I recently had a conversation with someone that was expressing frustration about their efforts to make compost. Her complaint was that the pile was just sitting there – not breaking down. In fact, she hadn’t seen any noticeable results in many months. It’s a common problem, and an easy fix.
First, we need to understand what is considered a realistic time frame for making compost quickly. Unfortunately, it’s not a few weeks. Yes, there are a few people out there that swear they can make it that fast. Maybe so, but for the rest of us, a reasonable timeframe if you follow the simple steps I’ve outlined below will give you beautiful finished compost in about six months to nine months and without a lot of work.
So what exactly is finished compost? I consider compost finished when the raw material that makes it up has biodegraded to an unrecognizable state. Basically, you can’t identify any of the original ingredients, the appearance is uniform and there’s no noticeable unpleasant odor. In fact, when finished, it will smell heavenly, in an earthy kind of way.
The steps to making compost easily and quickly are far less complicated them many people think. The sooner you can get your pile cooking, or heating up, the faster it will break down. Do the following and I promise, you’ll have black gold faster than ever before.
1. Pile it on
Put your game face on and start thinking compost. Constantly look for sources where you can add ingredients to your heap. Do not wait until you have some sort of compost bin. You don’t need it! Find a place in your yard, and start your pile.
Some of the things you can add to it from inside the house: vegetable scraps, dryer lint, paper towel rolls, shredded paper, coffee and tea grounds, etc. (Don’t include dairy products, meat, grease or pet waste).
From outside: grass clippings, leaves, small sticks and twigs, plant clippings, chicken and rabbit manure. Do not use manure from animals such as horses that eat hay from sources that use persistent herbicides on their fields. Modern herbicides can persist for years through the composting process.
And don’t overcomplicate this. Many books and articles talk about a proper ratio of green waste (nitrogen source) to brown waste (carbon source). Forget about it. Just keep adding ingredients from wherever you can find it. Shoot for an overall size of about 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. Just focus on building a nice mix of greens and browns. If you can just keep that in mind, you will be fine. That’s what I do.
2. Mix it up
Find a pitchfork or garden fork and keep it close by. Once a week (more is better), turn over your pile as best you can. It will get harder as you add volume but don’t worry about that now. The goal is to introduce more oxygen into the center of the heap while blending it all together. Air is hugely important to the success of quick compost. Not turning or aerating your pile is one of the biggest reasons for ingredients not breaking down. Air is needed because live microorganisms are consuming the components. They need to breathe.
3. Just add water
To keep things simple, have your garden hose ready and spray your pile every time you turn it. Aim for making it moist like a damp sponge all throughout the heap. A dry pile is another major reason ingredients don’t break down quicker. Conversely, don’t over water either. A pile that is too wet doesn’t help. More is not better in this case.
It really is that simple.
The compost I make uses the exact steps I’ve outlined above. Don’t skip any and you will have compost ready for your garden in a matter of months from start to finish.
Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television, and the founder of The joe gardener® Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living.