Is My Compost Dead: Tips For Reviving Old Compost
By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Compost heaps tend to be situated out of the way in thelandscape. As a result, they often get forgotten and neglected, leading to dry,moldy and just plain old material. Can you revitalize old compost? Much like ayeast dough, compost is alive with organisms, and old compost has lost much ofthat life. However, you can add certain components to help “juice” itback up for use in the garden.
Can Compost Get Old?
Compostingis easy, but it does require a certain adherence to a 60/40 formula of greenand brown material. Neglected compost can fail to break down, losenutrients and even get moldy. Reviving old compost takes a bit of effort butcan result in fairly good material for use in the garden.
As the cold days of winter come to a close, you may wonder,“is my compost dead.” Compost can certainly get old. You canrecognize old compost by its appearance. It will be dry, grayish and devoid oforganisms that you can see, like earthwormsand pillbugs.
Can You Revitalize Old Compost?
There are ways of reviving old compost, but it may still notbe rich enough for seed starting or propagation due to the possible presence ofinsect pests or pathogens. But with careful management, it can still be an excellentadditive to garden beds. Even if the compost has become inert, it is still anorganic entity that will help aerate and add texture to heavy soils.
If your compost has been sitting without attention forseveral months, it can still be brought back to life. Here are a few tips onrevitalizing compost and capturing that vital resource for your plants:
Mix in nitrogen sources, such as grassclippings, to jump start the cycle along with a slightly smaller amount ofcarbon rich organics, like dried leaf litter. Turn the pile 2 to 3 times perweek and keep it moderately moist but not soggy.
In a very short time, you should start seeing the visibleorganisms that help break down the material. In a sunny location, such a“recharged” pile will again be teeming with life and materials willbe breaking down. For even faster composting, dig in your garden and harvestworms. Adding plenty of worms to the pile will cause the materials to breakdown even faster.
Using “Dead” Compost
If you don’t want to go to a lot of trouble and still wantto use neglected compost, you can still do so provided it isn’t moldy. If it ismoldy, spread it out in the sun for a week to kill mold spores and let it dry.
Compost that is not moldy can be energized by the additionof some fertilizer. Use a time release formula and mix in gritty material if itis heavy and clumpy. You may have to manually break down any larger chunks.
Alternatively, if you have the space, dig trenches in thegarden soil and bury the compost. Over time, earthworms and other organisms insoil will break down the spent compost. It may not add a lot of nutrients, butit will certainly help with soil composition and make itself useful in thatmanner.
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Read more about Composting Basics
What To Compost From The Garden – And What To Do With What You Can’t!
One thing is for sure – although all plants can be composted, not everything from a vegetable garden should be thrown into a compost pile. Especially if it is compost you are creating to use in that same garden next year!
Compost is truly the lifeblood of garden. It is teeming with nutrients, beneficial bacteria and life-giving organic matter. All of which work together to recharge and re-energize tired soil.
Although many of the plants and by-products of our garden can be composted, we leave some of the plants out of our main pile.
But – and this is a big key – only if the compost if healthy and disease free! And if it’s not? Well, it can actually spread disease, blight, pest problems, all while causing more weeds as well.
That is exactly why what and how you compost is so important. And, why it’s better to leave certain plants and materials out of your compost pile to prevent future issues in your garden.
Our tomato plants are one plant we leave completely out of our main compost pile.
Here is a look at what garden plants and debris are good to put in your main compost pile, along with what you can do with the materials you should leave out.
2. There’s not enough diversity.
"If you put a lot of the same thing in your compost, it will be uniform in nutrients and microbes," Carr explains. So even though you’ll eventually end up with beautiful black soil if you only ever add lettuce stems, potato peels, and yard waste to your pile, it won’t have the diversity of nutrients and good bacteria that really makes compost valuable in the garden. Carr says you can compost just about any scraps that come out of your kitchen, which has the double benefit of diverting food waste from landfills and giving you a superior final product all at once. "The only things that should never go in your compost pile are glass, metal, styrofoam, and plastic," he says.
Carr also adds that you absolutely can compost meat scraps (he does), though doing so is somewhat controversial. The reason people often warn against composting meat is that it can attract vermin and may not decompose quickly and safely in a backyard pile that isn’t hot enough to kill off pathogens. On the flip side, fish and meat are rich in nutrients that make great fertilizer. Beginners should stick with plant waste until they feel they’ve mastered the composting process.
Where can I compost? (The answer will surprise you.)
Well, almost anywhere, but certain areas make it easier than others. Gardens Alive rated all 50 states on five different factors when it comes to composting. The surprise winner? Ohio, scoring 34.1 out of 50 points. While the state lacks a mandate for residents to participate in composting — and only five states overall have mandates for treating organic goods — Ohio does offer over 370 composting facilities, the most overall for any state in the country. And since over 40% of the state’s land is used for cultivating crops, that’s a real motivation to have a robust statewide composting system! (The same report found that the South — another agricultural hub — has no representation in the best composting states top 20).
What Can't Be Composted
- Any sort of meat or bone, including pet food
- Food that contains a lot of oil, including veggies that have been cooked heavily in oil
- Foods that contain a lot of sugar
- Dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, or pudding
- Used cat litter or dog waste
- Used tissues (some bacteria or pathogens won't break down, and many tissues contain fragrances or lotions)
- Weeds that you wouldn't want to spread in your garden
- Starchy foods with many ingredients like bread, pretzels, chips, or couscous
- Plant-based silverware that says it can be composted won't break down in a backyard system. It needs to be on a much larger, hotter scale.
- Whole, recently fallen leaves
- Nut butters
- Glossy magazines
After a year or so, you'll be left with dark, crumbly compost that your vegetable garden and house plants will love! It will be a quicker process if you turn or agitate your compost pile often. You can turn it over with a rake, or buy a bin that rolls or spins with a crank.
For more questionable items, you can check out Can I Compost This? If you need help finding a bin, The DIY Network has a thorough roundup, from wooden frames to plastic tubs and barrels. Some states will even give you one for free to promote reducing waste at home.
How does your compost grow? Do you have anything to add to our compost list? Let us know on Twitter!
The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.
Why It’s Good
Composting is the circle of life in your garden: grow vegetables for your family, compost the scraps and dead plants, then use that compost to feed your plants the next year! Composting reduces waste and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with landfills.