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Why Your Compost is Not Breaking Down

Using compost to provide nutritional value to your garden, trees, and landscape will inevitably produce unparalleled results. However, one common problem beginners have with composting is the fact that it seemingly refuses to break down. 

Here’s why your compost is not breaking down: oxygen, moisture, and the type of ingredients that you use all have a direct impact on the entire process. If your pile is deprived of one of those three components, you’ll have a troubling situation on your hands.

Throughout this article, you’ll learn the following:

  • What you need to get your compost pile working
  • How to speed the process along
  • Temperature control
  • What you can and can’t compost
  • Why your pile smells foul
  • Where you should put the compost bin

Why Isn’t My Compost Bin Heating Up?

The main reason that your compost pile isn’t rising in temperature is probably that your pile lacks oxygen or the proper ingredients. The answer to this question is a combination of the previous two sections of the article. 

If all of the necessary components aren’t found, bacteria won’t grow as quickly; Therefore, they won’t heat the pile.

Adding oxygen to the pile is very simple. Here’s the process:

  1. Turn the pile over and over with a shovel or another mixing tool.
  2. Remove the tarp completely if you’re using one. 
  3. Once you’ve turned and mixed the pile for five minutes, you should allow it to breathe for about half an hour.
  4. Add fresh greens to the pile (only about an inch), replace the tarp, and check it with a thermometer the following day. 

After following this process, you should see a significant increase in temperature. Hopefully, it’ll be within the previously mentioned 130 to 175-degree range.

Another problem that slows down the heating process is excess moisture. Many beginners feel that more moisture is always better, but this mindset can lead to incorrect temperature readings. Water cools down everything, including your compost pile. If you have too much moisture, stir the pile while running a fan towards it to dry it out a bit.

The more you work on a compost pile, the more you’ll be able to control the temperature. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a compost bin that only needs old garbage and dead leaves to work right away. Even if you made it perform properly, you wouldn’t notice results for almost twice as long.

Stick to a routine schedule that includes the following five procedures:

  1. Mix the pile regularly to add oxygen and to prevent soggy materials.
  2. Clean the tarp weekly and replace it when it starts to dry or crack.
  3. Always check the temperature of your compost pile a few times a week.
  4. Add fresh greens (grass clipping, other plants, etc.) when the pile consumes the rest.
  5. Adjust the brown-to-green ratio as needed. Every pile has different variables, so no compost bin is the same. Different outside temperatures, humidity levels, and ingredients make every compost pile unique.

What Do You Need for a Compost Pile?

As mentioned above, compost piles need oxygen, moisture, and the right ingredients to decompose properly. Without those three factors, you could run into all sorts of unwanted issues. Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to mess up a compost pile.

Let’s review the three components in detail below:


We all know that oxygen is everywhere on this planet, but somehow it can be a common issue when dealing with composting piles. The culprit is a heavy top set of materials. The top of your compost pile should be made of mostly lightweight leaves, kitchen scraps, and so on.

When heavy materials are thrown on top of a compost pile, it crushes the bottom layers. Without proper airflow, everything starts to go astray. Fortunately, you can quickly correct this problem by taking a rake or a shovel and turning the pile over and mixing it up.

Not only will you be allowing air to funnel through all of the layers, but it also loosens it up quite a bit to promote airflow for many hours or days. Owning a compost pile isn’t as easy as throwing everything into a pile and forgetting about it; You have to do some manual labor every once in a while.


Creating a compost pile is essentially taking advantage of bacteria to break down debris into a usable substance. Bacteria need moisture, oxygen, and a source of food, which is not so coincidentally what a compost pile needs. Without enough moisture, bacteria can’t break down the pile quickly enough.

If you live in an area that rains frequently, then moisture will come naturally. Humidity in the air is also a very helpful tool for compost piles. The best way to know if there’s enough moisture in your pile is to try the hand squeeze test. Here’s how it works:

  1. Grab a handful of compost from the pile, squeeze it, and wait for moisture to come out. 
  2. If nothing comes out, then you need to add moisture from a garden hose, sprinklers, or humidifier. 
  3. If too much water comes out (spills, floods, etc.), then you need to add more try ingredients to the pile.


