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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Building a Backyard Compost Pile

Troubleshooting My Backyard Compost Heap

Troubleshooting My Worm Compost Bin

Health of Soil, Garden, and Landscape

Miscellaneous




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Building a Backyard Compost Pile

What is the absolute least amount of work I can get away with and still have a compost pile?

Choose a spot at least 2 feet away from wooden structures such as a fence or building. As you accumulate yard wastes (not food), throw them in this pile. After six months to two years, the bottom of the pile will be compost.

How long does it take for a compost pile to turn into compost?

Six weeks to 2 years. It depends on pile ingredients, how often you turn it, how large it is, moisture and aeration levels. See our discussion of how to build a compost pile. Look under the "Alternative" link on each step. Usually the step that requires the most work will yield the fastest results.

There are a lot of people who claim that compost can be made in 2-3 weeks. I personally have never been able to get a batch finished in that amount of time. I would like to quote Cary Oshins, Composting Specialist, Rodale Institute. In response to a question regarding a one-week time frame:

PLEASE . . . . let me say that you cannot make compost in a week. Even those who claim to make compost in 14 days are highly suspect. By getting everything just right, particle size, aeration, moisture, turning, you can stabilize material in that time, but that doesn't mean you have anything like mature compost. From the various processess and facilities I've visited, I'd say six weeks is about the minimum time to producing a good quality compost. Even that requires really tight control, and I don't believe that the cost of that control is worth the speed.

My neighbor's lawn has been treated with chemical pesticides and herbicides. Is it all right to use his clippings in my compost pile?

That is a controveraial question. Generally, my answer is no because we don't really know what byproducts are created.

As pesticides and other chemicals decompose, their byproducts may be more toxic than the original chemicals. It is thought that some pesticides may be composted if you thoroughly compost them using the hot composting method, then allowed to cure for a full year. For specific pesticide information, call the Washington Toxics Coalition (206-632-1545) or the Washington Department of Ecology Hazardous Wastes Hotline 800-633-7585.

The Other Side of the Discussion:
The book "Composting to Reduce the Waste Stream" by the Northeast Regional Agricultural Engineering Service states that

"Composting, as an accelerated decomposition process, biodegrades many compounds faster than soil degradation. If yard waste has been composted at least one year, pesticide residues should not be a problem when the compost is used."
They give further proof on the persistence of common herbicides in soil by citing information from Rosen, et. al., 1988 in these longevity figures (number of months herbicide is active in soil):

Benefin (Balan, Balfin) 4 - 8 months
DCPA (Dacthal) 4 - 8 months
Bensulide (Betasan, Prefar) 6 - 12 months
Glyphosate (Roundup Kleenup) < 1 month
2,4-D (many formulations) 1 - 2 months
MCPP (many formulations) 1 - 2 months
Dicamba (Banvel) 3 - 12 months

The theory here is that (1) it's OK to use the grass if the proper amount of time has passed since the herbicide was applied before you add it to the compost pile and (2) it's OK to put in a compost pile now and use the compost after the proper amount of time has passed since the herbicide was applied. By waiting the length of the herbicide's longevity, it should no longer be active. I believe they are assuming no byproducts are created.

I am using a composted mixture of horse manure and sawdust on my flower garden. My neighbor told me this will make my soil too acidic. What do you think?

In a healthy compost pile, the pH will be balanced (have a pH close to 7) through the process of composting. The compost may be acidic during the composting process, but finished compost will be balanced. Compost is often used to bring acidic or alkaline soils back into balance.

However, if the sawdust you are using is pine, and if your pile does not have enough oxygen ( for instance, if you are not turning your pile often), your compost could become acidic. You specifically ask about sawdust, but if you were using other acidic materials like pine needles or oak leaves and your pile becomes anaerobic, the compost could become acidic as well.

To make absolutely sure of your compost's pH, take a sample of finished compost and send it to your state university's Extension Service for soil testing (just like you would send a soil sample). There is a charge for this, but if you are concerned it is a sure way to find out.

Troubleshooting My Backyard Compost Heap

What do I do if my backyard compost pile smells bad?

The pile may not have enough air. Turn it and check that there is a variety of particle sizes and textures.

