What is Wrong with my Compost Pile? Troubleshooting Common Compost Problems

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Composting is one of the easiest projects that you can start at any time. However, sometimes things go awry! I have comprised an extensive list of frequent mishaps and problems that your pile may be experiencing, and the best solutions to fix those problems fast!

If you are new to composting and need a step by step guide to get started, you can check out my Composting 101 Article for beginner advice.

C’mon, let’s get your compost pile healthy again!

Common compost problems

Fruit flies are a common compost problem

Q: Why is my compost pile smelly?

A: Compost may smell a tad ripe here and there, but a super stinky pile is not correct. In order to have a healthy compost heap, the pile has to achieve a balance of carbon and nitrogen to create heat. This heat comes from the microorganisms activating and digesting the compost. If this is off balance, your pile can become a stinky heap of mess!

Solutions to the stinky pile:

  1. Your pile has too much green matter (nitrogen) in ratio to brown matter. Green matter is all the food scraps you put into the pile. Typically, a pile with too much green matter smells of ammonia. This green matter needs brown matter (carbon) to ignite the decomposing process. If your pile is stinky and slimy, add some handfuls of leaves, shredded non-shiny paper, or straw.
  2. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. The microbiome that is heating up your pile needs to breathe; if it is too dense in the middle of your pile, oxygen is not penetrating enough, therefore the microorganisms will die. To remedy this, aerate your compost by mixing it with a pitchfork or hand trowel. Also, adding brown fluffy matter like dry leaves can bring air into the dense parts of your pile. Mix thoroughly and make sure to get any wet or dry pockets in the pile.
  3. Your pile is too big. A pile that amasses beyond 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet wide can get too dense in the middle and be hard to turn. This starves the pile of oxygen and the microbes will die. Split your pile into two heaps.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too; paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Q: Why is my compost bin stinky?

A: A stinky bin is an unpleasant experience! Unlike a pile that is exposed to the outdoors, a container shields the elements from your pile, but can also cause problems as well.

Solutions to stinky bins:

  1. Your bin does not have enough oxygen flow. If it is a DIY bin, you might not have enough air holes drilled. Add some more holes. Turn your pile more frequently and add more brown matter to fluff up the pile for more aeration to occur.
  2. There are moisture pockets in the bin. Sogginess may be occurring in the corners of your bin without you even realizing it. Make sure when you turn the compost to get every nook and cranny of the bin.
  3. Your bin is not draining liquid properly. For bins with bottoms, drill more holes for moisture release. If possible, cut the bottom out entirely and place on soil that drains well.
  4. You are adding meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  5. Your bin is too big. If your bin is too big, the center will not get enough oxygen. It will also be harder to mix the corners, causing slimy pockets. Your bin should not be over 140 liters. Try downsizing to a 75 liter bin or break up your bin into two bins.
  6. You are not breaking down your materials. Large chunks of green matter take longer to decompose, giving it time to get stinky. Although this is not a common problem for open air piles, you may want to break down your green matter before throwing onto the pile. This goes for brown matter too, paper and leaves should be shredded, woody materials should be mulched.

Q: Why is my indoor compost bin smelly?

A: Unlike the great outdoors, indoor compost bins do not have access to all the bugs, worms, and microbiomes to assist in breaking down green matter. They require a little extra attention to get the ratios down correctly.

Solutions to stinky indoor bins:

  1. Do not add stinky components. Stinky stuff such as onions and garlic can stink up your pile fast.
  2. Do not add slimy watery components such as watermelon and melon rinds.
  3. Do not add any meat, dairy, bones, shellfish, or oils to the pile. These do not break down quickly and create a stench that plant-based scraps do not.
  4. Your pile is too moist. Since your pile does not drain directly into soil, it has the danger of getting too soggy which can cause odor. Add some brown matter to fluff up your pile and absorb some of the excess moisture. Make sure that you are adequately mixing your pile thoroughly; moisture pockets like to build up in container corners.
  5. Your pile does not have enough oxygen. Overly moist, dense piles will starve the microbes of oxygen. Also, your bin may not have enough airholes to get oxygen into the pile. Drill more holes if you have a DIY container. If not, add more fluffy brown matter to increase airflow to the pile.
  6. Your materials are too chunky. This especially applies for indoor bins as the longer it takes for the materials to break down, the more likely they are to stink. Chop up your scraps into 1” cubes or smaller. Make sure to breakdown your brown matter as well.

Check out my Apartment Composting Guide to get started with your indoor compost pile!

Q: How do I fix wet soggy compost?

A: Wet compost will quickly become smelly and stops the microbiome process. There are several things you can do to remedy a wet pile:

  1. Keep your pile protected from rain. This can easily be done with a tarp or a layer of brown material. You can also relocate your pile to a protected area like under trees or an awning. You can purchase a popup cover as well to get through the rainy season.
  2. Add more brown matter to your pile. Getting the ratio of brown to green keeps your pile happy and healthy. Add some shredded leaves or paper to your mix to soak up excess moisture. Make sure your brown matter is shredded or mulched thoroughly so it breaks down faster.
  3. Turn your pile frequently. Make sure to add enough brown matter and mix in any soggy pockets your pile has.
  4. Relocate your pile. If your pile is in an area where moisture builds up, then move it. Shovel it into a bin and plop it on an area that has better drainage. If it rains a lot, place it under an awning or place a tarp over the pile. If you need to you can always elevate your pile with a mound of soil.

Q: Why is my compost pile not heating up?

