Answers to Questions Arising on the Compost Road

You’ve started composting and now questions are arising. Here are answers to some common questions first-timers ask as they work through the composting process.

Can I dump cooked leftovers in my compost bin?

You can compost cooked leftovers, but people generally don’t compost foods with high fat content and bones because they decompose very slowly. If you want to be able to use your compost in a reasonable time frame, leave such foodstuffs out. Meat is another no-no, because the smell attracts rodents.

What about rotting fruits and vegetables?

Throw ’em in.

Farmers use cow manure for fertilizer; why can’t I use dog and cat manure in my compost?

Farm animals eat vegetarian diets, so their manure differs considerably from pet manure. Dog and cat waste often contains disease organisms that can make compost toxic, and the high heat necessary for their elimination isn’t present in most home composting systems. Waste from carnivorous animals also isn’t compost-compatible with plant products.

If your goal is green disposal of pet waste, rather than creating usable garden compost, use a specialized composter exclusively for the pet waste or compost underground.

I read that my compost will be ready to use in 3 months if I turn it every 2 to 4 weeks. Does that mean I have to stop adding new organic matter?

Continuous composting is commonplace. If you are adding new material to a bin containing finished compost, separate the finished from unfinished when using the compost.

The alternative to continuous composting is batch composting. Batch posting can be done with two bins, leaving one alone to finish composting as you place new materials in the other, or by temporarily stopping composting when the process is near-complete.

My garden needs compost now, but my compost isn’t ready… what would happen if I used it, anyway?

Don’t use unfinished compost in your garden. Unfinished compost can stunt plant growth and interfere with seed germination. You will know your compost is ready for use when it meets three tests: uniform dark brown color, crumbly texture, and earthy odor.

My compost looks moldy- does this mean something went wrong?

No, mold occurs normally in the compost bin and will eventually decompose like everything else in there.

Why is my compost all wet? Is it ruined?

The green (nitrogen-rich) materials in compost are moist and the brown (carbon-rich) dry. Some moisture is essential to the composting process. Compost should be as moist as a damp, wrung-out sponge.

A good compost bin should provide drainage. Too much water can attract pests, destroy helpful bacteria, wash away nutrients, and cool the pile, slowing decomposition.

When compost is too wet, turn it over to mix up the green and brown materials or add more brown materials to the heap. You can also temporarily open the compost bin to the hot sun to induce drying.

If compost gets too dry, mix the materials, add more green, or use a light spray of water from the hose to moisten it.

I have never seen so many bugs in my life. How do I get rid of them?

Sorry, they’re on the payroll. Those bugs, along with the worms and micro-organisms, are responsible for turning your organic waste into compost.

What about putting poisonous plants or plants sprayed with pesticides in the compost bin?

Diseased and poisonous plants are not suited to composting. Theoretically, extreme heat can kill the organisms that cause plant diseases, but realistically most composting can’t be counted on to reliably generate sufficient heat to kill the disease agents. Similarly, naturally-occurring toxins in plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, sumac, black walnut and eucalyptus leaves may not break down completely during the composting process and can cause problems for both handlers of the compost and garden plants. Plants subjected to deadly pesticides should not be composted.