Sticky, smelly compost

Asked July 27, 2016, 2:03 PM EDT

I'm new to composting. The kids game me a barrel composter for Mother's day. I mixed the first batch using a 3-1 ratio, 3 parts brown, 1 part green. Added water to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Things progressed slowly, but one day I had a sticky, wet, smelly mess. I added more dry. Things progresses some more and once again, I have a sticky smelly mess in the composter. My question - does all compost go through that phase, or have I situated my composter too close to a garage eave and water run-off is getting in through the air holes or under the screw top lid? I've noticed that both times followed a very heavy rain (2-3 inches in a short period). Also, either way, is adding more brown material the correct solution?

Hennepin County Minnesota

1 Response

Thank you for your question about backyard composting using your new barrel composter. Moisture is one of the most important variables to get right, and it may take some trial and error. The fact that you have a sticky smelly mess certainly does suggest too much moisture.

Also, the ratio you started with sounds too low in browns (Carbon) relative to greens (Nitrogen). The typical initial ratio suggested is 30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen. What specific materials were you using for each? (leaves? grass clippings? or?)
How often were you turning the barrel?

You were doing the right thing by adding more "browns" to the mix, but it sounds like you need more. Your theory about too much water getting into the barrel from rain off the eave is also possible, so moving it away from a direct source of runoff would help.

So I would try adding more browns, moving the barrel away from the eave, and turning the barrel more often. You'll be able to fine tune it with experimentation. There are many resources on the internet that discuss backyard composting. Here is one from the University of Minnesota that is fairly comprehensive.

Good luck!