Dealing with composting problems

Dealing with composting problems

Discover common problems faced by gardeners when composting, and how to prevent them, in this No Fuss video guide with David Hurrion.

Good compost is made by combining an even mix of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) waste. If you add too much green waste, nitrogen builds up and the compost becomes sludgy. If there’s too much brown material then there’s not enough nitrogen, and the compost remains dry and doesn’t break down.

More expert advice on composting:

In this No Fuss video guide, David Hurrion explains what happens when composting goes wrong, and what to look for when dealing with composting problems. He explains that compost can take up to three years to break down, when it’s not working properly, when it can take only a few months if well mixed. He demonstrates how to stop the heap from drying out in summer, and how to stop it becoming too wet and cold in winter. Find out how much green and brown material to add to your compost heap, and why mixing it together will aid the composting process. David also explains the benefits of insulating the heap in winter and leaving it exposed in summer, as well as how useful compost activators can be.

Dealing with composting problems: transcript

When it goes right, composting produces beautiful, luscious material like this – crumbly, rich and dark, and it makes a welcome addition to any garden soil. But when it goes a bit wrong, as so often is the case, you find that it’s dry, powdery, not really decomposed, and probably ends up with mummified remains of different things. And composting for a lot of people can cause them headaches because they’re not getting that beautiful, friable material that they want to add to their garden as quick as they’d like it.

Left like this, a compost heap in this condition might take two, even three years, before those remains rot down enough to be able to use on the garden. But you should be able to produce good compost in three, four or five months. If you look at the material at the top of the heap, it’s all wet at the top, bits of it are dry – the material hasn’t started to decompose at all. And composting really is about getting the balance of green material and brown material mixed together so that the nitrogen can rot down the carbon – the woody material that’s in your compost heap. Very often you’ll find that compost bins like this, whether they’re plastic or wood come with a lid and that lid can divert the water away from your heat. So that can cause it to dry out and unless you check it regularly, you’ll find that the composting process will slow right down. But equally, left uncovered during the winter, your compost heap can become very, very wet and saturated and that can equally slow down or even stop composting happening.

You need to make sure that you add your green material in balance with brown, woody clippings. Otherwise, if you just add all green material, you’ll find it will often turn into this sticky, horrible, wet mess. So this is just a big layer of grass clippings that I’ve taken from another compost heap. Because it was added in such a lump, those grass clippings have just turned into this horrible sticky mess and that will never rot down efficiently. So mixing green and brown material together will mean that you’ll get a quick compost process.

Now, in the winter, it does pay to insulate your compost heap by closing the lid to keep some of that heat in, that’s needed to rot down the bin. But during the summer, it’s probably a good idea, instead of putting the lid on – because compost can dry out quite quickly – it’s probably better to put a layer of hessian over the top of your heap; and that will help to maintain the moisture and the humidity inside the heap and help that  decomposition. If you find that the material is very dry, then you can add some water just to re-wet the ingredients, just to make sure that it never really dries out completely. Don’t overdo it, though. And the other thing that’s important to do is regularly mix the material together within your heap. So just take a garden fork and stir through those compost constituents. And what you’re doing is you’re mixing some of the decayed material underneath with the newer material on the top.

And if you still have problems making compost, then you can add something like this compost activator. You can find pelleted compost activators or liquid ones. But if you smell this pelleted one, it will remind you of another product – chicken pellets, chicken manure pellets – and that’s actually what these probably are. So
just buy a big container of high nitrogen chicken fertiliser. Sprinkle that over the surface of the compost heap and the nitrogen in here will help to break down the carbon in your woody plant material.

But really, if you keep your compost heap well watered during dry weather and then covered during cold or very wet weather, then you should have compost in just three or four months time.