When we get started in composting, one of the first questions we have, besides how do we make compost? is, how long does it take to make compost?
The amount of time it takes to make compost depends on how much effort you are willing to put into it. The average time will take between a very quick 5 weeks to over a year for finished compost. But like I said, this very large difference between the times is mostly caused by how much attention is given to your pile.
I will go over the two most common ways of making compost, that are essentially the same thing but the results regarding length of time are very different.
Long time vs Short time
The Short: Using the compost pile or compost bin method, which are easily the most common methods of composting, a home gardener can create good, useable compost within as little time as 5 to 6 weeks. This method is the most involved and labor intense way of creating compost and will involve attention to the pile or bin every couple of days or so.
The Long: The other method, that creates compost in as long as a years time is the way many home compost piles end up becoming. This method involves little to no attention to the pile and consists of layers of kitchen scraps on top of layers Fall time leaves on top of layers of grass clippings. All important parts of a good compost pile but just never mixed and left to look after itself.
This method does usually work, however the amount of time needed is exorbitant and not realistic for those of us who would like to use the finished compost in our garden as soon as possible.
Back when I was in the lawn care business I remember a couple of incidents where the customer had me get rid of their compost bins because they no longer had a use for it, i.e. they no longer had a vegetable garden, or their health was declining. Either way, they no longer needed the bin.
In most incidents, the customer hadn’t touched the bin in several years but upon looking inside, there were still grass clippings and recognizable food scraps still sitting there. All dried up but still recognizable.
This proves that the just set it and forget it approach to composting the slowest and least favorable method of composting there is.
Below, lets explore some tips to help reduce our compost times down from a good part of a year to possible getting up to three batches of compost in one season.
Steps to make the quickest compost
The following steps will help you see the quickest results for great compost. Whether you end up following all or just some of these steps, you will definitely see an improvement in your composting times.
These steps will help you create what is known as a “hot compost Pile”. These piles should generally be at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet in size, although you can get away with a slightly smaller size if you keep the activity up.
A hot compost pile will sustain core temperatures of between 120 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to 77 degrees Celsius) and sustain these temperatures throughout the entire composting timeframe. More on this later on.
In most cases, if you have room on your property, it is best to have more that one location, bin or pile for your compost. This enables you to have an active pile on the go that you can continue to work and add materials too and also allows you to have a second space to store the completed compost at where you will have easy access to it as needed.
- Adding the right materials. Everyone always mentions that you need to get the right mix of greens vs browns but people who are composting consistently, quickly realize that having enough the right materials in the proper proportions at hand all the time isn’t always a realistic situation. Usually we run short of brown material to add to the pile and that is often true of piles that we are trying to keep chugging and producing fast results. We will talk about this in more detail just below.
As mentioned earlier, the ideal size of the pile should be no smaller than 3 by 3 by 3 feet. It can be bigger but in order for the heat to build up, it shouldn’t be much smaller than this when ever possible. The compost will still break down but the smaller the pile the longer it will take.
Your goal is to add even amounts of browns to greens to your pile. Browns can be found in dried leaves, pine needles and small woody branches. If you are low on this material you can always use shredded cardboard or newspaper as browns.
Green materials will consist of your grass clippings, vegetable garden waste and fruit and veggie waste from the kitchen. Depending on the season you will almost have more of one vs the other available in your yard.
- Chop them fine. When adding your mix of browns and greens, try to chop them down to as small of a size as possible. For leaves, a couple passes over them with the lawn mower will usually do the trick while with small woody branches, a wood chipper works great but if you don’t have one, clipping the branches down with garden clippers can be effective. It shouldn’t be very hard as you really only want smaller woody material to create your fast compost pile.
Kitchen scraps can also be chopped down with a knife or scissors and I have even put scraps into an old blender and mixed them down to a pulp. This works extremely well, and this material will break down very fast in the pile.
- Add existing compost. This part is crucial to starting up a fast pile. Existing compost already has the billions of active microbes that are needed to get things started. The existing plants and ground are full of helpful bacteria and microbes that are needed but they will need to start fresh with the material you have. When adding some fresh compost to the new pile, you introduce all the right ones into the mix straight off the mark. This will help your pile break down much faster. If you do not have available compost at hand you can always borrow a small bucket from a neighbor or if you are unsure of what was used to make their compost, you could always get a safe source of compost starter from Amazon for a great price. You will only need to source out this material once as after you have finished your first batch of compost, you will have a source of quality compost to start off each additional pile from then on.
