Nutrient-rich compost is every gardener’s key ingredient, like a valuable blend of herbs and spices that make all the difference to the way a garden turns out.
Compost helps soil retain moisture and encourages the growth of good bacteria while fending off disease, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. And, of course, it’s a helpful step in lowering your carbon footprint.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), organic waste makes up more than 28% of what we throw away. It’s easy to think that, because organic materials will decompose, it shouldn’t matter if it ends up in landfills.
But, in fact, landfills lack the necessary conditions for ample decomposition, and they emit potent greenhouse gases such as methane. Rather than adding to landfills, spend your waste more wisely, by composting what you can.
So, how long does it take to make compost from your organic waste? Well, composting anything is widely variable, and depends on the conditions. To ensure materials are completely broken down — to the point of being indistinguishable — will rely on a few factors such as ensuring the heap is getting the right amount of heat, moisture and air.
It also depends on how you compost. Not everyone has space or the means to manage a productive compost pile. Fortunately, more cities are finding ways to collect your organic waste and to do the composting for you.
The bigger the compost bin, the faster you will have finished compost. A larger container can capture and retain more heat than a smaller one.
Of course, the size of your compost bin is contingent on the space you have available. If you have to rely on a smaller compost bin, put the container in a place where the pile will receive a lot of direct sunlight.
The ideal height and width of the compost pile is three feet, which will allow things to heat up more quickly than smaller compost piles. The material of your bin is also important. Compared to wooden bins, plastic compost bins are much better at retaining heat, which will speed up the composting process.
Use Only The Best Ingredients
Ultimately, composting relies on the production of carbon and nitrogen, which feed off each other. Carbon is produced through ‘brown’ materials, such as cardboard, that add bulk and feed the organisms in your compost. Nitrogen comes from ‘green’ materials, such as vegetable peelings, that heat up the compost pile and encourage the all-important organisms to multiply quickly.
Your compost pile, therefore, needs to feature even, alternating layers of both green and brown contents. Keep in mind that different materials break down at different speeds, so that variety must be factored into how long it will take to make finished compost. It’s also important to understand the difference between compostable and biodegradable materials.
Food scraps like uncooked fruits and veggies — peelings and all — are perfect for good compost. The same logic applies to other kitchen scraps like eggshells, tea bags, coffee grinds, old wines, as well as herbs and spices. These materials will break down in a matter of weeks.
Other greens like lawn clippings and leafy vegetable garden waste are great, as long as they are free of chemical herbicides. Keep an eye on how much grass clippings you add at a time. If the layer is more than 20 cm thick, it will take longer to break down.
Brown materials that compost quickly include dried leaves, pine needles and small woody branches. Paper and cardboard can also be added but will take a few months to fully decompose. Shred or tear it up as much as possible. The smaller the pieces, the faster they’ll break down.
Keep in mind that some items, such as greeting cards, wrapping paper, glossy catalogs and fliers, contain laminated materials, glitter and plastics that cannot be composted.
Materials to Avoid
Whether you want to get finished compost as fast as possible or have time to let it mature, there are certain materials you should avoid adding to the pile at all costs.
For instance, cooked foods shouldn’t be added to a standard home composter, as they can make for very wet mulch, not to mention pungent odors that attract unwanted pests. Other materials that will slow down decomposition or otherwise disrupt the microbial harmony of your compost pile include meat and dairy products, avocado and other fruit stones, and diseased plants.
You should also refrain from adding pet droppings, diseased plants, coal ash, inorganic materials like glass, metals or plastics, as well as any other material that has come into contact with herbicides or pesticides.
Keep it Warm
Heat is the composter’s friend, after all. This also makes spring the best time to start your compost. That way it can benefit from warm summer temperatures.
In wintertime, it can be harder to keep the valuable microbes and bacterium happy and active, but there are ways to protect them. Using a plastic bin will ensure the compost retains more heat than with a wooden one.
Insulate it over winter by adding layers of straw, sawdust, or shredded cardboard to keep some warmth in the pile. Compost should be moist, but not waterlogged, so a layer of old carpet on top is a great way to protect it from rain.
Let it Breathe
The important microbes involved in the process need oxygen, so turn the pile every week. A compost aerator makes this an easier task. Or, at the very least, give the mixture a bit of a stir with a pitchfork, folding and turning it.
