Common Composting Problems and Solutions for the Beginning Composter

Composting is standard practice on any permaculture site. This is the case for several reasons. It creates a closed waste cycle between vegetable scraps and vegetable production, often with the added bonus (an in-between stop) of animal fodder. It helps to rebuild or maintain healthy, balanced soil by feeding the soil life and creating a steady replenishment of nutrients, and nutrient-rich soil makes for nutrient-rich food. In simple terms, composting is a most useful natural process that any human-supporting, sustainable system needs.


While it is standard practice to compost, that isn’t to say that doing so is always foolproof or works out exactly the way folks are aiming. There are many methods to make compost. Some sped up the process into 18-day creations. Others, such as with composting toilets, go through a year-plus of maturation before they are considered user-friendly. There are even composting systems that gurgle and burp out methane gas that can be used for cooking. In all these incarnations, at some point, something is bound to go wrong.

However, what most people do with compost bins is somewhat in between, something in which the peels of potatoes or bananas, the remnants of breakfast or garden pruning, are meant to decompose into rich earth with minimum effort. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to make compost as well, but it’s also the one from which people are often turned off with composting altogether. These bins turn into sludgy messes or stagnant piles of organic garbage, causing would-be composters to throw up their hands and call it quits.

But, the solution might be something really simple.



The Lazy Compost Basics


I should admit early on that I, personally, am the ultimate lazy composter in that I habitually have not even bothered with making a bin or heap. I usually like to create small compost piles in situ in garden beds, either in perforated containers or excavated holes, so that they feed the crops as they break down and attract soil life, such as worms, into the garden. (In fact, vermicomposting, using worms, is a great way of converting food scraps into compost even more quickly.) For those designing gardens, I’d definitely suggest considering this method.


However, having a good compost pile for starting up new gardens, making fertilizer (compost tea), or dealing with huge stacks of organic waste all at once is super handy. But, this can potentially be more taxing than preferred for those of us not into turning or maintaining piles. Hence, it’s imperative to give the pile the best possible start it can get, and that involves using the right combination of elements to keep the fire of decomposition burning while avoiding making swampy messes or dry piles of inactivity.


The main components for making an effective compost pile are nitrogen, carbon, and moisture, with air also being important. Without these things, the compost will be missing serious ingredients, not unlike trying to make bread without flour, yeast, water, and heat. On the other hand, a serious imbalance of anyone of these ingredients will not provide the ideal loaf. Like a nice sourdough, a lot of this is accomplished by guiding measurements and having some understanding of how to measure what is happening beyond the recipe basics.


Learn to read the compost and adjust them is easy.



Reading the Compost (Carbon and Nitrogen)


Carbon is the main component of a compost pile. Carbon (“brown”) items are chiefly things that used to be trees or plants: leaves, sawdust, woodchips, paper, cardboard, straw, husks, etc. These elements provide the bulk. They also retain moisture for the pile and absorb smells that can happen as nitrogen-rich components decompose. It’s good practice to shred high carbon components into small pieces before adding them to the compost pile. A proto-typical compost pile will have 25-to-30 parts carbon for every one part nitrogen (This mixture is roughly equal parts by weight).


  • If a pile is really wet and smelly, then it likely needs more carbon.
  • If a pile is taking a really long time to break down, it could be that the carbon parts are too large for the microorganisms to handle efficiently.


Nitrogen is often referred to as the fire of the compost. It’s the nitrogen elements that get things ignites the decomposition of material. Nitrogen-rich (“green”) items include kitchen scraps, fresh (green) grass, and animal manure, with urine being another powerful nitrogen addition. It’s good practice to make sure nitrogen elements are spread throughout the pile so that the whole thing heats up and breaks down. While it’s popular to make compost piles to handle food scraps, feeding the scraps to animals speeds up the decomposition process, and scraps alone cannot make a successful compost.


  • If a pile is really wet and smelly, then it probably has too much nitrogen.
  • If a pile is taking a really long time to break down, it could be that there aren’t enough nitrogen parts to sufficiently heat it up.



Adjusting the Compost (Moisture and Air)


While the carbon-nitrogen ratio is composting 101, so should moisture be. Compost piles need more water than most people realize. Carbon elements tend to be very dry, so in order to get them to decompose, they need to be moist. It’s important when building a compost pile to consistently add water so that it remains hydrated, something akin to a wrung-out sponge. Geoff Lawton describes the appropriate moisture level as being reached when a very firm squeeze of the compost produces one drop of water. Even though water is important, too much will dampen the fire as well, so compost piles need to be protected from rain (and the sun).


