Does Your Compost Look Like Road Apples and Elephant Droppings?

person curatorfolder_opencompostaccess_time April 10, 2013
road apples

Anyone who’s used a tumbling composter will eventually run into “road apples” or “elephant droppings”. No, I’m not talking about stuff that you put into your composter, I’m talking about when you open your rotating composter and instead of finding nice, rich, black compost, you find “road apples”.

Road apples?!

For those of you “city folk”, road apples is a polite way to say “horse poop”. If you took grass, ground it all up into a thick paste and rolled it into a ball, you’d basically have horse poop. Sound familiar?

When composing in a pile you may run into “cow patties”, areas of wet, green material that doesn’t seem to be breaking down. This is caused, in part, by a semi-hard shell that encapsulates the wet material. When composting in a tumbler these “patties” get rolled around into balls. The outsides have that shell that seals out the air and holds in the moisture. This delays — but does not prevent — the composting process.

The best way to avoid “road apples” in your compost is to prevent them from happening in the first place — which isn’t as easy as it sounds. For the most part, “apples” are formed when clumps of grass (typically, though any greens can form clumps) ball together in the tumbling process. Many people think that simply adding more “dry” or “brown” components to the mix will resolve the issue. That’s true — but only if you get it in at the right time. Once the balls have already formed you’ll either need to manually break them apart, or let the composting process happen naturally, which could take quite a bit of time once the balls have formed.

Instead, if you’re adding a significant amount of “greens” to your mix, you’ll want to intermix it with enough “dry” material when it’s added, rather than later.

What if you’ve got a lot of grass clippings?

Grass clippings are usually the culprit. If you’re composting even a full bag full at a time, you’ll likely end up with apples — unless you’re adding in sawdust, shredded newspapers, or other dry, “brown” material to help soak up all the moisture in your clippings.

Instead of adding the grass directly to the composter, try spreading it on a tarp for several days, stirring it to make sure it gets good and dry — THEN add the dry grass clippings to your composter.

If that won’t work for you (or if rain is in the forecast), you could always use your grass clippings as a mulch instead of as compost. Doing so can help control weeds in flower beds or areas that you don’t have planted — and helps retain water. Try to avoid using grass clippings as mulch around trees, however, since they can block oxygen from getting to the roots. When mulching with grass, try to keep it at least 4 to 6 inches deep. As a bonus,¬†earthworms¬†LOVE grass clippings, so if you’ve got a fisherman in the family, they’ll love the steady supply of large, healthy worms.

I hope you were able to gleen some helpful information from this article! If you’ve got tips or other ideas, I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments!

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