Questions and Answers 2014

Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters

Here are some of the questions sent to the BCEMC email hotline in 2014. You can send your own questions to

Please keep in mind that composting is an art as well as a science. Different solutions work for different people and in different circumstances. Each composter must find his or her own way. Also, note that we are composting in the desert climate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and nearby. If you are composting in a different climate, some answers might not apply to you.

Names and identifying information about questioners have been removed. Questions and answers have been edited to modify some formatting and correct typos in the original email. Apologies for awkward formatting and typos that remain.

Making Compost from Alpaca Poo July 27, 2014


I have a small herd of Alpacas and would like to make a compost product out of their POO. I would like to talk to someone about: (1) The feasibility of marketing and selling composted Alpaca POO (what is the economic value of the compost). (2) Whether a 6 cu-yd dumpster would be a suitable container for making compost, if earthworms are used to break down the POO and if other ingredients like soil and leaves, etc. should be added to the compost mix to support the breakdown of the organic matter in the poo. We would welcome a visit to see if we are going about this in the right way.

Answer by JZ:

  1. You have an excellent idea!

  2. Selling / marketing compost would take some research with the Solid Waste Division of NM Environmental Department. You need to check with them what the requirements would be. You may be able to sell an end product as a soil amendment, but not use the word "compost"? A contact in the department would be Tim Gray:, 505.827.0129

  3. You would most likely want to do a hot composting method which is described here: Scroll all the way down.

  4. The Corrales village composting facility at the Rec. center on Jones Rd. may be a good place to visit to understand the hot composting process on a large scale. Also you could visit us at the Seed 2 Need garden composting operation (straw bale bins) on Manierre Rd., Corrales.

  5. Composting worms may be added to any "cold" composting operation. They might not fare well in temps of 100 - 150F, which would occur in a hot pile. Worm composting could be done separately, then the worms and the worm castings could be sold as a "cash" crop!

  6. I could stop by your place to discuss your needs. Just let me know a convenient day / time, then we'll set it up.

Flying Insects Attracted to My Worm Bin July 7, 2014


I attended both of your spring classes on composting and vermicomposting. I have started my vermicomposting as I learned in my classes - however I am having one problem. Everything seems to be going fine except that I am attracting an unusually LARGE amount of gnats, fruit flies, small flying insects. In both classes they said you could do this indoors which I am doing - but I must be doing something wrong because of all these insects outside my compost bin. Hope you have some suggestions as to what my problem might be.

Answer by JZ:

Others may also respond to your question. Here are some thoughts.

  • The insects that you mention are attracted to the scents coming from the bin, so do not leave the bin uncovered, except of course when you adding organic material.

  • Cover the top layer of the bin with about 3 inches of dry shredded paper or dry shredded leaves, then cut a piece of plastic to cover that addition, lightly cover the whole thing. Move this layer aside when you make an addition of organic material, then recover over the addition.

  • This should decrease the ability of flying insects to get to the top layer of your bin and perceive the scents coming from it.

  • Prior to the above you might also add some yellow sticky traps, available at nurseries, to the bin for a day or so. Trapping some of the insects will help decrease their reproduction.

  • It may take some time for this situation to settle down, so be patient.

Let us know if we can be of help.

Answer by JE:

I would also suggest put it outside with the lid off for 15 minutes, but no longer, when it is hot out to kill the current bugs. I put a timer on so I don't forget, otherwise longer periods can kill your worm too. This usually does the trick for me.

Answer by RR:

I have been going through my old Organic Gardening magazines, and I just came across a Tip from someone who had the same problem with fruit flies in and around her worm bin. While all of the answers from our Master Composters will help solve your problem, here's another one for you to consider. This lady tossed a newly pruned rosemary branch over the top layer of her worm bin, and the fruit flies disappeared. Apparently, any of the pungent herbs will work. Good luck.

What Kind of Worms Am I Using? July 6, 2014


I got really excited about starting a compost bin so my food scraps don't go into the landfill. I went to the bait shop and the clerk didn't exactly know which varieties of the worms on sale were "red wigglers," if any. I bought some called Big Reds from a company called Evergreen Night Crawlers. I've had the worm bucket going for three weeks. We added a lot of scraps in the first week, and then noticed there was some mold, so decided to stop adding food until we noticed whether the worms were turning that food into dirt. Two weeks after that, I am finding that the food is breaking down, but I don't know if that is due to regular old rot, or if the worms are working. The smell has a rich, earthy scent, with a whiff of alcoholic decay. Strong when you stick your face in the bucket and inhale, but not offensive. When I poke around, my worms look active and definitely alive. Do I have the right worms? Does this process sound like it's off to a good start?

