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We decided to start composting without doing any research on how to do it. Thus we began filling an old painters bucket with food scraps. No meat or milk or anything, but veggie and fruit scraps , egg shells, some coffee grounds, etc. We put a piece of plywood on top as a lid with a brick to keep it on, and left it slightly askew to allow air inside. Anyway we haven't really been turning it, or adding anything to it other than the food scraps. After sitting there for a couple of months, it is now a mass of black slime with maggots woven through it. It smells like sewer.

My question is, is it salvageable for use in a good compost pile? Or have we botched the experiment so badly that we need to somehow dispose of this very stinky quagmire?

I realize we should have educated ourselves before filling the bucket, but we went about it a bit backwards. I have since been told that we need to have a bin or structure that allows for air to move through the pile, we need to add dirt or sawdust or leaves, and we need to tend it and turn it. But tell me, given where we are now, can we redeem our muck from here, or do we need to educate ourselves and then start over?

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You have created an anaerobic compost, that is, without air. There are two basic kinds of composting microbes: the ones that need oxygen and the ones that don't. Aerobic composting is what you were going for, with plenty of air for the oxygen loving microbes, and the right blend of carbon to nitrogen in the pile. This generally decomposes without smelling bad. If there's too much water in the stuff you add to the pile, or the pile is too dense and there's not enough air, the anaerobic microbes take over, and they make foul smelling waste as they eat the compost.

Here's a decent description of what's going on here:

http://organicgardening.about.com/od/compost/f/smellycompost.htm

However, if you just leave the pile alone for a long time (six months to a year), all of the organic breakdown will complete, the smell will go away, and you'll still have rich compost to work with.

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    If it was me, covering the surface with a thin layer of soil (to reduce flies & smell) and leaving it for 6+ months would be a very desirable option, as it wouldn't be pleasant to tip out anywhere. You could bury it, but the smell while you do it will be awful. – Highly Irregular Sep 12 '13 at 22:13
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Another option is to add enough "browns" (dry leaves, grass, paper, etc) to attempt to tip it back over into aerobic decomposition. Yes, this will still smell, but it might get you out of the slime stage a bit faster.

A good book for beginning composters, btw, is Let It Rot. You can often find these used for not too much in bookstores. Your local Ag Extension Service may also have classes and handouts for you to use to get up to speed on the different techniques.

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I often batch up my greens into a bucket or two until I am ready to process the compost heap. This way, I have enough to make a few layers of the slimy green stuff, between layers of straw preferably but other browns as suggested in other replies.

I find it is best to batch up the greens straw and chicken manure to try and aim for a cubic yard/meter, because this gives the heap enough mass to really heat up in the centre.

You will want to remix a heap after a heat surge, this adds oxygen back into the mix and it will heat again, 2 -3 good burns, then it can be left to process anaerobic and cooler, and the 2-ndary creatures move into the pile.

Don't chuck it, just mix it with browns and don't leave it in a bucket.

Here's a great Playlist of short videos,

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