Beginners guide to composting: How long does it take?

Making your own compost is a great way to get rid of your biodegradable waste, turning it into rich fertile humus, which you can use to fertilize your garden area, helping with water drainage and improve overall soil structure. A compost pile is like a plant, needs to be maintained and cared for to get good results.

So how long exactly does it take to make Compost? Making Compost is reliant on multiple factors but an active (hot) compost will take about 3-6 months, while the passive (cold) option will need 8-12 Months. There are, however, a couple of important factors to keep in mind when composting to ensure a proper humus production, so let’s first take a look at a couple of really important indicators.

What’s important to know about Composting

Once you start your own compost it’s important to check its condition from time to time, there are a couple of important factors you have to look out for when you want to produce your own humus.

Temperature: A nice war temperature is import for your compost and will tell you if it’s still active or needs to be turned. The heat within a compost is produced by bacteria, which are working inside your pile, in general, the temperature in the middle of your compost should be 33% higher than the current ambient temperature. Due to a lack of oxygen, the bacteria might not be able to work properly, so turn you compost if the temperature is to low. In winter temperatures can get to low (32°F/0°C) and pause the composting process until spring.

This is also a good indicator on the maturity of your compost, after a reasonable time-frame (about 3-8 months) the pile might be finished, you will notice it no longer produces any significant amount of heat, even if you turn it.

Smell: Another important indicator is the smell, a well-balanced compost should have a pleasant earthy smell. Bad smelling compost is caused by an imbalance of organic material, lack of oxygen or too much moisture.

Let’s take a closer look at what causes which smell. An ammonia (like sewage) smell indicates a lack of brown materials. Your compost should have a good balance between green (nitrogen) and brown material (carbon). To fix this simply add some leaves, sticks, straw, twigs or newspaper, continue to add until the smell disappears. It’s important to keep both brown and green material mixed up, isolated clumps will continue to smell, so give it a good turn every time you add more components.

A putrid smell can be caused by lack of aeration, especially if your compost is compressed, giving it a nice shake and turning your compost will fix this issue relatively fast. Another reason for this rotten egg-like smell is too much water in your compost, this can easily be identified by its slimy consistency and fixed by adding moisture absorbing materials like sawdust or dry leaves.

That being said the opposite can also be true, your compost pile should have a damp feeling to it, otherwise, the microbes can’t work properly.

With the basics out of the way how much time does a compost pile need until it’s completely done?

How long does it take to have useable humus

A well-maintained compost can be finished in as little as 3 Months. A lot of care needs to be put into your pile, temperatures have to be constantly warm (only works in summer), and mainly fast decomposing material is used.

It’s important to differentiate between an active and a passive compost pile, the later is more or less left alone and decomposes over a longer time period. In these cases, it’s more realistic to give your compost about a year to be finished.

So how exactly do you speed up the composting process? Are there any tricks to get your humus faster?

You can use a meat thermometer to measure the temperature of your compost

How to speed up the process

There are a lot of contributing factors to determine the speed at which your compost will turn into humus. First of all, if you only want to get some good quality fertilizer by just throwing your waste into a pile, I am sorry to disappoint but this will not give you any humus within 3 months.

With that out of the way let’s take a look at how to speed up your compost and begin with the obvious step: getting active. A well-maintained compost is one that is turned regularly, has a great balance of green and brown material, as well as a good level of moisture. I already stated your compost needs to be damp to touch and about 33% warmer than the ambient temperature if this is not the case you need to turn the compost.

Location is the first thing to consider when starting a new compost, it’s very important to pick a place with good drainage and good sun exposure about 6 hours a day while being protected against strong winds. Watch out for nearby trees, they might produce roots in the pile which is best prevented preemptively with a strong stone foundation.

Sizing your compost correctly will also help to speed up the process somewhere around 4x4x4 (1.2m)feet is optimal, larger piles tend to prevent proper airflow and a smaller pile will not heat up enough.

Another trick to speed up composting is to use smaller material, finer matter is faster to be broken down, this will save up all the time it would have normally taken to break down the original waste.

If you choose to have a passive compost, but still want to help it out a little, consider adding earthworms you find during digging to the pile. The worms will eat some of the material and help to break down the compost faster, do not try to add any worms to an active compost, they will not withstand the hot temperatures within this pile and either leave or die.

How often do you need to turn your compost

There is no one size fits all answer to this question, it greatly depends on the conditions of your compost heap, in general, an active pile is turned every 2-5 weeks. It’s best to just monitor the core temperature of your pile and turn it whenever the temperature starts to decrease.

Turning a well working pile will not improve the composting process making it a pretty useless endeavor.

Three Bin/Pile system

You’ll never get any finished compost if you continue adding new material to your pile, as there will be always something that hasn’t started to decompose, yet. With the three bin system, you work around this problem by introducing two more compost piles, 1 for already finished compost, the second for compost in the process of finishing and the third one for new compost.

Related Questions:

What’s the difference between soil and humus? Humus acts more like a fertilizer, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil, but only contributing little permanent bulk to the soil. It can be used to improve soil-quality but will continue to break down until a small percentage of the humus is left, -now being part of the soil.

Do you have to turn you Compost? No turning your compost is not necessary. It will help to speed up the process a little, but there is nothing wrong by letting your compost just sit around and do its thing a bit slower. There is nothing to worry about if you improve aeration of your pile by poking a couple of holes into it and keeping a good carbon-nitrogen balance (as mentioned earlier).