More and more people are looking to start composting as a greener way of dealing with kitchen waste and also providing themselves with soil for their gardens.
Composting is very eco-friendly, as it reduces the need to ship food (and commercial compost) around, and massively cuts the issues associated with food waste going into landfill.
If you’re launching into your first composting foray, you might have a hundred and one questions – one of which is bound to be how soon you’ll see your kitchen scraps turning into what has been lovingly termed “black gold” by gardeners everywhere.
So, how long does it take to make compost? (The ultimate guide)
How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?
Unfortunately, this is a tricky one to answer, because it really very much depends on both the compost conditions and the compost ingredients!
If you’re composting things that break down easily and you manage to achieve very good conditions, you could see the compost starting in as little as six months.
However, some things can take two years or even longer to break down. It’s a very varied process!
With that in mind, let’s look a bit at the two things that affect the decomposition process: ingredients, and conditions, and learn how you can speed your compost up a bit so you get soil for your garden sooner.
What you add to your compost bin will make a big difference to how fast it breaks down.
If you’re mostly composting soft, moist foods such as bread, pasta, or fruit, or soft garden waste such as grass clippings, these can turn into compost very quickly.
However, if you’re composting fruit rinds, vegetable ends, or sticks and twigs, your compost will take a lot longer.
That doesn’t mean you should just dump a lot of bread into your compost bin if you want quick compost, though; you need a mixture of ingredients to successfully compost them, and too much of any one thing will result in a messy, sludgy, and inactive compost heap.
Compost heaps also need the right conditions to operate effectively. While anything organic will break down over time even if it’s not in balanced conditions, it will take a lot longer.
The optimal conditions for a compost heap include:
- A good level of moisture: compost should be like a gently wrung out sponge, not too damp and not too dry.
- A good balance of wet, nitrogen-rich ingredients such as food waste and green clippings from the garden, and dry, carbon-rich ingredients such as cardboard, twigs, paper, nutshells, and sawdust.
- Plenty of oxygen: a compacted compost heap will not function properly, and will start to smell awful. Having lots of oxygen helps the right kind of bacteria thrive and break the compost down.
- Warmth: compost heaps operate best between 100-120 F (37.8-48.9 C). Any hotter, and the bacteria will start to die; too cold, and they will only work slowly. You will notice your compost breaks down much faster in the summer than in the winter.
How Can I Speed My Compost Heap Up?
So, what tricks can you use to get your compost to operate quickly? We’re going to explore some of the top tips for making compost fast.
Turn The Heap
Regularly turning your compost heap is one of the best ways to generate compost quickly. This does several useful things.
Firstly, it mixes all the ingredients together so that you don’t get large concentrations of any one material that the bacteria and worms are struggling to handle.
By frequently mixing the heap, you will ensure that different parts of the ingredients get exposed to different conditions, and none stagnate and become inactive.
Secondly, it introduces plenty of air to the compost. This helps the aerobic bacteria, which are the things really responsible for much of the decomposition process.
They will in turn help to warm the heap up, as they generate heat, and this will help speed things along further.
You will also ensure that compost worms are spread throughout the heap, and that no parts have ended up worm-free. The worms also help the food to break down, so spreading them out helps.
How often you need to turn the heap depends on how fast you want compost. You don’t technically have to turn it at all (unless it ends up too compacted), but this will result in very slow decomposition.
If you have time, turn your compost every few days. You can just stick a garden fork in and lift and shift the materials. If that seems too often, aim for once a week or once a fortnight.
You can do it as often as you have time for, but bear in mind that infrequent turning will slow down the composting process.
You can also purchase compost bins specifically designed to turn and aerate your compost regularly, which can save you time and energy.
If you want compost to break down fast and you find aerating hard work, these are a great option.
Check The Moisture Balance
Check your compost heap’s moisture balance relatively often, especially when the seasons are changing.
In spring, you may find that the heap is getting too wet, in which case you’ll need to add cardboard and paper to soak up excess moisture, or the heap will get waterlogged and oxygen-deficient.
In summer, you may need to add more water to keep it moist and active. If the heap dries out too much, it may stop operating and you may find that the worms relocate to somewhere damper.
How often you need to check the moisture balance will depend on your location and also the situation your compost bin is in.
If it’s lidded, it’s more likely to need water adding as it won’t get rain, but it won’t dry out as fast, either.
If it’s in shade, you may face issues with waterlogging more often than drought.
If your compost gets too wet on a regular basis, try putting some drainage such as a pallet under it, or sloping the ground away from it a little to encourage excess moisture to run off.
You could also add a lid or a sloped roof to deflect some of the rainwater.
Cut Up Ingredients
Cut up the things you’re putting in your compost heap. This makes it much easier for bacteria and worms to break the ingredients down quickly, rather than struggling with massive lumps of any one thing.
If you’re adding cardboard or paper, it’s particularly important to break this down, or it can create compressed pockets that are very difficult for the worms and bacteria to deal with.
Big sticks should also be snapped up or roughly chopped, and any big pieces of wood will need to be chipped if they are going to be composted.
It might feel like a lot of work to cut up your compost, but this doesn’t need to be major. Just grab the kitchen scissors and chop any large pieces as you add them to the bin.
In the garden, make an effort to snap or cut big pieces.
Nothing bad will happen if you add big chunks of organic material to the compost, but you may find that it doesn’t break down as fast, and that pieces linger for much longer because it’s hard for the bacteria to get at them
.It is also more difficult to turn, aerate, and properly balance compost when it’s full of large pieces.
Keep It Warm
A warm compost heap will operate much faster, so if speed is important to you, position your compost bin somewhere that it will get the benefit of the sun. Pay more attention to the balance of ingredients, too.
Adding more nitrogen can encourage the heap to get hot quickly, but you need to maintain some balance with the brown ingredients even then.
You can try adding a lid or even a jacket to your compost bin to trap extra heat, and it’s also possible to buy hot composters that are specifically designed to keep the compost hot and active all year round.
If you live somewhere cold or you want to keep your compost functioning quickly at all times, this might be a great option.
Use Two Bins
If you are constantly adding fresh ingredients to your compost bin, you aren’t going to get finished compost out of it easily. While some parts will compost, you will always have fresh organic waste mixed in.
The best way to combat this and ensure you get usable compost quickly is to have a second bin in the garden.
Keep one active and just turn the other regularly to encourage it to break down.
There are a number of things you can do to speed your compost up, and while it may sound like a lot of work, remember that you don’t need to do more than you have the time for.
Your compost won’t fail if you don’t aerate every week, or if you add large chunks of material. It will just slow down.
Heat and air are the keys to getting your compost to work, as well as a good balance of nutrients. With these elements, you’ll have some lovely soft soil to add to your garden in no time!