Troubleshooting Composting Problems

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Making compost is really quite easy, but having too much of a certain material or letting the compost get too wet or too dry can cause problems.

Troubleshooting Composting Problems





Problems Possible Causes Solution
Damp and warm only in the middle of the pile. Pile could be too small, or cold weather might have slowed composting If you are only composting in piles, make sure your pile is at least 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. With a bin, the pile doesn’t need to be so large.
Nothing is happening.Pile doesn’t seem to be heating up at all. 1. Not enough nitrogen
2. Not enough oxygen
3. Not enough moisture
4. Cold weather?
5. Compost is finished.
1. Make sure you have enough nitrogen rich sources like manure, grass clippings or food scraps.
2. Mix up the pile so it can breathe.
3. Mix up the pile and water it with the hose so that there is some moisture in the pile. A completely dry pile doesn’t compost.
4. Wait for spring, cover the pile, or use a bin.
Matted leaves or grass clippings aren’t decomposing. Poor aeration, or lack of moisture. Avoid thick layers of just one material. Too much of something like leaves, paper or grass clippings don’t break down well. Break up the layers and mix up the pile so that there is a good mix of materials. Shred any big material that isn’t breaking down well.
Stinks like rancid butter, vinegar or rotten eggs. Not enough oxygen, or the pile is too wet, or compacted. Mix up the pile so that it gets some aeration and can breathe. Add course dry materials like straw, hay or leaves to soak up excess moisture. If smell is too bad, add dry materials on top and wait until it dries out a bit before you mix the pile.
Odor like ammonia. Not enough carbon. Add brown materials like leaves, straw, hay, shredded newspaper, etc.
Attracts rodents, flies, or other animals. Inappropriate materials (like meat, oil, bones), or the food-like material is too close to the surface of the pile. Bury kitchen scraps near the center of the pile. Don’t add inappropriate materials to compost. Switch to a rodent-proof closed bin.
Attracts insects, millipedes, slugs, etc. This is normal composting, and part of the natural process. Not a problem.
Fire ant problems. Pile could be too dry, not hot enough, or has kitchen scraps too close to the surface. Make sure your pile has a good mix of materials to heat up, and keep it moist enough.

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Vasantraj Pande April 26, 2010 at 1:15 pm

There is no mention of what to do on finding ants in the compost?

I have discovered an ant’s nest in my compost bin. I do not want to kill the ants and am reluctant to disturb them. What to do?

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steve May 19, 2010 at 4:59 pm

@Vasantraj Pande,

Typically ants come around when the compost is to dry. Keep it moist as a well rung out sponge. I suggest you kill or remove them. When you go to spread your finished compost you will spread the ants.

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Mahesh March 19, 2016 at 5:36 pm

How to remove white worms from bin. I am new to composting

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Bervena Souoth May 3, 2010 at 3:27 am

my compost bin has ants. small ones, not fire ants. I’m in Chicago.
are they a problem?

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steve May 19, 2010 at 4:46 pm

@Bervena Souoth,

Ants tend to mean the compost is to dry, try making sure it is typically as wet as a well rung out sponge or towel.
The ants will not hurt anything other then when you go to spread your finished compost you will be spreading ants as well.
Here is a product to organically kill the ants.
http://www.cleanairgardening.com/insectkiller1.html

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ML Bader May 16, 2010 at 4:25 pm

I am a new composter and I’m not sure I’m doing this right. I’ve had my bin now for a year and I thought I would have a nice rich compost for my planters this year. I opened the bottom to let out the compost and there were ants everywhere! I figured it wasn’t moist enough so I watered it and stirred it up. Is there anything I should know or do about the ants? Would adding baking soda help or hurt?

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MMorgan May 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Just started composting on an apartment balcony. I guess the tumbler won’t be getting enough sun, so I’m wondering what to cover it with to increase the temperature (although it will be getting hotter here soon–high today will be 90). Hay, straw, etc., are not available or usable in an apartment situation!

