I have to admit that my first attempt at composting was unsuccessful. I put all my organic kitchen scraps into a pile in one spot of the back yard, added some hay and grass clippings occasionally, and expected to have rich compost to add to my garden soil eventually.
But nothing happened. Pea hulls I put in were still there, intact, the following year. I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t realize that there is indeed a formula that you have to follow to cause the chemical reaction that will create a working compost that heats up as the ingredients you are composting break down.
A successful compost must include four essential elements:
If your compost doesn’t include all four elements, your compost will, like mine, just sit there, creating nothing.
Once the composting process has started, how can you check whether your compost has gotten too hot?
You can check your compost’s temperature by using a compost thermometer or even a kitchen thermometer attached to a handle of some sort. Make sure your compost ranges between 120 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit or between 49 and 77 degrees Celsius.
How can you check whether your compost is too dry?
The best way to check whether your compost is too dry is by squeezing the materials together. If you do not see any drops of water as you squeeze and if the materials do not hold together but instead fall apart after being squeezed, then your compost is too dry.
I recommend using a compost thermometer, like this one found on Amazon. It is easy to read and is specifically designed to not fog up in your compost pile.
Let’s discuss this part of the process in more detail.
How Hot Should Compost Be?
A compost must create heat to break down properly into the nutrient-rich “black gold” for your garden, and the ideal temperature should range between 120 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit or between 49 and 77 degrees Celsius.
The high temperatures created by your compost must be monitored because allowing the temperatures to rise above safe levels for even a short time can and probably will kill the worms and microorganisms that are at work, helping to break down your composted materials. By the same token, allowing the temperatures to cool below 12 degrees Fahrenheit or 49 degrees Celsius will stop the process and allow your composted materials to sit without breaking down.
As an added bonus for your composting efforts, the heat generated by your compost can be harnessed and utilized as a way to heat water, a greenhouse, and even your home!
How Long Does a Compost Pile Stay Hot?
A compost pile that is being monitored daily and tended to properly will become hot over a 5-day period and then cool over the next 5-day period so that it is heating and cooling approximately four times during the month that it will take for your compost pile to create a rich material that will make your garden spot the best you have ever had!
Can a Hot Compost Pile Catch Fire?
A compost pile can catch fire if too many green ingredients that are rich with nitrogen are added to your compost. Excessive amounts of nitrogen can cause the compost to heat up too quickly and create a situation in which it can spontaneously combust or burst into flames. While compost fires are very rare in individual compost piles, industrial composting is more likely to create a fire risk from spontaneous combustion.
So how can this situation be avoided? By turning the pile frequently and making sure there are plenty of brown materials and water to balance and regulate your compost, the circumstances under which spontaneous combustion can occur can be avoided.
One important thing to remember is not to apply compost to your plants until it has cooled down. Adding hot compost to your plants can easily burn them, either damaging or killing the young tender plants.
Should a Compost Bin Be in Sun or Shade?
A healthy and productive compost bin needs to be damp but not wet and also needs to have a little bit of warmth to create the right conditions for microbes, bacteria, earthworms, and all the other bugs to turn your trash into fabulous fertilizer. But, does this mean that your compost bin should be in the sun, or will it work better in the shade, and how is composting affected by climate and the materials composted?
Composting in the Sun
A location in full sunlight is a fantastic place for your compost bin. But, if you are composting in full sun, there are a few things you should keep in mind. Your compost will, without a doubt, dry out faster than in the shade, and you may need to water more often. Also, you may need to cut down on the carbon-rich materials such as paper and cardboard, dry leaves and grass clippings, and sawdust, which all tend to dry out the compost pretty fast in a sunny spot.
Composting in the Shade
Many people prefer to compost in a shady spot, but this location will result in a cooler compost pile, which will slow decomposition of the composted materials. This can be offset by turning more often and adding more materials high in carbon like paper and cardboard, dry leaves and grass, and sawdust, which will keep the compost dryer and speed up the process of decomposition. Also, by composting in the shade, you should have to add water less often.
Effects of Climate on Composting
Another major consideration when composting is the climate where you live. If you live in a hot climate, you may consider composting in a shady spot to keep your compost from drying out quickly. But, if you live in a hot climate with high humidity, you may not have to water as often as in a hot, dry climate. If you live in a cold climate, by locating your compost bin in a sunny spot, the direct sunlight should heat everything up and result in faster decomposition of your composted materials.
Getting the right location for your particular compost will depend on all the specific aspects of your exact location, not the general climate for your region.
How the Ingredients in Your Compost Affect the Process
Even though the location of your compost pile and the climate where you live are important factors in composting, don’t forget that your compost will not work if you don’t have the right balance of those four primary ingredients: water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Finding out if you have the right combination can be accomplished by using two easy tests: (1) Your compost should appear dark brown, damp, and crumble easily; and (2) It should have a sweet earthy smell that does not stink.
If your compost is very dry and falls apart too easily and the individual ingredients are distinguishable, it is too dry and needs more greens and more water. If your compost is very wet and smells rotten, it is too wet and needs more brown ingredients and oxygen.
Do You Add Water to a Compost Bin?
