Trying to reduce your household’s waste and do something good for the planet, you’ve been saving your apples cores and carrot peels and started a compost pile. But maybe you’ve noticed a strange odor coming from the bin, or you’ve observed the worms in your worm bin trying to escape. What do you do?
We’ve rounded up a list of common composting conundrums – and give you tips on how to troubleshoot them.
Troubles when composting food scraps with yard trimmings
Problem #1: The compost pile smells bad.
Solutions: If your compost pile is giving off an ammonia-like odor, it may contain too many nitrogen-rich materials – known as “greens” – including grass clippings and fruit and vegetable trimmings. Decomposition only occurs when you have an equal balance of greens and carbon-rich “browns” – dry, woody materials like fallen leaves or pruned shrubs. To correct the nitrogen-carbon ratio in your pile, add more browns and turn pile to aerate it.
If the compost heap smells like rotten eggs or vinegar, it may be too wet; a compost pile should be as damp as a well wrung-out sponge. Turn the heap to dry out the material, and add browns like leaves, sawdust, straw or even newspaper to absorb moisture. Adjust your watering schedule, so you’re not over-watering the compost pile, especially during the rainy season.
A lack of oxygen may also cause the compost pile to smell like eggs or vinegar, but that problem can easily be solved by turning the pile to aerate it.
Problem #2: The compost pile will not heat up, so the material can decompose.
Solutions: There are several reasons why your compost pile may not be heating up. The heap may not have enough materials to kick start the decomposition process, so add more materials, making sure the pile measures 3 feet on each side and is at least 3 feet tall.
The compost pile might also be too dry. Remembering that your pile should be as damp as a well wrung-out sponge, add water and turn to aerate.
A lack of nitrogen can also prevent a compost heap from heating up, so add greens like grass clippings, freshly cut weeds or fruit and veggie trimmings.
Or the materials in your compost pile may be too large for the microbes to begin digesting. In this case, chop up the larger pieces of material and make sure the new material you add is smaller in size.
Lastly, cooler weather may be to blame for the compost pile’s failure to heat up and decompose. Check out Earth911’s guide to composting in the winter for tips on keeping up your compost heap during the cold winter months.
Problem #3: The compost pile is attracting pests like flies, rats or raccoons.
Solutions: Remember, meat, bones and dairy products don’t go in the backyard composting bin; protein-rich and fatty foods are a magnet for critters.
Pests are also drawn to exposed food, so be sure to bury food scraps 6-12 inches deep in the pile and cover them with browns.
Keep your compost bin’s lid fastened, weighted down or tied down with bungee cords. Line the bottom of the bin with mesh wire if you suspect rodents are entering from underneath the bin.
If fruit flies are attracted to the container where you store food scraps indoors before you toss them in the outdoor bin, make sure you’re using an airtight container, with a tight-fitting lid that fully seals shut.
Problem #4: There are bugs in my compost pile!
Solutions: This is actually not a problem: Bugs help make decomposition happen in the compost heap.
Even ants help the composting process, moving important minerals like phosphorus and potassium into the compost to make the final product richer. But a large number of ants usually indicate that the pile is too dry. Water the pile and turn it with a pitchfork to disrupt their colonies.