Answer by JH:

Thanks for your question. Red wigglers, the common name for composting worms, are Eisenia Fetida. From your description it sounds like your bin is in good shape so you surely have the right worm. It is unlikely that you would be getting that rich earthy smell if you were using earthworms.

Another point for your consideration - you don't mention whether you are also adding any bedding material, i.e., shredded newspaper / brown paper bag or such. This will also be broken down by the worms but is a necessary ingredient and should either be mixed with moist food or moistened with water to a damp state and added to the bin with food scraps. These ingredients plus air flow and a cool temp, 55ish, will keep the worms and the bin in a healthy state.

The alcohol odor you mention may be the result of inadequate bedding material and / or air flow and / or too much moisture in the bin. If you see tracks from the worms crawling up the side of the bin, it's probably too much moisture.

Answer by CS:

You are on the right track; we need to keep our landfills as small as possible.

Another of our team has given you information regarding worms and possible causes of odors in your bucket / bin, I would add keeping a careful ratio regarding the number of worms and the amount of food scraps given...worms will eat just so much. It is easy to assume worms will eat everything given them but that will not be the case. Part of managing the bin is checking on that ratio.

May I suggest, if you have not already done so, that you attend one of the NM Composters workshops on composting or vermicomposting. They are free, well planned, and can be found on our website While composting with worms sounds simple, there are particular protocols to be followed in developing a successful process. These are covered carefully in the seminars.

Thanks for writing...see you at a seminar.

Bokashi Smell July 3, 2014


I've recently started Bokashi composting to supplement my vermicomposting. I know that I need to reduce the amount of water / moisture. I need your help to eliminate/reduce the nasty smell of the liquid that drains from the bottom of my bucket. Any ideas? Will reducing the water help? Or do I need to use more Bokashi mix? Or?? Answer by JZ:

Here are some thoughts on your problem. Other colleagues may also respond.

  • Avoid any liquid build up in a Bokashi setup! My thinking is that the liquid becomes a medium for anaerobic microorganisms to proliferate, thus producing methane & hydrogen sulfide gases >> odor. Any time you add moist organics to your bucket, add something dry, e.g. shredded dry leaves, paper towel, tissue, cardboard, etc. These will absorb the moisture so that you maintain it at no more than 50%. Then no standing / draining liquid will develop.

  • Be sure to mix in the Bokashi EM's completely with each addition. A generous, heaping tablespoon per cup of organics or more should work.

  • With each addition push down the top to compact the ingredients and eliminate air from it. A potato masher works well for this. Then cover the last addition with with a piece of plastic, then cover that with a stiff piece of cardboard cut to cover the whole addition. Then put a weight on top of the cardboard, for example a palm size river rock. All of this helps to eliminate air in the system.

  • Save up your organics over a few days, then add them. Not a good idea to be adding stuff daily, unless you have no other choice. This overexposes the contents to more air.

Hopefully this provides some useful info to help solve your problem. Let us know if we can be of help.

Answer by RR:

It sounds like you do Bokashi similar to the way I do it. Your Bokashi bucket has holes drilled in the bottom and sits in another bucket that collects the liquid. While the Bokashi system is touted as having little to no smell, this manner of doing it creates some pretty nasty odors that you do not want in your house. I keep mine in my greenhouse. The reason it smells so bad is because when the moisture drains out of the top bucket, it collects in a virtually airtight environment, which perfect for the methane and hydrogen sulfide to flourish. One way to prevent this is, as JZ does, put materials in your top bucket to absorb the moisture. Another way to minimize the smell would be to empty the bottom bucket daily, so the moisture doesn't have as much time to ferment. As long as you are not opening the top bucket on a daily basis, separating the buckets will not introduce more air into the closed system. Lastly, you could go to a single bucket system by burying your top bucket in a few inches into well-drained soil. That way the liquid simply drains into ground.

Where to Direct Questions about Gardening June 16, 2014


I am new to NM and raising a few basil, tomato, green chili, oregano, peppermint and flowers. I have seen a little cream colored moth on the plants and also white butterflies. Something chomped my cosmos too. (A grasshopper by the looks of it.) Will a spray made from garlic shells work to deter them? Or an earth friendly dish soap solution?

Answer by WR:

I think we've had a few more grasshoppers than usual this summer. Did you hear about the cloud of grasshoppers that passed over Albuquerque in early June and showed up on the radar map? The weather forecasters couldn't figure out what was happening. Luckily most of the grasshoppers kept going. If it is grasshoppers eating your plants, I don't think there is much you can do.

