Compost is the rock star of our garden – helping to create beautiful, healthy, super-charged soil that our plants thrive on. We work generous amounts into our raised row beds each year, add to every hole at planting time – and use as a top-dressing mulch for our veggie plants. So always having enough on hand can be an issue.
The problem is that it can take forever for that “pile out back” to deteriorate into any type of usable material – in some cases a full year or more to fully decompose if left to its own natural ways. However, with just a few simple steps – you can speed up the process and turn your pile into fertile, sweet-smelling compost in just a month or two this growing season.
We always have our big slow-composting pile in our bin – but during the warmer months of spring, summer and fall – we set up smaller “hot piles” to make quick compost.
It is one of the reasons we keep extra bins – one for our main area – one for finished compost – and the final bin for setting up and making hot batches of quick compost. (See: How To Make An Inexpensive Compost Bin From Pallets)
The Proper Blend Of Materials – Getting The Right Mix
To create a hot, fast composting pile – the key is in getting the right mix of brown and green ingredients – or more exactly, the right mix of carbon and nitrogen. Compost works best when there is a ratio of about 2/3 brown material (carbon) and 1/3 green (nitrogen).
Carbon materials are your dry additions like leaves, straw, wood, wood chips, ashes, corn stalks, coffee filters, paper, egg shells, dry grass, etc.
Nitrogen materials are those that heat up the pile – like chicken, rabbit, horse or cow manures, food scraps, green lawn clippings and coffee grounds.
When you start a hot pile – you want to create a mix of 2/3 brown to 1/3 green – and mix it thoroughly. In addition – make sure your pile is at least 3’ x 3’ when starting – it allows for maximum heating of the ingredients.
Size Matters – The Importance of Shredding and Chopping
When it comes to faster composting – it all starts with the size of materials you are putting into the pile. Large pieces take longer to break down that those that are chopped or shredded. A great example – leaves. Left whole – they can take two to three years to completely break down in a pile – but shred them up and they can break down in as little as two to three weeks.
Compost materials for a hot pile should all be shredded or chopped into pieces no larger than ½ to ¾ of an inch – speeding up the process by allowing more surface areas exposed to decompose.
No need to buy an expensive shredder – your push-mower will work great! Place your material on a flat grassy surface and run over it a few times with the mower – then add it into your pile. If you have a bagger,even better, bag it and add it!
Water and Oxygen – The Key Ingredients!
Last but not least – you need to make sure your pile has the right amount of water and oxygen to heat up and decompose. A pile of compost should be “moist” or “damp” but not drenched with water. You will know you have the right mix of water when your pile feels like a damp sponge.
When it comes to oxygen – make sure to give your pile plenty by turning it every day or two with a pitchfork. The air keeps the microbes and organisms that decompose your pile full of life.
Keep your pile moist – adding water to it if it begins to dry out. The moisture and oxygen work together to create the hot temperatures needed to break it all down quickly.
It is important to cover your pile as well – it not only keeps moisture and heat in – but can keep soaking rains from deluging it. You can cover with plastic or a roof – or if you are lucky enough to have a lid on your system – make sure it is in place.
Your pile should be able to reach temperatures of 100 to 150 degrees with proper materials, oxygen and moisture – which will not only break down the materials quickly – but kill most of the weed seeds that may be in the pile – a win-win!
If you keep those three things in mind – you should be able to produce a batch in 4 to 8 weeks – especially in the summer where the humidity and warmer temperatures help to keep the pile hot. Some masters of the art can produce a great finished compost material in as little as 14 to 21 days – although even getting a pile in 2 months is a huge bonus to gardeners!
You will know your compost is ready to go when it smells sweet and earthy – and has cooled to the touch.
Happy Gardening! Jim and Mary