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Home Composting (Troubleshooting & FAQs)

by | Jul 24, 2021 | Farm, Soil, Vegetable Gardening

Learning how to start a compost pile (the easy way) and when and how to turn your compost pile are the first steps in home composting. But sometimes you run into issues or questions that aren’t covered in a basic DIY or composting 101. We’re here to answer all your home composting questions!

Hands lifting a finished bunch of compost.

I’ll admit it, I’ve been a lazy composter! In a perfect scenario, I would be checking and turning my compost pile at least weekly, every other day if I really wanted to help move things along quickly, but sometimes life happens and that pile just sits there, unmonitored, and uncared for.

Thankfully, the system I use is pretty resilient and can handle a bit of neglect without becoming inactive. I have also been composting long enough to know what I’m looking for and to know how to troubleshoot my compost for problems.

If you’re new to composting or have some questions about your existing compost pile, watch the video below, or keep reading to see if your questions are answered in these home composting troubleshooting and FAQs.

Home Composting FAQs

What is the proper compost ratio? 30:1 or 2:1?

On the chemical side, we’re looking for 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. These are the ratios that create good decomposition. However, materials vary on how much carbon or nitrogen they contain, with some carbon-based materials being as high as 700:1 and some nitrogen-based materials being 10:1 or lower.

By mixing 2:1 in RATIO of materials by volume, this gives an easy and doable way to get close to that 30:1 chemical ratio we are looking to for good decomposition.

Can compost be made with no carbon materials?

It will break down but is likely to get very stinky and rotten, creating an unhealthy situation.

Also, carbon is the building block of life, so it’s also the building block of compost. You need that carbon in your garden, so I don’t recommend building a compost pile out of nitrogen materials only.

Two men shoveling compost onto a garden bed.

What’s the best time of year to add finished compost to the soil for gardening?

Any time of year is great! But most people do garden prep in either the spring and fall. I like to add my compost in the fall after I clean the garden up. I just add a nice layer of 1-2 inches on top of the beds and let it settle into the soil over the winter. When spring comes and the soil warms up I’ll loosen the soil with a broad fork and I’m ready to plant.

However, if your garden is struggling mid-season, or you are planting succession crops in the same space, you can always add some more compost to help feed those crops as needed.

Adding Hot Compost to Garden

Some of you have wondered if you can seed a garden with hot compost for the next crop cycle to improve the soil and also kill weeds present in the garden soil. Yes, you can add hot compost to a garden if it’s going to be sitting long enough that it won’t be “hot” by the next planting season.

This may or may not kill all the weed seeds, but you’d have to have your compost up in the 150 degrees F range for that to work consistently. Hot compost will, however, kill any garden seeds that you’re trying to grow, so don’t add hot compost to a spot you’re wanting to plant in right away.

Why is my compost pile so dry?

Just because your compost is dry, doesn’t mean it’s not working. This is where using a compost thermometer comes in handy.

An active compost pile needs carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water to work best. You don’t want your pile too wet, and you don’t want your pile too dry, you want it like Goldilocks, just right!

If you are pretty sure you’ve got plenty of “greens”, you know, nitrogen, in your pile and it didn’t get up to temp, then it was probably too dry and it is time to add some water!

For more tips on how wet your compost pile should be, check out this post on when and how often to turn your compost pile.

A man watering a large wire compost bin filled with layers for compost.

Is my compost too wet?

My general rule of thumb is that you want your compost to be like a damp sponge. You should be able to squeeze it and get a few drops of water out, but you don’t want a lot of water dripping from it.

If you have a neglected compost pile that you’re recommitting to, or you’re just starting your first pile, you’re probably going to be adding some water. For a demonstration on exactly what to look for, check out my post on building a compost pile using my easy method.

Should I cover my compost pile?

I’ve had many people ask me if they should keep their compost piles covered or uncovered. I have to give them my favorite answer, which is, “it depends”!

If you live in an area where there is a lot of rainfall or snow, you can cover your compost pile to keep it from getting over-saturated.

Likewise, if you live in a very hot area and want to keep your pile from evaporating off too quickly, you can keep it covered with a tarp on top, but allow the sides to breathe.

However, because compost REALLY needs oxygen, if you’re always keeping your pile covered, this will slow down the oxygen exchange which will slow down the process, or could prevent evaporation of excess moisture if it was too wet when you covered it. Neither are good.

A pitchfork grabbing from a pile of compost materials.

Should I keep my compost pile in the shade?

This is another question where the answer really depends on your area and the time of year. It doesn’t matter one way or the other if your compost is in the sun or shade. However, if you’re in a hotter climate, the shade will keep it from drying out as quickly (and it’s also nice to turn your pile in the shade during those hot summer months!).

If you’re building compost during the winter, you may want to choose a sunnier location to keep the heat up in the pile and allow for you to be in the sunshine while turning the pile on those cold days.

Can I compost underground?

Some folks have asked if they can just bury their composting materials into the ground where they plan on gardening. Sure, this will work and can be appropriate in some situations, but it really shouldn’t be your go-to method.

My general goal for composting is to produce enough compost to build healthy soil across my entire garden in a measurable way. So while I could bury some food scraps in a hole where I am going to plant some veggies, that would work. Or if I have some animal waste I could bury that where I am going to plant a tree, but this just isn’t practical for a productive vegetable garden where I need to consistently apply a measurable amount of compost.

