably too dry. Water accordingly for your heap to be the texture of a wrung-out sponge. Moisture will enter the pile when you add water-retaining foods such as lettuce, leftover beverages and water from rinsing out pots before doing the dishes. Chopping large fruit peels and vegetable chunks into smaller pieces will allow them to decompose quicker.

Compost heaps have been known to attract animals. I have had visits from raccoons but they never caused a mess and were not a worry.  However, to deter unwanted animals, bury your food scraps in the pile and turn it over frequently to speed up decomposition.

Compost thermometers are available should you wish to monitor how quickly bacteria are decomposing the materials. A compost heap’s ideal temperature ranges between 110 and 160 degrees F. If the temperature is less, then the pile might be too wet, too dry, too small, or may have already finished decomposing. Fungus can be a symptom of a cooler pile. If this is the case, add more nitrogen (greens) and turn it more often if mold becomes problematic. If it is too hot, you may have too much nitrogen. Turning the pile and adding more carbon will help.

compost-binPart of the composting process includes flies. However, if you feel you have too many, deter them by covering exposed food with an inch of soil or leaves as well as using a tight-fitting lid.

In a worm bin, always place your food under the bedding of dampened shredded paper. Do not include citrus fruit peelings, garlic or onion skins. Because these foods are not as “a’peeling” to red wiggler worms, they are apt to leave them until last, which then may attract fruit flies.

Avoid adding BBQ ashes, diseased plants, crabgrass, weeds (after they have gone to seed), meat, bones, dairy, vegetable oils, peanut butter, as well as cat and dog feces to your compost pile. If you include wood ashes from your fireplace, be sure they have completely cooled down.

By composting, you will be helping the planet become more sustainable by adding moisture to your soil—particularly in areas of drought. As Pee Wee, my little red wiggler from Castle Compost, would say, “Some politicians are working towards healing the planet, but composting works much faster.”

Related links:


Do’s and Don’ts of Composting Worms

Simplify Your Compost in 5 Easy Steps

8 Things to Never Put In Your Home Compost Pile

Larraine authors children’s adventure books on compost at www.castlecompost.com

About Larraine Roulston

A mother of 4 with 6 wonderful grandchildren, Larraine has been active in the environmental movement since the early l970s. When the first blue boxes for recycling were launched in her region, she began writing a local weekly newspaper column to promote the 3Rs. Since that time, she has been a freelance writer for several publications, including BioCycle magazine. As a composting advocate, Larraine authors children's adventure stories that combine composting facts with literature. Currently she is working on the 6th book of her Pee Wee at Castle Compost series, which can be viewed at www.castlecompost.com. As well, Larraine and her husband Pete have built a straw bale home and live in Ontario.

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