Stella Otto: The Backyard Fruit Gardener

Today's Tip: Mow vegetation short around the base of fruit trees and bushes to reduce winter habitat for rodents.

Compost Conundrums: Trouble-shooting Your Compost Pile

Demand for good com­post is bound to be in full swing now that a fresh gar­den­ing sea­son well under­way . Hope­fully you have an ample, ready source. If, how­ever, you are expe­ri­enc­ing chal­lenges with your com­post pile, let’s do some trou­ble shoot­ing. Here are some com­mon prob­lems and pos­si­ble solu­tions to your com­post conundrums:

1.  My pile is tak­ing for­ever to form compost

  • Con­sider whether you have a proper mix of car­bon to nitrogen-supplying organic mat­ter. The vol­ume should be roughly between 1:1 and 2:1, C:N. Adjust accordingly.
  • Check for the appro­pri­ate mois­ture con­tent — fin­ished com­post should be roughly the con­sis­tency of a wrung out sponge — if not, water as needed or turn and allow the pile to dry some if too wet.
  • Turn your pile to intro­duce more oxy­gen and insure that the inte­rior is heat­ing properly.
  • The pH of your pile may be out of bal­ance. One indi­ca­tion may be a sour odor. A prop­erly func­tion­ing com­post pile has the “sweet”smell of freshly turned earth. If the above steps have not solved the prob­lem, you may need to add some lime to the pile to cor­rect the pH.

2.  My com­post pile smells

  • Most com­post pile odors come from anaer­o­bic res­pi­ra­tion. This is usu­ally caused by lack of oxy­gen from too tightly packed or mat­ted mate­ri­als such as grass clip­pings or leaves. The solu­tion is to turn the pile to intro­duce more air and pos­si­bly add more coarse mate­ri­als dur­ing the turn­ing to increase the pore space.
  • A water logged pile may also become anaer­o­bic. Cover the pile dur­ing peri­ods of heavy rain.
  • An ammo­nia odor may be caused by excess nitro­gen (green mate­r­ial) in the pile — typ­i­cally at C:N ratios less than 15:1. Alle­vi­ate this by adding a high-carbon mate­r­ial, such as straw, dry leaves, saw­dust or wood chips, to raise the C:N ratio.
  • Mak­ing sure that the top layer of the pile is car­bon rather than nitro­gen mate­ri­als will also help alle­vi­ate odor.
  • Do not add meat scraps, dairy prod­ucts, or other fatty sub­stances to the pile.

3.  I have rac­coons, rats, flies or other ani­mal pests com­ing to my com­post pile

  • Pests are usu­ally attracted to mate­ri­als, such as fish, meat, and other non veg­etable mat­ter, that do not belong in a proper com­post pile. Avoid adding these.
  • Occa­sion­ally rac­coons or opos­sums may visit a pile that has freshly deposited corn cobs and other veg­eta­bles scraps. If this is a prob­lem, bury the new addi­tions in the pile to so that they are less likely to be an attrac­tant to pests.

4.  I get a lot of weeds in my gar­den where I spread my compost

  • Most likely your pile is not get­ting hot enough to kill the weed seeds. The pile needs to reach at least 130°F to kill most weed seeds and main­tain that tem­per­a­ture for a month. The tem­per­a­ture on the inside of the pile will be almost too hot to com­fort­ably hold your hand in. Some par­tic­u­larly vir­u­lent weed seeds may not be killed until the tem­per­a­ture reaches above 145°F. These include field bindweed (Con­volvu­lus arven­sis), wild buck­wheat (Poly­gonum con­volvu­lus), broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusi­folius), com­mon ground­sel (Senecio vul­garis), ladys­thumb (Poly­gonum per­si­caria), lamb­squar­ters (Chenopodium album), round-leaved mal­low (Malva pusilla), spiny sowthis­tle (Sonchus asper), and bird’s-eye speed­well (Veron­ica persica).
  • Turn­ing your pile well will ensure that any weeds seeds on the cooler out­side of the pile will even­tu­ally be exposed t the high heat inside the pile. This is one place where a com­post tum­bler is excel­lent for the job.

5.  I don’t know when my pile has turned to usable compost?

  • Com­post that is “fin­ished” or fully bro­ken down organic mat­ter, ready for use will be loose and crumbly with a fine, uni­form tex­ture. It will have the brown color of dirt and very lit­tle odor.
  • Another sign that your pile is done “cook­ing” is that it will not heat up any­more when turned.
  • In the home gar­den, this process may take 6 weeks if you are very lucky and atten­tive to your com­post. More likely it will take 3 months or bet­ter. In cold-winter cli­mates the process can take up to a year if the pile was started in the fall and lit­tle is done to it over the winter.

Need advice on fer­til­iz­ing and keep­ing your fruit gar­den healthy, buy The Back­Yard Berry Book and The Back­Yard Orchardist. These ear­lier posts will help you learn how to make nutrient-rich com­post that will be a part of keep­ing your fruit gar­den grow­ing strong.

Cre­at­ing Com­post
Com­post — Where to Begin
Con­tain­ing Your Com­post
Recipe for a Com­post Pile
Fac­tors that Affect the Com­post­ing Process
Com­post No-nos: What not to put in your com­post pile

Com­post Myths — com­ing soon, check back for more

Cre­at­ing Com­post
Com­post — Where to Begin
Con­tain­ing Your Com­post
Recipe for a Com­post Pile
Fac­tors that Affect the Com­post­ing Process — See more at: http://stellaotto.com/compost-no-nos-what-not-to-add-to-your-pile/#sthash.oNwpkJu5.dpuf
Cre­at­ing Com­post
Com­post — Where to Begin
Con­tain­ing Your Com­post
Recipe for a Com­post Pile
Fac­tors that Affect the Com­post­ing Process — See more at: http://stellaotto.com/compost-no-nos-what-not-to-add-to-your-pile/#sthash.oNwpkJu5.dpuf

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