How Long to Make Compost : Beginner Guide To Compost Heap

So you’re a garden composter. You’ve learned how to make compost. You’ve made, bought, borrowed or stolen a compost bin. You’re adding garden waste and recycling kitchen scraps. Now the awkward bit – the wait… How long will it take to make the compost?

Yes, But How Long do I Need to Wait for Compost? … Wait, wait and Wait… How to handle the Compost Heap ?

How Long to Make Compost?

If you have a reasonably large compost bin (say 1 metre cubed), the chances are you could go on filling it indefinitely. As you add to the top, the garden and kitchen waste underneath will slowly be decomposing, composting and creating humus.

As it does this the organic matter shrinks. That leaves you more room on the top, to add more garden and kitchen waste. The dilemma is, if you never run out of space for the garden waste, chances are you will just go on and on, adding more and never seeing the benefit of the rich garden compost you have made!

For those of you with smaller compost bins such as the beehive compost bin, or a kitchen composter, no such worries. You will run out of space relatively quickly and so automatically stop adding more garden waste and naturally wait patiently for your new garden compost to be created.

In your case you will have discovered pretty quickly that you need at least two compost bins!

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Time Limit for Creating the Compost Heap

Unless you have a compost bin you easily fill quickly, you’ll need to set yourself a time limit for creating the compost heap. And, you will need to stick to it! The very best way to do this, is to keep a record of when you started your compost pile.

Then, according to available space and time you expect to take to fill it, assign yourself a date when you will stop putting garden waste on that heap.

We have various compost heaps of different sizes from 1/2m cubed to 1m cubed. For the smaller compost piles I give myself 3 months in which to create the pile. For the larger, we give them 6 months of ‘creation’. Once that date is reached we cap off the compost heap and start creating another.

Capping Off’ a Compost Heap

For those using sealed compost bins, this step is not required. But if you’re making compost out in the open, for example in a wooden bay with no lid, you need to protect the compost heap from the elements a little.

  • Firstly, if its been dry throw on a bucket or two of water to moisten the whole heap.
  • Then add a layer of thick insulating organic matter. such as grass clippings or manure. This will keep the heap warm, and seal in smells so no vermin (or pets) are attracted to the compost.
  • If you experience heavy rain, cover with old carpet, plastic sheeting or an old tarpaulin to deflect the heaviest rainwater.
  • Note down the date of ‘compost heap completion
  • Wait!

When will the Compost be Ready?

Okay, so how long you wait for the compost to be ready depends primarily on the following:

Climate

in warmer weather decomposition is faster.

Moisture

you need to ensure the compost heap is moist (not saturated) throughout the time you’re waiting for it to develop into full blown garden compost.

Content Size

lots of thick woody things will take longer to decompose than lots of small sappy things.

Content Type

most garden and kitchen waste will break down pretty fast (within three months so long as it isn’t too cold, the particles are well mixed and of relatively small size). But certain foodstuffs such as bones and egg-shells are pretty dense.

These will take 6 months or more to break down. Manure from people (humanure) or animals from non organic farms may contain veterinary chemical residues. These will be gone in three months.

But if you farm organically and sell your produce, you may need to adhere to Soil Association guidelines requiring you not to use such composts (including non-organic pig or poultry manure) for up to six months.

Yes, But How Long do I Need to Wait for My Compost?

As a rule of thumb. If it doesn’t get too cold, and you’ve been a good garden composter, building a varied compost heap it should be crumbly hummus in three months.

You may still see the odd egg-shell or bleached bone (in which case throw them on the next compost heap, and bash them up a bit before adding to heaps in the future), but overall your garden compost will be complete.

If you add manure from any omnivores or carnivores and you are unsure the heap has been working efficiently give the pile six months before using.

How to Tell the Compost Heap is Working Efficiently.

I recommend regularly having a cheeky look under the cover of your compost heap to see how its getting on. If it seems very dry you can add some water. If the compost seems very wet you can leave the cover off and let it dry out!

Your compost should get hot within the first month of you ‘capping off’ the compost heap. At times the compost can actually be dangerously hot so be careful. If you see steam, don’t touch it! I have been caught out by decomposing grass clippings, which break down so quickly and give off such huge amounts of heat and steam, to burn the hands when checking the compost heap.

This heat is the thing that quickly kills off any nasty pathogens in the compost heap. Those pathogens will most likely come from food and manure. They’re nothing to worry about so long as you remember strict hygiene rules when dealing with compost (you’re not going to eat it, now are you?).

Cold Compost Tip:

If your compost doesn’t get hot, decomposition will still occur, but may take a little longer. This is particularly common in cool climates where the compost struggles to become a quick hot heap.

Once the compost has heated, it will cool again. At this point – when you see no more steam, you can turn the compost.

Turning a Compost Heap

Now, some people swear that you have to turn compost and others (like myself) swear you don’t! Personally, if the compost is heating up nicely and decomposing I really don’t see the point.

But, a compost heap which isn’t turned may run the (not too serious) risk of having non-decomposed matter around its edges. But, because we’ve ‘capped off’ the compost heap with garden waste which breaks down easily we shouldn’t have that problem!

I never turn my compost heaps. Occasionally I do find the odd woody bit of matter around the edges of the heap that hasn’t completely broken down. I don’t see it as a major problem. I just throw any such bits and bobs onto the next heap.

But, if you really want to turn your compost heap. Here is how its done:

  • Pull everything out of your compost bin or compost making area.
  • Put everything back in your compost bin, or compost heap area.

Not complicated at all. But, you do need to make sure the stuff originally from around the edges of the heap, goes into the middle of your new one. And, conversely all the stuff originally from the middle of the heap, goes around the edges of the new one.

Once the compost heap has been turned, you should find it will heat up again which will speed up decomposition.

Unless you have a compost heap which is free-standing and cold with no organic matter you can insulate it or cap it off with, I find turning the heap unnecessary.

Don’t turn your compost heap unless you need to, and are going to do it thoroughly. Otherwise it will be a waste of time for a huge amount of effort.

When is My Compost Ready?

I hope this post helps. A well made compost heap should be ready in three to six months. But, any garden composter will vary due to site and contents. How long compost takes to be ready is highly variable. If you use plastic or wooden sealed compost bins you can be pretty sure the compost will be ready in three months, as they ensure the compost stays moist and warm.

Our compost heaps are built in open boxes made of pallets, so are halfway between a free-standing compost heap and compost made in a compost bin. In the summer our compost heaps take less than three months to break down, but in the winter it is four or five.

And when yours is ready grow some lovely potatoes like the ones above.