As you layer the “ingredients” in your compost bin, add some water to moisten the pile, keeping everything the consistency of a damp sponge.
Your compost pile needs to be around one cubic yard in size. Anything larger will mean moisture and heat levels are wrong for speedy decomposition. You could cover the pile with a breathable tarp to keep in the moisture, but it is unnecessary.
How Do I Cool Down My Compost Pile?
Managing the temperature in your compost pile is the only way to create an efficient compost bin or pile that produces usable compost in approximately one month. It is crucial to monitor and record the compost’s daily temperature with a compost thermometer or a regular kitchen thermometer attached to a pole or handle.
Between days one and five, the temperature should rise to between 120 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit or 49 and 77 degrees Celsius if you have included the four necessary ingredients of water, air, carbon, and nitrogen. The temperature will depend on the size of your compost pile, the moisture levels, and the size of the organic matter that you include.
The temperature should then begin to cool. The addition of water can speed up the cooling process if needed. But, be careful and do not add too much water as that would cool the compost too much. Once the temperature cools to below 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit), which is usually between four and seven days, you will need to turn over the organic matter to introduce oxygen. This will then heat the pile back up.
Every time you turn the compost, make sure you bring the pile’s exterior material into the interior. This enables all material to be evenly broken down. When you turn the compost, add water if needed, but do so sparingly as adding too much water will cause the pile to cool rather than heat up.
So, to answer the question of how I can cool my compost pile, the best way is by adding water.
How Do You Know If Compost Is Too Dry?
As previously stated, the best way to check whether your compost is too dry is by squeezing the materials together. Not seeing drops of water as you squeeze along with the materials not holding together is the best way to tell if your compost is too dry.
If the materials in your compost have not started to decompose by the end of the first week and still look the same as when you put them in, breaking up larger pieces, turning the pile, and adding water should give the process a jump start.
How Do You Revive a Compost Bin?
Restarting an Inactive Pile
If you do not detect any heat anywhere on the inside or the outside of your compost pile, it has become inactive and can possibly be revived by trying a couple of different things.
- Turn the pile with a pitchfork to aerate by thoroughly combining old and new ingredients.
- Add enough organic ingredients, if necessary, to make the pile 3 feet square to encourage and maintain microbial activity required for decomposition to take place.
Restarting a Wet Pile
If your compost has the odor of rotten eggs, that is an indication that the pile has become anaerobic due to a lack of oxygen. The best way to restart a wet pile is as follows:
- Aerate the pile by turning thoroughly with a pitchfork.
- Break up any large sections of material that have become wet and compacted.
- Relayer the pile and add some new material that is loose and well-shredded such as leaves and grass clippings.
- Cover the pile to avoid excessive rain or moisture.
Restarting a Dry Pile
Take a look at the ingredients in your compost. If those ingredients haven’t begun to decompose and if a handful does not hold together but falls apart easily, then your compost is too dry. Try these steps to restart the process:
- Check the material you are composting to ensure the pieces are not too large. If necessary, break up larger pieces.
- Add some green ingredients such as manure or kitchen waste.
- Add some water by spraying lightly with a water hose or a watering can, making sure you do not overwater.
- Turn all the ingredients with a pitchfork to mix well and to add oxygen to the mixture.
- Consider covering the compost with a tarp if the pile is open and not in a can or bin. A tarp would be useful in keeping the moisture in and avoiding drying out too fast.
How Do I Know My Compost Is Working?
If your compost is working, it will have the following characteristics:
- The temperature will rise and fall to the correct temperatures approximately four times during a month-long period,
- It will be dark and hold together when handled,
- It will produce a few drops of water when squeezed,
- It will have an earthy smell that is in no way unpleasant, and
- It will contain worms, microbes, fungi, and other microorganisms that speed up the decomposition process.
Can You Have Too Much Organic Matter in Soil?
My first reaction to the question of whether you can have too much organic matter in the soil is an immediate no! (Actually, my first reaction was, “Are you crazy?”) But, on second thought, the more accurate answer is yes, you can have too much organic matter, and here’s why.
If you only had organic matter in the soil, it would encourage the growth of all plants, even those like algae, that would create problems for the gardener or farmer. The soil in your garden or field must contain a balance of organic matter and soil structure that is porous enough to allow air and water into the soil without becoming waterlogged.
There is also the problem of maintaining a balance of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil. Nitrogen moves through the soil quickly and is often washed away, leaving a lack of nitrogen in the soil, while phosphorus does not move quickly through the soil, creating a build-up of phosphorus levels.
Compost is useful in providing nutrients for plants and building soil structure. Still, too much compost, especially manure-based compost, can provide nutrients in such high levels that plants may grow too fast and cannot produce enough natural pesticides, which leads to crop damage from more pests and diseases.
According to a study of urban raised bed gardens, garden soil should be tested annually, and organic matter kept at a level of 3% to 5%. The article also emphasized that more vegetable-based organic matter should be used than manure-based compost.
You are now armed with all the information you need to manage both the temperature and dryness/wetness of your compost pile. I hope this article has been helpful.
Thanks for stoppin’ by!
Here are a few articles that you might be interested in: