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Compost Q & A with a Master Composter, Part 3

It’s been great chatting about composting, and having Master Composter, Sarah Ferry, answer some of our questions. Composting is something can be quite intimidating, and also can have a lot of variations and variables. Hopefully our series of Q & As has helped with some of the questions and issues that might have been inhibiting you.

Today we’re going to look at a few more great questions and answers from Sarah.

Simple Organic: I have a compost ball and I’m not that fond of it. It gets very heavy even when it’s not very full, and stinky compost tea gets all over us when we roll it (since it’s covered with drainage/air holes and the liquids all leak out all over it once it’s been rolled).

Sarah Ferry: The compost balls, like many tumblers, often do get too heavy for their own good. My personal favorite style of bin is a stackable bin (discussed more below).

SO: What are your thoughts on wood versus plastic? I am partial to wood units since they can be repaired, or returned to the earth when finished their composting life-cycle. Any feedback on what the most affordable, practical option is?

SF: I think the best option is the one that works best for you. I like both wood and plastic versions. Plastic ones last longer as the wood ones eventually will break down (think about it– they are containing organisms whose whole purpose is to break down organic matter), but you are right that this is a more natural choice.

There are equivalent options in wood and plastic for most styles of composters. A wood bin is more cost effective and it is easy to build on your own. My favorite instructions for a stackable wood bin are here.

If you like the durability of a plastic bin you can always buy one at a garden store or online or check to see if your city subsidizes a bin like several of the cities in our county do. If your city does not subsidize compost bins, make a call or send them an e-mail and request that they do!

If you can’t choose wood or plastic you can go for a super simple to make and very affordable wire bin like this one.

Photo by papaerfacets

SO: The two issues we continually have with our compost are smell and flies. Regarding smell, we don’t put any meat or dairy in – just plant matter (food & yard), egg shells, coffee grounds plus occasionally some paper & cloth. And with flies – every summer we get them BAD. There are several varieties, but it’s the “house flies” that really “bug” us. I’d love suggestions. Thank you so much!

SF: These two problems may be related. Aside from meats and dairy, a bad smell from a compost pile can come from the pile becoming anaerobic. What this means is the pile is not getting enough oxygen, and could have a disproportionate amount of nitrogen (“greens” or food waste).

An anaerobic pile could also attract more flies than an aerobic pile. A well-ventilated pile with a balance of nitrogen (“greens”) and carbon (“browns”) should not become anaerobic and therefore should not produce a smell.

Make sure to keep your pile well ventilated by turning it frequently (you can use a pitch fork, an aerator or turn the whole pile occasionally by moving it from one location to another). When turning the pile make sure to check the moisture and balance of the pile. It should not be too wet and should have sufficient carbon mixed in with the nitrogen.

Also make sure to sufficiently bury the newly added food scraps deep enough under a top layer of browns. This should keep the smell, and especially the flies, down. The other thing to note about flies (fruit flies specifically) is that sometimes they don’t find the pile on their own, but they are deposited into it from their larvae being on the skins of the fruit we eat. If you have a bad fruit fly problem you may want to microwave the fruit skins before putting them into the pile.

From Sarah: I hope these responses have been helpful. For more information on composting check out the Solana Center’s website for more resources and feel free follow up with more questions on the Solana Center Master Composter “Rot-Line” blog.

I think this last set of questions has probably addressed the most common issues that might come up with composting, and the answers have given us some great, practical ways to deal with these issues. Do you have a hard time balancing out the carbon and nitrogen in your compost? What method and type of bin have you chosen or planned to implement?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Aimee @ Simple Bites

    This series has been great! The snow just melted off of our compost. I can’t wait to get out there and see how it wintered.

  2. Kara

    I’m planning on doing a worm bin! That bit about the flies has got me worried now, BUT I am going to try.

    • Kara

      Oh, oh! I found the perfect worm bin. It’s made of wood instead of plastic (which I think will make for some happy worms and a happier me ;)), and solves that whole DIY issue of my not owning any power tools. Oh yeah!

      Anyway, I am excited that I wanted to share:

      • Nicole

        thanks for sharing the link! That looks really nice!

  3. Kitter

    This has been so helpful! I’m the one that asked about smell/flies – thank you so much for addressing that. I’m pretty sure our green/brown ratio is way off (green heavy). I’ve heard of adding shredded paper and fabric for more brown – any other suggestions?
    Thanks again!

    • sarah

      Yes- adding paper and fabric are both good carbon sources- the key will be to make sure they are shredded enough to not become matted when they get moisture on them. mix them in slowly and they should help a bunch! If you are like me and are short on browns most of the time (i.e. no deciduous tree on the premise) try to ask neighbors if you can rake their yards or landscapers at your office complex/ friends family etc. if you can take the leaves they rake up and stock pile as many leaves as you can get during the fall. If you get enough and keep them dry they can last all year.

  4. Kika

    I have a bag of leaves from our yard that has been sitting in a plastic bag all winter… soggy and partially broken down. Can I still use these as ‘brown’/carbon layer in my bin? Also, because my yard doesn’t have a good sunny location for a permanent compost bin I made my own bin on wheels using a large plastic garbage container/lid and drilled drainage holes on sides and bottom. I then can chase the sun by moving it around some. The biggest weakness I see with this method is lack of worms as the bin doesn’t sit on the earth. Do you think it would work to collect earthworms after a rain and place them in my bin? Would they be able to survive?

    • sarah

      I have the same plastic bag of partially broken down soggy leaves in my yard! yes you can still add these as a brown but try to dry them out before hand (you may want to “fluff” them up a little bit so they can get more air and dry better) and add them to the compost along with a more dry source to absorb some of the moisture (such as shredded paper). As far as the worms goes, your pile will still break down with out them just from the carbon/ nitrogen mix- but you may want to add some completed compost. Adding some completed compost to the pile will introduce the key microorganisms (smaller than worms- the organisms you can’t see) that do the bulk of the decomposing. These microorganisms normally find their way to a good pile from the earth- but introducing from existing finished compost can help your free standing pile accelerate the decomposition process.

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