What's Wrong with My Compost?

By Swezey, Lauren Bonar | Sunset, October 1997 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with My Compost?


Swezey, Lauren Bonar, Sunset


Answers from an expert

Why does my compost smell bad?" "What are those ugly maggots in my compost?" If your compost pile prompts questions like these, you're not alone. Many beginning composters wonder what's causing problems in their piles. Meghan Starkey, a specialist with the Home Composting Program in Alameda County, California, fields dozens of questions like these every week on the program's hotline. "When troubleshooting over the phone, I always go back to the basic concepts of composting," she says. "That often solves the problem."

In analyzing your own situation, Starkey recommends that you review the basics of composting (see below). If a composting question has been nagging you, read on. Starkey answers the commonly asked questions and offers advice for correcting problems. Easy basics of perfect compost

FOUR MAIN INGREDIENTS Brown matter (high in carbon) includes dry leaves, hay, sawdust, straw, wood chips, and woody prunings.

Green matter (high in nitrogen) includes grass clippings, fresh prunings, fruit and vegetable trimmings, manure (from cows, horses, goats, poultry, and rabbits), coffee grounds, tea bags, and rinsed-out eggshells.

Air. Bacteria need air to break down materials into compost. When building a pile, add a thin layer of larger prunings or cornstalks to create air pockets. To hasten decomposition, turn the pile every two to seven days. Water. Bacteria need moisture.

COMPOST QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Q. Why does the pile smell bad?

A. "It's often because there's too much food, or green waste, which means the pile is too moist. When it's too moist, the pile becomes anaerobic (no air) and the bacteria that work under these conditions are slower and stinkier. It's better to have an aerobic pile; your neighbors will thank you.

"Mix some browns [dry leaves] into the pile. If you don't have browns on hand, get some sawdust. Also, always bury kitchen scraps inside the pile or cover with additional browns."

Q. What are those bugs in the pile?

A. "A zillion mostly good insects live in the compost pile, and they all play a part in the decomposition cycle. Soldier fly larvae (maggots) are scary-looking but benign. They concentrate where there's too much food waste. …

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