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Compost is the most beneficial, full-spectrum amendment you can add to your garden. It helps retain water, lightens the soil, and acts as a consistent source of nutrition thanks to its dynamic and rich composition. It’s also a wonderful way to manage the accumulated waste in our kitchens, gardens, and barns—turning waste into nourishment.

By its nature, compost releases nutrients slowly over time, which is why it’s highly beneficial to plants. The nutrients are a result of decomposition carried out by an array of microorganisms and natural processes. This living breathing system supports a community of life: the insects, microbes, fungi, bacteria and mites all working together.

An unmaintained pile of waste will eventually decay over the years, but in a cultivated compost system, we can speed the process up to a single season.

The types of microbes working within your pile will determine the speed of the composting process: some work fast at higher temperatures and some work more slowly at cool temperatures. This is the difference between hot and cold compost. An unmaintained pile of waste will eventually decay over the years, but in a cultivated compost system, we can speed the process up to a single season. To do that we need to foster an environment that supports the fastest microbes.

The correct combination of air, water, carbon, and nitrogen will create the environment you need to nurture those microbes. An imbalance of any one or a combination will lead to a struggling compost.

Here are some signs that your compost may be struggling.

1. The pile is moist but the material is matted and slow to break down.

Your pile is struggling to breathe, but why? There are two types of microorganisms that break down organic matter: those that need a high volume/quality of air (the aerobic), and those that need a lower volume of air (the anaerobic). For optimal composting, we want to encourage the faster aerobic life forms.

Solution:

Bring air into the pile by turning it over regularly or use a pitch fork to “fluff it up” every few weeks. You can also use a rotating compost tumbler to keep things aerated with little effort (Read more in our article, Compost Tumblers vs. Compost Bins.)

2. Your compost smells (very) bad.

Stinky smells are a good indicator that your compost pile is too wet and has gone anaerobic. A number of factors can cause this condition: lack of aeration, too much water, or an imbalance of carbon to nitrogen. Without air, the material becomes stagnant and rancid.

Solution:

Address by immediately turning your pile and add some fast-decomposing, deciduous sawdust or fine carbon material like chimney ash. Repeat as necessary.

3. Brown leaves added last year are not breaking down.

Brown green balance is a term used to describe the ratio of two necessary elements needed in the decomposition process: carbon and nitrogen. Microbes prefer a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of 30:1 to do their best work. The “browns” (or carbons), include leaves, dry grasses, straw, pine needles, or sawdust. The greens are nitrogen rich materials like grass clippings, kitchen waste, or manures. Even if your ratio is slightly off, the material will still decompose, but if you want the product to compost quickly the closer you’ll have to be with the ratio. A good rule of thumb when eyeballing your compost is two browns to every green.

Solution:

If the brown leaves are not breaking down, add half as many greens to the pile. Mix in and soak thoroughly.

4. Your compost caught fire!

Though an excess of browns is common, there’s a negative result to adding too many greens. Excessive nitrogen can cause your compost to heat up very quickly and even spontaneously combust, which becomes an obvious fire risk. Compost fires are extremely rare and are more likely to happen in industrial-sized compost piles. Your pile may still get hot, however, and the other problem with a hot pile is that it can burn or kill your plants if not allowed to cool for a period.

Solution:

Turn pile frequently, adding water and browns to cool it down. Do not apply compost to your plants until cool.

5. There are no worms or bugs in the pile.

A healthy compost should have a plethora of worms, mites, and mycelium visible if you were to turn it over with a pitch fork. If the compost bin is new and without another compost close by, it will take a longer period of time for those microorganisms to move in.

Solution:

First assess if there is adequate moisture and a good C:N ratio. Adjust if necessary. If you have started a new bin from scratch, it’s a good idea to add a few shovelfuls of nearly composted material from an existing pile to inoculate your new pile with the appropriate microbes and fungi.

6. Sticks are not breaking down.

As the term micro describes, the animals doing the job in your compost are tiny, and they take small bites. Adding items such as large twigs and sticks to your pile will slow down your process immensely. Furthermore, larger chunks do not have the moisture holding capacity to provide the necessary water balance in the pile.

Solution:

Remove the bulky material and break it up into finer pieces so it’s easier for the creatures to address.

7. You’re not keeping up!

We all struggle with finding ways to manage our time. Adding composting into your maintenance schedule can feel like it will eat up more time than you have, but it doesn’t have to be super intensive to be effective. Instituting small practices regularly can save time for the future.

Solution:

Keep a pitchfork on hand to give the pile a little fluff each time you add something. Establish compost piles in an area accessible to water. Unless it’s already wet, add a bucketful of water over any fresh addition.

A Summary of Common Composting Problems and Solutions

ProblemSymptomImmediate RemedyLong-Term Remedies
Material is not decomposing.Material is moist and dense but not wet. Fluff pile with a pitchfork.Aerate pile routinely.
Pile is saturated with water. Material is wet, smelly, matted and may be oozing.Turn pile and add dry brown material such as straw, sawdust, and pine needles.Cover pile to prevent excess rain or run-off from soaking the pile. Aerate routinely.
Fall leaves are not breaking down.Material is dry to touch. Very little life active in pile.Add greens such as kitchen scraps or lawn clippings. Soak pile, turning and soaking until moist all through.Maintain an ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio.
The compost caught on fire. Smoke visible in the compost, charred centre of the pile. Moisten pile with water and mix in more browns to balance.Maintain an ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio. Avoid excess nitrogen. Turn frequently.
Compost lacks life. When turned with a pitchfork the exposed compost is devoid of life.Assess moisture content and C:N ratio. Jumpstart by adding an amount of compost from an established pile."Add fresh horse manure (a source of red wrigglers) to help population growth. If unavailable, add fresh cow or pig manures.
The sticks are not breaking down.No evidence that the woody material is breaking down.Remove large wood chunks.Only add woody materials in small amounts and pieces.

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