Composting is a great way of turning organic material from your yard into something useful, but it turns out you need to do more than just pile it all on a heap and forget about it.
Your compost heap is a living, breathing part of the garden. It needs the right food, size, air movement and temperature to keep it alive and well, converting all that organic material into precious nutrients for your garden.
If it seems that you’re adding compost to your garden with no effect, make sure that you’re not making one of these mistakes. It might be that you’re killing your compost.
Avoid these 5 mistakes and revive your compost heap
Organic material is broken down mainly by oxygen-dependent aerobic bacteria, along with some fungi and other larger organisms, producing compost .
Most of what can go wrong in your compost heap can be linked to these bacteria being unhappy, reducing in number and letting anaerobic bacteria take over. Compost produced by anaerobic bacteria doesn’t have as many nutrients, and will smell foul.
1. Not feeding your heap a balanced diet
The bacteria at work in your compost heap need carbon for energy and nitrogen to build protein.
Carbon rich material include dry, woody material such as leaves, straw, and wood chips. A heap consisting mostly of carbon rich material will decompose very slowly.
Add nitrogen-rich material to carbon-rich material to speed up decomposition. Nitrogen-rich material are usually green and wet, like fresh grass clippings and kitchen scraps. For a backyard heap, a carbon: nitrogen ratio of about 1:2 is good.
Too much green material will release ammonia gas, a good way to infuriate your closest neighbors with your smelly compost heap. An excess of nitrogen can also be toxic to the micro-organisms since it increases the pH of the heap.
Feed your compost heap a mixture of material to increase the variety of bacteria working to break it down. This will ensure that you get the widest range of nutrients possible in your compost.
2. Suffocating your compost.
Foul-smelling composting happens because the oxygen-loving bacteria in your heap is denied their oxygen. The lack of air movement is usually caused by insufficient space in-between compost particles, or too much water.
So what do you do to keep your heap breathing?
Turn your compost heap frequently as composting progresses to ensure that there is sufficient air movement through the heap.
Air movement within a heap can be improved by adding coarse materials such as leaves and straw, or the use of ventilator stacks.
3. Drowning your compost
Squeeze a handful of compost. Ideally, only a few drops of moisture should escape and it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.This is the perfect moisture content for compost break-down.
If the compost is too dry, it would crumble if you squeeze it, and should be watered and turned. If it is too wet it will drip and you would have to turn it, and perhaps even add some dry, carbon-rich material.
Build your compost heap on a slight slope on a moderate to well-draining surface to help excess water run off. Avoid direct sunlight to prevent the compost drying out too quickly.
4. Allowing your compost to cool down too much
The temperature of your compost heap is crucial to effective composting.
As decomposing progress, the temperature of the heap will rise and then start to cool again.
Stick your hand or a metal pipe into the middle of the heap. If the compost is very warm to the touch, the bacteria is working away as it should.
Make sure that your compost heap is not in a spot that is very exposed as it may cause it to cool down faster.
A cool heap is a sign of a lack of activity. Turn the heap and add some nitrogen-rich material to start heating things up again.
5. Getting the size of the heap and the material wrong
The size of a compost heap will determine the heat it generates and thereby the speed at which the material is broken down.
A good size for a compost heap is about a cubic meter, or slightly larger if you live in a windy area or near water. A smaller heap will simply break down the material a bit slower.
Give the micro-organisms a helping hand by supplying organic material already chopped or shredded. This will speed along the composting process as the bacteria are able to digest more, generate more heat and multiply faster.
Just beware of making the material too fine (or only using something like cut grass or pine needles). This will reduce air movement through the heap, suffocating the precious aerobic bacteria at work.
How to create a healthy compost heap
In the end, creating a healthy compost heap comes down to the following:
- Feeding it the right combination of carbon – and nitrogen-rich materials
- Turning it regularly to make sure that the compost is sufficiently aerated, not too wet and that the optimal temperature is maintained.
- Making a good-sized heap of about a cubic meter if possible, and feeding it organic material that is neither too large nor too small.
Doing this will help you re-use all the organic material from your garden and kitchen to add life back to your garden.
Please like The Ladybird Garden on Facebook for more ideas and tips on how to make great compost.
What are you putting in your compost heap?
Image created from: Leaf Skeleton on Flickr. CC BY 2.0