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steve May 24, 2010 at 2:03 pm

@MMorgan, Once you hit those temperatures your best efforts will be spent making sure the compost is well aerated, moist and a good mix of brown and greens. When you do those three your compost will naturally reach temperatures of plus 120 degrees. Keep in mind each time you mix or add water it will cool down, but once the micro-organism start again it will heat back up. HAPPY COMPOSTING

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Margaret Thomas October 4, 2010 at 5:30 pm

My compost is “filled” with crawly things that look like they might be maggots. They consume food scraps like crazy. The compost is very wet, even though the bin drains dark thick liquid all the time. I have no leaves to add and don’t want to use newspaper to the compost because of the chemicals I assume would be in the ink.

I need to enrich my organic garden box so I can plant fall vegetables. What will happen if I mix the compost–maggots and all–into the dirt?

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steve October 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm

@Margaret Thomas,
Those may be maggots; did you put meat or bread items in your bin? If so that might be the source so then I suggest NOT putting those items in any more. I doubt the maggots will harm your garden, most likely they will die off or mature and leave the area.
The ink in the newspaper will not hurt your compost. Shred some up along with any dried grass or even shredded cardboard. Also try leaving the lid off the bin to dry out the material, cover it back up if expecting rain.

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Mahesh March 19, 2016 at 5:33 pm

Hi steve i new to composting. Please let me know how to remove excess moisture and white worms. I am using 2 feet high 20 ltr plastic bin. I have made enough holes at bottom and around bin.i dont want to give up composting but if this continues i will.

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jeff bennett October 10, 2010 at 1:43 am

Been all summer and it’s not composting. Tumbler, half full, plenty moist, mostly grass clippings, added ‘compost starter’, ammonium nitrate. I have balls of stuff that look like a variety of sizes of horse manure. They break apart to see mushy grass. At first I only tumbled it once a week. Now every day.
It has some straw, vegetables, soil, bark dust in varying states of decomposition, etc. About two months ago I added the ammonium nitrate and compost starter. It got fairly warm some of the time. It’s still mostly balls of grass mush. any ideas?

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steve October 25, 2010 at 1:53 pm

@jeff bennett, You need more browns (carbons). Try adding some leaves or shredded newspaper. Typically when you have too much nitrogen the compost tends to clump together as you have described. It will eventually break down but will take much longer.

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martha June 16, 2011 at 12:04 am

I have left over hard boiled eggs that are too old to eat. Could those be put in the compost? I am new at this personally, although I grew up with it. I am loving it. Want to do right by my bins! 😀

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steve June 20, 2011 at 1:50 pm

@martha, I do not suggest adding dairy products which includes eggs to your compost pile. Yes, it can be done however it more likely going to cause more problems than it’s worth. Between the rodents it will attract and the smell it will not be worth adding to your compost bin.

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Gretchen B. July 5, 2011 at 2:34 am

I built a DIY compost pile with chicken wire. Worked great in Ohio, but not as well in Arizona. I might just be being impatient with it. My main concerns are that there are a lot of ants and it is moldy on the bottom when I rake it. I water it every morning to keep it moist. Should I avoid throwing in moldy fruit? Strawberries seem to mold no matter what.

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steve July 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm

@Gretchen B, For the mold, cut back on the water and see how it does, remember it should be as wet as a well rung out sponge. To get rid of the ants, just turn the pile more often, if you keep disrupting their process of building nest they will move on. Try turning it a few times a week.

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Kimi July 22, 2011 at 12:11 am

My grass clip in compose bin got a doughy and bunch of grapefruit size balls in 3 weeks. What can I do?

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steve July 22, 2011 at 3:35 pm

@Kimi, You have too much nitrogen rich items, i.e. greens. You need more carbon items, like dried grass clippings, shredded leaves or newspaper. Eventually those balls will break down, but to keep it from happening again try to do a mix of 2/3 browns to 1/3 greens. Keep it moist as a well wrung out sponge and mix it atleast once a week.

