Is Your Compost Healthy, Ready, and Finished? 5 Ways to Test It

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Finished Compost
My own finished compost!

Individuals who are interested in helping the environment and growing produce at home should seriously consider composting. Composting is a relatively simple process with many small details to understand before safely beginning the process. What’s the point of growing a garden that is mildly toxic and slowly making us sick? It is vital to start the practice of composting the correct way and to understand what compost needs to remain healthy.

Is your compost healthy and ready? The secret to healthy compost will be that it is predominantly carbon-based and less nitrogen-based. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen will be crucial to the overall pH and nutritional value of the garden.

Six ways to test compost to ensure that it is healthy are:

  1. Smell the compost.
  2. Examine the compost visually.
  3. Check if the compost is too moist or requires more carbon.
  4. Examine the breakdown of what has been composted.
  5. Monitor the compost’s pH.
  6. Send the compost in for a professional examination.

By the end of this guide, you will be substantially more confident in your composting skills and hopefully see a quick improvement in your garden. This article will cover ways to know if compost is offering high-quality nutrition for the garden, how to test it, and general wisdom to get started with composting!

How To Test Your Compost

Finished and Ready Compost
This compost is completely finished. It looks like soil and can’t tell what material is was started from (FYI, this was leaves, grass clippings, and coffee grounds!).
Unfinished Compost
This compost is not ready. Grass and leaves can still be seen. White mold is present, which is a good sign that the material is decomposing!

Usually, it will be fairly clear that something is off with compost. The main techniques to use to see if compost is healthy are as follows:

  1. Smell the Compost – Smell is possibly the most significant indicator of healthy compost, with sight being the second. The smell of compost can indicate if there is too much moisture or if the compost has become anaerobic.
    • If it smells like ammonia and is very pungent, then too much nitrogen is present. Add in more carbon-based items to the compost (things like straw, grass clippings, and cardboard).
    • If it smells like mildew, then it’s too moist and has not gotten enough airflow. Turn the compost more often either by hand or by purchasing a rotating composter and balance the decomposing process.
  2. Examine the compost visually – Your compost will be ready to use when it is dark in color and can no longer distinguish the original material. Larger pieces can still be present but should feel spongy and will break apart easily. For example, if the compost pile was started with leaves and grass, the middle of the pile should be dark and resemble soil and no longer leaves and grass. The outsides of the pile may still not be broken down and those can be used in the next round for the pile.
  3. Examine the moisture levels – Look for visible signs that the compost is waterlogged. If it’s too moist, add dry, carbon-rich materials like leaves, cardboard, dry grass, and twigs. Those who live in a region that experiences lots of rain, and the compost is outside should take steps to cover the compost so that it does not become too wet. Check out our article 5 Reasons Compost Gets Slimy and How to Fix It.
  4. Examine the speed of decomposition – Compost can be finished in as little as three months in optimal conditions, but there are some times that compost can take up to a year to decompose. However, if the compost was started two years ago and still isn’t ready, then it is important to look to see what the compost is lacking.
  5. Monitor its pH – The compost’s pH is incredibly vital to the success of a garden because the microorganisms that exist in the compost will favor neutral or slightly acidic levels of pH. The sweet spot should be between 5 and 8 on a pH gauge, which can be measured using a Soil test or pH Paper. A slightly more mature compost that has been cycled a few times and is a few months of age should be at a pH closer to 8.
  6. Send it in for Examination – If all else fails, ask a professional to identify the quality of the compost. There aren’t necessarily tools at home that can accomplish this, but schools like Penn State’s Agricultural department offer Compost Testing for a small fee. They can give incredible insight into the chemical make-up in compost. This could be the most accurate and detailed method for understanding the health and present condition of any compost.

A few other tips to try between tests and see if an improvement is noticed:

  • Use Fewer Twigs – These larger objects take longer to break down and could delay the composting speed of the mix. Try to use thinner or more finely chopped objects in compost.
  • Add Aeration by Fluffing – Some gardeners may not be adding enough aeration or airflow to their pile and may need to ‘fluff’ it or add more air by turning it. If major changes are not evident, then it may be necessary to commit more time to increase the airflow. Aeration is the key to healthy compost, and without it, compost will not be viable. Check out our article When Should I Turn My Compost Pile?
  • Add some water – Sometimes the fix is this simple. If compost is too dry to the touch or appears to be dehydrated, start by adding small amounts of water. Allow that to rest and slowly add small increments of water until the pile seems to be moist enough.

