Why isn’t my backyard compost pile working?

Why isn’t my backyard compost pile working?

By Sarah Everson

Midsummer is here and your backyard bin or pile should be in full composting mode.  Yet if you find yourself scratching your head wondering, “What am I doing wrong?” here are some simple tips for troubleshooting your backyard compost.


If your pile smells rotten or like ammonia, it probably has excess moisture, compaction or too much nitrogen (greens).  The best way to resolve this is to turn the pile, add dry carbon (browns) material to add air space and cover food scraps.  Too much nitrogen happens in a pile made out of all grass clippings, food scraps and plant material.  Remember that your backyard compost pile should NOT have an equal ratio of carbon (browns) to nitrogen (greens).  Three parts carbon to one part nitrogen is ideal.  If the pile is so wet that water drips out when you squeeze a handful, then add dry carbon material such as woodchips, leaves or soil. This will help the pile dry out and balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio.  Regardless of what nitrogen source is used in a pile, it should always be covered by a carbon source as the top layer.

Pests & insects

If you find unwanted animals attracted to your backyard compost pile, this may be due to the presence of meat scraps or dairy.  Make sure these items are not placed in a backyard compost pile.  Fruits and vegetables are compostable, whereas meat, bones, grease and dairy products are not.  If you are composting produce waste, make sure it is covered with browns.  Another option is to compost with a bin rather than an open pile.  Most bins are animal resistant and also help heat the compost when located in a sunny location.

When it comes to insects in your pile, they are actually a sign of a successful compost pile.  Congratulations!  Insects are what make the compost.  You can tell how healthy your backyard pile is by the number of bugs found in it.  However, an abundance of fruit flies usually means that the food scraps need to be covered better with browns.  Too many ants means that the pile is too dry and needs watering and turning to disrupt the ant colonies.

Not hot enough

Backyard compost piles may have issues reaching high temperature when they are built slowly as waste is created.  The only way to get a hot pile in your backyard is to build a pile that is 3’x3’x3’ and filled with a few hundred pounds carbon (3 parts) and nitrogen (1 part) material. No additional material should be added; rather, the pile should be left to “compost.”  It should be turned every week for a month, then every other week for the next month.  During the final month it should be left to “cure” without adding any additional material.  If this seems overwhelming, do not worry; successful compost can still be created, though more slowly and at a low temperature.  Compost is active at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why piles thrive in the summer when the outdoor temperature is well above this target temperature and slow down in the winter when the temperatures get colder.

Another reason for low temperatures is having too much brown matter or not enough nitrogen present in a pile.  Nitrogen is needed for the compost process to occur, but too much nitrogen can cause issues as mentioned above.  Moreover, there should be 40-60% moisture in a compost pile. Not having enough water can cause the pile to slow down and lose heat.

Composting is a relatively easy process, but it can take some practice to perfect the ins and outs.  Much like everyone has his or her own cookie recipe, everyone has his or her own “recipe” for creating the perfect compost pile.  It might be different from your neighbor’s, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making quality compost.  Keep composting!

Sarah Everson is the business manager for Compost Joe’s Premium Soils and Organics, a private composting facility located betweenFond du LacandOshkosh.  Sarah also offers seminars and private classes on composting.

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Troubleshooting Composting Problems


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