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Keeping wildlife away from your compost

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Making your own compost is an eco-friendly and rewarding way to manage your food waste.  But what can you do if your compost bin is being raided by wildlife?

Many animals are attracted to compost for different reasons. Rats find compost ideal as a source of food and a warm place to nest. Skunks like the grubs they find in it. Bears’ acute sense of smell leads them from a mile away toward the foul odors that emanate from poorly maintained compost.

Taking precautions when building your compost bin and adopting good maintenance habits can prevent wildlife from finding your gardener’s gold.

The first thing you can do is to choose an open flat area that allows for ample air circulation. Clear the area of clutter or debris to remove potential hiding places for critters.

Select a hard-sided compost bin with a lid. You may find reasonably priced backyard composting bins at your local solid waste management district.

A sheet of quarter-inch hardware cloth a few inches larger than the bottom opening of your compost bin will serve as a barrier against small rodents that tunnel from underground. Place this sheet on the cleared ground, and position the bin on top ensuring that the metal cloth’s edges extend beyond the outer edges of the bin.

The recipe for perfect compost requires the correct balance of carbon-rich brown materials, nitrogen-rich green materials, water and oxygen. These ingredients work together to produce healthy compost with a pleasant earthy smell that won’t attract bears.

Brown materials include dead leaves, dried grass clippings, wood chips, sawdust, brown paper bags and cardboard, straw, coffee filters, egg cartons and toilet paper rolls.

Adding three times as much carbon-rich brown material as green material and turning the compost pile regularly to add oxygen will speed decomposition, making a compost pile less attractive to bears and other wildlife. Photo courtesy of Nadie VanZandt

For appropriate green materials, consider green grass clippings, plant trimmings, fruit and vegetable scraps, biodegradable tea bags, herbivore manure, coffee grounds and rinsed and crushed eggshells.

Make sure that both brown and green ingredients are cut small to speed up decomposition. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will turn into compost.

Do not add dog or cat waste, meat or fish (raw or cooked), dairy products, oil or unrinsed eggshells to your compost. These will generate foul odors and potentially dangerous bacteria.

Each time you add food scraps to your compost, cover it entirely with a layer of brown materials. This step is essential to prevent foul odors. In fact, if bears have been a problem in your area, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department recommends using “three times as many brown as green materials.” Visit https://go.uvm.edu/bears for other tips for keeping bears away from compost piles.

Your next step is to turn your compost pile regularly as this will aerate the pile adding the air necessary to activate the oxygen-loving bacteria needed for decomposition. Do this every other week. Each time you turn your compost finish the task by adding a new layer of brown materials.

Your compost should be damp, not wet. A wet pile indicates that your compost does not receive enough airflow to properly decompose. Excess moisture often results in a smelly, slimy mess that attracts flies and unwanted four-legged visitors. Turning your compost regularly and adding a good amount of brown materials can usually solve this problem.

For more information on composting, contact the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension Master Gardener Help Line at 802.656.5421 or online at https://go.uvm.edu/gardenquestion.

In addition, UVM Extension, in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation, will be offering the Vermont Master Composter course this autumn. Learn more at https://go.uvm.edu/vtcomposter.

by Nadie VanZandt, Extension Master Gardener, UVM

Cover photo: Black bears, which have a keen sense of smell, may be attracted to backyard compost piles, especially if the pile is not maintained properly. Photo courtesy of Peter Nuij/Unsplash

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