Your Compost Pile Shouldn’t Stink – Tips to Avoid a Smelly Compost Pile

by Chris on March 27, 2011

In conversations with friends who know that I have compost piles, one of the common things that I hear is “I wouldn’t want a compost pile because of the smell!” I just shake my head and reassure them that my compost piles don’t smell like anything other than rich fertile soil. But it takes some forethought and adherence to a few simple rules to keep a compost pile from becoming a odor problem.

How to Keep a Compost Pile Healthy

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Alternating Layers of Compost

Every compost pile, regardless of whether it’s kept in bins, commercial composters, or simply a pile on the ground must be managed correctly. You can’t just start throwing everything into your compost pile without any planning. The general rule of thumb is to make your additions to your compost pile in layers. You might add a layer of fresh green grass clippings after you mow your lawn and then add a layer of “brown” material such as old leaves. By alternating these layers your provide a mixture of materials to your pile. The layers are important, but don’t worry too much about keeping it perfect. For me, it’s a good rule of thumb, but I know that eventually, I’m going to turn my compost and the layers will get all mixed up.

It’s also important to keep the compost pile moist but not too wet or, inversely, too dry. Obviously, unless your compost pile is shielded from the elements, there will be times when it gets soaked by rain or dried out by the sun and high summer temperatures. I try to add a bit of water from time to time just to keep things going. But it’s not necessary to obsess over it.

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Finished Results of my Composting Efforts - Ready to Add to the Garden

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to turn your compost pile from time to time. There is a lot of debate over how often to turn a compost pile. I think we can all agree that a pile should not be turned every day. After all, the process has to have some time to work. But it gets harder for folks to agree just how frequently you should turn your compost pile. I’m very unscientific about this particular chore. I turn my compost piles whenever I remember to do it. That usually works out to be about once every couple of weeks. A bi-weekly frequency has worked pretty well for me over the years. By turning our compost piles, we help to aerate the compost pile. This provides air to pockets that might have otherwise have become anaerobic. Anaerobic (which means without air) decomposition of matter can produce some offensive odors, as well as take longer. The “good” bacteria and organisms need air. Turning your pile helps keep everything nice and aerated. For turning I use an old fashioned turning fork. You can achieve aeration also with special compost aerator tools or by building your pile around a central structure that will allow air to reach the inside of the pile. Some folks use a tube made of hardware cloth, a bundle of small branches or twigs, or a large pvc pipe that has been had multiple holes cut into it. By creating a mechanism for airflow to reach the inside of your pile, the pile will have a better chance of staying in an aerated state.

Things to Avoid Adding to Your Compost Pile

If you don’t want your compost pile to stink, it’s important to never add a few specific things to your pile.

1. Meat and Bones - Even though they are organic, meat and bones are not meant for your compost pile. The decomposition of these animal products can generate a powerful smell and overall won’t really add much to benefit to your compost. If you want to get the benefits of bone, I suggest using bone meal directly as a soil additive if you need it for a particular plant that need phosphorous (although some folks don’t care to use bone meal due to it’s animal origins…to each his own.)

2. Milk and Dairy Products – Much like meat and bone, milk and dairy doesn’t have a place in my compost piles. These items will sour and definitely create a foul smell. My chickens get any milk or dairy scraps. I then in turn take their waste and add it to my compost or directly into my garden beds.

3. Too Much of Any One Thing – Although a pile of nothing but dry leaves will eventually turn to compost, it takes a long time. Avoid adding copious amounts of a single material. By trying to make a diverse compost pile, you will speed up the composting time and increase your overall additive value of your compost.

Since there are so many variables to composting and so many people doing it, everyone has a different technique or secret that they think is the one true way. Hopefully you can take these basic ideas and find a way of composting that works for you.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rob April 4, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Great Article! It was very insightful.

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