Turning the pile speeds up the composting process but it is not the only way to speed up composting. Keep reading to learn how long does composting take, some tips on making your compost-ready FASTER, and how to tell when your compost is ready!!
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How do I know if my compost is ready?
The last stage of composting is called ‘curing’. This is when the pile is set aside, not added to, or turned, the temperature will lower to finish the process.
Curing can take anywhere from 1 month to 1 year. Many composters have their own preferences as to how long to cure a pile. Some will intentionally wait over a year to ensure higher quality compost, and others will use a shorter process because they need to make space for new piles.
There are a few ways to tell if your compost is ready to use:
- It looks like dark, crumbly topsoil
- It has a pleasant, earthy odor. It should not smell like ammonia
- The original organic materials (with a few exceptions) should no longer be recognizable
- The compost pile should have shrunk by half the size
- The pile should have returned to air temperature, about 50 degrees
While the majority of organic materials should not be recognizable in finished compost, it’s okay if there are a few stubborn materials, such as corncobs or wood chips that do not decompose. These materials should not be used in the finished compost, though – they should be filtered out by a process called ‘screening’.
Screening passes the finished compost through a filter. Objects that are larger than the filter can be added to a new compost pile. They can be beneficial to a new compost pile because they contain microorganisms that will help jump-start the composting process.
One simple way to test finished compost is to take a handful and put it in a sealed plastic bag. After 3 days, open the bag and smell. Does it smell sour? If so, the compost is not finished curing and still has microorganisms at work. If it smells pleasant and earthy, it’s ready to use.
Factors that affect the quality of compost:
Time to Mature
Compost that has been allowed to cure, or mature, is healthier for soil than immature compost. Immature compost may contain plant inhibitors, such as bacteria that will compete with the plants for nitrogen in the soil. You will want to test the compost for maturity to make sure it is safe to use.
The materials added to the compost pile will affect the nutrients, soluble salts, and contaminants found in the soil. Compost made from food scraps is typically higher in nutrients, but also higher in soluble salts (which are harmful to plant growth).
Hot vs. Cold Composting
Cold compost is likely to have more nutrients than hot compost; however, hot compost is less likely to have pathogens and weed seeds.
How long does it take for compost to be ready?
The speed at which organic matter breaks down depends on three things:
- The size and type of organic matter added to your pile. Chopped and shredded material breaks down more quickly than whole material. A correct ratio of brown, carbon-rich ingredients to green, nitrogen-rich ingredients will also speed decomposition.
- How often you turn your pile while it’s composting. Turning a pile improves aeration and helps move larger bits to the center where they will decompose more quickly. A compost tumbler makes this process quick and easy.
- Whether you’re using a hot or cold composting method. Hot composting, while more work to monitor and set up, will break down food waste more quickly than cold. In hot composting, it’s easy to tell when the compost is finished. The temperature of the pile drops and doesn’t heat up again when turned. Hot composts work best with shredded materials and a carbon to nitrogen ration of 30 to 1. Compost tumblers can work as hot composters, because their sealed design helps conserve heat and mix the hot composting matter with new materials. To learn more about Compost Tumblers read – How to Use a Compost Tumbler
Depending on the factors above your compost could take anywhere from four weeks to 12 months to fully decompose. If you’re using a tumbler, you’ll have ready-to-use compost in three weeks to three months.
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Can you use compost before it’s ready?
Before you raid your compost bin, remember that using compost before it’s ready can attract pests and damage garden plants. It can also use up nutrients in your soil, making these same nutrients unavailable to your garden plants.
When should I turn my compost?
How often you should turn compost depends on a number of factors including the size of the pile, the green to brown ratio, and the amount of moisture in the pile. That being said, a good rule of thumb is to turn a compost tumbler every three to four days and the compost pile every three to seven days. As your compost matures, you can turn the tumbler or pile less frequently.
Some signs that you may need to turn the compost pile more frequently include slow decomposition, pest infestations, and smelly compost. Be aware that if your compost pile starts to smell, turning the pile may make the smell worse, initially. You may want to keep wind direction in mind if this is the case.
Your compost pile is one of the greatest tools you have to make a great garden. It only makes sense that you would want to make the most of it. Turning your compost can make sure you get the most out of your compost pile as fast as possible.
If you are looking for something to help you turn your compost bin check out this garden fork.
Why Turning Compost Helps
At a basic level, the benefits in turning your compost come down to aeration. Decomposition happens because of microbes and these microbes need to be able to breathe (in a microbial sense) in order to live and function. If there is no oxygen, these microbes die off and decomposition slows down. Many things can create an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment in a compost pile. All of these problems can be reduced or eliminated by turning your compost. These can include:
- Compaction – This is the most obvious way that turning can aerate a compost pile. When the particles in your compost get too close to each other, there is no room for air. Turning compost will fluff your compost heap and create pockets where oxygen can get inside the pile and supply the microbes.
- Too much moisture – In a compost pile that is too wet, the pockets in between the particles will be filled with water rather than air. Turning helps to drain away the water and reopen the pockets to air instead.
- Over consumption by microbes – When microbes in your compost pile are happy, they will do their job well — sometimes too well. The microbe near the center of the pile may use up the nutrients and oxygen they need to survive and then they will die off. When you turn the compost, you mix the pile up. Healthy microbes and undepleted material will be mixed back into the center of the pile, which will keep the process going.
- Overheating in the compost pile – This is closely related to over consumption as when microbes do their jobs well, they also produce heat. Unfortunately, this same heat can kill off the microbes if the temperatures get too high. Mixing the compost up will redistribute the hot compost in the center into the cooler outer compost, which will help keep the overall temperature of the compost pile in the ideal range for decomposition.
Get Your Kids Involved...
We love getting our kids involved in every aspect of the homestead and that starts with teaching them the things that we are doing. A great way to do this is through books. Here are some books about composting for your kids .