Compost help!


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  • LindseyD

    Ok, I’m going to ask another gardening question. I’ve consulted my books and a few websites, and I just can figure out why our compost pile STINKS! 

    We started out with hot compost, in a plastic trashcan with holes drilled all over for ventilation. The trashcan was about 2/3 full of dead leaves and last year’s potting soil before we started adding the nitrogen ingredients such as coffee grounds, egg shells, and fruit and veggie pulp from our juicer. We’ve been turning it once-twice per week. 

    I went to empty out more kitchen scraps into it yesterday, and there was mold growing on top of the old scraps. We got the moldy pieces out, but it was stinking so badly that we decided to turn it into a cold compost pile. We dumped it into the far corner of the backyard and my hubby rotated and mixed it up like crazy. Well, it still stinks. And there are a few flies buzzing around it.

    What should we do? Dump it out and start over? Add more dirt or leaves? 

    I’m at a loss because I really thought we were doing it “by the book”…



    Lindsey this is a great website for all things compost, the link is for stinky compost.  It means you have a lot of busy creatures working in your pile, and the answer may be as simple as turning it more than you usually do.  It can take a fair bit of turning – I used to turn mine almost every other day at times in the UK.  Linda


    Is there enough “green” – like grass? It sounds like mostly leaves (“brown”), so I’m wondering if you need more “green”. I’m no expert though. But we’ve done an outdoor compost pile (meaning not in a can or bin or whatnot) for several years and basically just put on all the grass from mowing plus leaves plus kitchen scraps and some dirt and not had any odor. And I’m sorry to admit this, but we didn’t turn it that often – once a month if we were really doing good :).


    Grass clippings might work. We started our pile in late winter, so we didn’t really have any grass clippings. Our yard is almost to the point of needing to be mowed, so maybe we can throw some clippings in. 

    What about keeping it wet? Ours is only wet where the kitchen scraps are. In some places, it’s clumped together. Should we water it?


    This is a great link Lindsey – Linda

    I would say no, don’t water it. Compost should only be damp like a wrung out sponge. If its clumped together (if I’m understanding you right) I would say that its moisture holding that clump together. In fact I wonder if some of the mold and smell issue is from too much dampness. You’ve got the stuff decomposing but its just not in the right balance, kwim? Also, how much was “last year’s potting soil” – the barrel was 2/3 full of leaves, how much dirt? Adding more dirt may also be a possibility. Don’t worry too much – its gardening, not building a clock 🙂


    Thanks for the links, Linda. I’m browsing them as I get time.

    botanicalbecky, The only parts of the pile that are moist are the clumps. Everything else is dry. I don’t know an exact measurement of the dirt, but we did dump two very large pots and 3-4 small pots in with the leaves. The leaves haven’t shown any decomposition at all, though.

    We did dump it out of the ventilated trash cans. Should we put it back in them now that we’ve stirred it like crazy?

    Ok, try putting a little water on it, definitely add some grass and maybe straw (even tho its a “brown” it decomposes pretty quickly) and stir. I think you have enough dirt. Leaves take a long time to decompose – make sure they are shredded – I run over ours with the lawn mower.

    I have to say, when I first started gardening (which is before I was married even), I wanted to make compost. So I bought a compost tumbler. I never got that darn thing to work.  After I was married, we made our compost pile next to the garden right out in the open. We had a really, really small yard, but it worked. It was like 2 x 3 or maybe 3 x 3 with a little section next to it for the newer stuff. Periodically I would add the new pile to the old pile and stir. I only watered if we hadn’t had rain in a long time. We put a ton of kitchen scraps on it through the year. It never looked like the fluffy stuff I’d seen in magazines, but we would put it on the garden in the fall, let it sit all winter long, then tilled it into the ground in the spring and we had great soil! All that to say that I didn’t have much luck with “container” composting. I just found the whole process much easier out in the open. I know that it took longer to decompose because it didn’t warm up enough – though it did get pretty hot – sometimes when I’d turn it, steam came out – but I know I could cover it with a tarp to speed things up, too.

    Alright, just did a quick scan of hot vs cold compost, and it seems the main thing with hot composting is to make sure your N/C ratio is in check. So I for sure think you need more N, plus more water – be careful with the water, tho. I think this is why its clumping like it is too. Hopefully you’ll get enough grass from a mowing :).

    In summer I always had a ton of grass and not enough brown stuff (though now I’d just get a small bale of straw), then in the fall I had an over-abundance of leaves!  It all worked out in the end though.


    So Becky, can I put the compost in the garden as-is?? We’re not planting for a couple more weeks, but I really thought our compost would be better by now, especially hot. Or, should we wait til the season is over and then work it into the soil to sit for next winter?

    We’re such beginners, we really have no idea what we’re doing! ha!

    🙂 That’s what is so great though!

    I would not put the compost in the garden as is because the leaves will make the soil a mess for planting. They do need to decompose quite a bit more. I would see how the “hot” compost goes with the addition of more green and a bit more water. You have a couple more weeks, so it could be a lot better by then. Like I said, the container thing didn’t work for me, but it obviously works for a lot of people, so I would stick with it and see what happens.

    Now, if in a couple weeks, its not really like dirt by any stretch of the imagination, then I would either:  keep going with the “hot” method and see what happens (meaning give it more time) or I would turn it into a “cold” pile and then put it on to sit over the winter. Maybe trying a new “hot” pile with a different combo of materials at that time. That way you can keep experimenting. 😉

    blue j


    While this doesn’t answer the question of what to do with the current pile, while you are getting that worked out, you can use the kitchen scraps directly in the garden to add nutrients.  My mom has done this for years and her gardens are lovely.  She take the kitchen scraps for the day (or a few days if you’re not to squeemish with using your blender for this) in her blender and adds enough water to make a pourable mix.  Once blended, she takes it out to her garden, uses a hoe to make a trough (when plants are growing it goes in between the rows), pours the liquified compost into the trough and then covers it up.  She also has a mantis that she uses between the rows to keep down weeds, etc. and will use that to mix up the soil and nutrients upon occasion, though I don’t know that this last is a true necessity.  At any rate, the liquified compost breaks down so much faster and through rain and/ or watering is delivered to the roots of the plants very quickly.

    This is my mom’s main way of dealing with scraps from the kitchen and then she has an open compost pile for yard scraps, etc.  Maybe this will help you as you work on your current compost pile. 🙂



    You know, bluej, that is a really awesome idea of your mom’s. I read all the time about people making compost tea and how great it is – that’s basically what your mom is doing. So great idea!


    You mentioned mold on the scraps on top.  When you add kitchen scraps be sure to bury them in the middle of the pile.  You need to keep the pile evenly damp throughout.  You also mentioned some stuff clumping togeather.  that is probably where the smell is coming from.  When it is clumped togeather air cannot circulate and it gets smelly.  Make sure to mix everything thoroughly so air can circulate throughout the pile. 

    When I started my trashcan I added a cold pile I had going.  It was thoroughly mixed before I put everything in the container.  My pile has reduced by half since I started it a few weeks ago.  When this batch is done I plan on just adding kitchen sraps and straw as provided by my kitchen.  Sort of a cold pile in a container.  I’ll see how this works out.

    Sorry for this somewhat short and brisk post.  I had a long one with more info, but somehow hit the wrong button and lost it all.  HTH


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