How to Jumpstart Your Compost Heap

Hands up if you’ve messed up a batch of compost.

Wasn’t it supposed to be easy?

“Just throw in your waste vegetables, pop in your grass, and leave it at the bottom of the garden for six months,” they said.

Sure enough, you return to the scene of the crime six months later to discover a stinky pile of sludge at the bottom of your garden.

What went wrong?

It’s not rocket science, but it isn’t that easy either. You’re probably missing one or two critical elements in your quest for high-quality compost. 

To help you figure out what those elements might be, I’ve put together this guide to help you jumpstart your compost or rescue a currently lost and desperate pile.

Why You Should Produce Compost

It’s a brilliant way to recycle food and garden waste, and in doing so, you will create a natural fertilizer to enrich your garden. 

Human-made fertilizers are expensive and extremely harmful to the environment. And that doesn’t even get into the toll they take on our bodies when they are ingested in the fruit and vegetables we eat. 

The benefits aren’t confined to only your backyard, either. You are actively lowering waste that is otherwise destined for landfills. It helps to reduce our impact on global warming too. 

The Different Types of Composting

You can compost outside, indoors, in the garage, even in the bedroom. Large companies produce tonnes of the stuff in spectacular systems that are larger than most people’s back gardens. 

Which method is right for you is highly dependent on your personality and where you live. 

There are two types of composting techniques.

  • Aerobic – The composting that gardeners do outside. You will likely know this method if you’re reading this article.
  • Vermicomposting – This type requires the use of worms and indoor composting systems.

For our purposes, we shall concentrate on the aerobic type in this article.

How to Construct the Perfect Composting Area

There are many solutions available to suit all types of needs, but I will name a few below. 

You could go the farmer’s route and pile up the stuff at the bottom of the garden, or if you want a more friendly-looking pile and you are blessed with space, you may wish to construct an area – this is my preferred option. 

Dig a small pit in the ground and erect wooden fencing or slats around it. They are called bins, and usually, two are placed side by side. The idea being that one pile is always ready to use while the other is still decomposing.

Or you could choose to purchase an enclosed bin. Typically they are made from black PVC, so they don’t rot or rust. They might not be the perfect choice for an environmentally friendly gardener. Still, they are ideal if you have limited space.

Another type is called a tumbler. That is by far the most convenient way of composting. It looks pretty much like a cement mixer, except it’s completely closed and made from plastic. 

You load in the materials, lock them away, and it has a handle for easy mixing. Turn it every so often to aerate the compost. It won’t offer you speed, but it does provide cleanliness.

Where to Place a Compost Bin

There are several factors you need to consider when placing your compost heap. 

  • Ensure the site isn’t subjected to extremes of temperature like in the corner of a garden that never sees sunshine.
  • It must be free of water or the potential to flood.
  • It should be placed in the shade so it won’t dry out.
  • Try to position it on an earth base, but if that’s not possible, always ensure you throw a layer of earth into the bin before you start composting.
  • The site should have good access for adding and removing heavy material with shovels.
  • Finally, for the typical gardener, the bins should be approximately 1mx1m in size. That allows heat to build up in the compost and consequently speed up the process. It’s vitally important that your heap is the correct size. Otherwise, you won’t stand a chance of creating that heat that is so incredibly important to the speed of decomposition. (More on that later.)

In reality, it doesn’t really matter which method you use. They all work. The material will eventually decompose. Still, if time is of the essence because you want your Petunias planted already, well, there are several things you can do to speed up making compost at home.

Let us dive in.

What Is Compost Made Of?

To make compost, we need three ingredients:

  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon 
  • Activators

Materials containing nitrogen are also referred to as green materials.

These can include:

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

Carbon-based materials are typically called brown materials, and they consist of but aren’t limited to:

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

The mix of these two ingredients should 3:1 – Brown to Green 

Activators speed up the decomposition of the organic material by encouraging bacteria to breakdown the organic matter.

Some good activators are:

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

The Method for Making Great Compost, Fast

  • Start your compost pile on bare earth.
  • Add twigs and straw as a base designed for drainage.
  • The mix of brown to green components should be around 3:1.
  • Layer the materials in a pile, so they are easy to mix with a pitchfork.
  • Ensure any larger materials like branches are shredded. The thinner the material, the easier it is to decompose.
  • To nurture good quality compost, you need to supply water and oxygen regularly. The microscopic organisms will feed on the organic material and will need water and oxygen to thrive. Heat is a byproduct of the natural biological process of decomposition. The more heat, the faster the decomposition. A high temperature is a good thing.
  • If the internal temperature of your compost pile is above 120ºF, then you are doing a good job so far.
  • The amount of water and oxygen that is needed is ever-changing and will require monitoring every couple of days.
  • Too much water will cause the compost to clump and become slimy, which will, in turn, starve the bacteria of oxygen.
  • And a lack of oxygen will drastically slow down the decomposition.
  • Mix the compost pile every couple of days to aerate it and add water if needed. This process will also return fresh material to the center where it can start to heat up and decompose.
  • Cover the pile to keep away critters and keep it insulated.

How to Top up Your Compost Pile

This is arguably the most important section. The maintenance of your pile is the hardest part to get right but also the most rewarding. 

What you do at this moment in time will make or break a good compost pile. Adding those little extras can really make the difference when trying to speed up or jump-start your composting.

Pro-tip for dealing with leaves: Sometimes, adding leaves to your compost heap can be detrimental. If you haven’t prepared them properly, they can clump together and become difficult to break down. You are slowing down the decomposition process.

If you want a healthy amendment to your compost and get nutrients into your compost fast, I would recommend the use of leaf mold. 

