Are you starting your composting journey?
Do you find yourself with questions about the process?
How long does it take to make compost, anyway?
Some items, like dead leaves or vegetable peelings, don’t take much time at all to compost and will be ready for use in just a few weeks. However, other items—especially those containing plastic—may take tens or even hundreds of years to break down.
With so many different time frames, how can you understand the composting process as it pertains to your backyard?
In this article, we’ll give you a quick rundown of the basics of composting. You’ll learn about the different stages of the process and better understand just why it takes so long, too.
You’ll also find out about the factors that affect the decomposition time, and you may even be inspired to tweak your compost setup based on this information, too.
Read on to learn everything you need to know and more about the amount of time it takes for compost to occur. The more you learn about this process, the better you’ll be able to understand it and make changes when necessary in your own backyard.
JUMP TO A SECTION:
How Long Does Compost Take?
It can take anywhere from four weeks to several years for different materials to break down into compost. This is a wide range! However, no matter how long it takes for a specific item to decompose and become compost, the process is more or less the same. Check out the information below to help you better understand the timeline you’re working with.
- First you’ll build your compost pile.
- As heat, moisture, and air combine, pathogens and microbes form in the compost.
- These microbes help to break down the materials and create a crumbly material that is able to be used as fertilizer.
- During this phase, the bacteria present in the compost begin creating energy and carbon dioxide. A good portion of this energy is released as heat, which encourages the growth and production of even more bacteria. Some harmful bacteria may grow during this time, but as long as the compost pile is kept at the right temperature, it will eventually die off and leave only the good bacteria. This phase is crucial to the proper formation of the compost.
- While microorganisms are in abundance in the compost pile and heat is being produced significantly, this stage begins. During this phase, the compost pile’s temperature will rise higher, and it’s important to maintain a healthy temperature so the bacteria aren’t all destroyed at this time. You may need to turn your compost more often to ensure this phase goes well.
- After the second phase comes the cooling stage. Slowly, the compost cools down as the bacteria and microorganisms work to break down the materials in the pile. Some microorganisms and funguses require cooler temperatures to do their work, so this stage is just as important as the warmer phase of the process, too.
- Last but not least, the compost must cure. Curing ensures pathogens that can harm humans will have a chance to die off before the compost is ready to be used. Allowing your compost to cure isn’t always necessary (depending on what’s in it), but it can make your plants healthier in the long run if you do this.
Factors that affect it
- Temperature: Temperature affects compost in that microorganisms need high temperatures in order to reproduce and flourish. The higher the temperature, the better the compost pile will be—until a certain point. After a while, very high temperatures may actually kill off the good bacteria you need to be present in your compost.
- Water: You don’t need much water for composting, but you do need a little, especially when jumpstarting the process. Too much moisture will turn the compost anaerobic instead of aerobic and will cause the good bacteria to die off, which will make the compost fail.
- Air: Aerating your compost is one of the most crucial parts of the process. If you don’t allow enough air to get to the waste, it will compact and will not ever break down entirely. You can provide plenty of air by turning the compost at least once a week, or more often depending on the type of waste in the pile.
- Time: Last but not least, you need time in order to compost effectively. The more time the better; microorganisms require a little time to do their job and break down the waste, and funguses usually come in near the end to complete the process.
So how long does it take to compost your waste? Although there are many different factors that may change the amount of time your compost takes to actually form, you can expect most household food wastes to break down in the span of two weeks to six weeks. Some types of food products, like meat or bone, may take much longer than this to compost, however. This is one of the reasons why beginning compost piles shouldn’t include meat, bone, or dairy.
Even the most experienced people may encounter composting issues sometimes. If this happens to you, don’t worry, but understand that you’ll need to solve the problem before your compost can get back to normal.
Here are a few tips for understanding what may be wrong if your compost isn’t breaking down—and for troubleshooting the issue, too:
- If your pile is clumping together and won’t break down, it may need to be turned. Turning aerates the compost and ensures it will break down more efficiently.
- If brown materials aren’t breaking down quickly enough, there may be too many browns and not enough greens. Be sure to aim for a 50/50 between carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials.
- If sticks won’t break down, break or cut them before adding them. They will become compost much more quickly if you do this, and you’ll help the whole compost pile along in the process.
- If your pile has a strong, foul odor, it may have gotten too wet. Turn it and add sawdust to balance out the moisture and to aerate it enough to get the composting process going again. In some rare cases, compost piles cannot be salvage once they’ve become too smelly, and they may need to be started over from the beginning.
- If your compost catches on fire, it’s not wet enough and may not have enough browns. This is not very common, but it can be easily remedied by keeping the pile slightly moist.
Now that you’ve had a chance to learn about the composting process and the stages your compost goes through before it becomes something you can use for plant fertilization, it’s time to get started! And if you’ve already got an established compost pile, take this time to consider whether or not there are changes you might be able to make that could improve the overall quality and speed of the compost.
With a little practice and information, too, you should be able to perfect your compost pile and cut down the processing time, too.