A: The heat is the biochemical reaction that causes your pile to transform into soil, rather than to rot. Without it, your pile is just a stinky rotting trash heap! This problem is easily solved.

Solutions to get heat into your pile:

  1. Your pile lacks nitrogen. Nitrogen comes in the form of green matter and feeds the microbes that create the heat. If you have too much carbon in the form of leaves, paper, or woody materials, your pile will become too dry and will never heat. Simply add more green matter or remove excess brown matter. Eventually you will get the feel for your pile as no two piles are alike!
  2. Your pile is too dry. If there is no moisture, there is nothing for the bacteria to live in. Make sure your pile stays moist like a sponge, but not soggy.
  3. Your pile is too small. If there is not enough materials, your pile won’t be able to retain the heat needed. You need at least 75 liters or 3 foot cubed.
  4. Your pile is too big. If air cannot reach the middle of the pile, the heating process cannot continue. The microbes need oxygen to survive and will die if oxygen cannot penetrate to the center of the pile. Break your pile into two if you have created a behemoth!
  5. You can add a compost inoculator for microbes. If you feel all the ingredients are right in your pile, simply add a scoop of dirt to add in some microbes. You can also try adding some hot nitrogen in the form of chicken or horse manure to really get things cooking.
  6. Your compost pile is too cold. This is especially pertinent in winter months. Insulate and shelter your pile with hay bales, a tarp, cinder blocks, old carpet, or anything that can hold in heat and allow oxygen to come through.

Q: How do I fix dry compost?

A: The answer may seem simple, but dry compost can be problematic especially in arid regions. Try these fixes:

  1. Add water. This is the most obvious of answers, simply spray your pile down with water until damp, but not soggy.
  2. You have too much brown matter. Carbon matter will quickly dry up a pile, especially paper and cardboard. Simply remove the excess brown matter or add in more green matter.
  3. Your pile is overexposed to the elements. Wind and heat beating down on an exposed pile will wick moisture away quickly. Move your pile into a more sheltered area, into the shade, and protect your pile with a layer of brown matter, tarp, or some sort of lid.
  4. Try trench composting. This is the exact same method, except you dig a hole in the ground in lieu of a bin. This will keep your pile sheltered from the elements and keep more moisture in. Just make sure to add a foundation of brown matter and cap the top with brown matter as well.

Q:How do I get rid of gnats in my compost bin?

A: Gnats are annoying little critters that love decomposing fruits and veggies, which makes a compost pile their dream come true! Even though you want to get rid of them, in outdoor compost situations, it is natural to have flies and other insects enjoying your pile.  If you don’t want them hanging around, then getting rid of them is not too hard:

  1. Cap your pile with brown matter. Make the fruit and veggie scraps inaccessible by adding a 2-4 inch layer of leaves, paper, and woody materials, shredded or mulched, of course.
  2. Make a fruit fly trap. You can buy one at most stores, but they can be expensive. You can easily make one with a mason jar, a bit of fruit, and a piece of paper. Place the fruit inside the mason jar, fashion the paper into a funnel, and place the funnel into the jar. The fruit flies go in but can’t get out. Easy!
  3. Remove the lid from your bin. It could be the case that the flies are living in your bin because the lid provides a sheltered dark place for them to thrive. Try removing the lid and monitor the results. If that doesn’t help, then place the lid back on.
  4. Dump boiling water on the pile. This can help kill off any flies or eggs that are growing in the pile. If in a bin, shut the lid and let the steam kill them.

Q: How do I get rid of maggots in my compost?

A: Maggots, or baby flies, do well in compost as they thrive in nitrogen rich environments that are in the process of decay. Although you might be considering exterminating them, maggots do assist in the composting process as all the rest of the insects and worms you may find. Indoor compost with maggots can be a problem as they will eventually turn into flies and infest your home. This is how you get rid of them:

  1. Make sure your pile isn’t too wet. Maggots love the wet and slimy stuff, so adding some brown material like sawdust can get rid of that moisture and eliminate them.
  2. Cap your pile with brown matter and make sure to bury your food scraps about 4 inches deep when adding them.
  3. Simply remove the maggot infestation and feed them to the birds!
  4. If using a bin, block the holes with a mesh screen. Make sure it is fine enough for flies not to penetrate but can still let air pass.

Q: How do I make my compost less clumpy?

A: The final material of compost should be a fine rich lush dark dirt, but sometimes this is not the case. This is due to the chunkiness of the material that has been placed into the pile. Some materials take longer to break down and if those chunks are large, they may end up as bulk in the final dirt. These can be made up of large seeds like an avocado or mango seed and chunks of wood. If you want finer compost, all you have to do is use a classifier or screen to screen out the larger chunks. Chicken wire works well for this job.

Q: Why does my compost still have large chunks of food and material in it?

A: One thing that is rarely mentioned across the net is that at some point you have to stop adding food scraps to your compost and let it sit (and mix occasionally) to finish the job. I like to call this the “incubation phase”. If you keep adding to the pile, the decomposition rate of the material will be at different levels and take different time periods to finalize. Once you have created a large enough pile, just let it be, and make another one. You can also try the 3 compost bin method. Some compost bins have a bottom drawer so you can access the final pay dirt which sifts to the bottom while the larger chunks keep composting.

Composting doesn’t just end in the yard. My Composting Toilets Explained article gives you the ins and outs of how you can compost your own personal waste!

So there you have it! My comprehensive troubleshooting guide to getting your compost back on track. I would love to hear your comments below or if you have any additional questions. I will be glad to answer them and might even add them to my article.

Thanks for reading!

– Regina C.
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