The pile may be too wet. Add more dry materials (variety of textures and sizes) and mix. If it is really wet, restack it completely to introduce air back into the pile. Loosen any clumps that have matted together.

If it has an ammonia odor, you have too high a level of nitrogen. Add more carbon materials (leaves).

The middle of the pile is wet and warm, but nothing is happening around the edges.

If the pile is less than 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet, it is too small to heat up. Add more material.

The pile may be too dry. Follow instructions for a too dry pile (i.e., restack while wetting). Make sure nitrogen and carbon materials are present throughout the pile. If all nitrogen material is in the middle of the pile and there is carbon throughout, only the middle will heat up.

The pile is damp and smells sweet but is not heating up.

Even the most energetic bacteria will only work at their peak rate for so long. If it has been over a week since you made the pile, unless you have been monitoring and turning it about every three days, the "hot stage" is over.

If you have just built the pile and it won't heat up but smells sweet, you don't have enough nitrogen or oxygen in it. Add high-nitrogen materials, mixing throughout the pile.

Your pile may be too small. Make sure it is at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet.

There are ants in my backyard compost pile.

The pile is really dry or really wet. If it is dry, add water and turn it very carefully. If it is too wet, add additional organic matter to soak up the water until it is about as wet as a squeezed-out sponge.

When working with a pile infested by ants, be very careful. Put talcum powder all over the handle of the pitch fork or shovel you are using. This will make it more difficult for the ants to crawl up the handle.

My compost pile has too much water, I can wring water out when I squeeze.

Add more dry materials (variety of textures and sizes) and mix. If it is really wet, restack it completely to introduce air back into the pile. Loosen any clumps that have matted together.

Determine the reason your pile became too wet. If you added too much water, make a mental note for next time. If a rainstorm was the culprit, consider covering with plastic. If poor drainage within the pile causes it to retain water, try a greater variety of sizes and textures and turn more frequently.

My compost pile is too dry.

Add water, but be sure to check if water is absorbed into the pile or just shed as it hits the pile. Frequently, watering a pile from above is ineffective because dry materials shed water. In this case, turn the pile by pulling it apart and restacking it, watering at every layer.

You may not have enough fresh green wastes in your pile. Add more of these.

Determine the reason your pile became too dry. If you did not add enough water originally, make a mental note for next time. Remember that the pile should be about 40 - 50% moisture -- that's a lot of water. If the dryness is from water loss, remember to rewet the pile when you turn it, and cover the pile with plastic to retain moisture from evaporation.

There are slugs in my compost pile. How do I get rid of them?

Slugs IN the Compost Pile
There is no need for concern. Slugs are decomposers that actually help with the composting process. If slugs remain after the pile is fully composted, make sure they are removed before you use the compost in your garden. You can keep sifting the compost until you are sure there are no more hatching eggs (i.e., sift and remove adults, let existing eggs hatch and sift again, repeat), or kill the little buggers using one of the methods below.

Location of Compost Pile
Don't place too near a vegetable garden. Given a choice, slugs often prefer a compost pile to a garden because of the moisture. If the pile and garden are too close together, the slugs can travel back and forth and create a problem.

If you have no other location for the pile, surround your pile with metal flashing, slug traps, or a ring of bone meal or colloidal phosphate. That should keep them in the pile.

Murder on Your Mind
If the slugs are already in your garden, or you just can't stand having them in your pile, try these solutions. Obviously, be careful with all chemicals, wear a dust mask and gloves, read and follow manufacturer's directions. I recommend the beer traps because they are the safest for you, as well as being safest for your environment. All the other methods will kill beneficial organisms as well as the slugs -- consider this if you decide to add chemicals to your compost to get rid of slugs. Try the beer traps first.

(1) Make traps by digging a hole, set a plastic dish or jar into the hole and fill in dirt around it. Fill the sunken container with beer in the evening. Slugs are attracted into the traps and drown.
(2) Lay a wooden plank flat on the ground near the slug infestation. Slugs will go under the plank when the sun comes up. Turn the plank over and scrape the slugs into a jar of salt.
(3) Dust the infected area with diatomaceous earth, bone meal, or colloidal phosphate.
When using diatomaceous earth, use horticultural grade, not the type for the swimming pool. You can also lay a ring of diatomaceous earth around your plants.
(4) Make a garlic and pepper tea, mix with diatomaceous earth and spray. Pepper juices to use include jalapeno, habenero, or cayenne. Don't use more than 3 teaspoons of d. earth (which comes in the form of dust) to one gallon of the tea.
(5) Obtain pyrethrum, sabadilla or rotenone and follow manufacturer's directions (these are powerful, be careful).