It may take some trial and error, but if the plants are not growing correctly or seem to be ill, there could be a disease spreading in the garden from the compost. When it doubt, clean everything and start again with a freshly sanitized batch of compost, avoiding any high-risk compost materials.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”

John 6:12

What Healthy Compost Requires

When examining compost to determine its level of health, you should first consider the delicate carbon to nitrogen ratio of the compost. To reiterate, compost loves carbon, so consider adding more carbon and watching for any changes if finding the balance is difficult.

To offer an overview of what materials should be considered, stick to a 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. This ratio is incredibly essential when beginning compost. Some common carbon and nitrogen materials use for composting are:

Wood chipsCoffee Grounds
Ash from woodScraps from your meals
Paper and newspaperGrass clippings
TwigsTea Bags
CarboardCow Manure
Lint from the dryerFruit and vegetable scraps

A healthy compost will take about four to six months to be ready, with constant turning and aeration to bring about the proper consistency.

The indication that compost is finished and ready is when there are no signs of food or objects. Compost should be broken down into a soil-like texture that is dark and earth-like. It should not resemble fruits, vegetables, grass, cardboard, or anything else that has been added to the mix.

If it is not doing this in a timely manner or is not turning out to have the quality desired, there could be an issue with the compost mix.

Common Compost Ailments & Their Fixes

If compost is unhealthy, here are the common ailments and their fixes:

  • Compost is too acidic – This can mean the soil is too moist and needs a carbon-rich material added to dry it out slightly. It is also possible to reduce the amount of fruit in the compost to lower the acidity of the compost.
  • Compost is too alkaline – Do the exact opposite and add more fruits or acidic scraps to the compost to neutralize it.
  • Compost is too wet – Add dry materials that are rich in carbon. It may need to be turned more often to add aeration and increase the air circulation in the compost.
  • Compost is too dry – Slowly add more water. Look for a soil-like texture that is rich and crumbly.
  • Compost smells gross – Healthy compost has a rich, earthy smell. But if it’s not earthy enough or smells rotten, it may be necessary to scrap this batch and begin anew. Be sure to scrub the compost bin and remove any disease that may have been sabotaging the previous compost.

Most of these issues are quick fixes. Using senses and logic to determine what compost needs is usually all it takes. Trust gut instincts because it knows a healthy compost when it sees it!

The Easiest Ways to Compost

Try not to look at composting as an extra chore, but rather as a meditative practice to connect with the beauty of nourishing a human body.

The beginning can be intimidating, but here are some easy ways to get started with composting:

  • Use things like vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, paper towels, rice, bread, cardboard, etc. However, there is some debate about using meat and dairy products, which are known to weaken compost, attract pesticides or prevent airflow.
  • Carbon is key to a healthy compost. Use lots of twigs and straw, piling it in layers. Many recommend rotating layers that are drier with wetter layers. Rotate layers of each, and they will eventually break down over time.
  • Check on compost often to be sure it’s moist but not too wet. Allow rain to be the compost’s primary source of water.
  • Cover the compost periodically to retain heat and moisture. These are the two elements that significantly help to prepare suitable compost. This will also help the compost avoid becoming soggy or rotten.
  • Every few weeks, turn the pile with a shovel and allow oxygen to penetrate layers that have been breaking down. If there is a high concentration of carbon-based materials, then turn it less often. Turning is the key to proper composting, and there are rotating composters available to simplify this process.
  • Try to cover the compost to preserve it from rain as well as fruit flies, which are commonly attracted to compost and food waste. Add calcium powder to compost to combat fruit flies, as well.
  • Give compost the standard 4-6 months to mature. At this point, a soil-like texture should be noticeable because everything has broken down.

Voila! Now you can add this compost to the produce garden and reap the benefits of fresher, cheaper, more nutritious, and faster-growing food from home!

Do Not Compost the Following

It is important to know what should be put in compost, but be aware of the things that can attract pests or diseases into the compost and garden, too.

