How to Increase Moisture in Compost

Moisture is a critical factor in the composting process. The right amount of moisture allows microorganisms to thrive and break down organic materials efficiently. Too little moisture slows decomposition, while excessive wetness leads to anaerobic conditions and foul odors. Monitoring and managing moisture levels is essential for creating quality compost. This article covers techniques for adding and retaining moisture, troubleshooting overly wet or dry compost, and using moisture meters for optimal moisture balance. With some simple practices, you can achieve the 40-60% moisture sweet spot for active, effective composting.

Significance of Moisture in Compost

Moisture content is one of the most important variables in composting. Decomposition occurs most rapidly when moisture levels are 40-60%. Microorganisms need sufficient moisture to transport nutrients and allow chemical reactions during the breakdown of organic matter. Bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and other composting organisms thrive best within this optimal moisture range.

Too little moisture causes microbial activity to slow.

Without adequate water, the microbes become dormant or die off, stalling the composting process. Dry conditions make it harder for bacteria to access nutrients from materials. This restricts population growth and diversity in the compost biome.

Excess moisture also hinders composting.

Water displaces the air pockets between particles, leading to compacted, anaerobic conditions. In the absence of oxygen, decomposition occurs much more slowly. Some anaerobic bacteria can survive, producing foul-smelling compounds like hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and organic acids. These smelly chemicals signal a problem with too much moisture.

The ideal moisture content varies slightly during compost stages.

Higher moisture around 50-60% is preferred during active decomposition, while drier 30-40% moisture is best for the curing or maturation phase. But overall the 40-60% range provides optimal conditions for aerobic microbial activity and degradation of organic matter. Paying close attention to moisture ensures a thriving composting environment.

How to Increase Moisture

If your compost heap is too dry, there are several easy methods to add moisture:

Water it

Simply spraying or sprinkling water over the pile is the most direct way to increase moisture. Use a hose, watering can, or rainfall to thoroughly soak the compost. Turning or mixing afterward will help distribute the moisture evenly.

Add wet ingredients

Fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, and other wet organic materials contain high moisture levels. Bury these wet ingredients into the pile, or layer them between drier materials. Their moisture will gradually spread through the compost.

Cover it

Putting a tarp or plastic sheet over the compost heap will retain moisture from rain or watering. The cover prevents moisture loss from sun and wind. Keep it ventilated to avoid overly wet conditions.

Reduce turning frequency

Turning too often evaporates moisture from the inner depths of the pile. Leave the compost undisturbed longer between turns to maintain moisture.

Insulate the pile

Larger compost heaps retain heat and moisture better. Insulate with layers of straw, leaves, sawdust or wood chips to trap moisture. Proper insulation regulates moisture balance.

Use compost tea

Brewed compost tea provides a nutritional boost of minerals, microbes, and enzymes. Lightly spraying over the pile adds moisture along with beneficial biology.

Monitor conditions

Check moisture levels frequently, using the fist test or a compost thermometer probe. Add moisture immediately if the pile becomes too dry.

Troubleshooting Overly Wet Compost

Sometimes compost becomes too wet, usually from excessive rain, overwatering, or adding high-moisture ingredients like food waste. Excessively wet compost has visible free water, sticks together in clumps, and forms a long ribbon when squeezed. Anaerobic odors also signify oversaturation. Luckily, restoring proper moisture balance is straightforward:

Turn or aerate the pile

Turning mixes in dry outer layers and exposes soggy inner material to air. Aerating dries out and decompacts the compost, creating air pockets.

Add absorbent amendments

Mix in straw, shredded leaves, sawdust, wood chips, or shredded newspaper. These high-carbon materials will soak up excess liquid.

Stop adding wet ingredients

Halt any food waste or other wet additions until moisture decreases. Allow existing wetness to evaporate.

Cover pile loosely or shelter

Allow airflow but prevent excess rain from saturating covered piles. Move bin out from under eaves temporarily if needed.

Spread out compost

Moving compost to a wider, shallower pile or bin increases evaporation surface area.

Wait it out

Given time, gravity will draw out excess moisture if no wet materials are added. Be patient for nature to take its course.

Screen out finished compost

Dry finished compost can be separated from wet unfinished materials if needed in a hurry. Screening or sifting removes usable humus.

Consequences of Too Much Moisture in Compost

Wet conditions lead to several problems in the composting process:

Slow decomposition

Water displaces air in the pore spaces between particles. Lack of oxygen slows microbial activity and decomposition. Anaerobic bacteria work much more slowly than aerobes.

Bad odors

Anaerobic decay produces foul sulfur-containing gases like hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell), ammonia, and organic acids. These signal an imbalance in moisture and oxygen.

Nutrient loss

Excess water can leach out soluble nitrogen, potassium, and other nutrients. This limits availability to microbes and decreases quality.


Wet compost becomes dense and compressed. Turning or aerating becomes difficult due to lack of air pockets and free airflow.

Reduced pile temperature

Microbial activity generates less metabolic heat when oxygen is limited. Cooler piles delay breakdown.

Poor consistency

Excessively wet compost takes on a slimy, muddy consistency. It sticks together and lacks friability. Quality compost should be loose and crumbly.


Waterlogging can wash nutrients out the bottom of open compost piles, creating an environmental hazard. Leachate should be avoided.

Troubleshooting Overly Dry Compost

Dry compost lacks microbial activity and takes a long time to decompose. Identifying excessively dry conditions is the first step to fixing moisture levels:

Check lower moisture content. Squeeze a handful of compost. It should feel slightly moist but not drip water. No moisture indicates the pile is too dry.

Look for dry chunks. Dry compost contains many hard chunks that resist breaking down. Particles cling together when squeezed instead of crumbling apart.