Have you tried contacting the master gardeners? We are master composters, but some of the other people who get our questions email might have answers for you as there are many gardeners in our organizations. But, you might try contacting the Master Gardener hotlines.

Here is how to contact the Bernalillo County master gardener hotline:

Or, you can post your questions here:

Here are details about Sandoval County hotline:

And, in case you live up in Santa Fe area, here is their website

Good luck! It's quite a challenge gardening in NM, but still lots of fun and totally worth it. Don't forget to compost. :)

Worm Chow June 9, 2014


Do you know of any Albuquerque dealers handling Purina Worm Chow?

Answer by JZ:

I do not know about local suppliers of PWC. I noted it is available on

City Compost May 28, 2014


I am in a new house, so no finished compost yet. I have heard that the. City makes compost available to residents that we can pick up. Is that still available this year? Love compost!

Answer by JZ:

Note: the BCEMC does not endorse nor promote any service, product or vender. The following may be of interest:

You may contact the ABCWUA Soil Amendment Facility, located on the far West Mesa: 505.205.5721,

And also: Montessa Park Convenience Center, 3512 Los Picaros Rd. SE, ABQ, 505.873.6607.

A commercial vender: Soilutions, 9800 Bates Rd. SE, ABQ, 505.873.6607,

Are Coffee Grounds Good for My Garden May 3, 2014


We own a coffee shop and produce lots of grounds. Are they good for gardens or not? And if so, in what proportion? Thanks.

Answer by JZ:

Here's my opinion - others may respond to your questions.

If your garden soil is in the high desert with high percentage of sand then (or any type of soil) adding organic material such as coffee grounds would be beneficial - copious amounts are OK. Then you need to provide moisture in the soil for decomposition to occur. As the soil bacteria and possibly worms (if you have them) will decompose the grounds to humus, which acts like a sponge to absorb water and then release it along with plant nutrients. This is very helpful in our drought condition. Decomposition of organics added to your garden soil will progress well with moisture present. You could spread the grounds on top of the soil and / or use a garden fork or spade to poke holes in the bed, then spread out the grounds, then rake over the holes, then water. Keep the bed well mulched with other organic material (shredded leaves, paper, cardboard, straw, etc.) to a depth of 3 inches. This will help keep moisture in the soil, thus decomposition of the grounds will occur over time. You could also add some the grounds to any composting operation, that you may have set up. Mix them with moisturized shredded (brown) leaves or shredded paper products. You have a valuable resource for your garden soil! Let us know, if we can be of further help.

Where to Get Worms April 21, 2014


Where would I find earthworms to buy in order to introduce them into the soil of my raised garden beds? I do not want red wigglers for composting but earthworms to help with aeration and soil health in my garden beds. I live in Pecos, NM and the soil here is very rocky (I live at 8,000 feet) so we bought organic topsoil mix to put into the 4' x 8' raised beds (2 of these). We would like to put some earthworms in the soil before planting and don't know where to find them in bulk quantities.

Answer by PB:

When I put my raised beds in seven years ago, I went to a bait shop and purchased night crawlers. I probably populated my 25' L x 8' W x 2.5' H bed with only a few hundred and they have multiplied nicely over the years. What a joy to turn the soil each year and see how well they are doing.

Modifying a Compost Bin for the Desert March 28, 2014


I attended John Zarola's wonderful Composting Basics class last month and gained lots of valuable information. The most important thing I realized is that my homemade compost bin was too open and evaporation was high. I plan to fix the problem by nailing plywood to the outside to retain moisture but would like to know if plywood is appropriate (versus treated wood) and if so, what thickness would you recommend? My bin is not against a wall but sits in the open.

Answer by JH:

An easier way might be to just line the inside of the bin with plastic or other waterproof material, i.e., a split open garbage bag. Just leave an opening at the bottom for airflow. A similar material can be used as a cover.

Creating a Worm Bin March 20, 2014


I have access to leaves, alpaca manure, and coffee grounds. I want to create an outdoor worm bed. What would be the best mix of materials (and layering) to get the most worms and compost?

Answer by JZ:

Here is my (opinion) response:

  1. Be sure that you use composting worms - red wigglers.

  2. An outdoor worm bin is an excellent idea. The worms are closer to their natural environment and under good conditions they will breed and also be making humus throughout the seasons.

  3. It would be good to consider the location / orientation for your bin, e.g., in the summer sun would not be the best location. 85F is about the highest temp. you want in the bedding.

  4. Outdoor bins partially submerged in soil are then well insulated for our climate both winter and summer.

  5. Worms will breed under ideal conditions of moisture, at least 50%, adequate organic material to ingest and a temperature in the bedding material of about 65F. Under good conditions they can double their population in 3 months.

