How Long Does it Take to Make Compost?


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Finished Compost

Compost is the key ingredient behind every successful garden. Those vibrant plants laden with juicy red tomatoes, peppers, and lemons won’t come out of bland soil. They have a nutrient-rich foundation with soil that’s incorporated with some quality organic compost. While compost improves the soil’s texture and nutrient composition and encourages microbial activity, it’s not so easy to prepare. Patience is the key when making compost at home.

So how long does it take to make compost? The length of time varies profoundly with the compost pile’s composition, the effort put in, environmental conditions, and other factors. It can take anywhere between 2 months to a year, sometimes even longer, before compost is ready to use.

Depending on when a gardener plans on using it, it is possible to choose the right ingredients, manage it regularly, and have the compost ready in just a couple of months. In contrast, if ingredients are just dumped in a compost bin and left to be forgotten in a corner, it may take years before any compost is usable. Keep reading to learn how the process works and if anything can be done to catalyze it.

Hot Composting Vs Cold Composting?

Whether a gardener takes out the time to manage a compost pile well or leave it on its own to do the magic, the end result is beautiful!

There are two basic methods: hot composting and cold composting. See what they mean to decide which one to use for your own compost.

Hot composting

Hot composting is the one to choose if compost is needed within a few weeks. Select a composting site close to a water source. A healthy compost pile has carbon and nitrogen in the ratio 30:1. That’s when microbial activities will be at their best.

Carbon sources (“Browns”): twigs, dry leaves, shredded newspaper, wood chips, straw, lint from the dryer, etc.

Nitrogen sources (“Greens”): kitchen waste, animal manure (avoid human and pet waste), coffee grounds, grass clipping, weeds, etc.

According to Cornell University Cooperative Extension, approximately 3 parts brown and 1 part green make the golden 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio.

Also, include a fair amount of soil to the bin to include microorganisms that will decompose the components. If it doesn’t rain, water the pile regularly to keep the compost moist, but not too wet.

When Should I Turn My Compost?

Initially, it will need to be turned more often – twice a week is sufficient. Once the microorganisms start working their magic and the temperatures start rising within the pile, then it will only need to be turned once a week.

Use a compost thermometer to keep the temperature in check. The ideal temperature of the pile is between 135°F to 140°F, according to the University of Missouri ExtensionOpens in a new tab.. The high temperatures will kill weed seeds and pathogens from diseased plants, so gardeners needn’t worry about any contaminations in the final product.

If the temperature drops or rises beyond the range, turn the pile and water it. The more it is turned, the better, in this case.

Read our post When Should I Turn My Compost Pile?Opens in a new tab. to learn more about the best time to turn a compost pile.

Although hot composting is a labor-intensive method, usable compost will be available within a couple of months. When dark, friable compost with an earthy smell is established, then it’s ready to go in the garden bed.

Cold composting

For those gardeners who are not in a rush, cold composting is the route to an effortless homemade compost.

Just keep dumping “brown” and “green” waste in a pile and let nature do the rest.

It’s hard to tell the exact time usable compost will be available, but it will be necessary to wait a couple of years before using it in the garden.

Although it is possible to leave it entirely up to nature, turning it once a month or so can help speed it up a little. Avoid adding weeds or infected plants to the pile since cold composting won’t achieve the temperatures to kill pathogens and weed seeds.

Tips For Making The Quickest Compost

turning a compost pile

No matter what you try, composting isn’t a process that will happen overnight. It will take its due time to break down the organic material and release nutrients. However, there are a bunch of things that could be done to speed up the process. Here are some tips:

1.  Increase the Size of the Compost Pile

Don’t believe the claims of compost tumbler manufacturers that their product can make compost ready in two weeks. Compost tumblers will work, but a bigger compost pile will work faster. Microbes work through the compost pile, heating it up. Heat is the key to speeding up the composting process.

A larger pile, typically 3x3x3 feet, will do a better job of retaining heat and composting faster.

It is possible to have larger piles, but the size is only limited by the gardener’s ability to turn it effectively, according to the University of Illinois ExtensionOpens in a new tab..  

2.  Add a Nitrogen Fertilizer

If a compost pile has an excess of “brown” organic material (carbon sources), the composting process will be slow.

In this case, either add more “green” material (nitrogen sources) or incorporate a nitrogen fertilizer – one cup for every 25 square feet, as directed by the University of Illinois ExtensionOpens in a new tab..