Firstly, gather the fallen leaves and ensure they are brown. Place the leaves into a metal container and take a garden strimmer or a shredder if you have one and chop them up. Then place the leaves into plastic bags to dry in the sun for a couple of weeks. That is one way you can jump-start your compost.

Consider using ammonia, cola, and beer

Similarly, grass will also clump up if not dealt with properly.

Mix 8oz of ammonia, 1 x can of coke, and one can of beer. Put the ingredients into a 20-gallon hose and sprayer. The sugar and yeast feed the beneficial bacteria in the compost and turn them into super bacteria. 

Usually, people shy away from green grass because it smothers a compost pile. Still, in this scenario, it superheats and cooks off any seeds or pathogens that may be present. 

The green grass is the key here. You must build a separate pile to your original compost pile and use the correct mixture of 3:1 brown to green as you would normally. 

Spray the new heap with the cocktail, and in a couple of weeks, this new pile will start to resemble compost. Add this mixture to your original collection little by little over the coming weeks, and it will supercharge your compost production.

Relay the foundations of your compost pile

Re-siting your heap may not be realistic if you have a gigantic pile of compost. 

However, you should consider moving the entire pile next door. Relay a bed of straw and small twigs. That will help with the oxygen flow and because your compost has been cooking for a few weeks or months now this introduction if oxygen will really jump-start the process.

Relay the compost pile onto the new bed and stand back. It will soon be cooking.

When adding new material to your pile, you should always be trying to maintain that important ratio of 3:1. It’s tough to keep track if you pile on the material without any thought or planning.

Keep a record

For now and far into the future, it’s important to know what works and doesn’t. Keep track of quantities and new ideas, and you will soon have a secret repeatable recipe for making perfect compost each time. The best way to kick start your compost is by knowing what you are doing.

Now that we’ve looked at improvements, it’s time to discuss what you shouldn’t do when jumpstarting compost. 

Some items decompose very slowly, and you should avoid putting these in the compost heap where possible. Additionally, the items listed below attract vermin, which isn’t ideal in the garden:

  • Oil
  • Fats
  • Meat
  • Pine leaves
  • Dairy 
  • Eggs
  • Onions
  • Bones
  • Fish scraps
  • Avoid composting perennial weeds or diseased plants.
  • Don’t include pet manures in compost that will be used on food crops.

How Long Does It Take to Produce Compost?

Compost can take between six weeks and two years to materialize. There is no magic number, and it requires a little bit of practice to know if your compost is ready for the garden.

How to Tell If Compost Is Ready

One way to test if your compost is ready is by putting a handful in a plastic bag. Leave it for three days and then open it up. If it smells sour, it means organisms are still working away on the soil. The compost isn’t ready.

Good compost will smell like earth and be crumbly to the touch.

It is unlikely that all the material will have decomposed entirely, but don’t worry. Throw that into the adjacent pile. It’s a good way of kick-starting the next batch with helpful microorganisms and fungi.

Common Composting Problems

  • Flies: Flies will always be attracted to rotting organic material no matter what you do. If its a massive problem, try covering it up with grass clippings or bury it in the center of the pile. Here’s how to keep flies away.
  • Bad odors: If the neighbors are complaining, you will likely need to do something about it. If it smells like ammonia, then add more brown elements to the pile like straw or sawdust. Additionally, try turning calcium or lime into the heap. Remember to stay away from meat and fish waste, especially in the summer.
  • Not enough brown materials: This is quite a common problem as most families have plenty of food waste to top up their compost pile but run out of brown materials. Get organized when Autumn comes stockpile the stuff. You may need to invest in your compost production by purchasing newspapers and egg cartons to throw into the mix. Take the family into the woods and collect fallen debris from trees.
  • Your pile is too wet: Simply turn out your pile so the moisture can evaporate. Before you reconstitute it add more brown material but try not to upset the balance too much.

How to Use Compost

Compost revitalizes the soil. When added to the garden, it restructures the soil, promotes airflow, and helps retain moisture. It can be added to vegetables, shrubs, flowers, trees, potted plants, and turf.

Essential Tools for Composting

Shovels and Spades: No doubt, you will already own one of these if you’re contemplating doing some composting.

Aerator: This tool is like a giant corkscrew. You turn it into the soil and remove it. The process leaves holes in the soil for oxygen to reach the inner core.

Pitchfork: A staple of the garden and is essential for hand turning your compost pile.

Shredder: Likely, this isn’t an option for you; however, if you’re producing compost in large quantities, it advisable to purchase a shredder for those larger brown materials.

Pruning shears: For those of you who are producing compost on a smaller scale, a good pair of pruning shears will work wonders when breaking down branches destined for the pile.

Watering can and hose: Organic material breaks down faster when it’s moist.

Screen: When you are finally ready to reap the rewards inevitably, some bulky items may remain. Filter it out with a screen, and this will leave you with lovely black gold.

Compost thermometer: Vital for ensuring the middle of your compost heap is heating up to the required temperature to maximize your compost quality and output.

People are often taken aback when their composting venture falls flat on its face. Either because its too much hard work, or they’re merely missing one fundamental piece of the puzzle.

Composting is a rewarding and enjoyable activity. Who knows, if you have a talent for it, farmers and gardeners will be tripping over themselves to buy your quality compost. 

Of course, you can’t speed up mother nature, but how quickly you get there is entirely dependent on how hard you work.

For those of us that are into this type of thing, there is fast composting, and then there is mind-blowingly fast composting. 

I mentioned earlier in the article that large companies produce tons of compost each year. There is just no way the humble gardener can compete. 

If you want to learn more about jumpstarting compost, take a look at this exciting YouTube video. It’s a short animation describing how these companies deal with your waste when you put into the bin and the processes they have in place to churn out masses of compost:

How industrial composting works

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