Notice poor pile shrinkage. Well-decomposed compost shrinks to about half its initial volume. Lack of shrinkage shows slow decomposition.

Feel low temperature. Overly dry piles do not sustain high heat over 100°F needed for active composting.

Monitor dustiness. Dry compost is prone to getting dusty. Dust indicates a lack of moisture and microbial activity.

Check pile surface. Dry surface layers or cracks show the need for moisture. Pay special attention after sunny, hot, or windy weather.

A few simple amendments can rebalance overly dry compost:

Water thoroughly. Use a hose sprayer or watering can to deeply soak dry piles. Moisten completely but avoid oversaturation.

Turn and mix pile. Blend wet outer layers into dry inner material to distribute moisture evenly.

Add wet greens. Bury fruit/veggie scraps, grass clippings into the pile to increase moisture content.

Insulate pile. Retain moisture by covering pile with a tarp or enclosing in a bin with lid.

Limit turning frequency. Turning too often accelerates moisture evaporating. Leave undisturbed longer between turns.

Check pile size. Larger compost heaps retain moisture better. Increase volume by combining piles.

Using a Compost Moisture Meter

For precise moisture content readings, a digital compost moisture meter is very useful. These affordable tools measure moisture levels in seconds when probe is inserted in pile. Common types of compost moisture meters include:

  • Resistance meters – These contain two prongs that read electrical resistance across a gap. Resistance decreases as moisture increases. A dial or digital readout gives moisture content from 0-100%. Cost $10-30.
  • Soil hygrometer – This style has a probe attached to a digital unit. It estimates moisture by electrical conductivity. Easy to use with instant readings. Around $30-70.
  • Tensiometer – Measures moisture tension by ceramic tip suction. Gives very accurate results but proper placement in pile is crucial. Cost $70-100.

To use a moisture meter:

  • Push probe into compost at least 3-4 inches
  • Take readings from several locations to get an average
  • Clean probe tip before and after use
  • Avoid contacting probe with hand to prevent temperature errors
  • Check manual for specific device instructions

The ideal moisture range is 40-60% for active composting. Check different areas of pile to ensure even moisture distribution. Record readings to identify trends over time.

Compost moisture meters take the guesswork out of estimating moisture visually or by hand squeeze tests. They provide instant, precise measurements to remove moisture as a variable. Meters also help diagnosis wet spots or overly dry areas to target amendments. For large composting operations, meters are indispensable for consistent quality control.

Finished Compost Moisture Content

When compost is fully decomposed and ready for use, the ideal moisture level is 30-40%. Finished compost should have a crumbly, soil-like texture with high porosity to absorb and retain water. Lower moisture content allows easier spreading and storage of finished compost.

Wet finished compost can compact soil structure when added in quantity. Dry compost is easier to screen to remove chunks. Finished compost can be further dried before bagging if desired.

Test finished compost moisture before bagging for sale, spreading in gardens, or storing long-term.

Adjust water content if necessary to achieve 30-40% moisture. Some gardeners moisten compost before potting mixes. But compost should never be soggy wet when added to soil or plants.

Proper moisture management results in humus-rich compost ready to enrich your garden beds with beneficial nutrition and biology. Consistently monitoring and adjusting based on moisture meter readings or squeeze tests will help you achieve composting success.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the ideal moisture level for compost?

The optimal moisture range is 40-60% for active composting. Finished compost is best at 30-40% moisture before use. The key is finding the moisture “sweet spot” for your materials and conditions.

How do I increase moisture in dry compost?

Water thoroughly, add wet fruit/veggie scraps, reduce turning, cover pile, or insulate with straw to retain moisture. Compost tea and manure also add moisture.

What causes excessively wet compost?

Too much water from rain/overwatering, adding high-moisture food scraps, compacted piles lacking airflow, and insufficient dry amendments lead to soggy conditions.

How do I dry out overly wet compost?

Turn or aerate piles, add dry amendments like leaves/sawdust to absorb moisture, allow wetness to evaporate before adding more materials. Shelter pile from rain if needed.

What is the ribbon test for compost moisture?

Squeeze a handful of compost tightly then open hand. If it forms a 1-2 inch ribbon before breaking, moisture is optimal. Shorter ribbon indicates too dry, longer ribbon means too wet.

Do I need a moisture meter for compost?

A digital compost moisture meter provides precise, instant readings. While not essential, meters take the guesswork out of estimating by sight and feel alone. They are useful for large operations but manual tests work for home composting.

What problems does too much moisture cause?

Excessive moisture slows decomposition, causes anaerobic odors, nutrient leaching, compaction/lack of airflow, reduced temperatures, and drainage/leaching issues. Proper moisture prevents these.

How often should I check compost moisture?

Ideally, monitor moisture every 1-2 weeks, more often in hot/dry weather. Check each time after turning or heavy rain. Catching issues early prevents major imbalance. Adjust water, amendments immediately if needed.

What is finished compost moisture content?

Finished compost should have 30-40% moisture, lower than active composting range. Finished compost should feel lightly moist but not soggy or dripping wet. Dry finished compost to 30% before bagging or storing long-term.

Can I use overly wet compost?

Wet compost can still be applied but best mixed with dry materials to improve drainage and aeration. Limit quantity used as it can compact soil. Allow excessively wet piles time to dry out before using.

How often should I turn compost to regulate moisture?

Turn compost weekly or biweekly to mix in moisture. Turn occasionally to dry, more frequently to wet. Less turning avoids drying out piles. Monitor conditions and turn as needed to maintain 40-60% moisture

When should I water compost?

Water thoroughly anytime pile feels dry or shows low moisture content. Compost should be consistently moist but not saturated. Water sparingly in rainy seasons. Dry out excessively wet piles before rewetting.