  6. Composting worms ingest dead / decomposing organic material, so leaves, alpaca manure, and coffee are fine additions. I do not know if alpacas occasionally get vermicide medication? You might ask the owners. If so, manure with meds in it should be allowed to decompose in the sun for 3 months so that any meds would be biodegraded. Then you could add the manure to your bed.

  7. The "speed" at which your worms will make humus will depend on the number of worms reference the amount of organic material that you feed them. So it would depend on the size of your bin and how many worms you add right at the beginning. One pound of composting worms (about 2 cups) can ingest about 1 / 2 lb. of organics in 24 hours. So you could do some calculating with that approximation. Then observe how the worms do the job.

  8. All the organic material mentioned would be fine to feed them. Mixing all 3, then making sure that the mix is 50% moist should get you going in the right direction. In my opinion you could feed them just about any organic material that you have available. The rate at which all this is going to happen depend on managing the variables of moisture, bedding temperature, available food and the number of worms working for you. Just get started, the worms will teach you the rest.

Hope this is useful. Let us know if we can help.

Adding Worms to the Garden February 24, 2014


Is it ok to put red wigglers in a regular garden or are they just for composting. What is the best worm for a garden in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque?

Answer by WR:

Red worms do best in very rich organic matter with plenty of moisture and microbes. I.e., they do best in the compost. They don't do so well in the garden, at least here in our climate. (I'm not sure about other places.) You've probably noticed the earthworms you dig up in your garden / lawn are different than the red worms that you might see in your compost. I ended up with lots of red worms in my compost (not a hot compost pile) and I didn't put them there. They just showed up and were happy there and reproduced (and reproduced!). But I've not seen red worms in the garden itself. Just those brownish earthworms. As you build up your garden with compost, then the right type of earthworms will come, the kind that like to live in the garden. I don't know about adding earthworms to the garden explicitly. Happy gardening in this crazy, challenging but fun place to garden, Albuquerque.

Answer by PB:

I put earthworms in my raised bed when it was built in 2007. They have multiplied nicely. Red wriggles / compost worms like to live in damp decaying environments. They can be found in nature under rotting tree stumps and piles of leaves. WR is correct, they will come to your compost pile if the conditions are right.

Getting Started with Composting, Choosing a Method January 19, 2014


I live in El Paso and am looking to begin composting. We generate a lot of kitchen scraps (vegetable trimmings) and would like recommendations on how to get started with composting. I am leaning toward a plastic compost tumbler. Do you have recommendations for what tumblers work best in this region?

Answer by JZ:

Our website has several "handouts" on the left menu bar that might be helpful in making your choice and also address the particulars of composting in the desert. Plastic tumblers probably work best for a batch method (hot) of composting. A less controversial container is the manufactured plastic bin that has an opening on the top and one at the bottom to make for easy removal of finished product. This type of bin works well for dump-n-run (easy, cold) composting. Since you, too, are in the desert, in order to decrease evaporation from the bin, tape over about 50% of the holes, being sure that the bottom holes are open. A good quality bin costs about $100 new.

Since you mention kitchen scraps, another choice is the Bokashi bucket composting method, see: Another option is to compost your kitchen scraps in a bin with composting worms. The bin could be kept indoors or put in a pit outdoors. Composting worms may be purchased on-line or from a local source.

Let us know if we can be of further help to you.

Answer by JH:

Alan, here is a link for the composting training module on the El Paso County Master Gardeners website: It is best that you refer to local sources due to climate differences. I am thinking El Paso is more humid and certainly hotter year round than Albuquerque which is high desert. Basically your kitchen scraps are the nitrogen source (greens) and you will need to add a carbon source (browns) such as fall leaves or wood chips along with water. Turning the tumbler as directed should keep the contents aerated and well mixed. If you find you have an odor, the mix is either too wet or is not getting enough air. If the mix is not breaking down, it is not a good ratio of nitrogen to carbon or is not heating up sufficiently. Without knowing more about your yard space and intentions I would not comment on other methods except that if you will not be able to find sufficient browns, you may want to try vermicomposting or the Bokashi method. And if you have not already purchased a tumbler, you might first want to investigate whether one of these methods will be better suited to your situation.

Plastic Turn Bins January 28, 2014

Question from a Master Composter:

I've never used one of those plastic turn bins and don't plan to get one. But I often have friends ask me about them. Since I don't have experience with one, it's a hard question to answer. I've gotten a vague impression that expert composters don't like them, but I'm not sure. I was wondering what you guys think about them and what I should tell friends when they ask about getting one.

