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The Worms in My Compost Died and My Compost Smells Bad


January 17, 2014

I have successfully composted kitchen and yard waste in my backyard here on the west side of Albuquerque for at least 12 years. Summer before last, all the worms in my compost died and I began having problems I never had before. I purchased earth worms last year to add to my compost, and they had died by the next time I turned my compost (about a week to 10 days). Since that time, it is not composting (smells, rots, my cucumber got fungus (?) and died). Can you give me any ideas? Thank you!


Answer by WR: Is it possible that you added some horse manure to your compost? If horses have been de-wormed, the medicine can go into their manure and can kill worms in a compost. Also manure can really heat up a compost, good for the compost but bad news for the worms. Another thought, did you buy actual earth worms or red worms (aka fishing worms, red wrigglers)? The latter are happy in compost but earth worms are not. If the above doesn’t explain what happened to the worms, if your compost is not covered and / or is in a hot/dry spot and not getting enough water, that might explain why the worms are dying (too hot and dry). Or, if you are making hot compost, again, this is a good thing but not a good place for worms.

In general, if compost is smelly and gross, one or more of the following is probably true: (1) needs more browns (high carbon materials) to balance your greens (high nitrogen materials), (2) needs less water, and / or (3) needs to be stirred more. On our handouts page (under Resources in our website menu), you can click on “What Can I Compost” to get a list of browns and greens. The page also has link to our new flyer “Composting in the Desert” with some good information.

If your cucumbers got a fungus from the compost it could be that the compost was not finished when you put it on your plants. Could it have been a virus? If you have put previous plants in the compost that had a virus, unless your compost gets hot enough, the virus can be transmitted to new plants planted in the compost. In general it is best to not to put diseased plants into a compost.
You’re welcome to attend any of our free classes. We have several on the schedule in upcoming months. See Classes under Activities in our website menu.

 I hope this helps. Feel free to write back if you still have questions or feel free to call me if you’d rather discuss this by phone. Also will you let us know how it goes? We want to help you get your compost back on track and we’ll continue to work with you on that.

Answer by CS: My sense is that the pile is too rich in kitchen waste, nitrogen, the clue being smell, rots. Find some good dry leaves and turn them into the pile along with some sticks cut up branches for bulk and if nothing else, some cut up newspapers to add carbon. Keep moist, cover. Add worms when the pile becomes balanced. Note workshops on the web site as noted earlier. An overall picture of the composting process could be helpful.

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