Composting Problems: Types and How to Deal with Them

If you’re looking to make your first compost site at your house, be warned (... “warned” might be an ominous word - “advised”?) that it will take some patience and some fiddling around to get right. You can experience some composting problems, there is no one perfect set up, or one perfect method to accomplish composting at home, so embrace the process and get ready to figure out what the ideal set up is for you. In case you need more tips, check this post: Here is the complete Guide on how to Composting at Home. So, let's dive into the Composting Problems: Types and How to Deal with Them.

The key to composting successfully is achieving the best possible balance between the elements at play, which is known as "Compost Ratio". You need to create an appropriate environment for nitrogen to break down the carbon in the organic matter, which correctly decomposes the matter into compost and returns to the carbon cycle.

Compost Ratio: Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio

For a quick rule of thumb of what the ideal ratio to achieve the best possible compost, Outside Modern recommends the following:

COMPOST RATIO CHART: Nitrogen vs. Carbon

Compost Ratio graph

To avoid most composting problems, use this ratio as a guide to create the best environment for your organic matter to turn into beautiful compost.

If you’d like to get technical with it, there’s a longer and nerdier explanation of what the exact carbon to nitrogen ratio should be, and the ratio found in different scraps and matter.

However, if you’re running into some issues with your composting site - don’t worry, we gotchu. Here’s a list of the more frequent composting problems you might encounter and how to address them.

9 Frequent Compost Problems

1- My Compost is Dry and hasn’t Really Decomposed

It sounds like your compost is asking for some extra moisture, which you can manually add by pouring in water. You don’t want to overdo it, so add in small amounts to balance out the moisture levels in your compost site, until you can squeeze it in your hand without water seeping out, but also without it being dusty or crumbly. It might also be that you’re adding elements that don’t compost. Be sure to check our article: Here is the complete Guide on how to Composting at Home article to find a comprehensive list of the materials you should and shouldn’t be adding to your compost.

2- My Compost is Super Sticky and Wet

The stickiness and odors are frequent composting problems, and usually refer to an excess of moisture. For composting to occur, you need oxygen flow to help the aerobic process, which means you may need to up the ratio of brown, dry elements you’re adding to your compost pile. Some composting bins also come with a built-in faucet to help drain the excess fluid.

Another factor is that most composting bins have lids to help maintain the right temperature, as well as keeping the usual odors at bay. If your compost is outdoors, and you’re in a hotter season (summer, spring), consider leaving the lid off to avoid having a too high temperature that makes for a wet mess.

For reference, the ideal temperature range is 135°-160° Fahrenheit for decomposition to happen successfully. Temperatures over or under for extended periods are not recommended.To monitor the temperature in your composting site, an easy fix is to get a compost thermometer. Like this one, buy it on Amazon.

  • Too Hot? 🥵

If your compost pile/bin is over 160ºF, aerate it so some of the trapped heat can be released and the entire material can decompose at the same rate.

  • Too Cold? 🥶

If your compost temperature is too low, consider adding some insulation to your pile or site, like adding straw or another carbon-rich element.

Something that will also affect the composting process - as well being the most common error - is to place your bin or pile in an incorrect spot. To choose the location, you need to take weather conditions (if it’s outside), temperature and moisture into account in order to create the best possible environment and balance for this process to occur.

Another thing to consider is that only a freshly built composting pile, or frequently turned pile will get hot; which means that if the compost has been sitting around for a while, consider turning it to restore the optimal temperature for decomposition.

3- My Compost Smells Rotten

While the process of composting is a fairly smelly business by nature, a lack of enough oxygen flow in the compost will pause the aerobic process. A rotten smell indicates that anaerobic microbes are starting to proliferate and generate hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs.

To tackle this composting problem and help the aerobic microbes to get back to work, take the same steps you would as explained before for sticky/wet compost.

