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Compost Troubleshooting: Fixing Common Compost Problems

Composting is amazing. It is also an inexact science which can go off the tracks. This article will help troubleshoot your compost problems!

Supporting Sources: Planet Natural | Gardeners | Gardening Know-How

If you've ever walked past your compost pile and thought, hm, something doesn't seem quite right here - then you're not alone.

While not particularly complex, composting is an inexact science and can go seriously wrong when you least expect it.

This article is a super-simple walkthrough of common compost problems, and their solutions.

1. Your Compost Smells Like Eggs

Nope, it's not an egg-salad sandwich, unfortunately.

If your compost smells like last week's eggs - or something else distinctly rotten - than this means that your compost pile is not getting enough oxygen.

Curious about how composting works? Visit me for some no-nonsense compost science!

Without enough oxygen to aerate the organic matter in your compost pile, the materials will repel those helpful aerobic bacteria, and invite their stinky cousins anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria produce hydrogen sulfide, which happens to smell like rotten eggs.

How To Troubleshoot:

Unpleasant as it may be, we recommend just getting in there and turning the pile to allow more oxygen to access the organics within the pile.

To avoid this smelly situation in future, you may want to add sticks to the centre of your pile to allow more oxygen access to the least accessible part of your compost system.

2. Your Compost Smells Like Ammonia (Urine-like)

Charming, right?

If your compost pile smells like a backed up outhouse toilet mid-August, then it's very likely that the pile has too much nitrogen ("green") materials for the amount of carbon ("brown") to properly aerate and break down. When the nitrogen:carbon balance is off, and the nitrogen cannot be processed by the pile's bacteria, the excess nitrogen transforms to ammonia (NH3).

How To Troubleshoot:

The short term solution to an excess of nitrogen in your compost pile is to spread it out to allow the ammonia to dissipate in the open air.

If this isn't possible, for whatever reason, then you can skip right to the long-term solution (which may not solve the odour problem right away, but will restore the nitrogen:carbon balance over time).

The long-term solution is to add more carbon materials, and less nitrogen materials. The presence of ammonia is a surefire sign that it's time to rethink your compost routine!

3. Your Compost Won't Heat Up

If your compost seemed to be working hard, and then suddenly just put up its legs and stopped putting in the hours, it's not being lazy: it's probably out of energy!

Your pile is missing that crucial, energy-giving element: nitrogen.

How To Troubleshoot:

To kick-start your compost's lazy butt, add another layer of green materials and turn it into the pile.

Another possibility: your compost pile isn't receiving enough water! Imagine how you'd feel working hard in the hot summer sun and your water bottle has been empty for hours?

To wet it, spray the outside of your pile, turn it, and then spray it again until you've added enough required H20 for your compost's get-up-and-go. You can also dig a few narrow holes around the body of the compost pile and stick in your hose, letting your water run for 15-30 seconds. Your compost is wet enough if it is damp (not soggy) to the touch.

4. Your Compost Is Wet/Leaking

The opposite problem to #3: your compost is soggy and gross (and most likely smells funky too).

This could be caused by a number of reasons, but most likely: it's rained recently, and your poor outdoor compost pile has taken in too much water, OR, you've added far too many wet nitrogen materials (like rotting veggies) to the pile and the carbon element is insufficient to allow the aerobic bacteria to process the "greens".

How To Troubleshoot:

Similarly to #1 and #2, the answer to the problem is to either turn the pile, to allow it to aerate properly, or to add more carbon materials to absorb the moisture and provide the food needed by your aerobic bacteria.

5. Your Compost Is Attracting Animals/Pests

Nobody likes a nosy neighbour - and you'll like them even less if they're munching away at your hard-earned compost!

Food decomposing in your backyard - however carefully monitored - usually comes with the risk of inviting various pests, such as flies, maggots, neighbourhood pets, crows, seagulls, racoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, badgers, possums, rats, mice and, in certain areas, bears.

However, a maintained and perfectly aerobic compost pile should not emit very many odours, and should therefore not invite unwanted guests.

If you are having trouble with pests, you may need to rethink your compost strategy.

How To Troubleshoot:

There are a few things that can be done to get rid of pests, and to keep them away in the future.

