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Ways to Heat Up Your Compost For Better Results

Some people think that composting is as simple as discarding all food and garden waste at the bottom of the garden and leaving it there for several years. 

While that process can work, the end product won’t be nearly as good or as useful as it could be. If your approach is a little more deliberate, and you take the time to nurture your compost pile, you can produce better quality results much quicker. 

So, how do I get my compost to heat up? You can get your compost to heat up by shredding brown and green materials, adding an activator, and aerating the pile. 

To learn more about how to get your compost to heat up, read on. 

Why Do I Need Compost to Heat Up?

Compost is home to aerobic bacteria whose purpose in life is to break down the organic material contained within it. Your compost pile needs to have a healthy balance of carbon and nitrogen-rich elements. 

These microscopic organisms feed off the carbon and use nitrogen to build proteins and reproduce. However, for the bacteria to thrive and do their job effectively, they also need oxygen and water.

This whole process produces heat. The more heat, the quicker the biological reaction, and the quicker you have access to that gardener’s gold.

A good compost pile will reach internal temperatures of over 150ºF or 65ºC

If you are reaching those kinds of temperatures, it serves as a quality indicator that you have the correct moisture, oxygen, and material mixture.

What Materials and Methods Do I Use to Create Hot Compost?

Again, good question.

To get your compost to heat up efficiently, you must:

  • Shred the material.
  • Aim for a 3:1 ratio of brown to green material.
  • Add an activator
  • Aerate. Don’t compact the pile.
  • Water.

Now, let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the points raised above.

Shredding the material

By shredding the material, you are increasing its surface area. That allows the microbes to get to work more efficiently and decompose it quicker. It enables better mixing and oxygenation. Don’t put large items into the pile as this often takes a long time to break down.

The content of a good compost pile

When starting a new compost pile, there should be a mixture of 3 parts carbon (brown) and 1 part nitrogen (green).

Construct the pile in alternate layers of brown and green materials. That will make mixing the compost pile much easier later on.

Green material consists of:

  • Grass clippings (no weed killer)
  • Food waste
  • Weeds and plants (without seeds)

Brown material consists of:

  • Straw
  • Wood chippings
  • Animal bedding
  • Sawdust
  • Cardboard – Egg cartons are fantastic
  • Fallen leaves
  • Newspaper

Once the compost begins to cook, you can continue to add greens slowly and sparingly.

Most people get caught up on which elements to put into their compost heap. There is no hard or fast rule. There should be a good mixture of all kinds of food waste and garden materials. Never depend on one item. This mixture is what creates nutrient-rich compost that is free of disease. 

Add an activator

It’s a common mistake to make a compost pile too carbon-rich. After all, your compost pile is usually the same pile reserved for all the debris from the garden. If your compost heap is taking far too long to break down, then this is likely the problem.

Activators offer an easy fix.

They contain nutrients and nitrogen to boost the decomposition process and speed things up. They are naturally occurring, but you can also purchase them from garden centers. 

Good activators include:

  • Chicken manure
  • Horse manure
  • Waste coffee grind
  • Weeds
  • Volcanic rock
  • Blood meal

One handy tip is to add some compost from a previous heap to the new one, as this will already contain the bacteria and fungi needed to break down the new material. 

Aerate 

Don’t add layers of materials that will block the oxygen, like lots of grass. 

If you add a large number of grass clippings to the top of a pile, it can quickly turn into a slimy layer and starve your compost of oxygen. Add it little by little. 

Every two to three days, mix the pile with a pitchfork to ensure oxygen is penetrating and circulating within the pile. Oxygen is vital to the aerobic microbes. 

If you starve them of oxygen, your compost will resemble a slushy mess. Never squash the pile or compact it. Test it by prodding it with a pitchfork. There should be a slight bounce in the upper materials.

Water

Water is a vital element in the process, but too much will put the fire out. After watering, your pile should feel slightly damp, but not soggy. 

With a watering can add water as you construct the pile, that way its easier to judge the water level. If not, you will likely end up with a pool in the bottom from overwatering or a dry base from under-watering.

How Long Does It Take for Compost to Heat Up?

If a compost pile has the correct elements and is well balanced, the pile will heat up considerably in a matter of days. 

However, if left for too long without turning or mixing the pile, it will start to cool down again as the microbes have decomposed the material in the immediate area and have nothing new to break down. So ensure you have a routine for checking your pile and remixing.

Why Doesn’t My Compost Pile Heat Up?

It may contain too much carbon, which will make your pile too dry and slow to decompose. Branches are a brilliant source of carbon but are far too big to break down, ensure they are shredded first.

You may also have too much nitrogen, which is generally identifiable by a big slushy mess and is sour smelling.

You can help yourself out by avoiding the following items in your compost pile:

  • Oil
  • Fats
  • Meat
  • Pine leaves
  • Dairy 
  • Eggs
  • Onions

How to Maintain a Compost Heap

Ongoing maintenance of your compost heap doesn’t have to be too taxing. 

It requires very little attention once you have the critical components sorted. You need to ensure the pile isn’t dry and isn’t too wet. It should have the same texture as a rung-out sponge. 

Squeeze the material, and if drops of water run from your hand, it is too wet. You will be starving the compost of oxygen. 

You need to mix it regularly to ensure a good oxygen mix. Whenever you add new material, ensure you mix it in with the lower layers to encourage decomposition. 

The Signs of a Good Compost

After several weeks a good compost will have a sweet smell to it and won’t smell like a bog. It will be damp and warm, not wet, and slushy.

It will feel fine and crumbly to touch and will not clump together. It will be black and not grey.

What Are the Benefits of Good Compost?

Good compost is the ultimate soil strengthener. Unfortunately, you will never know the exact nutrient content or PH levels of your compost without expensive testing equipment. 

Just don’t worry about it. It’s a great way to nourish your garden, dispose of waste, and help the environment.

Creating gardener’s gold is worthwhile and rewarding. By reducing household waste, less goes to landfills, and less methane is pumped into the atmosphere. 

It’s a task our grandfathers were proud of and is a process that’s been around for hundreds of years. Check out this article on the origins of composting from National Geographic.

Hopefully, the process of composting will prove to be a popular choice due to climate change and other environmental issues conveyed by the media. 

Embrace sustainable practices and continue the tradition. It’s a fun activity for the children and is a great way to get the whole family involved.

Go and grow your healthy gardens and crops, and if not to reap the rewards, then to brag to the neighbors about your new hot compost skills.