Nitrogen heats up the pile, encourages the microbes to multiply, and as a result, speeds up composting.

Commercial compost starters or compost accelerators are available, but they are expensive and completely unnecessary. They contain nitrogen sources or microbes, or both. As long as the compost pile is healthy, both of these essential elements are already there. Even if nitrogen is lacking in the pile, adding nitrogen fertilizer will do the trick.

3.  Shred and Chop Up All the Material

The larger the pieces of organic material that are added, the longer it will take to decompose.

Chop the material into smaller pieces before adding them to the pile.

Instead of adding whole leaves, use shredded leaves. The smaller the size of the organic material, the greater the surface area it will have for being decomposed by microorganisms. With greater surface area, the material will decompose and turn to compost much faster than when using larger pieces.

Not everyone has access to a large and expensive chipper/shredder machine. However, a lawn mower works perfectly for shredded leaves and soft material from the garden. Use the mulching capability and continuously mow over the material. Then rake it up and add to your compost pile!

4.  Water the Compost Pile as Needed

Moisture is a crucial element for the composting process. For efficient composting, the pile should be approximately as wet as a wrung-out sponge. The compost pile will decompose very slowly if it’s left dry.

Water it regularly during dry weather, or when a hefty amount of dry “brown” material is added to the pile.

Too much moisture isn’t a good thing either. The University of Missouri ExtensionOpens in a new tab. describes an excellent trick to check the moisture of compost. Take a handful of compost and squeeze it in your palm. If no water drops come out, the pile is too dry. If water drips out, it’s too wet. If a drop or two of water appears, the moisture is just right.

If the pile is too wet, then more “brown” material, like shredded leaves, twigs, or cardboard needs to be added. A wet pile will also need to be turned more often for proper aeration of the contents. Cover the pile during wet weather to prevent excessive moisture. However, rainwater is the best source of moisture for a dry pile.

5.  Turn the Compost Pile Often

Compost will develop even if the pile is not turned, ever. Then again, in order to establish it faster, turning it frequently can help achieve that.

Turn it as soon as the compost temperature drops below 100°F.

The pile core needs to stay “hot” for faster composting. A temperature drop will slow down the decomposition rate drastically – no one wants that, of course.

Turning frequently will also keep the pile optimally aerated for the aerobic bacteria to work effectively, distributes moisture evenly, and increases the surface area of organic matter exposed to the microbes. All of these benefits ultimately contribute to a faster end result – dark, crumbly compost!

Read our post When Should I Turn My Compost Pile?Opens in a new tab. to learn more about the best time to turn a compost pile.

6.  Add Soil or Finished Compost

Microbes decompose organic matter and turn it into compost. Where do these organisms come from? Don’t worry, the material that was added to the pile already has plenty of microbes, even if they can’t be seen. However, adding additional tiny workers will make the process faster.

Most gardeners like to include layers of soil or finished compost to the pile.

Soil or prepared compost provides an additional army of decomposers in the form of fungi, insects, bacteria, and other organisms to help break organic matter faster. 

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.

Lamentations 3:25-27

How Do I Know When Compost Is Ready to Use?

Finished compost isn’t hard to recognize. It’s ready for use once the original ingredients are no longer recognizable. What will be seen at this stage is dark, crumbly material with a sweet, earthy smell.

Another check for the finished compost is its temperature. When it’s ready, the compost pile will have the same temperature as the surrounding air, according to the Cornell University Cooperative ExtensionOpens in a new tab.. If it’s still warm, the compost isn’t ready yet.

If a couple of hard bits are still left uncomposted, it is not necessary to wait any longer. Just sift it through a 1-inch mesh screen onto a fresh pile. Friable finished compost will pass through the holes, while the uncomposted pieces, such as twigs, plastic, or stones, will be trapped over the screen. Discard the material that won’t decompose and return the organic matter to the composting pile.

The finished compost pile is now ready to go into a garden. Even if it isn’t used right away, it will make a nutrient-rich soil amendment, although it may start losing some of its nitrogen through leaching.

For more information, check out our article Is Your Compost Healthy, Ready, and Finished? 5 Ways to Test ItOpens in a new tab..

Different Composting Techniques – Which is the Fastest?