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Joan Brooks August 18, 2011 at 12:06 am

As with Margaret, my compost is also extremely wet, although I have what I believe are millipeds, not maggots. The compost is like watery soup and absolutely full of millipeds. I don’t add water to my compost, nor does it receive rainwater. Until a few weeks ago, it seemed just about perfect – nicely composting, not too wet, not too dry. I don’t have grass, so no grass clippings to add. I’ve opened the lid to try to dry it out. Any other suggestions?

Thank you for your help.

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steve August 22, 2011 at 6:54 pm

@Joan Brooks, The water or moisture is coming from somewhere, could a sprinkler be hitting it? If its soupy then you are definitely getting water from somewhere. If your able, try moving the bin and see what happens.

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Joan Brooks August 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm

The composter is one of those “tumber” types, suspended on a medal frame. It’s designed so that rainwater will run off of it, rather than infiltrate the bin. Besides, we didn’t have a lot of rain in the few weeks it went from compost to soup. Also, I’ve had this composter for over a year and this is the first time this has had, even in heavy rains we had last Spring. Could the thousands (literally) of millipedes be changing the compost to soup?

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Christine September 2, 2011 at 2:25 am

Hi, I have just purchased a compost bin. I read that coloured paper is not suitable to compost. Does that include bleached white office paper? Thanks

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steve September 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm

@Christine, Colored paper can be composted however the dyes will leach into the pile. It’s really best not to use the colored paper but the bleached white office paper should be fine to compost. I recommend shredding it to speed up the composting process.

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michael November 14, 2011 at 4:08 am

What must you add to to the compost mix when using citrus peel?

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steve November 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

@michael, When adding citrus peels it is a good idea to first make sure they’re shredded or chopped up. Then be sure to add a fair amount of carbon (browns) like leaves or dried grass clippings, keep it at a ratio of 4 to 1 by weight (four parts browns to one part citrus peels). Make sure the compost is well mixed and kept moist.

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Peter W November 29, 2011 at 12:54 am

I have millions of bugs like millipedes etc in my composter. They contribute to the disintergration; however, when I move the composted material to the garden, the bugs go with it and eat the roots of all the existing plants and any new plants that shoot.

I have tried flooding the compost to remove them prior to putting it on the garden but to no avail.

Any ideas?

Thanks
Peter

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steve November 30, 2011 at 12:38 pm

@Peter, You can try adding some diatomaceous earth, which will kill a fair number of the insects, otherwise repeating turning/aerating may disrupt the insects into finding a better home.

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Sandi L January 8, 2012 at 5:29 am

My compost had about 20 or more “large” white grubs which I picked out and killed. The compost pile always has a lid on it and I can’t understand where these came from. ‘”Any suggestions on how to get rid of these ugly things?

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steve January 9, 2012 at 7:01 pm

@Sandi L, I have had the same problem, you can pick them out like you have already, or you can add some grub killer. Something like this: http://www.cleanairgardening.com/milkyspore.html

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Anton February 6, 2012 at 11:42 am

I am cleaning out a neglected section of my garden. It´s being irrigated so the weeds are enormous. As I cut the weeds I use them to build up compost heaps, layering with horse manure and dry grass. A heap typically gets about three feet wide, five to six feet long and about 120 cm high; when the heaps are build I irrigate them and cover them with black gardening cloth that lets through water but not light. In theory everything looks right but I just can´t get the heaps to ignite and raise the temperature! Any ideas? Can too much water actually cool off the composition process and break it?

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steve February 6, 2012 at 8:05 pm

@Anton, Yes, you could be cooling it off but more important are you aerating it. If not, you should try turning it once a week. As you turn it, add water, just putting water on top is not sufficient.

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Frank May 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm

i was once told not to put eggplant skin in the compost,
is this an old wive tail???

