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E. Coli in My Compost Pile and Composting in the (Very) High Desert, Especially Pine Needles


March 20, 2023

I live in Ruidoso, NM 88345 and I've lived here for 7 years. I have composted all my life, had successful vegetable gardens in Texas and NM. Even when I lived in Truchas NM at almost 8500 feet, I had a successful garden. Always I looked to my natural sources for composting. Here my natural resources are rocks, pinecones and pine needles. I have an abundant of shade, live on a slope and when something does grow, I have deer which delight in everything, even the "deer resistant" plants. They even ate the rhubarb leaves down to the ground and when the leaves grew back, ate them again.

I have been trying to compost pine needles for all these years, by layering with blood meal, but while I have a very small amount of needles breaking down, not much to work with. My kitchen scraps don't even compost, just sit there. A friend of mine in Silver City, totally different climate etc, said she puts her kitchen scraps in a 5gallon bucket and when it is a stinky sludge she puts it her compost of course, leaves and grass.

So I tried that last year. I haven't been out to the compost pile yet because I had major reconstructive back surgery this winter and can't bend, lift or twist for a year. To pass the time this winter I've been reading a fascinating book " Teaming with Microbes" by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. In the book they talk about the soil food web and how to restore your soil. There were several references to E.coli. The fact that I "brewed" my kitchen scraps until they smelled like my next-door neighbor's septic field, an indicator of anaerobic bacteria, did I unknowingly contaminate my composting pine needles with E. coli? I still have two buckets of "brew" which I didn't have time to put on my pile before the surgery and while they are not stinky, are they to be trusted to be OK for the compost?

I must say this the hardest place I've ever lived in to garden. No top soil, no soil texture, structure, erodes away with every rain, shade, and then deer. I've read tons about composting pine needles since it is my only natural resource; no "lawn" with grass clippings, no deciduous tree leaves, and most references say not to had more then 10% needles into your pile. Any experience with this?

I am going to try different clovers, winter rye, rye grass, buckwheat, as ground covers, for erosion control, and possibly a green source for my compost. I just might have more deer to the "green diner" than crops, but I'll give it a try.

Of course, there are but a few of us crazy enough to compost and have a vegetable garden under these conditions and they think I know something! Basically, everything I knew doesn't work here. Do you have anyone there with any experience gardening under these less than suitable conditions?

I look forward to hearing from you.


Answer by JH: Thanks for your question. Sounds very frustrating. I encourage you to review all the resource material regarding methods of composting in the desert. As for specific gardening problems your local county extension office may be the best resource but I’ll offer a few suggestions. And you’ll likely hear from other master composters.

The odor created in an anaerobic environment is methane and it can be eliminated quickly by introducing air into the mix. Given the poor quality of your soil it might be more effective, certainly less frustrating, to trench compost by digging into the soil and burying the pine needles and “sludge”. Because the pine needles are hydrophobic, layering the wet sludge on top of them may facilitate their decomposition.

As for gardening I recommend raised beds that enable you to control the quality of growing medium. A fence around your raised beds will keep the deer away.

You are right about this high desert environment - it is harsh and experienced gardeners can have massive problems in any given year due to lack of rainfall, windy weather, etc. For this reason it is important to use cultivars that are known to thrive in this climate. That goes for ground covers as well.

Answer by JZ: Bravo, for taking on the composting and gardening challenge in your unique environment! I will add my comments to what my colleague Jana has already sent to you.

Pine needles are carbon(browns). They have a coating on them which seems to slow decomposition. Adding blood meal or any other green, which is nitrogen should be helpful to the decomposition process. My experience is that it takes at least 18 months for needles to decompose, assuming appropriate management. It is important that your setup is 50% moist in all seasons.  Patience and appropriate management are required.

The bacterium E.coli is present in any manure.  If you are not using any manure in your setup, then it’s not a concern. If you do use manures, then it is suggested that you use well managed hot process composting method. See pages 5-7  of

A minimal odor closed bucket system which you may appreciate is the Bokashi method, described here: Bokashi | Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters | New Mexico

A useful website: Home | TeraGanix - Premium Quality Microbial-Based Products Online

You might also consider an indoor/outdoor, no odor red wiggler worm composting setup.

Please see the list of compostable materials on page 3:

Agree that well covered raised beds may be a useful option for you.  Best.  Compost on 

Answer by RR: You are indeed a trooper for your sustainable living efforts; my hat is off to you. Pine needles have a coating that, until penetrated, prevents the microbes from breaking them down. If you have access to something that can break the needles, like a lawn mower or chipper/shredder, this will help the process get an easier start. Happy composting!

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