Avoid adding the following items into compost:

  • Meat
  • Carcasses
  • Bones
  • Fishbones/skin
  • Pet manure
  • Sawdust from treated wood
  • Grass that has been sprayed with pesticides
  • Pine needles and cones 
  • Dairy products
  • Plastic
  • Hair
  • Recyclable Items

These will either attract pests, weaken compost, or block airflow by creating a nitrogen-heavy ratio.

How to Speed Up the Compost Process

Some tips to bring a garden to life faster than the usual six-month duration of maturing are:

  • Create a smaller compost pile – It will mature faster if it isn’t as large of a pile to compost. The right size will be around a cubic yard. The center of this depth will allow heat to be preserved and microbes to work faster.
  • Utilize a compost aerator– Just like humans, compost gardens need oxygen and air. This allows it to not only survive but thrive, offering higher-quality and fresher produce. Turn it often and utilize the aerator. Rotating composters can also make this easier.
  • Shred your pile – Be sure that everything that is put in your heap is already chopped, diced, shredded, or picked apart into smaller pieces. The smaller the parts are, the faster the compost breaks down.

Don’t feel pressured to increase the speed of the garden, but if it seems to be frozen in place, these are great techniques to kick a garden into gear.

Why Should Gardeners Compost?

The benefits of composting are plentiful, but just some of the many reasons gardeners should start composting (if they are not already sold) are:

  • Waste isn’t going to waste – Banana peels, eggshells, potato skins – throw them in the compost! The Environmental Protection Agency has recently discovered that compost is saving millions of tons of waste. Consider the long-term effects of this on a global scale. Where else is all of this waste supposed to go?
  • Landfills are overflowing – The EPA states, “Food waste is the most common material found in U.S. landfills. It is the single largest component of the municipal waste we discard, accounting for more than 20 percent of the material arriving at landfills and incinerators.”
  • Methane reduction – The most harmful effect of these overflowing landfills isn’t trash. These landfills are the largest emitter of toxic methane gas in the atmosphere, according to the EPA. There must be a more sustainable method of waste management because this is not viable for long.
  • Good for the environment – This technique allows a garden to flourish without using toxic fertilizers that are not good to breathe in, let alone consume. Compost will be the fertilizer any garden deserves provided in a significantly more natural method.
  • It’s the most natural way – This is how nature intended! Allow it to do its thing without putting harsh chemicals and pesticides all over the food people are about to consume. Compost allows microscopic organisms to break down the food as the cycle of life is meant to do.
  • It neutralizes soil – If any component of the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, the compost will help to bring it back to a pH of 7, which is neutral.
  • Eat more healthily – Gardeners who grow more fruits and veggies are probably consuming healthier food, possibly losing weight, and feeling more energetic. Fresh produce will give individuals lasting energy, mental clarity, and overall better health.
  • It will save money – Don’t pay $8.00 for organic blueberries at the grocery store every week because fruit can be grown at home. Imagine the savings when salads, vegetable sides, fruit for breakfast, etc. are all covered by the garden out back! It won’t be necessary to make so many trips to the store, and gardeners feel the pride of growing food!

It’s better for overall health, the environment, the atmosphere, and more. With all of these benefits, how can one deny the awesome power of compost?

Final Tips to Create Healthy Compost

Every good gardener knows how fantastic compost is and the stunning way it can recycle trash into something new.

Some final tips to get started on a compost journey are:

  • In order to store the compost in a way that won’t smell strongly, invest in a product like the affordable Stainless Steel Odorless Charcoal Filtered Gallon Compost that will make composting from the kitchen more convenient.
  • Never use dead plants or infected leaves. This could spread illness to the rest of the garden.
  • If the compost is in the sun, find a way to offer it shade sometimes to avoid the compost drying out.
  • What a compost pile requires most is moisture, air, and heat. Give it a balance of these things, and a successful and healthy compost mix will likely develop!

In Conclusion

Healthy compost is a living substance filled with healthy microorganisms and bacteria. This can only occur if the gardener is balancing the nitrogen and carbon accurately and inspecting the compost to understand its needs.

If it seems too dry, add rainwater. If it looks too wet, increase aeration or carbon-rich materials. Use the instincts that helped with starting composting in the first place because you already have the green thumb! Trust it!

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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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