4- My Compost Smells Like Ammonia

When the smell coming off the composting pile is closer to ammonia, it may mean that your compost is giving off excess nitrogen, which is caused by adding too many nitrogen-rich elements. To restore the compost ratio (the Carbon : Nitrogen balance), add in more carbon or brown materials (straw, sawdust, peanut shells, or shredded, unbleached or colored cardboard). In the following article you can check the list of Greens 🟢 and Browns 🟤 that can be composted: What Can Be Composted? A Complete List of Things You Can Compost

5- There’s Maggots/Flies in my Composting Bin

Oof! That’s never what you want. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done once you find maggots in your compost - but you can take some precautions to avoid them from showing up. Making sure to cover your layer of organic matter (nitrogen-rich elements) with elements that are high in carbon will help to curb the chances of an infestation.

scraps on compost

6- pH Level Problems

The goal in the composting process is to achieve compost with a fairly neutral pH, since these are the best conditions for the plants that you can later help grow. Composting means that bacteria and fungi are at work to decompose the organic matter, and these will be the most effective when pH levels in your site, pile or bin range between 6 and 7. That being said, pH levels will also vary depending on if you’ve just started out with the process or if you’re several weeks or months with it.

  • How can I tell what the pH level is in my compost site/bin/pile?

You can do a quick pH test with an electronic soil meter, like this one. A more accurate way would be to send a sample to a lab and have it measured, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

When testing your compost pH levels, be sure to test several areas in the pile/bin/site to make sure you have a proper reading.

  • What to do if my compost is too acidic (measures under 6)?

To make your compost more alkaline, you can implement the same tactic as when you’re having a high temperature issue: aerate to turn the organic matter around and improve air flow, which will help bring acidity levels down. Be sure to also continue adding enough brown material (rich in carbon) to ensure good aeration.

Another common solution is to add wood ashes to add more alkalinity to your compost mix. Read more info here: Ashes In Your Compost? What Are The Dos and Don'ts

  • What to do if it’s too alkaline (measures over 7)?

When your compost is over 7pH, the most straightforward method is to add more acidic materials, such as pine needles or oak leaves, to the mix to help bring the pH level down. Since composting is an aerobic process, a lack of oxygen will help anaerobic bacteria to proliferate and make the compost more acidic.

7- I Don’t Know what’s Happening, but the Composting is Taking Too Long

One of the reasons we’ve mentioned before could be what’s slowing your composting down - and here are other elements to consider, so you can adjust accordingly:

  1. Size of your composting site: A larger bin or pile will retain heat better, so it might be that you’re working with a smaller set up and it will just take longer to generate the optimal conditions for everything to decompose thoroughly.
  2. Material of your bin: Plastic will also retain heat better than - say - a wooden bin. These elements will also play a part in how fast the process occurs.
  3. What you’re tossing into your compost: be aware that different elements will take different times to break down completely. An avocado pit will take longer than a fruit peel, for obvious reasons.

One easy way to speed up the process is adding in smaller and finer elements that will decompose faster.

8- My compost isn’t Fine Enough

This composting problem links back to our previous point. It might be that you haven’t waited long enough for everything to decompose; or that there are larger elements in your compost that are taking their own, sweet time to decompose. You can help this process by breaking up smaller pieces of scraps before adding them to your compost.

9- Mushrooms Growing in My Compost Bin

In fact, this is not a "problem" for you compost, they can give you an extra help on the decomposing process. Check our following post for more information about it: Mushrooms Growing In My Compost Bin? Good or Bad? Should I Worry?

Final Thoughts about Compost Problems

All in all, we recommend to not stress too much over the specific measurements of all these elements. Every experienced gardener will tell you that it takes time to perfect these processes, so don’t sweat it if you’re running into issues here and there. Just return to this article ;) and don’t give up! You’re taking a huge step towards helping the Earth be a better place to live.

Veronica Prez

A little person trying to be part of a big change. Compost lover. Editor at Sustainable Warriors.

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