When you’re thinking about starting a compost pile, consider what gross bacteria around the house. Food, dead plants, certain types of manure, the list goes on. Even black and white newspaper, printer paper, and cardboard can be composted.

If you have fruit trees in your backyard, then you finally have something to do with the fallen fruit rather than throwing it away. Recycling plant materials is the best way to get a top-notch compost pile to use for countless years.

When it comes to manure, you have to be careful that you’re using the right type. Vegetarian animals have the best compost manure, including cows, rabbits, and horses. Anything that’s natural or plant-based is almost always okay to compost.

How to Speed Up Your Compost Pile

The most common way to speed up a compost pile is to add heat. 

Bacteria don’t grow very quickly in cold environments, hence why we all use refrigerators and freezers. Adding a bit of warmth to the pile will make it a breeding ground for healthy bacteria to speed the decomposition along.

Another important factor to keep in mind is that you need a good mixture of green and brown materials. Green (living) plants such as grass, tree leaves, and non-toxic plants are perfect for a pile. Brown (dead) plants, table scraps, and paper-made materials are also necessary for a compost pile.

Contrary to what most beginners believe, compost piles can get very hot. Use a thermometer to keep it between 130 to 170 degrees throughout the day. If you notice that it starts to dip or gradually lowers below the set temperature range, then you can use a shovel or a rake to mix everything up. If that doesn’t fix it, then you need more brown compost materials.

Rain, cold weather, and other variables can make it challenging to keep your compost pile heated as long as it should be. Combat this problem by draping a tarp over the top of the bin. This will prevent the gases released from the bacteria from leaving the pile, heating it up right away.

Finally, you can shred the pile into smaller pieces to heat it up and speed up the composting process. Before you throw anything into the bin, chop it up and throw it in. Bacteria can decompose a small piece much quicker, turning it into usable fertilizer (or whatever else you want to use the compost for).

Note: There are store-bought solutions, but they’re not guaranteed to work. Some people prefer to stay away from anything artificial or not straight from their own homes. After all, using everything from your house means that you know exactly what the pile is made of when you decide to use it.

What Can’t Be Composted?

There’s a myth that everything under the sun can be composted. Unfortunately, this problem leads to compost piles that sit and do absolutely nothing for the owner. You have to make sure that the ingredients are not only able to be decomposed naturally, but also that they’re healthy to do so.

In fact, there are all sorts of items that shouldn’t be thrown into a compost pile that people use every day. For example, non-vegetarian manure should never be used. Pigs, dogs, cats, humans, and other animals in the category all produce manure that is unhealthy to compost.

If you’re composting in a pile on the ground rather than in a bin, you shouldn’t use any invasive plants. Even if you rip them out by the root, the seeds will spread wherever the pile is. You’ll be creating an even bigger problem. If you want to get rid of those plants, then try to consider getting a bin that elevates the pile off of the ground.

Although they’re not terrible for the composting process, some food scraps can attract a variety of scavengers. Raccoons, rats, and stray animals will attack meat, dairy, and bones every night without stopping. Since they’re present almost everywhere in the world, you probably shouldn’t set food out for scavengers.

Newspapers, books, comics, and other paper materials that have colored dye shouldn’t be used in a compost bin. The ink can be toxic, ruining your entire pile as they break down. In addition to that issue, the wax found on certain printed items won’t break down. If you’re set on composting them, then you should wash and shred the materials first.

Other non-compostable items include anything that’s diseased (fruit, animals, etc.). Meat, fat, and bones also can carry diseases that spread through compost piles. As you can probably assume, it’s better to simply throw those materials into the trash and forget about them. A compost pile requires clean, natural substances.

Where Should You Put Your Compost Bin?

Now that you know how to make the ultimate compost pile, it’s time to figure out where you should put it. 

