Anyone who composts is likely to have run into the problem of dry compost from time to time – and it’s a frustrating one because it means your compost isn’t decomposing quickly, if at all. You get stuck with a pile of dry sticks and twigs and nothing much happens, no matter how long you wait.
If that’s a problem you’re dealing with, you might be wondering what causes dry compost and what you can do to fix it.
Dry compost is usually caused by putting the wrong ingredients in; if you add too much hard, dry material and not enough soft, wet material, the overall mix will end up dry. It can also be caused by long periods of dry weather, too many branches, and keeping a lid on your compost bin too often. Fortunately, there are some easy fixes!
How Do I Know If My Compost Is Too Dry?
You might be wondering how a person can tell if their compost heap is too dry. After all, compost often looks like a mess of different materials, all piled up and mixed. It often is dry – so how do you know how dry is too dry?
The simplest way to tell is to take a handful of your compost and squeeze gently. It should feel like a sponge that has been wrung out – damp, but not so damp that water runs over your hands. You might see a few drops of water. This is compost that has perfect moisture levels, and this is what you should be seeing when you dig into your compost pile.
There are other clues you can use, too. For example, if your compost does not seem to be doing anything for weeks on end, it is probably too dry.
Dry compost doesn’t offer a suitable home to the bacteria and worms that help to break the waste down, so it will mostly just stick around in its original form, and not start to disappear. Some moisture is needed for composting.
If your compost seems very dusty, that’s also a good sign that it is too dry. Compost should look like rich soil as it breaks down, and not soil that has been baked in the sun for weeks. It should have a moist appearance, being dark brown rather than gray-brown. If your compost looks dusty, try running your hands over it. It should feel moist.
Dry compost is also a more attractive home to insects, as these tend to dislike being wet. For example, dry compost might become a home to ants or wasps or other bugs looking for a safe place to burrow. Even rodents may make nests in dry compost heaps – which is a good reason not to let your compost dry out too much.
If you discover a nest of any kind in your compost bin, it’s almost certainly too dry and you need to take action. A dry compost heap will not be doing its job of turning organic waste back into useful garden feed, so you need to try and fix it.
What Happens If I Add Too Many Dry Materials?
Firstly, let’s work out what a dry material is. Some are very obvious. Nutshells, eggshells, twigs, sticks, logs, straw, cardboard, paper, pinecones, etc., are dry materials. They are rich in carbon and a necessary part of a healthy compost heap, but they need to be mixed with wet materials in order to break down properly.
Wet materials often take the shape of food waste or green clippings from your garden, such as cut grass or weeds that you have just pulled up. These provide moisture, and they also add nitrogen, which will encourage the bacteria you need to break down the compost efficiently.
If you don’t have a good balance of both in your compost, you will likely find that the compost ends up getting either too dry or too wet – neither of which are good for a compost heap. It’s important to think about what you add and what it will bring to the compost pile.
Remember, dry ingredients are usually those that are rich in carbon, while wet ingredients tend to be rich in nitrogen. Many experts suggest aiming for about 4:1 carbon (or dry) ingredients to nitrogen (or wet) ingredients.
However, it’s not always easy to work out a good ratio for these ingredients, because what you put in the bin will often have both carbon and nitrogen in it, but not specific amounts. If you spend hours trying to measure whether you have added too much nitrogen in with your coffee grounds or carbon with your oak leaves, you’ll probably go crazy!
You don’t need to get bogged down in the intricacies of this suggested ideal ratio. You can just add what organic waste you have, and keep an eye on whether the compost is getting too wet or too dry.
If it gets too dry, you may have to increase the number of wet materials you add or find another way to process the dry ingredients while your compost re-balances itself.
What Else Might Lead To Dry Compost?
The ingredients will be the main determiner of your compost’s consistency and moisture levels, but you might be wondering if there are other contributing factors, and there certainly can be. A big one is whether you have a covered compost heap or not.
Covering your compost will reduce evaporation and could help to keep moisture in, but it could also result in dry compost because no rain will ever fall in the bin. Rain is an important source of moisture for compost bins.
If your bin is getting too dry, consider leaving the lid off during a rainstorm, and putting it back on when the weather is dry, keeping the moisture in and preventing excess evaporation.
If you don’t have a lidded bin, try covering the compost with a tarpaulin or even some natural fiber carpet to trap moisture. Don’t use synthetic carpet as you will end up with microplastics in your compost. Cardboard is another good alternative as a cover, and can be torn up and added to the compost heap when you’ve finished with it.
