When Should I Turn My Compost Pile?

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turning a compost pile

When I first started composting, I admit that I had no idea what I was doing. I had to learn a lot through research and trial and error. A great deal of information is out there about adding the most beneficial materials to a compost and mixing it at certain, various times. Turning compost can be a lot of work depending on the size of the compost pile, so knowing the correct information will be a big help!

So, when should you turn your compost pile?  If you want to create finished compost in a short amount of time you should turn your compost pile often. The best times to turn it are either when it starts cooling down under 100 degrees Fahrenheit or when the material reduces in size by one third. However, even if you don’t ever turn your compost pile, you will still get finished compost eventually, but it will just take longer!

Let’s take a deeper look into the benefits of turning your compost to determine if it’s the best thing for you to do in your own situation!

What are the Benefits of Turning Your Compost?

Just to make it clear, organic material does not need to be turned in order to get finished compost. A pile that is mixed with a good combination of green and brown material will still turn into finished compost, it will just take much longer. It would probably take a year or two depending on the conditions in your particular area. This is how nature composts. It does not need any help because it is God’s perfect design.  However, if you need compost more quickly than that, turning your compost will help greatly!

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

John 1:3

I monitor the temperature of my compost pile with a compost thermometer. When the compost is highly active, the temperature will be around 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. When it dips below 100 degrees, I know it is cooling down and it is about time to turn it.  Another good rule of thumb is to turn your compost pile when you see it has reduced in size by about one third.

The following are some of the benefits for turning your compost pile.

  • More oxygen!  The more oxygen in a pile, the more quickly it will break down. Aerobic bacteria quickly break down a compost pile. This is what causes a compost pile to heat up. This type of bacteria love oxygen, and turning the pile frequently will essentially “air it out” and get more oxygen to those beneficial organisms.
  • Prevents matting.  Similar to incorporating more oxygen, turning a compost pile will prevent the materials from matting together.  Matting would prevent oxygen from getting into that material and cause a slimy, anaerobic mess. Anaerobic bacteria do not like oxygen. This type of bacteria compost much more slowly than aerobic bacteria. It also causes your pile to get quite smelly! 
  • More surface area!  The more surface area in the material, the more oxygen and air gets to the material and the more quickly compost will break down. This is also a reason the material should be shredded up as fine as possible in order to get finished compost fast.
  • Moisture control.  If a pile is too wet, water is filling these important little spaces instead of air. Turning the compost will resolve this issue. On the other hand, if your compost pile is too dry, turning your compost pile gives you a great chance to water the layers of your compost pile as you put it back together. Material should be slightly wet like a wrung out sponge.
  • Finished compost fast! The end result! This happens when you turn your compost often and it’s the main reason we take the time to do it! We want finished compost in the shortest amount of time so we can use it in our gardens! You get finished compost more quickly due to the reasons we have mentioned already above.
  • Good exercise. Working out in your garden can seriously be good exercise for you! I know whenever I turn my large compost piles I am definitely tired by the end of it and my muscles are sore the next day.  I’d much rather do productive work outside than go to the gym, but that’s just me!

So now we know that turning our compost pile will give us compost more quickly, but how exactly should we go about accomplishing that goal?

Best Ways to Turn Your Compost

A couple of different methods are available to turn compost depending on how you have it contained and what tool you prefer to use.

Before we get into the methods, I have a few recommendations that I always do whenever I turn my own compost pile. First, I check the moisture level. If it looks dry, I spray down the material with a hose as I add layers and recreate the pile. If it is too wet, slimy, or has a foul smell this tells me that I need to add more brown material such as dried leaves, bush trimmings, cardboard, paper, etc. If the pile isn’t hot in the middle and I have a lot of material, it probably means more green material is needed, such as fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds, or kitchen waste from fruits and vegetables.

Here are some ways you can turn your compost piles!

  • If you are using a compost tumbler, you have it easy! Compost tumblers are a good way to make smaller amounts of compost quickly, especially if you don’t have room for a large compost pile. All you have to do is to turn/crank the handle to mix up your material inside!
  • If you have a pile of organic material that is at least three feet tall and three feet wide, you’ll be doing more work to turn your compost. This is the method that I use at our house. I highly recommend using a garden fork for this job as it makes the process much easier! Basically, the inside will be more broken down than the outside, so you need to bring the inside of the pile to the outside and the outsides of the pile to the inside. Don’t get too hung up on these details, though. If you just deconstruct your pile into one spot and then put it all back, you’ll essentially be mixing it all up really well and gaining most of the benefits listed above.
  • You can use a compost aerator tool. While I haven’t personally used one of these tools, I can see how it would help aerate your pile a bit. However, it isn’t going to perform the heavy mixing as described above. I would probably recommend this tool as an interim step to reconstructing the whole pile. This tool is a long stick with some teeth on the end. You drive the stick into your pile and pull it out and it mixes up the material as it moves through it.  

Can I Add New Material to the Pile When I Turn It?

I have explained some beneficial practices during the process of turning a pile, but you may be wondering you if you should be constantly adding new material to the pile. I mentioned adding more green or brown material to your pile to correct deficiencies. However, it may seem practical and easy to just keep adding material to your pile as you obtain it. Conflicting information is out there on this topic. Here is what I have found.

  • If you are doing a fast and hot compost pile, it is recommended that you gather up all your brown and green material until you have enough for at least a three feet high by three feet wide pile. Create the compost pile all at once and then don’t add new material to this pile again. If you gather up more material from your garden as time passes, start a new pile. Adding new material can disrupt the composting process of the older material in the pile. Plus, if you constantly keep adding new material, you’ll never really be left with a completely finished pile of compost.
  • If you are doing a slow and cool compost pile, then I think it would be perfectly fine to just keep adding a mixture of brown and green materials to the top of your pile. This type of pile is typically not turned, so the concern above does not exist. This type of pile will take much longer to break down, but have no fear, you will have finished compost at the bottom of your pile within a few years.

What are Some Ways to Contain a Compost Pile?

Many different ways exist to contain a compost pile. Keep in mind that if you want a fast and hot compost pile, your pile needs to be at least three feet high and three feet wide. Here are a few of the ways to contain it.

  • Use pallets. This is what I do! I found free pallets and used zip ties to connect them together. Adjustable zip ties are quite useful because it allows me to open the sides and access the compost whenever I want to turn the material. The picture at the beginning of this post shows my double bin compost container.
  • Chicken wire or any other common cage wire type material is used often to contain compost piles.
  • A compost tumbler is an easy composting method for people with limited space.
  • Any kind of wooden bin can be used or built to contain a compost pile.
  • Just pile up your material in some area of your property.  While this might not be the most attractive solution, you will get compost eventually by doing it this way.

You can check out our Best Compost Products page to help you get started with composting!

Related Questions

Should a compost bin be in the sun or the shade? Either option will work just fine, but having your compost bin in a more sunny area will help keep the material warm and could help provide finished compost faster, especially in the winter when temperatures are colder.

Can I put weeds in a compost bin?  Yes, a hot compost pile will kill any weeds seeds that exist, so you won’t have to worry about creating more weeds in the garden when using this finished compost. For a cold compost pile, it would not be recommended to add weeds, especially if the weeds have flowered and gone to seed. You’ll be adding more weeds to your garden wherever you use this finished compost.

How long do compost piles stay hot?  A properly mixed compost pile can stay hot at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or more for about one to two weeks. A pile under this temperature can still be very warm and active for up to a month or more. However, when the temperature dips below 100 degrees, it is time to turn the pile in order for it to stay hot.

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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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