Monday, February 16, 2015


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (1/17/2015))


Question.  Dear Answer Man, my name is Conrad Kittredge.  We, my wife Consuelo and I, have just moved here from New York City for our health.  We tried Scottsdale first, but there was too much pollution, heat, and crime.  We needed a dry, pollution free environment, and Flagstaff fit the bill.  However, I have a question.  Several of our neighbors are somewhat trendy and have gone organic.  I believe they’re techies.  When they approach their driveway, the whole place lights up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  However, they have compost piles on their property.  I would like to know why their compost stinks.  I don’t mean an unpleasant odor but a really foul stink.  When the wind is right, we’re back in a polluted environment.  It’s enough to make a grown man cry.


Answer.  Well, the answer is that compost doesn’t have to stink.  As a matter of fact, a well-functioning compost bin emits a warm, fairly pleasant earthy odor that’s somewhat sweet.  You must be talking about rot or purification.  From what you say, I suspect that your trendy neighbors are novices at composting.  Sometimes, techies are disconnected from the nitty-gritty of life.  They probably throw everything into the compost pile, and that may be one reason their compost stinks.  Meat, fat, bones, oil, any animal byproducts will make a compost pile putrid.

Generally, there are two types of stinking compost piles.  One has the smell of ammonia and the other the smell of rotting flesh.  The ammonicial pile probably is too wet and not aerated, like turned with a pitchfork.  Also, it may have too much nitrogen material.  A thriving compost pile needs oxygen for the decomposing process.  The smell of rotting flesh, one of the most unpleasant of odors, is because there is some rotting flesh or byproducts of flesh in the pile, such as meat and fish scraps and animal or fish oil.  Rot stinks.


Question:  That’s all well and good, but what do you suggest I do?


Answer:  Well, you can talk to them.  If that fails, you can have them cited as a public nuisance.  Trendy, organic people tend to be quite pleasant if a little self-righteous, holier-than-thou.  The techies are often a little contemptuous of all us mortals, but when they don’t know something, they’re likely to ask.  Sustainability is the new gospel, as it should be; however, sometimes, the sustainers are a little much.


Question:  Well, I did as you suggested.  I talked to them, and it turns out that they were as offended as was I by their compost piles and a little mystified about the odor.  I offered to help them, taking your suggestions about animal byproducts and aeration.  It turns out that they didn’t have a pitchfork and neither did I, so I bought one along with a shovel.

As the CFO of a large advertising firm in New York, I hadn’t had much of a relationship with nature, but I sure did when I worked on that compost pile.  Consuelo told me that shoveling stinky compost shouldn’t be new to me because I’d been shoveling it for years.

Well, we got rid of the rot, and now the pile seems to be coming along quite well.  It’s even generating some heat.  I think I might try a pile myself.


Answer:  It’s called “cookin.”  Decomposition generates heat.  Now, if you’re serious, you need both carbon and nitrogen for a good compost pile in a three to one ratio.  You might even try a bin.  They’re easier to manage.  Carbon material includes straw, leaves, horse bedding, spoiled hay, manure, and beer mash.  Nitrogen includes freshly mown grass, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and tea leaves.

Mix them in that three to one ratio, turn it with a pitchfork every week or so, keep it damp but not wet, and watch refuse turn to gold with a little alchemy in your backyard.  You might even try some flowers and vegetables so that you can put that compost to good use.  It’ll sure be good for your health.  Kale, green beans, and sunflowers are good starters.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2015

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun.  Smith emails at and blogs at







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