Composting: Don’t give up yet!
We hear time and again about the benefits of composting. It offers a hands-on learning experience for children, provides rich soil for the garden, rids garbage of odorous kitchen wastes, and reduces the need for community landfills.
Maybe you’ve tried composting and gotten discouraged. It’s too dry, it attracts pests, and you feel like a failure. Don’t give up yet.
Composting, like gardening and other science activities, serves as a learning opportunity for everyone involved. Even though the outcome may be disappointing, the project can still have use as a learning experience.
Before throwing in the pitchfork, remember that autumn is the perfect time to start or rejuvenate the compost pile because of the abundance of dried leaves. Review the common composting problems below and engage children to work with you in trying solutions.
It’s too dry
Every compost pile needs moisture. A rule of thumb is to keep it about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Encourage children to sprinkle it with water every time they add material to it. Demonstrate how pouring water over the top all at once will make the water sink down between layers instead of soaking in. Or try poking holes in the pile and adding water with a hose.
Think about the location of the pile. Ideally it should be in a partially shaded spot. The full Texas sun can dry it out too quickly.
How do you know if the pile is moist enough? The pile will generate heat. If you can’t feel the heat, sprinkle more water on it and wait a couple of days.
It’s not doing anything
Different gardeners have different recipes for compost, some more complicated than others. Generally, however, they advise building the compost pile in layers:
1. Organic materials like kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, dried leaves, and shredded newspaper, 6-8 inches thick
2. Nitrogen, which can be supplied by fertilizer or cottonseed or soybean meal, green plants, or alflafa, 1 inch thick
3. Microorganisms typically found in top soil, 1-2 inches thick.
The middle layer is critical because it activates the pile. If using fertilizer, choose the 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 type. The numbers stand for percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—in that order. Nitrogen is for green leaves and growth, and the other two are for roots, flowers, and fruit. Gardeners may buy fertilizer with differing amounts of the three ingredients, depending on which part of their growing plants need help.
Traditionally gardeners have used animal manure for the middle layer, but its safety has come into question because of pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. You can also use bone meal or blood meal, or you can substitute mature compost for the middle layer.
Top soil or garden dirt provides microorganisms like bacteria that feed upon the organic matter and turn it into compost.
In addition to the three ingredients above, a compost pile needs water and air. Once you build the pile in layers, you immediately mix them up, or turn the pile, to aerate the pile and start the decomposition process. Decomposition produces heat, and turning it every week or two keeps it cooking. After three to six months, you should be able to withdraw rich, earthy soil to spread on your garden.
Still not doing anything? Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place. Dig deeper: The finished compost is at the bottom of the pile.
I don’t feel any heat
Ideally an active compost pile should measure between 90 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Show children how to use a compost thermometer (12-14 inches long with a meter at one end) or an ordinary meat thermometer wrapped in plastic. Poke the instrument into the pile at different places, and leave it there a moment. Compare the readings at the center and on the sides.
A lack of heat could mean inadequate activator or lack of high-nitrogen organic materials. It could also mean that the pile is too small to hold heat in the center. Add more fertilizer or lawn clippings, and build up the size to at least 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. Keep it moist and turn it often.
In the winter, the sides may be cold, but the center should continue heating. Reduce the effects of cold outdoor temperatures by insulating it on all sides with bricks or tarp or building a bigger pile.
Unpleasant odors can arise from rotting food wastes or overwatering (or getting too much rain). Rotting organic matter provides an opportunity for children to see and smell the decomposition that occurs after an organism dies. Encourage children to gather materials such as dried leaves or hay and add it to the pile. Turning allows air to penetrate the pile, speed up the decomposition, and reduce the smell.
If it smells like ammonia, the pile has too much nitrogen. Add more organic material and turn.
I can’t turn it
It’s hard to turn a pile that’s in a bin waist-high or taller. One solution is to use an aerator, a stick-like tool with flexible wings on the bottom. You poke the aerator into the pile, give it a twist, and pull up. The wings splay out, bringing up material on the way. Aerators are available at garden supply stores and on the Internet.
Alternatively, make compost in a plastic garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. Drill 12 to 15 two-inch holes around the sides of the can. Layer the materials as described above. Turn the container on its side and invite children to roll it along the ground to aerate the compost.
Another solution is to use a tumbler-type bin that turns the materials as you rotate the bin. Children can do the turning. These too are available on the Internet.
It’s got bugs
Insects can indicate that the composting is proceeding correctly. But insects like flies carry disease, and ants can sting. And we don’t want to transfer insects like sow bugs to the garden when spreading the finished compost because they can damage growing plants.
Proper maintenance is a first step. Keep the bin covered, bury food wastes deeper in the pile when adding them, throw dirt onto food wastes, and turn the pile every two or three days to disturb eggs and larvae.
Insects can also indicate that the pile is decomposing too slowly. Raise the heat to at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit by adding more greens like grass clippings, keeping the pile moist, and turning it often. When you’re ready to use the compost, spread the material in a thin layer on a tarp and let it dry in the sun. The bugs will skedaddle.
It attracts rodents
Rodents, like rats, possum, and raccoons, may indicate the presence of no-no ingredients. Remind children and adults that materials like meat or fish scraps, bones, dairy products like cheese and yogurt, oil and grease, cooked foods, and peanut butter must never go into the compost pile.
Warn children that rats carry diseases and are never welcome in a compost pile or anywhere we live and work. Explain that all animals need food and shelter. With that in mind, how can we get rid of them? To solve the first problem, we can bury food wastes in the pile or stop adding them to the pile, using leaves and dead plants instead. To solve the second problem, we can keep the pile moist. Rats want a warm, dry haven to sleep, not one that’s wet.
Lumps in compost usually means that some materials, such as orange rind and corn cobs, have not decomposed. Encourage children to tear or chop material into small 1- or 2-inch pieces before adding them to the pile.
Twigs, nut shells, and pits from avocado, peaches, and plums are also slow to decompose. You can simply sift finished compost through a screen or sieve, and throw the lumps back onto the pile.
What doesn’t belong
Never add pet waste or bedding to compost piles. Similarly, don’t add diseased or pest-ridden plants; plants and grass treated with weed killers or pesticides; toxic plants like poison oak, ivy, or sumac. Avoid extending the range of invasive plant species like chinaberry, ligustrum, and nandina by keeping clippings out of your compost. Contact your county Cooperative Extension office for more information on invasive plants in your area.
It’s too much trouble
Successful composting takes a bit of effort and patience, but it need not be complicated. Take a tip from gardeners who prefer a passive approach. By this view, all you need is lawn waste and a place to put it, like a wire cage, the open ground, or the edge of garden rows.
Children can add water occasionally and turn the pile. Be aware that the compost will probably take longer to mature—up to two years. But composting still provides a learning opportunity for children, and it helps the environment.
If you’re having a problem not described above, search the Internet for possible solutions. A valuable resource is the Texas A&M AgriLIFE Extension website, http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/vegetable/files/2010/10/E-278_composting.pdf. Got a question specific to your area? Use the site’s “Ask an Expert” feature, https://ask.extension.org/ask.