How to Tend Your Compost Pile
4 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Composting
A well-constructed pile can be left to rot on its own timetable, rewarding you with useable compost in three to six months. If you want to dig out black gold faster than that, or if you didn't have quite the right mix of ingredients on hand when you created your pile, you can speed the process by turning and remoistening the pile and incorporating more ingredients as needed.
The following table touches on some possible problems you may encounter when tending to your compost pile.
|Slow decomposition||Lack of nitrogen||Add "green" nitrogen-rich organic matter.|
|Slow decomposition||Poor aeration||Turn pile.|
|Slow decomposition||Too dry||Turn pile and remoisten all materials.|
|Slow decomposition||Pile too small||Add more organic matter to increase pile size to 3–5 cubic feet (1–1.5 cubic meters).|
|Slow decomposition||Cold weather||Insulate outer pile with thick layers of cardboard, sod, straw, or leaves. Use a compost bin style with a lid to retain heat. Increase pile size.|
|Ammonia odor||Too much nitrogen||Add "brown" carbon-rich materials and remix.|
|Rotten odor||Too wet||Add "brown" carbon-rich materials and remix.|
|Attracts flies||Kitchen scraps too close to top of pile||Bury scraps in center of pile. Don't add meats, dairy, oils, or grease.|
|Attracts dogs, raccoons, or other pests||Kitchen scraps too close to top of pile||Bury scraps in center of pile. Don't add meats, dairy, oils, or grease. Use an animal-proof enclosed bin.|
|White or gray thread-like filaments resembling spider webs on the outer edges of the pile||Actinomycetes, a type of bacteria, are at work decomposing organic matter||No change required. These are "good guys"|
|Contains grubs, worms, and other large bugs||No worries! Indicates nature is at work.||No change required.|
|Turning your pile|
Just a few days after creation, your towering mountain of compost will shrink noticeably. This is exactly what should be happening. The decomposers are using up oxygen, collapsing millions of tiny air spaces between all those bits of organic matter. Without oxygen, the decomposing population drops, and the decomposition process slows. To keep the process rolling — or if your goal is to cook up a hot pile to kill weed seeds — you must introduce a fresh oxygen supply by turning the organic matter.
To turn a freestanding pile, simply fork the material into a new heap adjacent to the original one, remoistening as needed. If you have only one container, fork out the material onto the ground and then back in, mixing as you go. The easiest option is to have an empty bin available so you can simply transfer your compost from one bin to another. Turning the entire pile is the most effective aeration method.
As you turn your pile, have the hose ready to sprinkle the material with water as you work. All the organic matter should be moist like a wrung-out sponge. And just as in the initial construction, if you try to remoisten the entire compost pile from the top, most of the water will end up in a puddle at your feet.
If you're not going to turn but still need to moisten, sprinkle in small increments over a period of time, allowing the water to penetrate through the pile. Also, if rain is predicted when your compost is dry, remove any tarps, lids, or covers to take advantage of the free water.