Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
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, whether carbon, nitrogen, and moisture are correct, and pile maintenance will 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. Many factors control the decomposition and breakdown 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 watering and turning it regularly, it takes 2 to 4 months for the compost to “ripen.” The coldness of winter slows down the breakdown 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 have humus available in the garden in early summer. It takes that long for aerobic bacteria to grow and 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 breakdown 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 decompose this compost–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. Composing organic waste can be sped up if you follow some 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 ready faster. Aerobic microbes chew up and digest the material. This process heats the compost pile. Compost production has surprisingly high calories 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 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.
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 matter in specific amounts speeding up the decay 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 breakdown is long and could take years to be ready.
In your compost pile, including 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 completed ingredients ready far quicker than not adding it. Herbivore manure makes a superb nitrogen source for compost.
I add the following ingredients to my compost to reduce the breakdown quicker: Fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, pine needles, coffee grounds and filters, shredded dry leaves, grass clippings, and small twigs. After tearing them up into small pieces, I also add untreated paper and cardboard to the pile.
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 garbage. 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 steady decomposition. 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 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, nitrogen is 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 and to get the compost ready far quicker, making it available 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 decompose 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:
Four parts fruit and veggie scraps
Two parts chicken or cow manure
1 part shredded newspaper (no colorful inks, please)
1 part shredded dry leaves
Two parts grass clippings
1 part chicken manure
1 part shredded leaves
How Do You Build and Layer a Compost Pile to Speed Up Breakdown?
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. Creative composters have placed Fancy layers 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 on the bottom, such as branches and twigs, to allow oxygen to circulate upwards. On top, layer 6 to 10 inches of finer plant material, such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps.
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 hummus. 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, extending it to a five-bin compost system. This allows me to increase the amount of decomposition that can be ready simultaneously. It enables the compost to decompose or break down faster 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.
The microbes will break down the organic material and generate heat given the first four. 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 is far easier to control.
During the home composting process, you need to take readings. To understand 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 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 check the top foot weekly and ensure the pile is not too dry or too wet. I want it to be slightly damp. A dry compost will inhibit microbe growth. An overly wet 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. Add dry, fine carbon material to stop the water if it does. 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 finished when it resembles rich soil, ready for the garden. Soil is part of humus and 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 is 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. If you open the bag and it smells sour in three days, it’s not done yet. If it smells earthy, like dirt, your compost is finished and ready for the garden. Start layering it on 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.
FAQs on Make Quality Compost. How Long Does It Take
What happens to a compost pile over time?
Compost, by definition, breaks down slowly over time, which is why it is highly beneficial to plants. An untended waste pile will decay over time, but we can accelerate the process to a single season in a cultivated compost system. Decomposition can be sped up by turning far more, making compost ready quicker.
Does compost ever go bad?
Composted organic matter, in a nutshell, does not spoil unless improperly stored. It does, however, continue to degrade, which is entirely normal. Moisture can turn it anaerobic, making it far less desirable.
Can I rejuvenate old compost?
You must remove the compost, replenish the nutrients, and fluff it up again. You should mix the old compost with some new decomposed compost, 50:50.
Food For Thought
Make composting a habit. In this manner, you will protect the environment by reducing waste while enriching your garden with the necessary nutrients.
The time 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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