Grow Your Own

Maintaining Your Compost Pile: A User’s Guide

Maintaining your compost pile requires some work, but will reward you with nutrient dense loam that will make your garden grow. Composting is a great way to reduce your environmental impact while creating a superb soil amendment.

After setting up your pile for success, maintaining your compost pile requires some ongoing maintenance. Here are a few easy tips.

1. Moist, Not Soaked

A healthy compost pile should remain moist to facilitate the breakdown of the organic matter.  If the pile is too dry, it will lack heat and there will be little evidence of organic material breakdown. The moisture content of your pile should be kept at around 40-50%, enough to feel like a wrung-out sponge.

To keep your compost wet, water it. When you add scraps or turn the pile, you can use a hose on any dry areas. The pile might need some watering during the hottest months; covering it helps to retain moisture.

Too much water will cause your compost to become anaerobic and smell bad. During rainy periods, covering the pile will help keep it from becoming too wet.

2. Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio

When creating your compost pile, look for a balance between green carbon-rich materials, and brown nitrogen or protein-rich materials. A healthy compost pile should have more carbon than nitrogen. A simple rule of thumb is to use 2 parts carbon-rich (brown) matter to 1 part nitrogen-rich (green) matter.

Carbon-rich materials include branches, stems, dried leaves, shredded paper, straw, sawdust and wood chips, egg cartons, egg shells, corn stalks, cardboard, and wood ash.

Nitrogen or protein-rich materials include manures, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, used tea bags, and non-diseased green plants.

3. Materials to Exclude

Do not compost meat, bones, or fish scraps (they attract unwanted rodents or raccoons); perennial weeds (they can be spread by compost); or diseased plants.

Do not use pet manures in compost that will be used on food crops.

Avoid foods with pesticide residue.

Large stalks and woody materials take longer to break down, so if you want to speed up the composting process, chop the larger material into smaller pieces.

4. Temperature

Your compost pile should warm up as materials decompose. Large piles can grow as hot as 180℉, while smaller ones can be expected to reach 50-113℉.

Because smaller piles do not heat up as much, the decomposition process takes longer. If you are just getting started, your compost pile may take up to a year to fully develop.

If your pile is not heating up, add more brown material to increase the temperature. You can also try covering your pile with a layer of dirt or straw to trap heat. Covering also has the added benefit of deterring flies around your pile.

5. Odors

Strong, foul odors usually indicate that the anaerobic bacteria in your compost are not getting enough oxygen. Here are a few troubleshooting solutions:

  • Turn your compost to infuse the pile with oxygen so that odor-free aerobic bacteria thrive and smelly anaerobic bacteria do not.
  • Add more brown matter for a balanced carbon/nitrogen ratio
  • Top with dirt
  • Avoid meats or oils

For more information on what to keep from your kitchen, check out our Kitchen Composting Tips post.

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