Compost is a blend of organic materials that are rich in nitrogen and carbon. It includes a diverse population of microbes that break down the available nutrients to feed other plants.
Compost is prized by many gardeners, especially those who are passionate about using organic techniques, for its ability to help plants thrive.
While you can find compost for sale in hardware stores and garden centers, you can just as easily make it yourself.
If you are curious, you might be wondering how long does it take to make compost? Are there ways to make it faster?
On the surface of it, making compost is relatively easy. Under the right circumstances you could make a small amount of mature compost in as little as 20 days. You just need to be mindful of some important details to keep the compost microbially active.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the compost making process, as well as the various ways you can accelerate it.
This also includes ways to boost the nutrient value and address some of the potential problems that can interrupt, slow or even arrest the process along the way..
How Does The Compost Process Work?
Understanding the mechanics of the composting process will help you decide which method is best.
It relies on a general balance between the carbon and nitrogen to feed the largely aerobic, beneficial microbes within.
When you “Turn” or “Stir” the compost it introduces microbes to new materials that they can break down. This essentially accelerates the process and can also generate heat.
Turning a compost pile also helps to redistribute moisture, while also providing much-needed aeration.
This is especially important when you consider that most of the beneficial microbes in a compost pile are aerobic.
At the same time, many of the harmful microbes that can cause rot or arrest the composting process are anaerobic.
What Are There Different Composting Methods?
There are different strategies you can use to make compost or affect its basic content. The one that’s right for you will depend on your goals, your gardening schedule, and the season.
The Hot Turn Fast Method
This method can take as little as 20 days. This is a good option if you need mature compost fast. Many organic gardeners will produce one or two hot turn batches of compost in the spring to help feed planting beds.
It is also the most labor-intensive method, and the pile itself needs to be small. Generally, less than a single cubic yard.
This process works best with a 30:1 Brown to Green (Carbon to Nitrogen) ratio.
You also need to chop up the organic matter into pieces that are less than once square inch to maximize the available surface area.
A hot pile needs to be turned every day for the first week to populate and distribute the beneficial microbes.
From that point on you need to turn the pile every other day. With consistency and proper moisture levels, you the hot turn can produce a modest amount of compost in around three weeks.
The No-Turn Method
This is the least labor-intensive process, which can potentially yield a large volume of compost that is rich in macro and micro-nutrients.
However, it’s also the method that is the most prone to problems with rot and the presence of harmful microbes.
Ideally, you want to dial in the carbon to nitrogen ratio between 20:1 to 100:1. When dialed in properly and protected from rain and excess drought a no-turn pile can produce a large volume of rich compost in 3 to 12 months.
How Can I Accelerate The Composting Process?
Periodic to frequent turning can certain help speed the process. However, turning too often can also interrupt the microbial culture.
Frequent turning can also be labor intensive. If you are looking for ways to speed up or jump start the composting process, you might want to consider using one or two of the following techniques.
Vermicomposting or Worm Bin Composting
This process is growing in popularity. It involves purchasing special worms, which are available on the internet for a very reasonable price and adding them to your compost bin.
It’s not a good plan for an open compost pile, as the worms will gradually migrate out of the compost into the surrounding soil.
The worms will move through, eat and digest the organic material. This generates rich compost faster than a no-turn pile, while also helping to maintain adequate aeration.
With proper moisture levels, you can get a significant volume of rich compost in four to six weeks.
Adding Fresh Green Or “Nitrogen-Rich Plant Material.”
Nitrogen is essentially the fuel that beneficial microbes use to reproduce, metabolize, and break down nutrients.
Adding a modest amount of high nitrogen organic materials to your compost pile can give it a boost, or even restart a stalled composting process in a dried out, carbon-rich pile.
Some of the more common nitrogen-rich materials to consider adding include:
- Alfalfa or hay
- Fresh cut clover
- Fresh cut grass clippings
- Mature manure
- Freshly pulled weeds
- Green kitchen scraps
- Fruit peels, cores, and tops
Chopping Materials Before Adding Them To The Compost Pile
The more you chop organic material, the more surface area and potential nutrients you expose for the microbes to use.
You don’t necessarily need to run them through an old meat grinder, but a chopping them down into one inch pieces with an old chef’s knife could help accelerate the composting process.
This is especially helpful if your compost pile has slowed down and you need to jump start the microbial presence.