Prevention
The herb Rosemary is supposed to deter slugs. Ducks and toads will eat them.

Animals are attracted to my backyard compost pile.

If cats and dogs, raccoons, flies, or rodents are being attracted to your compost pile, chances are you are composting food wastes in your pile. Don't. The chance that these animals are carrying diseases is too great a chance to take. Dispose of food wastes by the appropriate method (worm composting, soil incorporation).

I just read your site instructions on building a backyard bin which says I should not use pressure-treated lumber because it might contaminate my compost. What if I have already built a bin with pressure-treated lumber?

My thanks to Heidi Smalley of the Plano Solid Waste Department who provided this answer for me.
1) You can paint it with latex paint. After latex paint is dry, it is considered to be nonhazardous. Because this would create a maintenance issue for you, try #2 first.
2) A product called NORIT could be put around the edges of your compost pile which come in contact with the treated wood. This product locks up chemicals in soil so they can't be released. Sometimes used in situations where a chemical or pesticide company accidentally sprays an organic lawn or garden to neutralize the chemicals by locking them up.
3) Heidi thought that activated charcoal might also work. In response to this on-line uncertainty, Bruno Meersman wrote in to say "I am a chemist and can assure you that basically NORIT (a tradename), ACTIVATED CHARCOAL and ACTIF CARBON; are all the same, with 1 similar property, 'they absorb the nasties'".


Troubleshooting My Worm Compost Bin

When I open the bin to feed the worms there is food remaining from the last time. Is this bad?

Determine if you are 1) using inappropriate food, 2) using food your worms just don't like, or 3) using too much food.

Note what foods were left. Check the list on the Worm Composting page to see if the uneaten foods are acceptable for worms. If you don't find the item mentioned, refer to the Alphabetical List of Organic Materials. If you are using unacceptable items, make a mental note not to use them again.

If you are using acceptable items, it may be that your worms don't like that particular food. I know it sounds weird, but when I get together with other Master Composters, we find that some worms like certain foods, others don't. To test for this, remove the food which remained in the bin, replace it with the same type of food in smaller quantities, and check again next week. If they didnt eat it, they don't like it. Remove it and don't feed that to them again.

If they eat it the second time, then they are willing to eat that type of food. The probable problem at this point is that you are feeding your worms too large a quantity of food. Cut back to 1/2 to 2/3 of the amount you are giving to them. Don't worry that they will go hungry -- remember that they eat bedding too.

Don't let uneaten food remain in the bin more than two feedings. By that point, it is obvious your worms don't want it. Always try to determine the cause for rejection. It will educate you on how to work effectively with your worms.

When I open the worm bin, all the worms are crawling around the lid and sides. Aren't they supposed to be down in the bedding?

Yes, they should be down in the bedding. Several problems are possible: 1) If your bin's air holes are in the lid, they may need more air. Poke more holes, and leave the lid off for a while so they can recover. 2) If the bedding is warm or smells, the nitrogen in the food and carbon in the bedding may have created a "hot pile" in the bin. Mix in dry bedding until the bedding cools. 3) You don't have enough moisture in your bin. The reason they are all at the top is that they can get moisture as evaporating water condenses on the plastic lid. This is not a good situation, because (a) your worms are not happy and (b) they are not down in the bedding and food scraps decomposing and creating castings. To resolve, tear up strips of newspaper, soak them thoroughly, wring them out lightly so they are still dripping, then place them on top of the bedding that is currently there. As they drip, they will moisten the bedding that is already there. Check your worms in 24 hours to make sure they are back down in the bedding.

It is better not to take out existing bedding to moisten it because you may wind up disturbing and/or drowning worms which are still down in there. If the bedding is really dry, use a spray bottle to moisten it.

