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More organic gardeners nowadays are deciding to generate their compost instead of buying it from gardening stores. Their friends are composting, so they want to. So how long does compost take to be ready to use? Here’s what gardeners need to know about how to break down the compost.
Compost can take anywhere from 1 to 12 months or more to decompose. Decomposition depends on the time of year the pile was constructed, carbon, nitrogen, and moisture are correct and pile maintenance will all affect how long a compost pile will take to be ready.
Composting isn’t physically difficult to do. But there are several aspects involved that most new composters aren’t aware of. There are many factors that control the decomposition and break down of decomposed organic matter. Read on to learn more.
How Long Does Compost Take to Decompose?
Variation Of Time
When I manage my compost pile in the spring and summer by adding the correct materials and by watering and turning it regularly, it takes 2 to 4 months for the compost to “ripen.” The coldness of winter slows down the break down process considerably. It may take six months for the same amount of decomposition to occur and for the compost to be ready for use.
For instance, I prepare a compost pile in the fall to give it time to decompose and be ready. I will then have humus available for use in the garden in early summer. It does take that long for the aerobic bacteria to grow and do their work. The reason? I can’t turn the compost as often due to cold weather. It slows the decomposition and the composting process slows the break down and decomposition rates.
But, if a pile consists of large chunks of unshredded paper, wood, corn husks, vegetables, and the like, it will take over a year to make this compost decompose–winter or summer. Smaller chunks always take less time to be ready.
Make It Faster
There are times I want to hurry and make compost faster. The process to decompose organic waste can be sped up if you follow some basic fundamentals.
That’s when I add worms to the mixture. In less than a month in the high summer, their movement and digestion of organic waste have turned my compost pile into humus. This is much faster after the heat dissipates than waiting for them to arrive naturally and you will not have to wait so long.
The proper mixture of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials will also significantly speed things up making compost be ready faster. Aerobic microbes chew up and digest the material. This process heats the compost pile. There’s a surprisingly high number of calories in the production of compost due to the effort decomposition requires.
The best way to make the microbes happy is to add manure. I add fresh manure to the top of the pile in October, knowing it will age well over the winter. I add aged manure to my new compost pile in the spring. This nitrogen-rich material helps aerobic microbes multiply rapidly.
Slowing Down the Process
Some gardeners use what I call the cold composting process. They’ll pile in materials and let it sit for years with no turning whatsoever.
One gardener I know had five compost piles going, one per year. He’d remove the fifth-year hummus and put it on top of his garden bed. It crumbled nicely, like dirt. He’d use the compost from the other piles in rotation each spring in later years while renewing the one he just used.
My Book Composting Masterclass Is Available Now!
So many people struggle to make compost, either it takes an eternity to break down, or it becomes a smelly mess. I wrote this book so that you can learn what happens in your compost pile at the microscopic level, as well as the fundamentals. Knowing this will allow you to understand at what stage your compost is and allow you to problem solve and find solutions when making compost. Check out what others say about the book!
The most comprehensive book on composting I have ever read!
I thought I knew a thing or two about composting organic materials to use back in my garden as “black gold” but Tony’s breaking down (pun intended) of composting principles and methods has given me a better understanding of the whole process.
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Mark Valencia (Self Sufficient Me)
How to Make Compost Decompose Faster
Composting is simply the process of organic material decomposition. Organic matter will break down on its own. Humans create compost by mixing a variety of organic matters in specific amounts speeding up the decomposition and then using this decomposed product to enrich their gardens.
Over time, the mixture turns into nutrient-rich fertilizer, superb for gardens.
I could add almost any organic material to my compost. But, I make it a policy to omit some animal-produced, I would not compost dog waste for instance, or food scraps such as dairy and meat. I also refuse to put any manure or feces produced by humans or carnivores. It’s loaded with dangerous pathogens and although it can be composted the break down is long and could be years to be ready.
In your compost pile include manure from herbivores, such as cows, horses, sheep, chickens, and rabbits these are packed with microbial life and will speed up decomposition far quicker making your competed ingredients be ready far quicker than not adding it. Herbivore manure makes a superb nitrogen source for compost.
I add the following ingredients to my compost in order to reduce the break down far quicker: Fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, pine needles, coffee grounds and filters, shredded dry leaves, grass clippings, and small twigs. I also add untreated paper and cardboard to the pile after tearing them up into small pieces.
Sawdust For Decomposition
Sawdust makes for a surprisingly good addition to my compost pile. It binds nitrogen into the compost as it decomposes. I bring bags to the lumberyard and sweep up their leavings. They’re happy to see the mess go.
How long does sawdust take to break down
When adding these ingredients you can pile open bins high to increase the mass of the pile.
The C: N Ratio
A good carbon and nitrogen mix is needed in the compost pile for decomposition to occur steadily. Scientists call this the C: N ratio. The best ratio is estimated to be from 24:1 to 30:1, with 2/3rds of the carbon generating energy and 1/3rd serving as maintenance of the pile.
The nitrogen keeps the compost pile from getting too moist. It also accelerates the rate at which materials break down. After the compost turns to humus, the nitrogen works as a superb fertilizer for gardens.
Think of carbon as brown material and nitrogen as green material. Getting the ratios right is important to get a hot heap, for decomposition to occur, and to get the compost to be ready far quicker making it available to you so you do not have to wait so long..
If you need carbon in your pile, include corn stalks. Add some shredded old leaves and paper.
