Compost Happens

Why is my compost like cement? What is that awful smell coming from my compost pile? Why is it taking so long for my scraps to turn into compost? Where do I even begin composting?

These are just a few of the questions that Master Gardener volunteers answer on a regular basis.

At its simplest, compost is merely managed decomposition. All things biological will break down eventually, but by managing the decay process you can speed it up and have beautiful finished compost within a year depending on the method used.

The first and most important step, when beginning to compost is to choose a method or system that fits into your lifestyle. In other words, how much work do you want to put into it? Do you want to turn the pile or have a more passive composting system?

The size and type of system depends on user and desired outcome. There is no “right” or perfect composting system. In order to reach and maintain thermophilic temperatures (hot composting), a volume of at least one cubic yard needs to be attained. However, larger systems will produce compost more efficiently the saying goes … you need a lot, to get it hot. There are as many composting systems out there as there are people who want to use them and all of them can successfully make compost. Many factors, such as what you put into the pile, space, time and energy, season, etc., will dictate what system will work best in each situation.

Once you figure out what system will work best for you the next step is all about balance. There are four key “ingredients” to all composting systems: water, oxygen, nitrogen (greens) and carbon (browns).

Most composting issues come from an imbalance of one or more of these ingredients. The majority of smells, rodent problems, etc., are because of a lack of enough dry, dead, brown material (aka carbon).

For every unit of green material (fresh scraps) three times the amount should be added in brown material (leaves, straw, sawdust, shredded newspaper).

Keeping your system moist is another key factor to speeding up the compost process. The microorganisms that break the scraps down need water to survive and they prefer a warm damp environment to live in. Oxygen is the last element that is pivotal in keeping the compost “cooking” in addition to keeping your system smelling earthy as it should be. A few ways to keep oxygen flowing are by turning the pile, poking a broom handle through the pile every now and then and even simply adding a few sticks into the pile.

The system you use, the amount of time you spend on composting, the size of your pile and the balance of the four key ingredients all play a factor in how fast your kitchen scraps and garden clippings will turn into compost. Depending on your needs and desires, you can find a composting system that works perfectly for you. The best advice I can give is don’t be afraid, it’s one thing you really can’t fail at, it might take longer than you want to make compost but it will happen … it’s inevitable.

To help you start your composting journey or answer any composting questions you may have the Cornell Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners of Chautauqua County will be hosting a hands-on composting demonstration and workshop at their next Evening in the Garden program that will start at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at the Frank Bratt Ag Center Demonstration Garden. Come enjoy a garden tour, taste-testing veggies that are ready for harvest in addition to learning how to build different composting systems. The evening is free of charge and open to the public.

For more composting information please visit:

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The mission of the Chautauqua County Master Gardener Program is to educate and serve the community, utilizing university and research-based horticultural information. Volunteers are from the community who have successfully completed 50-plus hours of Cornell approved training and volunteer a minimum of 50 hours per year.

For more information on the Master Gardener Program, please contact: Betsy Burgeson, Master Gardener coordinator, at 664-9502, ext. 204, or email

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