If the worms are still doing this and you are sure there is enough moisture (worms like 75% moisture) there is a slight chance that the bin may have gone slightly acidic. Try adding a little bit of agricultural lime (only agricultural, no other kind).

I have heard that after putting bedding and food in the bin, I should cover the bedding with a plastic bag to keep away fruit flies. Is this a good idea?

I have heard this recommendation, but it doesn't make sense to me. Worms are living creatures and must have air to breathe. It seems logical that the plastic bag would cut off their air supply. If fruit flies become a problem, your food is not down deep enough in the bedding. Simply tear up more newspaper, soak, wring out, and add as another layer of bedding on top. At your next feeding, remember to place food scraps more deeply into the bedding.

I collect food in a bin under my sink because I don't have room to keep it in my refrigerator. Is there anything I can do to keep out the fruit flies in my kitchen compost bucket?

After you input food, cover with strips of newspaper or sawdust or dirt, whichever is easiest for you to keep handy.

This brilliant solution comes from Deb Hargin:
Distract and Destroy! Make a fruit fly trap. Take a juice glass or empty yogurt container and put 1/2 inch of red wine in it....

Take a plastic bag (sandwich size works best) and snip one corner-make the hole about twice the size of a fruit fly. Turn the bag inside out and put the snipped corner down into the glass an inch or two (not all the way into the wine) and secure it there with a rubber band. Place near compost bucket, but out of reach of kids and where you won't knock it over.

The flies will be attracted to the wine and will be able to find their way into the glass through the tiny hole in the plastic bag, but they won't be able to find their way out.


Health of Soil, Garden, and Landscape

How can I attract earthworms to my lawn or garden?

Compost. Mulch. Use Organic Gardening principles.

Create a healthy environment for earthworms. Feed them organic matter by using compost and earthworm castings. Avoid tilling too much and too often (aeration is good, but once you have earthworms present, you risk killing them). Mulch. Don't "un-balance" the environment with nitrogen fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

What is compost's N-P-K rating? Is that important?

Compost's amounts of these three elements -- nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium -- are low. In the chemical philosophy, these three elements are considered important to force crop production (as opposed to the organic philosophy goal of improving the biodiversity of the soil). U.S. law requires that the ratio of these three elements be specified on every bag of commercially-available fertilizer. The importance of N-P-K is controversial -- you will have to decide for yourself.

Exact amounts of various minerals and substances in compost depend on what went into the pile, how hot the pile became during composting, and the extent of the composting process. Because of variations of these conditions and inputs, compost does not have a consistent N-P-K rating, although it should roughly equal 1-1-1.

In Texas Organic Gardening Book by Howard Garrett, Mr. Garrett says, "Yes, compost is a fertilizer. In fact, it is the best fertilizer -- being nature's own." (p. 91) Proponents of the organic philosophy teach that a balance of all mineral nutrients is important. Too much of these three minerals restricts the availability of other nutrients, so artificially high amounts of these nutrients is detrimental to soil health. If soil is healthy and balanced, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium will be added in correct proportions by the natural processes of decomposition and mineralization (microorganisms breaking down organic matter) and additional amounts of these minerals will not be required.

The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission Master Composter Training Manual states, "Although compost provides important nutrients, it is not a substitute for fertilizers. More important than the nutrients supplied by compost is its ability to make existing nutrients more easily available to plants." (p. 23) The manual describes compost as a supplement to fertilizers because compost's micronutrients are often not present in fertilizers, but the macronutrients in compost (including N-P-K) are not present in sufficient quantities to nourish plant life.

Miscellaneous

I live in an apartment. Is there a way for me to compost?

Worm composting is perfect for apartment dwellers. An earthworm composting container can be kept under your sink to dispose of most organic kitchen waste.

My handicap keeps me from doing physical labor. Is there a way for me to compost?

Yes. Worm composting does not require physical labor. Be sure to keep the bin in a location where you can add food and remove castings without having to lift or move the bin.

The person responsible for maintaining your yard may agree that the effort of maintaining a compost pile is preferable to the work and expense of disposing yard wastes and purchasing compost.


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REFERENCE

  1. Glossary
  2. Calculate C : N Ratio
  3. ** FAQ on Composting **
  4. Compost Ingredients

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