compost

Composting is becoming increasingly popular with home gardeners, both as a way to reduce household food waste and create healthy garden soil.

Compost feeds soil microorganisms, improves soil structure and adds trace amounts of nutrients to the soil. The compost pile can be anything from a simple mound of material or a fancy tumbler system. Home composting systems usually have to fit into urban or suburban settings without causing issues with odors and pests. In a truly balanced, regularly turned, well-built pile, these issues don’t come up as much. 

Regardless of size, composting is easy as long as the nitrogen to carbon ratio is roughly 1 part nitrogen (green grass clippings, food waste, and other wet material) to 30 parts carbon (dry leaves, shredded paper, cardboard, wood materials).

For more information on composting systems, click here.

Never add greasy food scraps, meat, or dairy products to the pile, as this can attract rodents and other critters to your yard. Citrus rinds don’t metabolize quickly so many people do not compost them, but eventually they break down.

Consider these tricks to keep the compost cooking in your yard:

  • A good system for keeping odors and fruit flies out of the kitchen is to collect kitchen waste in a sealed container. There are several nice countertop compost collector receptacles on the market that are airtight and blend in with other kitchenware.
  • Freezing food scraps keeps them from rotting in the kitchen and eliminates the fruit fly issue. When your container is full, simply add the frozen scraps to the pile and incorporate.
  • Keep bags of leaves, shredded paper, and cardboard on hand to add as needed, keeping the carbon and nitrogen balanced.
  • If the pile is too wet from frequent rainfall, this can cause a sulfurous odor. The site of the compost pile should not collect rainwater, building the pile up on a slab or raised area can help to drain excess rain out quickly.
  • Anaerobic conditions can also cause a rotting smell. Flipping the pile every week or two can help to add oxygen back in, which is in turn used by soil microorganisms. If these microorganisms thrive, food waste gets broken down quicker, before it has a chance to ferment and release odors.
  • If the pile is too dry, materials will not break down and those workhorse microorganisms will search for moister pastures. You may need to water the pile during dry spells, this encourages activity and gets the pile breaking down correctly.
  • Shred cardboard and yard waste into smaller, more digestible pieces before adding them in and wetting them down. Large branches, logs and other woody yard waste should be run through a chipper or shredding machine before being added.
  • White, moldy growth should be no cause for alarm. Soil fungi help to break many compost materials down. The white filaments that appear in compost piles are mycorrhizae, spreading out and metabolizing materials in the pile. Other types of fungi and mushrooms may appear; this is only helping things to break down into usable compost.
  • Flies, rodents and other wildlife shouldn’t be hovering around the pile like it is a free all-you-can-eat buffet. If you notice lots of flies, you may have added too many food scraps into the mix all at once. Add browner, carbon-rich materials and flip the pile.
  • Meat or greasy food scraps are likely to attract raccoons, opossums and rats. It is best to not add these to the pile.

While composting isn’t rocket science, there are some pitfalls that can arise along the way. Monitoring your pile from time to time and adding the right mix of things to it can help prevent many of these issues from happening. Make compost pile maintenance a part of your weekend yard work routine.

We should all do our part to keep yard waste and food scraps out of the waste stream. Compost is a wonderful, free product that gardeners should embrace and produce right in their own landscape, without it becoming a nuisance.

For additional compost resources, please visit lsuagcenter.com. The  handy “Troubleshooting Your Compost Pile” PDF is among my favorite publications. This handy guide will help to keep the compost pile from becoming a nuisance.

To get answers to all of your compost and gardening questions, please email gnogardening@agcenter.lsu.edu.

My camellia bushes were doing great up until a few days ago. The leaves on some of them have turned watery and yellow with some thick brown areas. What is going on? Is this a disease? — Marianne.

Hi, Marianne. Luckily this is not a disease or pest issue, but a response to the excessive rain that we have been experiencing lately. This is edema, a pretty common problem. These blisters on the leaves are from cells swelling with excess water. Usually drier weather clears this up and the damaged leaves are shed. You can clip them off if you’d like. — Anna Timmerman


Joe Willis and Anna Timmerman are LSU AgCenter agents. Email gnogardening@agcenter.lsu.edu with questions or to receive the GNO Gardening Newsletter. For more information, visit lsuagcenter.com.