There are different ways to go about the process. Pile up yard waste in a 3 feet high and 3 feet wide mound, or dump waste in a large bin (wooden or wire mesh). Gardeners can also purchase a ready-made compost tumbler to make their work easier. Indoor composting is also a possibility, mostly preferred by apartment gardeners.

Here’s how these techniques compare and the length of time they take to prepare compost:

TechniqueComposting Time
Compost Tumbler10 weeks
Compost Bin10 weeks (“hot”), 1-2 years (“cold”)
Compost Pile10 weeks (“hot”), 1-2 years (“cold”)
Indoor Composting2 – 5 weeks

●    Compost Tumbler

It’s a common misconception, or rather a marketing strategy of compost tumbler manufacturers that these products make compost faster. Here’s what really happens:

Composting is accelerated if the contents are turned frequently. A compost tumbler makes it comparatively easier to turn the organic matter. If the contents of a compost bin or pile is turned at the same frequency as that of a compost tumbler, then the compost will prepare at the same rate.

Composting time is also affected by the size of the waste pile and the ingredients. If a compost tumbler is smaller than the compost bin or pile, it may even take longer to prepare the finished compost.

Nonetheless, many gardeners go for compost tumblers since it makes the process tidier and effortless. Instead of working through the contents with a garden fork, the gardener will merely be turning a barrel. Since turning is much simpler with a compost tumbler, a gardener may be willing to do it more often, ultimately resulting in a faster compost.

*Note that while a compost tumbler can make compost just as fast as other options, the amount of finished compost, in the end, is restricted to smaller amounts.

●    Compost Bin

Compost bins are easy to build and keep a waste pile contained, giving it a neater look. They can even be purchased from garden centers or online store in order to skip a DIY project, although it’s not a hard one.

The good thing about a DIY compost bin is that it is possible to build a large one that heats up nicely at the center for speedier composting. Most gardeners prefer a cylindrical wire mesh bin, 3 feet in diameter, 4 feet tall for optimal capacity, and efficient turning of the contents using a garden fork.

A 3’x3’x3′ snow-fence holding unit will also work perfectly for the purpose. Even if the content is left untouched, they’ll still eventually turn to compost, but it will take at least a couple of years before any finished compost is available. By turning it regularly using a shovel, garden fork, or aerating tool and following all the tips highlighted above, compost will be ready in just a few months.

We made our compost bins (shown above) for FREE by finding used pallets and putting them together with zip ties and/or bungee cords!

●    Compost Pile

It might not be the most attractive technique, but it is definitely the cheapest one available. Gardeners with a large property that generates a lot of garden waste will especially find it useful. No purchases are necessary; simply pile up any garden and kitchen waste in a mound that’s 3 to 5 feet high and at least 3 feet tall.

If the mound is left to be forgotten in the corner of the property, then usable compost may develop in a year or two. If the contents are mixed or turned regularly, then finished compost will be ready in a few months, as is the case with a compost pile.

●    Indoor Composting

Apartment gardeners, or small-space dwellers, who don’t have a large backyard to set up an outdoor composting unit turn to indoor composting for making good use of waste. Take large plastic bins or wooden crates, drill some aeration holes in the lid and start composting.

Dump veggie scraps, shredded paper, coffee grounds, and houseplant trimmings in the bin. Avoid adding smelly or watery items to the indoor compost bin to avoid a mess in the house. Use a hand trowel to give a good mix once a week to aerate the contents and heat them up to increase microbial activity.

According to the United States Environmental Protection AgencyOpens in a new tab., a properly managed indoor compost will be ready in two to five weeks.

Sooner Or Later, You’ll Have Your Garden Gold

No matter how it is accomplished, or how long it takes, the end result is the same – beautiful, fresh, earthy compost that’ll give new life to any garden. It’s hard to believe how mere waste can turn into something that gardeners consider “black gold”! The benefits may seem months away if you start composting today, but believe me, it’s worth the wait!


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References

https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/faq/how-long-does-it-take-compost-pile-break-downOpens in a new tab.

https://blog.publicgoods.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-make-compostOpens in a new tab.

https://www.gardenmyths.com/composting-myths/Opens in a new tab.

https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/faq/how-can-i-accelerate-decomposition-leaves-my-compost-pile

https://swap.stanford.edu/20151013020747/http:/www2.epa.gov/recycle/composting-home




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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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