What will make compost break down faster?

QUESTION: What will make compost break down faster? My compost pile doesn’t seem to be doing anything after several months. – Rita M

ANSWER: There are several things you can do to speed nature’s work decomposing your compost along so that you can put the nutrient-rich final product  to use in your garden more quickly. We’ll go over each of them step by step here so you can put one two of your favorites—or all of them—into practice and accelerate the process.

Maintain the proper balance of materials

The proper ratio of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich ingredients for the compost heap is 30 parts brown for every one part green. When this equation is out of balance, your compost pile may fail to heat up, and you’ll notice the decomposition process moving more slowly than it does when the makeup of the compost is accurately regulated.

Some gardeners get really precise with their management of the proper balance, weighing everything they add to their compost and calculating the ratio using complex mathematical equations [http://compost.css.cornell.edu/calc/cn_ratio.html]. If this sounds like fun to you, then by all means have at it, but you don’t have to enforce the guideline quite so rigorously to still keep things relatively in proportion and have success. 

The easiest way to approximate the ratio without doing a lot of algebra homework is to make sure when you’re adding ingredients to your compost that the brown and green components are equal in weight. To reiterate, using this method, you compare the weight of each type of ingredient, not the size or volume. For example, a carbon-heavy substance like shredded paper or leaves collected in raking may be like a giant pile but not weigh nearly as much as the kitchen scraps you’re including as your green element.

You don’t even need to make sure the weight of your ingredient types is equivalent each time you add things to your compost. As long as the sources of carbon and nitrogen you throw into the pile are approximately even in weight over about a  week-long period, your compost should stay running on all cylinders. When the materials you include are kept in proper balance, they should break down fairly quickly—and as a bonus, a properly managed compost heap will do its work without creating any unpleasant smells.

If you haven’t kept an eye on maintaining a harmonious balance of materials and you notice that your compost is decomposing more slowly because of it, there is a simple solution. You can use a product called a compost “starter” (also referred to as a compost “activator” or compost “acceleration”) to help get things back into gear.

Compost starters are commercial products made of either nitrogen-rich materials that will help your compost heap start warming up again or an infusion of microbes to pitch in and start breaking down the components of your compost. Choose the nitrogen type of compost starter if your own compost consists mostly of carbon-heavy elements, like paper or dried leaves. Choose the microbe type of compost accelerator if you’ve already included plenty of nitrogen in your own compost heap, as going overboard with nitrogen can actually slow down the decomposition of your compost. 

As an alternative, if the process seems to be dragging and you don’t want to use a compost starter, you can always give things a little push by adding some water to your compost, along with an infusion of nitrogen-heavy “green” ingredients. If you’re too heavy handed when adding water and get the compost too wet, you may notice the materials becoming a little slimy or smelly. Should this happen, just leave the lid off your composting container so the sun can dry things out a bit. If things are still too damp, you can take them out of the container and spread them out for even more drying from the sun. You should also mix in a batch of some dry, carbon-heavy “brown” materials, like dried leaves.

Aerate the compost so oxygen can circulate.

When you stir and turn your compost on a regular basis, you’re making sure the microbes that break everything down get plenty of oxygen so they’re able to breathe, and therefore survive. It is possible to turn your compost too frequently, which will have the opposite of the desired effect and slow the process down, so don’t start stirring the compost daily or even every couple of days. The sweet spot as far as timing is concerned is turning your compost every few weeks.  

There are specialized tools on the market that you can use, such as handheld compost turners or tumbling compost containers that will do the work of turning for you. Although you can certainly use these if you would like, it’s usually not necessary to go out and purchase a specialized tool for mixing your compost. Most gardeners will already have something in the shed that they can use to turn their compost, such as a pitchfork or shovel. If your compost bin has no bottom and is light enough for you to lift, you can simply lift it and place it next to the compost pile, then replace the materials inside, to aerate and mix the ingredients.

If you prefer a more hands-off approach to composting or all this sounds like a lot of extra work, bear in mind that turning the compost regularly is not required in order to have a quality finished product. Your compost will still break down to produce the nutrient-rich “black gold of the garden” you’re looking for, even if you don’t turn it. The process will just happen more quickly if you take the time to aerate your compost every couple of weeks.

Keep moisture at the appropriate level

Much like the carbon-nitrogen ingredient ratio, the level of water in your compost heap also needs to be kept in balance in order for the process to run as smoothly as possible so your compost pile works efficiently and quickly. By providing the appropriate amount of moisture, you’re cultivating the health of the microbes that do the work of breaking everything down. The consistency you should be shooting for is when your compost materials have the moisture level of a sponge that has been wrung out.

To hydrate your compost, the simplest way is to use the garden hose, if it can stretch to wherever your pile is set up. Just take a few minutes to sprinkle the water over the surface of your compost heap using the hose.You can automate this process if you’d like by setting your sprinklers near enough to your compost bin that the water reaches the materials inside. (Make sure to open the lid of your composting container before each sprinkler session, or the session will be pointless.)

On the other side of the coin, if your compost has more dampness than a wrung-out sponge, you’ll need to dry things out a bit. You can start by propping open the lid of your composting container on a warm, sunny day so the sun’s rays can help dry the ingredients out. If that doesn’t do the trick, remove the materials from the bin and spread them across the ground so it’s easier for the sunlight to reach all of them. Also, add in some more carbon-heavy ingredients that are dry enough to soak up some of the excess moisture, like dried leaves or, if leaves aren’t available, some shredded paper or cardboard.

4 thoughts on “What will make compost break down faster?”

    1. Coffee grounds are appropriate as a “green” nitrogen rich material.

  1. Can you help me figure out why my compost clumps into “apple sized” balls in my turning composter?

    1. Too much nitrogen rich material and not enough carbon rich material tends to make things turn into small balls that look sort of like horse turds.

      They’ll eventually break down anyway if you don’t want to do anything differently, but if you add more dried leaves or some shredded paper or a little bit of shredded cardboard it will prevent this kind of thing from happening.

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