Composting 101: How Long Does It Take To Make Compost for Your Garden?

When I’m working in the garden, it always seems like there’s never enough compost. And it’s awfully expensive to go out and buy it. I mean, it’s not called black gold for nothing – dirt cheap indeed. 

With so many different compost methods out there, it can be challenging to know how long you have to wait for your black gold. But I’ve been composting for years with many different methods, so I can finally answer how long does it take to make compost?

We’ll even explain a method when you can have nutrient-rich compost in less than a month!

How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?

Whether you are an eco-warrior or just looking to grow better tomatoes, making compost can make a difference. At first, it can seem like an overwhelming process, with lots of dos and don’ts. And you probably find yourself asking – how long does it take to make compost?

Answering this question will depend on the method of the composting process. 

Composting Method Average Composting Period 
Cold Composting 6 months to a year 
Hot Composting Approximately three weeks

Most methods fall into one of two categories – cold composting and hot composting. Within each of those categories, there are many myriad options of implementation. Let’s look at cold composting first.

Cold composting is how people did things in the olden days. As its name implies, there is no heat involved. All you do is place all your compostable material in a pile and extend your patience because it takes at least half a year for the material to break down (1). 

fruit peels and other food scraps being buried underground to make compost
See ya in 6 to 12 months! 👋

Cold composting can take six months to a year for the materials to break down. You may want to do your cold composting in a bin rather than a pile if you plan on adding food waste. That can help prevent animals from digging up your pile.

If you like the idea of cold composting but want a more sophisticated method, you can try sheet mulching or hugelkultur (2). 

Both of these are cold composting methods that require a little more thought and planning than just a compost pile or bin as they involve building compost for garden beds directly in the bed where you plan to plant.

Hot composting is significantly faster than cold composting.  In fact, using this method, you could have good compost in approximately three weeks if you are willing to do a lot of work (3). 

To get compost that fast requires you to have the perfect balance of green and brown materials, moisture, and airflow. Airflow is created by turning your pile. The more you turn, the faster your compost is done.  

Even if your pile isn’t perfect, hot composting is still faster than cold composting. And I’ll explain why. By turning frequently and introducing nitrogen-rich materials, you are creating an environment for aerobic bacteria. These bacteria “eat” your waste and convert it to compost, and that process creates heat in your pile, hence the name. 

Using a compost thermometer, the temperature of the pile should be between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. 

If it gets above or below the recommended temps, you should turn your compost pile to increase airflow. Temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit can kill off the beneficial bacteria. When temperatures are lower, compost slows down.

Composting 101: What Is The Composting Process? 

All organic material will break down. However, composting helps speed up that natural process (4).

Most gardeners avoid animal products, like dairy products and meat, because they attract pests. When you are first getting started, it can be best to stick to plant-based compost. 

Fruit and vegetable scraps, old bread, coffee grounds, and tea bags are examples of kitchen waste that no longer needs to go to the landfill.

You can collect these in a bin on your counter. To make sure you get the best kitchen compost bin for your family, consider how much food waste you make and how often you want to empty the bin.

But it’s not just food waste that goes in your compost. You can put all your yard waste there as well – pine needles, grass clippings, and small twigs and branches are all compostable materials. You should avoid composting diseased plants and weeds that produce seeds, like morning glories, as they can spread in your garden. 

You want to keep your compost properly balanced with what is referred to as “green” and “brown” materials. Green materials are items that are high in nitrogen, like your veggie scraps, grassing clippings, and other wet items. Brown materials are high in carbon. These include dry leaves, sawdust, and paper (as long as it isn’t glossy or coated).

If your pile is improperly balanced, it will take longer to break down (5).

“The ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio for a compost pile is 25 to 30 parts carbon for every 1 part nitrogen.”

For a rough guideline, you can expect to put two to three parts brown material for every one part of green material you add.

There are other factors besides your carbon-nitrogen ratio that affect how long it takes for the composting process. One major factor will be which composting method you choose.

Tumbler Vs. Bin: Which One Is Faster To Make Compost?

Now that we know the basics of composting let’s talk about what you can do if you want something more contained than a plain old pile.

If you are just starting out, a compost pile may seem the way to go. And they certainly can work if you have space and aren’t in a hurry. But if you want to compost faster and neater, you can look into a bin or tumbler.

What’s the difference between a compost tumbler and a compost bin? Good question. A compost bin is just a bin that you keep your compost in. It can be made of just about any material – wood, plastic, and metal all work. However, you want to avoid pressure-treated woods and look for BPA-free plastic to prevent chemicals from leaching into your compost.

