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Break It Down | Summer 2010 Out Here Magazine

Whether your compost originates from a hot or cold process, the nutrients will enrich your garden soil, resulting in healthy and productive plants.

Help your compost pile decompose faster


By Carol Davis
Photography by iStock


Get the rich organic nutrients of compost onto your garden faster by helping your compost pile decompose more quickly.


A compost pile's bacteria and other microorganisms generate heat when they digest organic material — kitchen scraps, yard litter — and turn it into nutritious, dark, crumbly compost. You can hurry the process along by creating a more labor-intensive "hot" compost pile, as opposed to a slower "cold" compost pile that lets nature do all the work.


Start by planning for a large pile, because it holds heat better than a small one. Your best option is a pile about 4 or 5 feet wide, long, and high.


Organic matter consists of large amounts of carbon and smaller amounts of nitrogen. Organic matter in your compost bin will break down more quickly if you mix a ratio of 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Carbon is the "brown" dead stuff such as autumn leaves, straw, newspaper, and cornstalks; nitrogen is the fresh "green" stuff such as grass clippings, weeds and other plants, and kitchen vegetable scraps.


Some gardeners prefer to alternate their green and brown organic matter in layers measuring 2-4 inches thick, but others simply mix the two together.


Chop or shred materials before you add them to the compost pile so they'll decompose faster. Some gardeners recommend that they be no larger than an inch in diameter.


Use a compost thermometer — those with a long probe are preferable and most convenient — to monitor the pile's temperature. It should reach from 130-170 degrees in just a few days. When you notice the internal temperature dropping, turn the pile, moving inside material out and outside material in.

Turning the pile frequently allows more oxygen to the microorganisms that are creating your compost, which in turn accelerates decomposition. Aerating it every couple of days will create compost faster than aerating it weekly.

Water the pile in dry weather to keep it damp, but not soggy. Too much water depletes oxygen for the material-munching microorganisms and creates unpleasant odors.

Cover the pile with a plastic tarp. This keeps moisture in during dry weather and excessive water out during rainy weather.

If you want your compost pile to speed up even faster, commercial accelerants, which contain concentrated amounts of microorganisms already in your compost pile, are available in both organic and non-organic formulas. Or you can try home solutions, such as fresh grass cuttings, coffee grounds, aged livestock manure, beer, or rabbit food pellets. These are nitrogen-rich and will jump-start a lagging compost pile.

After several weeks of watering, turning, and monitoring, you'll have a crumbly, dark, nutrient-rich material that gardeners call "black gold" for good reason: it contains nutrients beneficial to plants, helps soil retain those nutrients, increases soil's water capacity, and attracts valuable earthworms to your garden. 

Out Here editor Carol Davis prefers to let nature break down her compost bins.