Another potential cause of dry compost is having a lot of hard, branching materials. Air pockets are good for keeping compost aerated, but if you have a lot of them, they will cause the compost to dry out.
When you think the heap is getting too dry, poke around a little and see if it’s full of air pockets and lots of tough material.
Finally, a compost pile that has been spread very thin may dry out fast, because it hasn’t got the depth to trap moisture within itself. With a lot of surface area, most of the dampness will just evaporate off.
Of course, one of the simplest ways to make a compost heap wetter is to add water. That might sound a bit simplistic, but composts do require water to operate, or the critters that are breaking the compost down will die off or leave.
You don’t want to saturate the pile, however – there is a balance to be found here. A compost will that is too wet will drown worms and the aerobic bacteria, and will rot rather than composting properly. This usually smells bad and will result in you having to add more dry materials.
Watering your compost lightly will be key. You can use a hose or a watering can, and just sprinkle across the top layers. If you have a large compost heap, you might want to take off some of the top layers and water inside so that the water has a chance to soak down into the compost heap.
Alternatively, push the hose into the heap in several different places, and let water run inside. This should provide moisture throughout without you having to soak the whole pile.
Remember, you can always add more water later if you find that the compost is too dry, so don’t soak the pile too much. It is better to provide little and often, rather than risk killing off the bacteria and worms that you need.
Composts tend to produce a lot of their own water, so do not water your bin unless it is too dry. In most circumstances, your compost heap won’t need watering, although many do require a little moisture boost in the middle of summer. On the whole, though, if the compost pile is healthy, it should trap plenty of water even when it’s hot out.
Adding greens is another obvious way to increase the amount of moisture in your compost pile. Think about wet foods such as coffee grounds, tea leaves, moldy fruit, vegetables, etc. Also consider garden waste such as grass clippings, green leaves, and fresh weeds.
These things all contain plenty of moisture and will help to correct the balance in your compost bin. The wetter the ingredient, the more moisture it is adding, but even foods that seem relatively dry, such as broccoli, will add quite a lot of moisture to the compost heap.
Food waste, on the whole, counts as a “wet” ingredient, even if it is quite dry. Shells, however, count as a “dry” ingredient, and so do things such as corn cobs.
It’s important not to just add your greens in a big mess – this won’t help with dryness issues. When adding greenery, make sure you stir it up and mix it thoroughly with the browns, or you will just end up with layers of wet, soggy, rotting compost, and layers of dry, branch-y compost that is not decomposing properly.
The more you turn your compost heap, the more thoroughly you will mix the various ingredients, and the more you will ensure that the pile is balanced and healthy. Turning compost can be a nuisance and it isn’t a crucial step, but it’s the best way to ensure an active, balanced heap that is composting quickly and effectively.
Chop Up Branches
As mentioned, having a lot of sticks and branches in your compost creates a problem by adding too much air to the heap. These air pockets increase the surface area of the compost and encourage it to dry out, so it’s important that – once again – you create a balance.
Some sticks and twigs are important, as a compost heap that has too little air will not have the right kind of bacteria in it. If your compost heap does not have enough oxygen, the aerobic bacteria (the kind you want) will disappear, and they will be replaced with anaerobic bacteria. These produce methane and are not good for the environment, so be careful not to make the compost airless.
However, it is a good idea to break up sticks and branches. You can buy or hire a shredding machine specifically designed for this, or manually cut them up using garden tools if you only have a small amount of material to process.
Breaking down hard, dry materials such as brambles, sticks, shells, bark, and twigs will also encourage them to compost faster, making the carbon available to the compost heap more quickly and providing you with compost that is ready to use in a shorter amount of time.
It’s always a good idea to chop up and mix compost ingredients before adding them to the compost pile. This helps to create a good balance, and also ensures you don’t end up with big mats of any one material, which the critters in your compost will struggle to break down.
A dry compost heap is a nuisance; it wastes your time in collecting materials, it may attract unwanted attention from insects or rodents, and it will just sit around, taking up space in your garden. You need to find out what’s going wrong and then work on fixing it to get your compost active again.
Usually, the best fix will be to add more wet, nitrogen-rich ingredients, but you might find that you can also add water to the heap, and this is enough to get it functioning again. Turn your compost to break up pockets of wet materials and distribute them better, and your compost should be operating again before you know it!