Adding Mature Compost
Mature compost tends to have more available microbes than basic garden soil. In some cases, the microbes might be semi-dormant, and simply waiting for new organic material to metabolize.
Adding it to a new compost pile when you turn it, can help restore composting process. It’s also a great option for getting a new compost pile off to a good start.
Use Multiple Small Piles
A smaller volume of compost is easier to turn, and the beneficial microbes can easily populate it.
However, small piles are more vulnerable to weather problems caused by rain and cold temperatures, which could slow or potentially arrest the composting process.
If you are going to use multiple small piles, you might want to use a covered shelter to protect them from the rain.
If the upcoming forecast calls for below average temperatures, you might also want to consider covering the piles with blackplastic or a tarp.
Adjusting The Temperature And Moisture Levels
Temperature and moisture levels can have a major impact on the composting process. This means that the warmth of summer can speed the process.
However, seasonal rain can wash out microbes and nutrients. Just be mindful of the edges and exterior of the pile during dry times of summer, which can arrest the composting process.
In some instances, compost that matures slowly in spring and fall can start to “Rot” with harmful microbes, rather than break down with beneficial microbes.
If you have a large compost pile or bin, and you are turning it frequently. You might end up with “Green” or unripe organic material mixed with compost that is ready to use.
If you are going to maintain a compost pile in early spring or late fall, it’s best to work in multiple small batches which will break down quickly.
This will reduce problems with unripe or rotting materials. It will also help your compost pile to produce more heat, which can potentially kill lingering weed seeds.
Which Is Faster A Compost Pile Or A Compost Bin?
Where you compost and how often you turn it will certainly be a factor in how long it takes for the process to provide you with mature, nutrient-rich material.
For some people a compost pile is preferable, for accelerating the process and making it easy to turn.
Yet many others choose a compost bin for it’s convenient storage and the ability to keep things under control.
What Are The Pros And Cons Of A Compost Pile?
A compost pile is essentially an area that you clear in your backyard or garden, where you deposit organic matter. It’s perhaps the least labor-intensive way to make compost.
Many find that a compost pile is easy to turn, and easier to monitor than some bins.
However, it’s also the least visually appealing, and depending on which way the wind is blowing, it might also be a little smelly.
If you have nosy neighbors nearby, or your area is governed by a homeowner’s association, a compost pile might be prohibitive.
Compost piles are also more prone to problems caused by the weather. Left uncovered rain can wash out nutrients and arrest the composting process.
On the other end of the spectrum, prolonged dry conditions can rob the compost pile of the moisture the microbes need to metabolize and reproduce.
What Are The Pros And Cons Of A Compost Bin?
A compost bin can be as simple as a collection of pallets and poultry wire fencing that keeps the organic material secured in one place.
There are also gardening product manufacturers who offer their own take on the compost bin.
Some even have innovative rotating barrels which allow you to quickly turn a small amount of compost with a mechanical leverage handle.
An enclosed compost bin can be hard to “Turn” or “Stir.” This can increase the amount of time it takes for the compost to mature.
In certain conditions, a lack of regular turning can arrest the composting process, or even allow harmful microbes to establish a presence. This is less of a concern with the turning drum type of compost bin.
A well-designed compost bin can include a basic roof or other ways to protect the compost from rain and other weather problems.
How Do You Know When Compost Is Ready?
There’s not necessarily a hard and fast test to let you know when compost is ready,“Finished” or “Mature.”
You can feel comfortable spreading it or brewing it into compost tea when the bulk of the compost material feels and smells like dark, earthy humus soil.
It should be medium to dark brown, with very few chunks of noticeable organic material. Mature compost also tends to crumble and is slightly warm to the touch.
It should never be slimy or foul-smelling. If there are pieces of identifiable organic material, it might need more time to ripen or mature.
What Are Common Compost Pile Problems
There are a few different things that can happen to a pile of organic material to slow or arrest the composting process. The following are a few telltale signs that your compost pile is in trouble.
Lindsey Hyland grew up in Arizona where she attended University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture. She has supplemented her formal education by working on various organic farms, including spending a semester abroad in India.
Growing and/or raising just about anything gets her excited. She is especially passionate about environmental justice and low-tech, sustainable ways to better run small-scale farms and homesteads. Lindsey started Urban Organic Yield to discuss gardening tips and tactics.