Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Home Composting: Common Problems & Troubleshooting Tips

Now you have a compost pile and it is up and running... but is it successful? Here are a few common problems and some troubleshooting tips...

#7. My pile has a strong odor, what am I doing wrong?
There should always be an earthy smell to your compost (due to the decomposing matter) but the smell should be livable and shouldn't "hit you" until you open the lid. If you can smell it outside of the container, you have a problem... Turning your pile can do a world of good, but determine what type of "bad smell" is coming from your pile before turning it.
Rotting Meat: If the smell is a disgusting rotting smell, animal proteins or fats have probably accidentally gotten into your pile through meat scraps, cooking fats & oils, butter, dairy products, peanut butter, etc. If the item isn't on the top where you can see it and pick it out, it's best to just scrap the pile and start over, because rotting animal proteins will draw scavengers like flies, rats, raccoons, etc. Then of course there will be snakes to eat the rats... and eventually your yard is overrun by pterodactyls picking off the neighborhood pets... just kidding - sorta. Seriously though, depending on how big the item decomposing in there is (a pat of butter or a full raw T-bone) is going to effect how long the smell lasts... leave the pile for a few days before you decide to trash it and if the smell has lessened, use your own judgement on waiting longer or scrapping the pile completely.

 Ammonia Smell: If the smell is more like ammonia than rotting meat, it is most likely a nitrogen problem in the pile. Nitrogen is produced by the "green" matter decomposing in the pile (veggie & fruit scraps, grass, coffee grounds, pretty much any of the wet, moist material that you place in your pile). Even out your pile with more "brown" matter (such as dry leaves, paper, straw); experts recommend 30 parts carbon ("brown") to 1 parts nitrogen ("green") but I feel like that is a little excessive and a little over analytical. It's an art, not a science... and when in doubt, tinker around with the parts a bit to see if you can fix the problem easily without pulling out a calculator to figure out what to put in.

#8. I want to keep my compost 100% organic so that I can use it on my vegetable garden... how do I make sure that it stays pesticide/chemical/contaminate free?
Creating 100% organic compost is relatively easy if you eat organically, because most of your wastes will already be organic. If you have a mixed diet (i.e. some organic and some conventionally processed goods) you can create two compost piles to keep one 100% organic and still not trash your non-organic food wastes. Some other items to consider are the non-food items that you put into the pile... if you are putting in paper and fabric scraps, ensure they come from organic sources as well. If you (or your neighbors) use pesticides or fertilizers on their grass or trees, those chemicals will be in your compost if you decide to place those in the pile as well. I have read that most pesticides will decompose in an active compost pile in one year, but I have no proof that this is the case. Now, this blog and my lifestyle is all about moderation, so this risk may be negligible for you and if so, your compost will still turn out wonderfully! But if you are trying to ensure 100% organic compost, the key to success is thinking through every item that enters your compost pile before you toss it in.  

There you go, you've started your compost pile, you've kept it going and you've solved all of its little compost problems (which were all just petty decomposing drama anyway). You are a sucessful compost pile parent! Congratulations!

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