  • If you have an open-air compost pile, it may be time to consider closing it in. You can either shovel everything into a pest-proof bin that will also allow you turn the pile, or you tarp the open-air pile, making sure that the covering is as air-tight as possible. Closing in your compost pile has the added benefit of retaining heat, moisture, encouraging faster decomposition. *
  • Always cover your latest green additions with a thick (approximately 8 inches) layer of browns. This will help hide away any odours produced by the decomposing food waste, and also combine the nitrogen elements of the new greens with the carbon elements of the browns.
  • Rotate/aerate the pile approximately once a week. This is a good rule of thumb for multiple reasons, chief among them encouraging the decomposition process and reducing the likelihood of anaerobic bacteria showing up and producing pest-friendly odours.
  • If you're adding any foods with dairy or meat, definitely stop now! Any animal by-products, or foods high in fats and oils are not only extremely slow to break down in compost, they also emit some delicious (not) aromas to the local wildlife. Bloodmeal fertilizers too can attract pests to your compost pile/garden.
  • Now, this isn't an officially tested method, but it has been found to work without greatly affecting the microbial environment within your pile. Cayenne pepper has been found to deter larger pests (from mice/voles upward) in a big way. Much like people, it seems animals do not love the experience of pepper in their nostrils.
Try sprinkling cayenne in a circle around the compost pile/bin. When animals get a whiff of it, they typically turn tail and don't return! If that still does not deter your pests, you can try sprinkling some cayenne on the outside of the pile, on the thick carbon/brown layer.
Cinnamon has similar properties, but for fungi. If your pests are of the mushroom variety, you can add cinnamon to your pile and safely mix it in over time, in small amounts. Cinnamon is a type of bark, and, while anti-microbial, should not have a harmful effect on your pile's microbes if used sparingly.

6. Your Compost End-Product Is Too Chunky

If you're composting thicker, more fibrous food or "brown" items, these can take longer to break down than smaller, lighter food wastes.

For example: sticks and twigs will take longer to break down than straw or paper; banana peels will take longer to break down than the banana itself.

How To Troubleshoot:

In future, before adding the green items to your compost, try cutting them up into smaller pieces. You can do this by food-processing or blending them in a high-power blender.

You can also use the FoodCycler to pre-process your food waste so that it decomposes faster in your compost pile. ** Remember if you are going to add meat to your FoodCycler, do not then add it into your compost, as the same rules apply for what comes out of your FoodCycler as what goes into your compost pile!


<p>Photo Sourced from Gardening Know-How</p>

7. Your Compost Is Smoking

Yes, we're serious.

Compost piles have actually been known to, um, burst into flame. This is quite rare, and dependent on very specific circumstances: the pile is large and usually is not properly turned, with pockets of debris throughout that are not oxygenated or watered. These circumstances are, luckily, easily mitigated.

How To Troubleshoot:

Your compost pile will not smoke if sufficiently turned, aerated and dampened. If you're seeing smoke, or you notice that the pile is just too hot for comport, try the troubleshooting steps we mention in #3, making sure to aerate and dampen in equal measure. Because high heat (higher than the maximum recommended 170º) can kill your beneficial organisms, you may need to start your pile over from scratch, dependent on the level of heat damage.

If not too far gone, your pile will still probably have lost some nitrogen - but that's fine! You can keep adding your greens and browns to try and build up that store of nutrients once again.

Final Thoughts

Composting isn't difficult, but it's also not a "perfect" science (at least from the human perspective - to bacteria, it's pretty perfect indeed!)

When things start to go wrong with your compost pile, it can be pretty discouraging. However, there are always ways to fix what goes wrong: in this way, nature is very forgiving.

Our best rule-of-thumb for preventative composting is: aerate often, respect the ratio and be kind to yourself and your microbial neighbours!


*If you do move your compost pile, you're going to want to ensure that you first add a thick layer of browns at the base of the container/bin; this will help with drainage, oxygen circulation to the bottom of the pile and moisture retention.


If you enjoyed this article, you should check out article on using your homemade "foodilizer" in the garden!

Preparing Your FoodCycler Fertilizer for Gardening