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Backyard Composting Questions and Answers

The composting of garden and yard waste is an effective method of reducing the volume of waste and of creating a nutrient-rich material that can be used in the home garden.  This may be done by using a variety of home-made or commercial composting bins.

Top 10 Questions About Backyard Composting

Q: A neighbor is complaining about my pile even though it doesn't smell. What do I do?
A: Keep the pile and it's surroundings neat: keep weeds pulled, use fresh wood chips around pile, ask them to help contribute to the pile or to share the cost of a drum composter, landscape or fence the areas, and if you sense an odor, immediately make a correction.  Explain the benefits of composting every chance you get.  Give them a brochure telling them why you do it and how it works.

 

Q: A strong sweet odor is coming from the pile. What's wrong? How do I correct it?
A: Odors occurs when composting only leaves or if the pile is damp but is not heating up.  It lacks Nitrogen, is slow to decompose, has too little moisture has poor aeration,  and maybe too small (minimum pile should be 3" X 3' X 3).
Solutions: Insulate the sides and top, put pile next to wall that heats up, South or Southwest facing. 
       

  • Aerate by mixing ingredients - new especially Nitrogen source materials like fresh grass clippings, fertilizer like 34-0-0, bloodmeal, humus, food waste, manure: anything considered a green material.
      
  • Nitrogen fertilizer is added as 1 cup 34-0-0 per 3 bushels of compost.
    Add moisture as you mix and turn ingredients, cover pile with plastic.  Soak dry materials before adding to the pile.

           
  • Soak pile from above by placing a trickle line on it temporarily.

Q: Pile smells like rotten eggs. What's wrong? How do I correct it?
A: Air and water are out of balance (too much water).  Water should fill no more than 40 - 60% of pore space.  The pile is decomposing anaerobically instead of aerobically.  These new bacteria produce ammonia products like hydrogen sulfide gas.  Not enough air in pile, materials compacted too tight, and temperature of pile, is too high > 140 degrees F.  Possibly too much moisture.  Solutions: Add dry ingredients like sawdust, wood chips, shredded, newspapers, straw, etc.  Avoid packing of leaves, grass clippings, turn pile more frequently, use special aeration tools, turn by slicing then inverting each piece.  Avoid using grease, fat, meat scraps and bones (kitchen wastes).  Never let fresh ingredients on the surface - get them mixed right away.  As a last resort, shift whole pile to new location.

Q: Pile is noticeably wet and leaking water into the surrounding area. How do I correct it?
A: Taller piles tend to leak. Nutrients are leaking out and producing a manure tea - try to capture ingredients with dry materials, which you put back into the pile or use as a starter fertilizer.  Reduce the amount of water added to pile, add topsoil or peat, cover pile during heavy rains, break pile into smaller units and add dry ingredients to each.  Place absorbing mulch like sawdust or straw around the outside of pile.  Try squeeze test - compost should feel damp with just a drop or two of water when tightly squeezed.

Q: Animals are attracted to my pile What's wrong? How do I correct it?
A: Fatty food wastes are most likely the reason.  Never add meals, grease, etc., Solutions: Turn pile more frequently, animal-proof the compost pile design.  Go to a drum type composter. Fence in compost area to keep animals out.  Put compost outside a fenced in yard if you're concerned with a household pet getting into it.  Place animal repellent products around the area of pile.

Q: Slugs, earwigs and yellow jackets like my pile. Is there a problem?
A: No, slugs are a problem but enhance composting. There can be a reservoir area for slugs attacking nearby garden plants. They prefer fresh wastes only. Place 2 X 4's wrapped with wet burlap nearby to capture and dispose of slugs.
A: No, earwigs are never a serious threat and aid in the compost process as scavengers. They prefer cooler piles and will be a change of the seasons pest especially during wet seasons.
A: Yes, a properly constructed compost pile should not attract yellow jackets. This again indicates exposed food wastes, bones, vegetable scraps, fruits, etc.

Q: Finished product takes too long to make What's wrong?
A: Pile too small to heat up.  Try a larger pile.  Turn ingredients in the fall before pile freezes. Insulate pile so that it can be turned throughout the winter.  Add nitrogen materials to boost heating up process or go to a drum composter.

Q: Weeds seem to germinate after using the finished product.  What's wrong?
A: Pile will not heat up enough to kill all weed seeds because of the seed coat.  Noxious weeds should not be added.  These weeds include thistles, morninglories, crab grass, ivy roots and many others.  Add weed ingredients before they go to seed, chop up rhizomes to less than a quarter inch, let dry on ground surface in the sun before adding to the pile.  Can be composted alone and covered in black plastic for 2 years. Only thorough and hot composting works to kill plant parts that at are propagated vegetatively.

Q: I can never get a good balance (mix of ingredients) in my pile.  What can I do?
A: The art of composting is the use of the 1-1-1 ratio (100 lbs leaves, 100 lbs grass clippings and 100 1bs manure).  Start shedding all including manure added materials by using a lawn mower on a hard, level surface.  Add a larger variety of materials to the pile.  Use brown and green materials in approximately equal proportions.  Learn C-N ratios of materials and balance them mathematically or intuitively.  Store high carbon (brown) materials like sawdust, leaves, shredded newspapers, peat moss, wood chips, etc., to add to pile during summer when a lot of green materials like grass clippings and weeds are going into the pile.  The mix, mix, mix!  Get a composting tool to do so.
Add lime and/or soil to make more alkaline compost.  Add acid loving plant parts like evergreen tree needles, Rhode leaves and peat.

Q: What materials can be added to the pile that I normally don't think of adding?
A: Shredded newspapers, thorny plants, sod if kept moist and covered with black plastic, coffee grounds, woody plant materials, houseplants, tea leaves wood ash, orange peels, egg shells, fruit pits.

Avoid herbicide treated plant materials, butter, mayonnaise, cat litter, cheese, chicken manure, dog manure, fish scraps, lard, plants harboring serious diseases, plants that take too long to break down: bamboo, milk, oil, peanut butter, sour cream, vegetable oil.

 

 

For more info contact
Lou Ann Shontz
Huntingdon County Recycling Coordinator
233 Penn Street
Huntingdon, PA 16652
(814) 643-3091 ext. 206