I knew there was trouble as soon as I saw two rats scurry away from the homeowners’ compost bin. Designed to come apart, its plastic sections had popped free of one another and area critters took full advantage. What’s more, the material in the bin was a gloppy—and stinky!—mess. Time for a compost makeover.
The family I was working with lives in an urban area without room for a huge, open-air compost pile. And, like millions of other folks, they’d purchased their plastic composter so they could recycle their kitchen waste as neatly as possible.
But they are busy people with full-time jobs and kids to raise. Additionally, they knew the compost pile wasn’t working out as they hoped and had become discouraged.
Read more: You should compost! Here’s how to start.
If you get things just right, compost piles can really “cook.” Microbial life gets busy breaking down carbon- and nitrogen-rich material. And your kitchen scraps are transformed into rich, useable compost with surprising speed.
To accomplish this, the pile needs to have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of about 25–30 to 1. That means for every one part nitrogen-rich material, you have 25 to 30 parts carbon-rich material. (Watch the video for more specifics on this.)
Ideally, the waste you include also should be shredded or chopped. Smaller pieces break down much more quickly than large ones.
Containing kitchen and food waste almost exclusively, our “before” compost was decidedly out of balance. Its temperature was a little over 70 degrees F—far from the 100 to 130 degrees that indicates the pile is actively breaking down.
To jumpstart the necessary microbial activity, I removed the bin’s contents and set it aside. Next, I added a couple of layers of large sticks. (I put them in a criss-cross pattern to take up extra space and facilitate air flow.) Then I dumped in a first layer of mostly “brown,” carbon-rich material.
This included some ripening compost from one of my own piles, dried grass, pine needles and a dash of garden soil.
I wore a mask and gloves to protect myself from potential pathogens during the next makeover step—the big re-mix. In small batches, I shoveled the original nitrogen-rich goo into a large container. I mixed in several handfuls of shredded paper, cardboard, wood chips, old straw and other carbon-rich materials.
These would absorb some of the extra moisture, reduce odor, and, hopefully, help dial in the overall carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.
The compost makeover worked surprisingly well. The temperature shot up over the next several hours. As for the homeowners, they’ve updated their compost plan. For every bucket of kitchen scraps they dump, they’ll now top things off with some large handfuls of straw. And by monitoring the temperature, they’ll also have a much better idea about the state of their bin.