For starters, you have to consider if it’s going to be shaded or covered in sunlight throughout the day. There are advantages and disadvantages of both situations, so let’s break it down below:

Pros of Sunlight

  • Compost bins that sit under the sun all day usually decompose faster, giving you better results.
  • You’ll be able to regulate and maintain a high temperature when it’s covered in sunlight.
  • Excess moisture is dried up when you have a compost bin in the sun (as long as you mix it regularly).

Pros of Shade

  • Too much sun can remove more moisture than it should if you live in a dry climate. Shady environments can prevent this from happening.
  • The shade is an excellent place for green materials that could otherwise dry out and decompose too quickly.
  • Blocking out the sunlight often prevents foul odors from being produced by compost piles.

As you can see, there’s a good reason to try both options. If you’re having problems trying to find out which is meant for your pile, you’re in luck. People who live in a hot, dry climate should put their bin in the shade, or at least a place that isn’t covered in sunlight throughout the day.

On the other hand, humid environments are perfect for placing a compost bin in the sunlight. Maintaining moisture and reducing smells is ideal, so consider your climate before you find a spot for your compost bin.

If you have the opportunity, you could try to make a pile in the shade and the sunlight. See which pile produces the best results by maintaining them with the same temperature, moisture, oxygen, and ingredients. When you find the results you’re looking for, you can mix the piles together in a better location.

Why Does My Compost Pile Smell Gross?

A slowly decomposing compost pile tends to smell repulsive after a few weeks. Rather than taking advantage of nature’s ability to recycle, you might be making a mound of useless trash in your backyard. Fortunately, you can alter the process to make it breakdown and work in your favor.

The most common problem that leads to foul-smelling compost piles is excess moisture. Almost every living organism needs water to live, including bacteria. That being said, too much humidity can kill bacteria or cause it to fester.

The heat of a pile that’s properly maintained is enough to regulate everything to prevent smells from becoming an issue. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, moisture lowers the heat and causes a plethora of complications. When the pile is hot enough, it balances everything else as it should.

Here are three other possibilities:

  • You have too many greens in your compost pile. Nitrogen is released from living grass and other plants, causing a foul odor that never seems to leave. Remove some of the greens and replace them with brown material, such as dead leaves, food scraps, and straw.
  • You’re not giving enough oxygen to the pile. When compost materials don’t have the proper amount of oxygen that they need, it creates a buildup of gross trash that can’t decompose.
  • The compost pile isn’t mixed enough. When the green and brown matter is separated into layers, they don’t break down properly. This causes an imbalance in gases, leading to gross smells and stagnant composting.

All in all, you should do your best to keep the pile active and alive. When bacteria aren’t able to properly do their job, then you’re left with a bunch of trash stuck in one area. Compost piles are a living material that recycles, but only a few miscalculations can make it pointless.

Fortunately, you have all of the tools that you need to make a perfect compost pile right at home. Rather than throwing everything away into the garbage, you can reuse the compost to grow a healthy garden. You don’t need to deal with the stereotypical odors that most people associate with compost piles!

Final Thoughts

You can make a compost pile anywhere in the world. If you’re producing garbage and dealing with a garden, then getting a bin is one of the best things that you can do to recycle. Compost piles aren’t just eco-friendly, they’re also the healthiest fertilizer for your garden.

ReadyToDIY is the owner of this article. This post was published on March 23, 2020.

Here’s a quick breakdown of everything that you should’ve read throughout the post:

  • Oxygen, ingredients, and moisture are the three key components of a good pile.
  • You shouldn’t compost dyes, wax, or diseased materials.
  • Most problems of a compost pile are associated with excess moisture or lack thereof.
  • Composting requires regular maintenance, including aerating, adding new green and brown materials, covering it with a clean tarp, and more.
  • Find the best place for your compost bin by testing samples in the sunlight and the shade.
  • Don’t throw anything into a compost pile that might attract scavengers like raccoons, mice, rats, possums, crows, and other pests.