The Q&A Archives: Compost Pile is Slow to Decompose

Question: I have a compost pile that does not seem to be fermenting. I believe there is too much grass, hay, etc. and not enough high nitrogen components. Should I remove and throw away some of the grass/hay if I cannot provide enough of the other components that it needs?

Answer: No, everything decomposes eventually! Other reasons for slow decomposition include lack of oxygen (turn the pile) and lack of water (add moisture). The microorganisms that are doing the work of decomposing need both oxygen and water to survive. They use up what the pile offers pretty quickly so to keep the process going, it's best to manage the pile by turning it and keeping it moist. If you still decide that nitrogen is lacking, you can also sprinkle a nitrogen fertilizer, either organic or chemical, throughout the pile to give it a jumpstart. Fresh grass clippings and fresh hay both are considered nitrogen sources. Dried grass or hay would be carbon sources.

To speed the compost process along, you need four ingredients: water, oxygen, carbon (browns), such as leaves, straw, shredded paper; nitrogen (greens), such as grass clippings, leafy prunings, kitchen fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, manure. An easy way to start out is to mix the carbons and nitrogens in about a 50/50 ratio. As you construct the pile, sprinkle it with water from your hose. The ingredients should be as wet as a damp sponge. Don't try to make the pile and then water it all down from the top. The water finds paths to pour through out the bottom! The pile should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet (1 cubic yard) to have enough mass to insulate and retain heat. As the microorganisms that are doing the decomposing die off, they release heat. When the pile cools, they've probably run out of oxygen, which is where turning the piles frequently comes in. The more turning and reapplying of moisture, the more quickly the materials will decompose. On the other hand, you can construct a good pile and then just let it sit. It will decompose, but take 6-8 months. Hint: the smaller the ingredients, the faster they will decompose. This is just a quick outline to get you started. For more info, a great book is "Let it Rot" by Stu Campbell and it's usually available at libraries and bookstores.

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