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steve May 16, 2012 at 2:24 pm

@Frank, I asked my old wife and she said it should be fine to add eggplant skin to the compost.

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Nicolette May 20, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Hello guys,

I found a little white maggot in my compost. Not a big grub (the size of my pinky nail) but it definitely looked like it could be a fruit fly maggot. Only one so far but there are probably more. I’ve got fruit flies but no black soldiers (I live in southern CA).
Just wanted to know if this was okay, or if I should use an organic repellent as suggested?

Thanks so much!

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steve May 25, 2012 at 6:07 pm

@Nicolette, It’s really your call, most likely they will not cause a problem in your compost bin I see them in mine occasionally. If they do go ahead and use a organic pest control product.

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Marc June 10, 2012 at 10:20 pm

You told Christine that she could use bleached white office paper. Are you talking about standard 20-lb. copier paper like we all get at the office supply store? And if so, is it okay to shred and use the used paper that has the black printer ink text on it?

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steve June 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm

@Marc, Yes, it is fine to use standard copy paper with ink, shred it and compost it.

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Becky July 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm

I went out to my compost bin this morning to add kitchen scraps and there were hundreds of super tiny, almost translucent ant-looking bugs crawling all over the lid perimeter. What are they? Should I do something about them?

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steve July 10, 2012 at 3:24 pm

@Becky, To keep them from spreading you may want to use an organic ant killer to keep them under control. They will not hurt your compost and will likely help it by aerating it as they work their way in and out of the pile.

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Sandi L July 8, 2012 at 3:37 am

I wrote to you last January concerning the grubs in my compost bin. I never got any grub killer as you suggested but continually turned my compost and opened the two doors to retrieve the compost and I’m not exaggerating had at least 40-5o grubs. I continue to have this problem and continue to pick them out and kill them. I now believe the problem exists because there’s a huge tree 20 feet from the compost pile which is an ideal place for the grubs to feed. FINALLY question #1, my compost is about ready to spread and I’m afraid there will be eggs or small grubs in the soil. How can I ease my mind about this? This is my Dad’s compost which I inherited when he died. He spread compost on everything and never had a grub problem. I feel the need to tell you that when I turned the soil I found grubs about every 18 inches. These ugly critters were all over the yard where there were roots and rotting leaves, etc. Is it safe to spread the soil in the yard and on the flowers or is there something I should do? Please tell me something that will ease my mind. Sorry for the lengthy email but I hate these things.

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steve July 10, 2012 at 3:18 pm
Sokota Ireland July 25, 2012 at 3:10 am

@Sandi L, look up Black soldier flies, if these are the grubs that you are finding in you compost, then they are a benificial insect, and voracious eaters! the best part about them, is if they can get out of the bin once mature, they will crawl out of the compost and can be used as chicken or fish food. not sure that these are what your finding, but it is a distinct possibility. they are white while growing, and turn black when mature and ready to pupate.

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Sandi L July 27, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I can’t believe someone from Ireland has left a comment regarding
my grubs, I’m honored. I know the eggs of the grubs come from a green beetle that we call the June bug. I would be delighted if the
ugly little grubs were beneficial but I’m not that lucky. I hope you get this ok as I left the Website blank. Please let me know if you receive this .
Thanks again,
Sandi L

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Sokota Ireland July 27, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Sandi, I did get your reply, and they are definatly not Soldier grubs if they are coming from a beetle. I am not from Ireland, lol thats just my last name. come check us out at madriverseeds.ecrater.com if you are interested in heirloom NON GMO seeds!
Best Regards,
Sokota

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jayson August 11, 2012 at 6:17 am

As organic material goes through the composting process it takes up less space. You’ll be surprised at how long it can take to fill a bin. When you do reach maximum capacity, dig down to the bottom of the pile and you’ll probably find finished compost, which can be removed. If not, then you’ll need to wait. If a full bin without compost is a continual problem you may need to invest in a second bin.

