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Compost piles must be not too cold, dry or wet

By for CAES News

International Compost Awareness Week is May 5 to 11 and University of Georgia Cooperative Extension offices across the state are prepared to provide advice for homeowners who want to start recycling their food and landscape waste into compost to improve their soil.

The basics of composting are simple enough, but many composters run into trouble because their piles are too cool, too dry or too wet. It can be tricky to strike the balance.

Perfect composting conditions require the perfect combination of materials; not too much brown matter, not too much green matter, not too cold, not too dry and not too wet. To maintain a healthy compost pile, the composter must maintain the proper moisture level.

Composting organisms like bacteria and worms are like any other living thing. They need water to survive and thrive. Inadequate water will inhibit the activities of composting organisms, resulting in a slower composting process.

On the other hand, if the compost pile is too moist, the water will displace air and create anaerobic conditions.

The moisture level of a compost pile should be roughly 40-60%. To the touch, the compost pile should feel like a wrung sponge. The moisture level in a compost bin is easy to detect and, for the most part, easy to fix.

If the bin is too wet, pools of water will accumulate at the bottom of the bin. Worms trying to escape from the bin or an unsavory smell are also indicators that the bin is too wet. To fix a high moisture level, add more items that can absorb the water, such as newspaper or cardboard, and stop adding food items that have a higher water content.

A bin that is too dry is equally unpleasant for the worms. How do you know if your bin is too dry? Dried worms are a sure indication. To raise the moisture level, spray the bin with water or add food items with higher water content.

The temperature level of a compost bin is always important to monitor, especially in worm bins.

A high temperature is desirable in a backyard compost pile, as it will accelerate the decomposition of materials. Heat can also aid in breaking down pathogens and weeds.

The ideal temperature in a composting pile is between 135 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase the temperature of a compost pile, turn the pile weekly. Turning the pile will allow oxygen to flow, maintaining the aerobic condition of the pile and regenerating heat.

To learn more about composting, see UGA Extension Circular 816, “Composting and Mulching,” at http://extension.uga.edu/publications.

Lisa Sehannie is a Master Composter Extension Volunteer with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension in Clarke County, Georgia.
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