  • Not to harp on the urine thing, but peeing on the compost pile adds a good nitrogen boost, stoking the microorganisms, as well as adds moisture. It makes sense.
  • With every bucket of food scraps, carbon material needs to cover it, and it’s not a horrible idea to add some water to that.


Moisture is very important for keeping the compost going, and air—namely oxygen—is too. There are several things people do to insure a pile gets enough oxygen. Firstly, the pile shouldn’t be directly on the ground. Instead, a bed of small diameter wood—sticks and twigs—should form the base of the pile so that air can seep in beneath it. Next, carbon elements should be shredded in order to distribute small pockets of air throughout the pile. Then, of course, turning the compost is the ultimate way to get oxygen back in.


  • If the right circumstances are set up (shredded carbon and a bed of sticks), the compost pile should break down without any maintenance, but less effort takes longer.
  • Quick composts require a lot of turning. The constant addition of oxygen will make the pile heat up very quickly. Sufficient heat (55-65 Celsius) kills off weed seeds, but too much heat will destroy valuable soil life. Cold composting, without much or any turning, will probably not kill the weed seeds.



Composting Tips for Better Results


With the advice above, composting will likely become much easier and more successful, but there are still yet more simple things to make it all go better. Composting can either be a complex science for experts or the most basic of garden tasks for any grower to take on, but without a doubt, anyone anywhere should be able to make productive heap. Start by getting the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio correct, make sure the moisture and air are adequate, and try these techniques to provide even more advantages.


  • Add a lot of material all at once rather than small amounts daily. Use a compost bucket with a lid in the kitchen to collect a good layer of nitrogen material before adding it to the pile along with shredded paper trash. Making an entire pile at once is the ideal.
  • Microorganisms are the crux to the decomposition process. They’ll occur naturally in compost piles, but adding some early on will help with results. Include some of the previous compost in the new pile, or collect a small mound of soil from the forest floor, or—again—pee on the compost.
  • Size the heap correctly. Piles need to be a minimum of a cubic meter, and for a general home capacity, three cubic meters would be pushing the maximum size. It’s about getting it big enough to heat up sufficiently but not so big as to restrict air flow. The standard is for a windrow pile to be twice as wide as it is high.


For those who have tried composting before and failed, perhaps now is a good time to try again. Undoubtedly, the many good reasons for composting have not escaped those who are reading Permaculture News, and there are also many fine methods for doing so with a small-scale, home system. Whatever the case, following these basic guidelines and sticking with them should produce, even if the going temporarily gets tough, fantastic results that’ll improve veggie patches, household waste cycles, and overall soil fertility.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Makes sense except that it would be impossible for a individuals home to be able to produce enough of the required elements all at one time, in order to be able to have a workable compost pile. For myself, it would require over a year to accumulate that size of a pile.

    1. Hi Gene,

      This is Maria from Zaytuna Farm. It can be a bit challenging for a single household in the city to put together enough materials for a compost pile on their own, but the city is also full of often wasted compost materials. You can get often get materials like dry leaves and garden cuttings collected by the municipality or home owners and rotting vegetable scraps from markets and supermarkets.

      It should be easy for you to put together enough material, once you start asking around. I speak from personal experience.

      1. I agree! I just had a giant truckload of mulch delivered for free from a local tree trimming company, and often see bags of leaves and other garden scraps set out for trash pickup.

  2. I have found that no one weighs the materials for making compost so I use a volume measure, one nitrogen to three carbon and that works fine.

  3. I collect the food scraps in a container and chuck it all in the lidded compost bin once a week or so. I don’t put wood sticks in but leaves and patio sweepings. There are tons of creepy crawlies in there and the worms look all nice and pink. Will try and remember to pee into it next time I am drunk.

  4. When I had my mobile home in a park, I had a little compost pile. I put in the grass clippings weekly, and all the trimmings from my many flowers. I put in all food things left from my weekly refrigerator clean, and scrapings from plates as they happened. I left out meat, and often would put in day old bread and such to add a bit more to it. I had three loads of compost by the end of the first year, and filled in some big holes in the yard that way, and fed plants in my planting beds as well. *didn’t worry about the water, as I lived in western Washington State, and had 3 kids that played with water all the time by it.*

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