Compost bins serve multiple purposes and come in all shapes and sizes. A bin is essential if you plan on composting in an apartment or area without a yard. They can also help prevent animals from making a mess of your food waste and look more attractive than just a pile of debris in the corner. But they do more than that as well.

To answer your question, “how long does it take to make compost in a bin?” With proper watering and turning, you’ll have ready-to-use compost in about a month.

Check out this super cool time-lapse video of compost breaking down.

So, now that we know what a compost bin is, let’s talk about compost tumblers. Technically a compost tumbler is a compost bin that spins. The spinning motion alleviates the need for you to turn the pile frequently. 

They come in different sizes and styles. You will want to consider all the options to decide the best compost tumbler for your family. Some even come with dual composting chambers so you can add your organic matter to one side while the other side is resting. 

So, how long does it take to make compost in a tumbler?

On average, it takes about four weeks if the conditions are right. While a compost tumbler may not be much quicker than a compost bin, it certainly involves less work.

What Factors Can Influence Composting Process? 

Many factors can influence the composting process. As we mentioned, heat is a critical factor in how long it takes to make good compost. But that is not the only factor. 

The size of your organic materials, the moisture content, how frequently you turn your pile, heck, even the size of your pile can affect the time involved. So let’s look at some of those factors that are necessary for fast composting.

Size matters. The smaller the items in your compost pile, the faster they will break down. If you have lots of yard debris, you may want to use a lawnmower for shredded leaves or a wood chipper for small woody branches.

Believe it or not, there is an ideal size for a compost pile. The ideal size for a hot compost pile is 3’X3’X3’. If your pile is much smaller than that, the process will slow down (3).

You also want to ensure your pile isn’t too wet or dry because too much moisture  (or lack of it) will only extend the composting process. 

As we mentioned with the compost tumblers, compost turned more frequently will process faster. You can turn your compost even if you don’t have a tumbler. Just grab a pitchfork or a shovel.

When Is The Compost Pile Ready? 

So you’ve added all the materials, watered, and turned, but how do you know when your compost is ready?

Your compost pile is ready when the temperature is below 100 degrees and the materials are no longer recognizable (5). 

A rule of thumb is that a good compost pile feels like a wrung-out sponge.

What you see should look like deep, rich soil, and finished compost has a sweet, earthy smell to it. You may still see some larger sticks that have not fully broken down, even though your pile appears ready. That isn’t a problem. You can either sift them out or leave them in the mix, and they will continue to break down. 

Never use unfinished compost. The decomposition process will continue in any garden beds you add to, and that can actually steal nutrients away from your soil. So be patient. The results are worth it.

The Verdict

There are many different methods of composting. The easiest methods, like cold composting, are going to take the longest amount of time. But even if you are lazy, if you are willing to wait long enough, your organic waste will turn to black gold eventually.

However, if you are willing to put in some effort, you can cut down on your composting time from a year to just a few weeks. You just need to be willing to expend some energy turning that compost. 

FAQs

You can not compost inorganic materials like plastic and metal as they won’t break down. You should also avoid composting pet dropping and human waste as they can transmit pathogens. Medicines and plants that have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides should also not be composted. While paper is compostable, glossy magazines, envelopes with plastic and chemical-based inks shouldn’t go in your compost pile.

As a novice composter, you should avoid animal products though they are compostable.

Yes, your compost pile will smell. Hot compost, which relies on aerobic bacteria, should have a pleasant earthy smell when done right. However, if your compost gets out of balance, it can become smelly. 

Cold composting relies more on anaerobic bacteria to break down your compost. These bacteria do contribute to the smell associated with rotting food.

If your compost piles smell unbearable, you may want to check the proper proportions of compost material. Remember, for every one part of greens like kitchen scraps and vegetable peelings, you’ll have to put two to three parts of brown materials like shredded paper.  

Yes, you can compost even if you don’t have a yard. You can make or purchase a compost bin to compost your waste. Another option if you are limited on space is vermicomposting. It uses worms to break down your organic waste and can be done with very little space. If you want more usable compost, you can have several vermicompost piles around your home.

  1. Maximize Your Output with ‘Hybrid Composting.’ Retrieved from: https://unclejimswormfarm.com/maximize-your-output-with-hybrid-composting/
  2. Three methods for no-turn cold composting. Retrieved from: https://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/techniques/three-methods-no-turn-cold-composting
  3. The Rapid Composting Method. Retrieved from: http://sonomamg.ucanr.edu/files/29958.pdf
  4. Chapter 6, Composting Questions and Answers. Retrieved from: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/landscape/dont-bag-it/chapter-6-composting-questions-and-answers/
  5. Composting 101. Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/composting-101#whatis

How Long Does It Take To Make Compost?
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