Materials with nitrogen include various plants, such as stems, vegetables, fruits, pine needles, and grass clippings.
Why is it Good to Compost?
Gardeners use compost to improve their soil’s structure. To increase the soil’s aeration. Good soil will have numerous air pockets to promote plant growth. To increase the soil’s capacity to hold water and nutrients.
Composting is environmentally friendly. If we decomposed by composting most of the food we throw away, we could divert much of the waste that goes into landfills.
Here is a recipe to get quality compost that will decompose faster making it quicker to be ready. How long it takes will depend on the number of times you turn it, but decomposition will happen either way and these ingredients will break down well:
4 parts fruit and veggie scraps
2 parts chicken or cow manure
1 part shredded newspaper (no colorful inks, please)
1 part shredded dry leaves
2 parts grass clippings
1 part chicken manure
1 part shredded leaves
How Do You Build and Layer a Compost Pile to Speed Up Break Down?
Composting bins are available at almost any gardening store. Or, you can save money by building one out of wire fencing, cement blocks, bricks, or scrap lumber. A small, enclosed bin will take up little room.
Build a free-standing bin in a shaded corner away from the neighbors for those with larger yards, preferably near the garden. Make sure the area has good drainage. Leave one side open for turning the compost to speed up how long the composted ingredients will take to decompose.
Layering the Bin
To aerate the pile, layer wood chips or shredded newspaper so air can flow through. Fancy layers have been placed by creative composters over pipes delivering air in and out of the pile. High-tech piles include air blowers activated by a timer or sensors within the compost bin.
Layer coarse plant material, such as branches and twigs, on the bottom, to allow oxygen to circulate upwards. Layer 6 to 10 inches of finer plant material such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps on top.
Arrange 1 inch of soil or manure on top of the fine layer. This layer will provide needed microbes and nitrogen to the pile.
Repeat coarse layering material, fine material, and soil or manure until the pile is 5 feet tall after settling. A pile must be at least four cubic feet to provide enough food and a stable environment for the microbes to start the decomposition process, allowing them to break down the compost speeding up how long for it to be ready.
The Three-Bin System
Try using three bins instead of one. One will serve as the home for finished compost, providing healthy humus for the garden when needed. Another will be made up of ripening compost. The third will be for new compost waste.
Happy is the gardener who never runs out of humus. I know.
I have a video on how to make compost. You can watch it below.
I have a variation on the three-bin composting bay and I have extended it to a five-bin compost system. This allows me to increase the amount of decomposition that can be ready at the same time. It enables the compost to decompose or break down far quicker than a three-bin system.
How Do Compost Piles Work?
For decomposition to occur, five elements and conditions are essential: Carbon, nitrogen, air, water, and aerobic microbes.
Given the first four, the microbes will break down the organic material and generate heat. It’ll take about a week for the process to begin. The heat will hasten decomposition and destroy unwanted material, such as weed seeds, insect eggs, disease bacteria, and viruses. A hot compost pile will finish much quicker than a cold one, and it is far easier to control.
During the home composting process you need to take readings. To get a reading of how the pile is doing, wait at least two days after assembling it, then pull away some of the surface material. Six inches down, the pile should be noticeably warm, if not downright hot. Use a compost thermometer. If it reads 130 degrees F, that’s perfect. If it drops to 100 degrees F, turn the pile. Check the pile each day, covering the hole after each test.
Sniff the compost. Good decomposing compost will smell like rich soil. Bad smells show there’s a problem with too much water, insufficient aeration, or a poor C: N ratio. Fix whatever is ailing your compost bin. Test the results. If it doesn’t work, try a different solution.
Microbes in a compost pile need enough moisture to survive. Water serves as a transport for microbes and nutrients.
I make sure the pile is not too dry or too wet by checking the top foot weekly. I want it to be slightly damp. A dry compost will inhibit microbe growth. An overly damp compost will clog air passages, encouraging anaerobic microbes to grow. They will turn the pile into a putrid mess.
Check to see if recent rainfall has made the pile soggy. If it did, add dry, fine carbon material to sop up the water. Turn the compost with a pitchfork. Cover the pile if a rainstorm is coming.
What is the Difference Between Soil and Humus?
Humus is broken-down waste that is decomposed into compost. It’s considered finished when it resembles rich soil, ready for the garden. Soil is part humus and part inorganic materials, including sand, clay, and silt. Soil also has some water and air in it.
In nature, decomposition turns organics into humus. Whether naturally formed or generated by human-constructed compost piles, humus serves as a fertilizer, adding rich nutrients to the soil.
How Can You Tell When Compost Has Turned to Humus and is Ready to Use?
When it looks like rich topsoil, dark, moist, and crumbly.
Use your nose.
Put a handful of the compost into a sealed plastic bag. In three days, if you open the bag and it smells sour, it’s not done yet. If it smells earthy, like dirt, then your compost is finished and ready for the garden. Start layering it on top of your garden bed, roughly two inches deep.
Please don’t mix it with the soil. Let the nutrients seep in where the roots can get at them.
This is the most enjoyable day for me as an organic gardener. The day I see all my plants poking out through all that richness.
Food For Thought
Make composting a habit. In this manner, you will protect the environment by reducing waste while also enriching your garden with necessary nutrients.
The time it takes to get excellent compost for your garden depends on various factors, including the materials you add to the pile and its size.
Furthermore, the speed of the process will be influenced by your efforts. Turning the pile regularly helps your compost decompose more quickly and efficiently.
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