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Connie August 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Have been making a compost pile in the corner of the yard for about 2 years now. Good mix of things go in it, but we neglected to turn it over for quite a while. Now, so many roots have grown all through it that it’s nearly impossible to turn with a pitchfork. Any ideas on how to break this up and how to prevent it in the future? Thanks for your help! 🙂

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steve August 24, 2012 at 1:36 pm

@Connie, To prevent it you will either need to be better about mixing it or put something under your bin or pile. As for your current problem, use a tiller or shovel to cut through the roots.

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Sue Robinson August 17, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Could someone please tell me how to get rid of maggots in our compost bin. It’s the bin that we put out for collection once every two weeks. In it, we put the brown paper compost bags from the kitchen compost bucket that has food scraps & garden cuttings, etc. Not very often is there any meat in this. Two households use this bin & we try to keep things clean & tidy but it’s really yucky. Even tho it is picked up every two weeks, the critters don’t seem to want to leave! Please…any suggestions?

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steve August 24, 2012 at 1:49 pm

@Sue Robinson, Stop adding meat altogether, and don’t add any dairy products.

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Maria August 26, 2012 at 5:01 am

Every compost blog or forum says you’re not supposed to put dairy in compost but one time, I put moldy yogurt in my compost waaay in the middle of the pile. I didn’t want to throw it in the regular garbage (I separate, by the way). After a week of not turning the pile (I didn’t want to spread the dairy all over the compost), there was no trace of yogurt or any icky smell.

Now, whenever I have spoiled milk (which is not all the time) in my fridge, I put shredded paper (to absorb the liquid) in a brown paper bag, pour the smelly milk in, and bury the bag waaay in the middle of the pile. So far, no problems.

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steve August 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm

@Maria, If adding diary to your compost does not cause you a problem then more power to you. Typically it causes a rank smell and attracts critters but if you don’t have this problem then great.

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jackie September 11, 2012 at 10:54 pm

i have horse manure and hay in 55 gallon drum after it heats up and i turn it a couple more times it goes cold. What im i doing wrong or what to do. Help!!

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steve September 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Jackie, Are you keeping it moist? If not add some water, and make sure the drums are drilled at the bottom to drain the water, also drill some holes in the sides to allow air flow.

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Shelley September 16, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I was wondering if the compost pile has to have a top?
My compost pile is made of wood slats with about 5″ clearance between each. There is no bottom to it. Could this be the reason my compost pile isn’t doing well? It gets at least 8-10 hours of sunlight a day when the sun is out. I live in Ohio so fall is fast approaching. I have been composting for two years and have yet to use any of it. I just looks like dirt.

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Richard September 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm

@Shelley

No, a compost pile or compost bin does not have to have a lid or cover.

If it looks like dirt, then that sounds like it is probably finished compost. Finished compost looks like rich, crumbly earth. When you can’t identify individual pieces of things that you threw in the compost pile, it’s typically done.

It can also take multiple years for compost to break down completely if you are just throwing it in a pile and not doing anything else. Larger branches and sticks, and large amounts of carbon rich materials like leaves can also take longer to break down.

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Shelley September 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Thank you Richard. I guess I’m not sure what I’m looking for then. I entered my compost in the fair this year. The composts that placed was black while mine looked like dirt. I guessed that all compost, if it was done right, was supposed to turn black. I don’t throw twigs in it at all, just food scraps, grass clippings (no leaves), shredded paper, and stuff I didn’t use from the garden.

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karen quinn March 29, 2014 at 12:38 am

Last year my husband piled up the grass clippings in my wooden compost bin. I haven’t done anything with it and now have dry moldy grass clippings. Can I salvage this material? I now have access to branches, wood chips and horse manure. Is any combo beneficial? Thanks

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clare July 22, 2015 at 6:36 pm

Our compost bin is full (and I mean full!) of fruit flies which are also taking over our kitchen – should we be worried?

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