Greens and browns in the composting feedstock provide the much-needed nitrogen and carbon for composting. In addition to these, the bacteria that break compost down also need air and water. Water is as essential as the greens and browns for the composting process.
You should water your compost every time you turn it, which is every 3-4 days in a week in the first two phases and every month in the final of composting. Keep an eye on your pile in dry weather, and if it seems to be overheating, add more water as necessary to keep it damp but not soggy.
In this article, I’ll elaborate on the signs that indicate that your compost needs water, how much water you compost needs, and the importance of water in compost, so read on!
Signs Your Compost Needs Water
The health of your pile will be affected if your compost is too dry. Your compost pile is a living thing, and like any creature, it needs water to survive. Here are a few signs to look out for that indicate that your compost needs to be watered.
Your Compost Is Very Crumbly, Powdery, and Dusty
Healthy compost usually has a crumbly texture but a rich earthy smell. However, compost should not be powdery, indicating a lack of moisture in a pile.
Good compost usually sticks to itself when squeezed together, so if your compost is powdery, it doesn’t have enough water content to stick to itself.
Another textural indication that accompanies dusty compost is chunks of hardened composting feedstock. If your compost has enough water, the texture will be light and fluffy, not dusty and crumbly.
Powdery compost indicates that your pile is overheated, and the heat has burned through the composting feedstock. If your feedstock has been burnt, you might see a white powder on your compost. This powder is known as flash and is the residue left behind when the bacteria process nitrogen too quickly.
The feathery compost left behind has very little value as all the feedstock burns instead of being incorporated into the humus, and the compost cannot be used to amend the soil.
The Compost Feels Too Hot
Whether you’re composting with or without a bin, a compost pile goes through three phases in hot composting. The first phase is the mesophilic stage, where the aerobic bacteria start multiplying.
Soon after that comes the thermophilic stage, when temperatures in the compost pile can reach anything between 130-160 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4-71.1 degrees Celsius).
The decomposition process is accelerated due to the heat, which is essential not only for composting the greens quickly but also for accelerating the decomposition of browns like twigs and sticks.
However, thermophiles prefer temperatures between 105-140 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6-60 degrees Celsius), and as the temperature climbs, the bacteria start becoming dormant or dying off.
The pile needs to be turned and aerated at this stage to cool it down, but water has an equally important role in maintaining the temperature at a level where the bacteria can continue to work.
If you don’t add water to your compost at this point, it can become explosive to the point of your compost bin blowing over.
There’s an Ant Infestation in Your Compost Pile
Like fruit flies and white worms like soldier fly larvae, ants can also infest your compost pile, especially if your compost touches the ground. For the most part, ants are harmless and can even help the composting process, but you can always have too much of a good thing.
Additionally, the presence of ants in your compost pile indicates that the pile has been neglected. Neglect affects the health of your compost. If you see ants in your pile, it indicates a dry compost pile that isn’t turned and aerated often enough and is too dry.
A compost pile that is too dry is stagnant, with no activity that would disturb ants from making their nests in them.
Dry compost piles also result in slow decomposition, releasing organic acids into the compost. These acids change compost’s pH value from neutral or basic to acidic, which is also ideal for ants looking to make a nest.
You Aren’t Adding Enough Greens to Your Compost Pile
Greens and browns form the basic feedstock necessary for composting. While the browns supply the carbon that the aerobic bacteria use for energy, the greens supply the nitrogen eaten by the bacteria and used to build their cellular structures.
The greens are softer, watery organic matter like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, etc., which also supply moisture to the compost. If you aren’t adding enough greens, your compost will not have sufficient moisture to break down.
You can often contain the moisture content of your compost pile by simply adding more green waste, especially in damp and rainy weather.
Your ratio of browns to greens should be 3:1. If you’re adding any less nitrogen, there simply won’t be enough food or water for the bacteria, and it confirms that you don’t have enough water in your pile.
The Browns in Your Compost Pile Aren’t Breaking Down
As I mentioned earlier, browns refer to the carbon sources in your compost pile. These include unbleached and untreated paper and cardboard, dried leaves, twigs and sticks, and other woody waste. The browns supply the energy to your compost, but they typically take longer to break down.
The woodier waste, like twigs and sticks, has high concentrations of lignin and cellulose, which are among the last of the organic matter to decompose.
This slow process is why you can’t use partially decomposed compost, as the decomposing twigs and sticks will absorb nitrogen from the soil so they can fully break down.
If the browns in your pile aren’t breaking down at all, especially browns like dried leaves, then it’s very likely that you don’t have enough water in your pile.
Organic waste needs water to decompose. The browns absorb the excess water from the decomposing greens, but they do need additional water to help them break down quickly.
The Compost Is Decomposing Unevenly
There are many reasons why your pile may be decomposing unevenly. If you don’t turn your pile enough, you might end up with pockets of clumped nitrogen. These heat up too quickly and abruptly cool down, leaving that part of your pile cold and congealed.
Your compost also needs to be layered correctly, like lasagna, with thick layers of browns sandwiching a thinner layer of greens.
If you’re turning and layering correctly and still see uneven decomposition in your pile, it might be because of a lack of moisture. If you don’t water your compost, you might end up with some parts of compost that are rich in moisture from the greens. The other areas where the carbons absorb the water too quickly.
This variation in moisture causes variable heating and decomposition through the pile. When compost is watered and turned regularly, there is a more even water distribution through the pile. This even distribution of moisture results in evenly decomposing compost.
How Much Water Does a Compost Pile Need?
Now that you know what happens if you don’t water your compost, the question that needs to be answered is exactly how much water a compost pile needs.
A compost pile needs enough water to be damp, not soggy or dripping. The moisture levels of your compost pile should be maintained between 40 and 60%. This percentage will result in compost that has the dampness of a wrung-out sponge when squeezed.
You’ve added too much water if your compost drips with the squeeze test or if water starts collecting at the bottom of your bin aside from when it rains. The compost should stick to itself and stay relatively warm. If your compost is cold and soggy, then that’s another sign that you’ve added too much water.
Spraying your compost down when you’re turning it is an excellent way of ensuring that you water your compost regularly. Combining watering your compost with turning it also ensures that you can evenly distribute the water through the pile.
Importance of Water in Compost
Water is a vital component of composting. The bacteria that process organic matter into compost need water to survive. If your compost pile has less than 15% moisture, all decomposition will stop altogether.
If you’ve overwatered your pile, the aerobic bacteria will drown, and the pile will go cold. However, anaerobic decomposition will set in. While the final compost isn’t the healthiest, composting can still occur in situations with too much water. But without water, decomposition is almost impossible.
You should be watering your compost pile every 3-4 days in the first two stages of composting when the compost heats up, then every month or so. Maintaining a 40-60% moisture level is essential, which means that your compost will feel like a wrung-out sponge when squeezed.
Common signs that you don’t have enough water include a dusty texture, ant infestation, uneven decomposition, and browns that aren’t decomposing at all.