Compost: Too much of a good thing

Posted by on Dec 4, 2011 in Blog, Compost, Maintenance and Fixes | 0 comments

Compost is a wonderful thing for your garden – improving your soil while recycling unused and unusable food – however, when compost gets too much rain, it is too much of a good thing!  Melbourne has recently had a very wet November, and while the rain is wonderful for our gardens, the compost pile will be suffering.  When compost becomes too wet, it becomes heavy and airless.  The healthy decomposition turns into a sodden mass that smells sour and putrid.    Even the best maintained compost can become too wet after so much rain, so now is the time to check your compost.

Sweet Smells… or Not!

Compost should smell… it’s a decomposing thing! But the smell should be… not sweet, but not horrible either! Good compost smells like good soil: rich and loamy, with an organic odour that is not a perfume you would wear, but it shouldn’t be something that makes you feel sick!  When compost smells sour or putrid (think really, really rotten) it needs some urgent help.  Fortunately, the remedy is usually quite simple.

As any composter knows, composts need to be turned over regularly to bring the bottom layer up to the top (or if you have one of those lovely barrel composts bins, turned and churned…).  This process ‘airs’ the compost, keeping it evenly damp and providing air to encourage (healthy) decomposition.  During the wetter months, a regular feed of some sawdust or newspaper can help maintain an even moisture level and an organic smelling compost.

The Remedy

However, when the compost gets too wet, as is the case after lots of rain, then it needs some help to dry out and stay aerated.  Try turning over wet compost and you can feel that it is soggy and heavy – no air in there!   There is also likely to be a strong smell that is often sour and is always revolting.

The easiest and quickest fix is to use a garden fork to move the bottom layer up to the top, as you would when turning your compost over. When you do this, sprinkle a small handful of garden lime over the compost.  Garden lime will help the compost avoid too much acidity, while you aerate the compost.   You can also add some more sawdust or newspaper at this point to soak up additional water, especially if your compost is waterlogged and very smelly!

If your compost has become waterlogged, consider moving the compost bin to another location in the garden if you can.  This will help the compost dry out a bit more, as well as possibly avoiding more of the same next time it rains.  If your compost is more of a pile than a bin, then consider providing a little more shelter during the rainy months, if you can.

Regular Maintenance

No matter what the season, compost needs to be checked regularly to ensure it remains a nice damp and decomposing pile of goodness.   And this pile of goodness should be shared with your garden – using your compost will ensure it is regularly turned over (use the bottom layers, to take advantage of the longer rotting time) while also improving your garden as both the plants and the worms enjoy a feed on some homemade compost!

For a comprehensive article on creating a compost heap and feeding it, take a look at Gardening Australia’s article.  This fact sheet has great advice on creating compost.

A Note on Safety

When using garden products such as lime, always consider your health and safety by wearing appropriate clothing (such as long sleeves and trousers) and safety equipment (use a mask and consider your eyewear).  Whenever I am in the garden I wear gloves, and I would always use them when handling any garden products.

Good luck!!

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