Answer by PB:

I also do not have one but have gotten plenty of feedback about them. The most frequent criticism is that the material tends to compact and it ends up clanking around like drying tennis shoes in a dryer. Also this is definitely a batch type Composter so does not meet the needs of a dump and run type of person. Another comment is that it is hard to keep the right moisture levels.

Answer by JH:

This type of bin was my introduction to composting because it was advertised to make compost in 2 weeks! Boy, was I a sucker!!!


  • Takes up little space

  • Looks tidier than a pile on the ground

  • Relatively easy to turn even when full

  • Easy to move if on wheels

  • Regular turning of the bin contents and maintenance of proper moisture will eventually be rewarded with a small amount of compost


  • Initial cost is significant

  • Capacity limited

  • Frequent turning of tumbler required - much more than advertised

  • Doesn't seem to be any more efficient than other methods

My advice: a tumbler is a quick way to compost a few hundred bucks. I would recommend vermicomposting instead of a tumbler for those with limited materials. For those needing greater capacity, you just can't beat straw bales or the handmade wire bin held together by clothespins. Even with the cost of the tarp needed to line and cover this kind of homemade system, it's much less expensive while also being easier to manage.

Answer by JZ:

I bought a big tumbler, secondhand. Then I filled it with wet horse manure and bulking material. Now its too heavy to turn it! JH and PB have some good points. Purchased new, i think they come with instructions. Best thing for a friend considering a composting method is to attend one of our classes. My preference, so far, is the dump-n-run bin with a flip door on top and a opening at bottom to harvest finished product. It's neat, great for static (no turn) composting and produces humus.

Answer by RR:

I started serious composting using a compost tumbler I got passed down from my father-in-law. I thought it was great. Granted, it is a batch process, but it worked great. When it rusted out, it cost big bucks for replacement parts. Then I got a bigger used one on Craig's List, and it rusted out, also. So I had some stainless steel parts made and rebuilt it for less than half of what it would cost for the new parts. They are not for everyone. I use it in addition to my wire ring (lined with cardboard) batches, but I also have a lot of room to store materials while the batches are working. I like it, and I think it makes better compost, but the initial investment is a lot higher than homemade. Plus, like I said, you have to have room to store the materials for the next batch. But that's the method I use, and it works well for me.

Answer by RB:

My husband and I have two of the plastic turn bins - as JH said: pricey! I have had poor luck with them which mostly has to do with laziness. We do have the directions which are quite specific (and accurate) about the amount of moisture. It was easy to let it dry out--way too much ventilation for this climate. The result is the tennis balls in the dryer effect. JZ suggested taping over the ventilation screen and adding bulking material. That combination helped a lot in preventing the lumps from forming. We used the dump, add water, turn, then run method rather than a batch method, but once a barrel is full, you are stuck which no place for waste materials a few weeks (of turning and watering) until the composting is complete. As JZ says, the barrel is very heavy and hard to turn with it's full, and as JH says, there is a pathetically small quantity of finished compost when you're done. The bottom line is the barrels are effective if used properly, but the process takes a lot of work and fussing over - in my opinion, more that turning a hot pile every week!

Answer by SB:

I'm with RB. I have two different barrels in addition to a tower. The barrels are faster but do take more attention, watering and turning (which can't be done in the winter when my barrels freeze up). The compost is good if I remember to turn them but, as has been already said, they are heavy. My tower used to shut down in the winter but now I have some red wrigglers in the tower, it works all winter. The only problem with the tower is I have to get on my knees to dig out the finished compost, putting as many red wrigglers back as I can, while I can just tip the barrels into a wheel barrel to sift.

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, you can click on "What Can I Compost" to get a list of browns and greens. The page, near top, 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. Here's a list. Check it often, we keep adding more: 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.

Composting in a Barrel Tumbler January 4, 2014


I have attached my CAD drawing for a compost barrel I am building. I have heard from many sources that New Mexicans over aerate their compost and dry it out. There will be (12) 1" holes around the whole barrel. I was wondering if I have too many aeration holes?

Answer by JZ:

Nice tumbler. Some thoughts:

  • When that barrel is full of moist organics it will be heavy to turn; you might consider larger / heavy duty wheels.

  • Holes: go with 12, then test out the process. If you get too much evaporation then you could tape over a few holes.

  • Do you plan on doing hot or cold composting?? Hot method is a high energy process so high oxygen requirements, so 12 holes may be just fine. The downward holes will always be covered with contents material, actually modifying air flow just a bit. Be sure to add bulking material: sticks, twigs, pine cones, etc. as you add moist organic material this will prevent compaction and allow for air flow throughout the contents.

Hope this is helpful. Other MC's may respond to your question too. Let us know if you need further help.

Also See Questions and Answers Other Years