Every successful composter fails somewhere along the way toward producing quality compost for his or her lawn or garden. Here are some common mistakes we’ve made and ways you can avoid them.
It’s easy to add to the pile in a wrong way. Common pitfalls are adding the wrong kinds of materials and failing to mix new materials. By the wrong kinds of materials, we mean things that either take a long time to compost or attract unwanted pests. Egg shells, rinsed to keep bugs and pests away, will compost; still, we have a hard time getting them to break down in our piles. Sticks, some wood chips and avocado seeds also seem to stay in our mix for a long time. And the time that some greasy trimmings accidentally found their way into the kitchen compost – well, let’s just say something that night that pawed its way into our wire mesh bin.
The wrong amounts of materials appropriate for composting can also throw a compost pile out of balance. Too many browns, high-carbon materials, can slow down the nitrogen-loving bacteria; too many greens, especially damp greens, can overload them. This is a good reason to maintain stockpiles of high-carbon material to gradually add with high-nitrogen wastes.
Too Wet (Or Not Wet Enough)
Another common pitfall is letting the compost pile dry out. Remember: The pile must past the “squeeze test” yielding a few drops of water when squeezing a handful of the composting materials. Unless you live in an area with constantly torrential rains, you need to periodically water the pile, to provide the moist environment the aerobic bacteria love. Sprinkling water when you build the layers of the pile will help provide a good start. Drizzling water into the pile when you turn the pile will help the moisture level remain friendly to the pile’s hardworking aerobes.
Too Cold (Too Small)
A compost pile can stay too cold to heat up to the temperatures needed by the most helpful aerobes. We’ve encountered this problem most frequently in smaller compost piles, like a typical three- or four-foot wire mesh bin. A compost thermometer is the best way to make sure the pile heats up to the initial temperatures needed to begin decomposing.
When It Stinks: Becoming Anaerobic
Finally, nearly every composter has experienced a compost pile that starts to stink, smelling more like rotten eggs than loamy garden soil. This is most common in piles that are left unturned, becoming too wet and anaerobic. Smaller piles in this condition are not beyond rescue; spread them out, allowing them to dry, and then mix them into a new, well-balanced and aerated pile. There’s hope for larger piles, too; it may just take longer for them to dry. Avoid adding anaerobic compost to plantings; stinky decomposing material could have adverse impacts on your soil or plants.