- Mix your materials thoroughly. Like mentioned earlier, this is an important step that many people forget to perform. In order for the composting process to really take place and for your pile to heat up to the correct temperature, the materials must be mixed up really well. This means either using a shovel, an aerator or a pitch fork (which I think works best for a pile) to turn the materials over them selves several times in order to ensure a good mix.
This will both mix all the materials into the right proportions for compost but will also fluff the pile up and add oxygen to the mix, a very important part of the composting procedure.
- Add water to the pile. Just like all other life as we know it, the microbes that do most of the work in your compost need water as well. So once you have built and mixed your starter pile, add about 5 or 6 gallons throughout. Using a hose or watering can, add enough water to the pile to ensure that it is mostly damp throughout. Try not to make it too wet as the pile may become anaerobic (not having enough oxygen for the microbes).
Don’t worry about this too much, just dampen the pile and it will be fine.
- Leave the pile alone and let it do it’s thing. Now you can have a break for a couple of days. This is the time to let mother nature do what she does. If you have a compost thermometer, stick it in to the middle of the pile after about a day or so and see what the temperature is inside. Depending on the material you have built up and how dense the center of the pile is it may take more than a few days to get up to temperature but you are looking for it to reach about 120 t0 150+ degrees Fahrenheit at this time.
Check the pile every day or so to ensure that the temperature is still at this “HOT” range.
- Turn the pile frequently. As the pile core temperature begins to drop below the 120 degree temperature range, it is a good time to turn over the pile in order to get new material closer to the center.
The center of the pile is where the magic happens and is the spot you want to keep hot. The heat is the result of the microbes doing the work of converting the greens and browns into compost and the hotter it is the more activity there is and that means quicker compost.
Keep adding water as you do this to keep the moisture content up. Remember it just needs to be damp, not wet and soaking.
- Keep adding material. As the pile is turned over several times throughout the weeks, it will decrease in size and therefore be ready for new material. You can add more anytime during this process and just mix it in as you mix the older stuff.
you will begin to see that some of the materials you have been mixing up now are beginning to turn into something that represents soil and not organic material that you started with. Within about 5 or 6 weeks, there should be enough compost together in the pile that you could begin to separate it out.
- Separating out the compost. finally, the time we have been waiting for. Although it really hasn’t been that long has it. 5, 6 or even 7 weeks for good workable compost really isn’t that long to wait is it?
anyways, it’s time to separate it out and make room for future batches.
This step is pretty easy. Using a pitch fork, go through the pile and separate all the items that are still recognizable such as leaves, sticks, orange peels, apple cores and anything else you can identify. These items will be remaining in the pile to continue breaking down. All the other stuff is ready to go to the secondary or finished pile that you may have been able to set up. This pile will be mostly black by color and almost soil like. It may have organic material still in it but you really won’t be able to tell exactly what it was previously as it is mostly broken down.
This material is safe for use in the garden and lawn but I would suggest leaving it for a couple weeks to allow it to “mature” and bring more of the good microbes and worms back into the mix.
You see, the hot compost pile we had running for all these weeks is a great place for the bacteria and microbes that eat away at the organic materials to live and breed but it is not a good place for the microbes, worms and other creepy crawlers that enjoy munching on some of this mostly finished compost.
Give the new compost some time to finish breaking down before adding to the garden.
How to tell when your compost is finished
Finished compost will not smell bad. It has a fresh, earthy smell to it. Good finished compost will look like fresh, dark soil and won’t have any bits of wood or other organics in it that haven’t broken down.
A great way to get to this step with your new batch of compost is to build or purchase a screen for the compost. It should have a metal mesh to withstand the rough conditions that hard bits and soil produce after scraping across it. Holes should be about ½ inch in size and the surface area of the screen should be big enough for you to reasonably use but not so big that it’s impractical for what you need. Most people into home composting may only need a sifter or screener that is about 2 to 4 square feet in size.
Sift through your materials over a wheel barrel or in a separate pile. All the good fresh compost will fall through the holes and the other materials such as twigs, un-composted organic materials and plastics and stones will stay on top. Go through this stuff and get rid of the things that won’t compost and throw the organics back into the hot pile to continue the process.
Now this process may be more involved than a normal, passive compost system but it will get you more compost faster, and that’s what we want.