Another way to help air get in is to keep cardboard items — such as egg cartons — whole, and loosely scrunch up any paper rather than tossing in flat, making valuable air pockets in your compost pile.
If not carefully managed, outdoor home composting can take as long as a year or two. Tend to it thoughtfully, however, and you could find yourself with good, usable compost in as little as three months.
How Do You Know When Compost Is Ready?
The time it takes for compost to finish is dependent on the size of your compost pile. The best way to figure out if it’s ready for use is to use your senses. Finished compost will both smell and look like rich earth. It should take on a dark brown color and crumble in your hands like soil. There are also various tests that can determine the maturity of your compost, including pH levels and temperature of the pile.
It’s important to ensure that your compost is mature before utilizing it. Immature compost may still have certain materials or substances, such as acids and pathogens, that could continue to decay when placed in soil. Because unfinished compost requires nitrogen and oxygen, it can take these valuable elements away from your plants and damage them.
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about leaving compost for too long. The goal is to have all the materials decompose. As long as there is oxygen in the compost pile, the materials inside of it will continue to decompose, making it ripe for soil organisms to thrive in.
How Can You Make Compost Faster?
There are several methods you can utilize to make your compost, but some are faster than others.
The fastest method is the hot-turn process, which leads to finished compost in around 20 days. While this process is quick, it also requires a certain amount of attention and effort. At the very least, the compost pile must be three feet by three feet and contain a 30:1 ratio of brown to green materials (or carbon to nitrogen). These materials should be finely shredded in order to decompose in a short span of time. Once you have the compost pile ready, you’ll have to rotate it daily during the first week, then over every other day for the two following weeks. You can do this manually or use a compost tumbler.
Black Soldier Flies and Maggots
Another speedy method involves the larvae of black soldier flies. You might think maggots are gross, but they can quickly and efficiently give you finished compost in approximately three weeks. Black soldier fly larvae are able to survive in hot temperatures, and can even handle materials like dairy products and meat. So, if you see maggots in your compost, that is actually a good thing!
Other Ways To Make Compost
A slower, more traditional method is called vermicomposting, using red worms or earthworms to breakdown the materials in your pile. At first, the worm bin method will take around three months. But as more worms become present in the mixture, the time can be reduced to a single month.
The easiest but most timely method is the slow no-turn, which can anywhere between three months to an entire year. Simply put a pile in your yard and add waste over time. The time it will take to turn the pile into compost will depend on the material, moisture and temperature.
As the awareness of climate change grows, some city officials are being proactive about reducing public waste through municipal composting. About 14 million tonnes of waste is thrown away each year, and the largest single contribution to that statistic is organic matter that could be recycled into valuable, nutrient-rich soil.
Cities such as Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have made it mandatory for households to compost their food waste and other compostable paper, rather than putting it in with regular trash. Some New York neighborhoods offer curbside collection, with brown bins introduced for organic waste.
In New York, the program is optional, rather than enforced, yet the city’s huge population already makes it the largest program of its kind in the U.S. Waste is trucked or shipped from the boroughs to industrial composting sites.
One of the biggest challenges of collecting public waste for composting is that contamination is both extremely easy and incredibly difficult to control. Even the most well-intended household could accidentally be tossing in material that inhibits the process. Not everyone realizes their recyclable pizza box can’t be recycled if soiled with cheese and sauce… or that it can (and should) go into compost instead.
Municipal plans are finding more ways to deal with the problem, such as investing in specialized machinery to pulverize collected material, as well as separating out and removing plastics and other trash as best they can. This composting equipment allows more robust material — meat bones, and branches, for instance — to be broken down in a way that isn’t quite as feasible at home.
The remaining waste is then added to huge piles, raked and sprayed with water to produce the ideal levels of oxygen and moisture. On a municipal scale, it can take six to nine months to produce usable compost soil. Then, it’s either sold for gardening or donated to public parks, land development and agriculture projects. Either way, it’s returned to do good things for the earth, all the while keeping it out of landfills.
No Matter How Long It Takes, It’s Worth It
Whether you compost at home or donate your scraps to a facility, you’ll be reducing waste and leading by example. Maybe someday we’ll have so much compost that we won’t need synthetic fertilizers or landfills. Wouldn’t that be worth the wait?
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