Good compost is vital to your garden’s health. Though it can be bought in stores, nothing compares to producing your own compost at home. The breaking down of your own kitchen waste tossed into the bin is incredibly fulfilling as you know you’re contributing to your garden’s health and shrinking your waste. But how do you know if it’s good home-made compost? We’ve got the answers here for you.
How to test the quality of your compost? There are five ways to test the quality of your compost pile:
- Test the maturity of your compost.
- Check the color and texture.
- Check the odor.
- Check its temperature.
- Send a sample to a compost/soil-testing agency.
Testing the quality of your compost is essential to the productivity of your garden (especially for homemade compost). Applying low-quality or immature compost to your garden can damage the soil and plant life, so it is important to know when and how to test your mixture. Your methods might also differ based on what composting methods you choose: hot, cold, or vermiculture.
Testing Your Compost for Maturity
One of the things you will need to test your compost for is maturity. Before proceeding to test the quality, you need to be sure that your compost is ready to use. Using your compost before it’s reached maturity can harm your garden, so it is important to remember the significance of allowing your compost to decompose before applying it to your garden. Here are a few ways to do test your compost’s maturity.
1. Maturity Testing Set-Up
In order to become valuable compost, your collection of garden and food waste needs oxygen in order to properly decompose. Placing it in your garden while it is undergoing this process will inevitably lead to your compost stealing valuable elements that your plants’ roots need, doing more harm than good.
- To start, divide your compost bins or other containers into two sets of three, four, five, or six (however many trials you are willing to do. Two will not be enough to compare).
- Label the containers of one set as “Control,” and the others as “Experiment” or “Compost.” Make sure to record the date on the containers!
- For the Control bins, fill them with a standard potting soil mix.
- Next, fill the Experiment containers with a mixture of potting soil and your compost sample. Plant up to six seeds in each container and water them – it is suggested that you place each set of containers in the same location in your nursery or gardening area, to eliminate any possibility of external influences (amount of light, temperature, etc.) on germination and plant growth.
- Keep the soil moist over the next week and record the dates on which the seeds germinated and keep track of growth per container.
- Compare the results. If the Experiment bins produced less germination than the Controls, your compost is immature and will need to give it another month to mature.
As a bonus, this makes a great learning experience and science experiment for any of the younger people living or visiting your home!
2. Check the Color of Your Compost
Another telltale sign of the quality of your compost is its color and texture. Good compost will be a rich brown or dark brown and crumbly to the touch. It will be dry and crumble between your fingers like coarse sand.
It should not be wet or stick to your fingers like mud. Yes, even compost made with the help of worms! Worms produce a substance called “compost tea,” and it can be easy to think that because of this liquid substance produced by the worms, the compost would have a clumpy, mud-like texture. However, with the proper compost set-up, this should not be the case. More on this later.
Additionally, you should be able to identify pieces of the materials that made up your compost. Now, there shouldn’t be whole banana peels in your compost, but little bits of eggshell, newspaper or dead leaves are acceptable here and there.
3. The smell of the Compost
This is perhaps one of the most important methods of knowing the quality of your compost. Your compost should never have a bad or pungent odor! Luckily, this is one of the easiest traits to test.
Your compost should never smell like what you would expect from a pile of decomposing organic materials. When it is properly balanced in its Carbon-to-Nitrogen ratio (ideally 1:1 or just a bit greater), compost should simply smell like freshly turned earth. It should never smell like decaying wood or other organic compounds.
What makes up this Carbon-to-Nitrogen (C:N) ratio is the amount of “brown” materials you have in the bin versus that of “green” components.
Brown and Green Compost Materials
Brown materials you can add to your compost pile include fallen leaves – dead fallen leaves. Living leaves will have an entirely different chemical makeup and fall into the category of green materials. Hay, paper, cardboard, eggshells, tea bags, sawdust, and fireplace ashes are a few more examples of the brown material that will make up your compost.
Brown materials are high in carbon and provide a strong source of energy for the microorganisms (and/or worms) breaking down your plant and food waste. Be careful not to add glossy paper or wood that has been treated in any way so as not to introduce any dangerous or foreign compounds to your compost pile. Regarding ashes, be careful not to add too much to avoid throwing off the pH levels.
Green materials, on the other hand, contain significantly more Nitrogen, which is important to plants for the creation of amino acids. It also aids plants in providing a source of protein to microorganisms in the soil, which aids in speeding up the decomposition process. These materials should be used in moderation.
Examples of green materials are vegetable peels, clippings of grass, fresh manure, coffee grounds, seaweed, and fresh cuttings of garden plants. There are many different kinds of manures you can use in compost: chicken, sheep, horse, cow, and rabbit being the most popular options. Never use it fresh, though – let it break down first.
(Also, never use the manure of meat-eating animals – including pigs – or humans to avoid the potential spreading of diseases.)
4. Checking the Temperature of Your Compost
Another way to test your own compost at home is by checking the temperature of your mixture. As the microorganisms break down the materials in the container or pile, they and the natural process of all plant, food, and other materials breaking down will generate heat. Your compost pile should exude a moderate amount of heat, meaning it should never be cold or too hot.
The benefit of heat for your compost pile is that any pathogens and seeds of weeds will be destroyed in the pile, getting rid of any chance of you or your plants getting sick.
The temperature for a healthy compost pile will fall anywhere between 90˚ to 140˚ Fahrenheit. Your compost pile will reach these temperatures when it is at least 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. The temperature will rise and change from the center first and may experience fluctuations in its development.
Temperatures may fluctuate due to the material composition of your compost pile and aeration. Additionally, the ideal size of your compost pile will change depending on whether it’s stored within a container, indoors, or outdoors. Compost that is stored in a container will likely heat up faster than those that are exposed to the elements.
5. Professional Biochemical Compost Test
The last option for testing the quality of your compost is to hire a professional agricultural company to do so. This is less an option for individuals that maintain a family or hobby garden, and more for those running a farm or growing produce on a large scale.
Professional agricultural companies, or even universities like Penn State, for example, offer their services for assessing the biochemical makeup of compost samples. Penn State offers tests for the C:N ratio of your sample, analyses for organic matter, soluble salts, and more. They will also test for micronutrients your plants need as well, including phosphorus, calcium, manganese, sodium, and more.
They will also test for possible pollutants in your sample, in case the compost is being used to grow feed for livestock. Pollutants being tested for include arsenic, lead, mercury, and more. You can order these tests based on the size of your sample and the type of test you’re looking for.
Do some searching and, based on your need and type of production, see what testing alternative will be best for you.