A large tractor turning a large compost pile.

Can I compost on a smaller scale?

I’m sure you’ve seen those tiny compost bins that people keep on their kitchen counters, or even those 25-gallon compost tumblers, but does composting on a small scale like this work?

First of all, they are small. If you are growing more than flowers and a few herbs, you are going to need more compost and since you are already putting in the time and effort, you really want to work at a scale that is worth your while. Second, I think they hold too much moisture and don’t circulate enough oxygen, so I avoid them.

The 3×3 compost “bin” that I demonstrate in my easy composting method is probably the smallest size pile you should go with. This will create a decent amount of compost in a fairly fast time frame, won’t take up too much space in your yard, but will still allow you to produce enough to be useful.

What if I don’t have enough “greens” to build my pile?

If you’re a smaller household, having enough “greens” or nitrogenous materials may be difficult to start a decent compost pile. If you find you don’t have enough “green” material, you can always let it pile up until you have enough. Just know that this pile may get stinky or moldy as it’s going to be high in moisture and nitrogen.

Another option is to ask around to neighbors and see if they can save their grass clippings or kitchen scraps for a week until you get enough for your pile.

But don’t let the “perfect” ratios keep you from starting your pile for too long. Compost will still make itself even if your ratios are off, it will just take longer.

A handful of wood shavings.

Is animal bedding and waste considered “brown” or “green”?

It’s actually a little bit of each, but how much depends on your barn maintenance. If your barn and animal stalls start smelling then your nitrogen is getting too high, so adding more wood shavings is how you would counteract that.

Keeping a clean and tidy barn also helps keep a good balance in your compost pile when you’re ready to use that material. As you clean out the barn a few times a year your compost pile is already a great mix of greens and browns. This is actually the main way we build compost here at Riverbend.

Can I use active compost to help my inactive pile?

Absolutely! Using some active compost to help “seed” an inactive pile is a great way to help activate a pile that’s cooled off and become dormant.

All you need to do is add an active shovel-full to each layer or two of your new or inactive pile (as you’re turning and watering your inactive pile, ideally) and this will help re-charge your compost.

I have a tumble composter and it’s always too wet. What can I add?

One of the reasons the plastic tumbler is too wet is that there’s no oxygen letting it breathe. This is one reason I don’t like these tumblers.

My suggestion for fixing this issue would be to add more brown materials and leave the lid open during the day to let more oxygen in.

The sawdust I get from a sawmill is already wet, is this OK to use as a brown?

Absolutely! Just keep this in mind when you go to water your pile that you won’t need to add as much as with dry wood shavings.

A wire bin filled with layers of green and brown materials for compost.

Helping your compost pile breathe

Adding a perforated 3″ pipe in the long axis of your compost pile to add oxygen is a great method for those who really want to speed up the composting process.

I wouldn’t recommend using this pipe to add water to the center of the pile, however. It’s hard to tell how much water is getting added into the center and very easy to over-water this way.

Can you add wood ash to a compost pile?

Yes, a little bit of wood ash is OK to add to a compost pile but sprinkle it in sparingly. Wood ash is very alkaline and will kill the biology of your compost if you add too much along with causing some pH imbalances. This can be good for some soils like clay, but go sparingly, or get into soil testing and find out exactly what you need.

Can you compost in any weather or temperature?

It does help to have warmer temperatures when building a compost pile so nature isn’t working against you with cooler temperatures that will slow the pile down.

Trying to get a compost pile completed before winter is ideal, however, you can allow your compost to sit out over the winter and it will go dormant. If it’s not yet finished breaking down you can always re-activate it in the early spring by following the tips in this post on knowing when to turn your compost pile.

A hand placing a compost thermometer into a pile of compost.

Do you leave the compost thermometer in the pile all the time?

Yes, I leave my compost thermometer in my compost pile during the summer, but in the winter I will remove it so it’s not sitting in the snow.

I like leaving my thermometer in because, although I don’t turn my compost every day, when I walk by my pile I like to be able to see how hot it is without having to go find my thermometer first.

If you’re composting through the winter, you may decide that leaving the thermometer in is a better option so you can keep a close eye on the temperature of your pile.

Should I add worms to the compost pile?

Because you want to get your compost pile up to 120 degrees or more, if you add worms to your compost pile they’re just going to bail and find somewhere else to live that’s not so hot. So don’t waste your money or time by adding them to your pile early on.

However, if you have worms on your property, as your compost pile finishes up and cools down, those worms will likely find it! If you don’t have many worms around, it’s at this time that I’d recommend adding some in.

A large pile of compost with a barn in the background.

How do I keep animals out of my compost?

If you’re building a compost pile with a lot of food scraps, chances are you’re going to have curious critters coming by to sniff and scout out your pile.

There are a few ways to help keep unwanted critters out of your compost pile. One simple way is to build a fence or keep your compost pile in a barn or protected area.

If you need to take more drastic measures, you can always run some electric wire around the pile.

Did we answer all your questions? If not, head on over to the YouTube video and leave your questions there! We’ll do our best to answer them all! Happy composting!

A large pile of steaming compost.
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