Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter like leaves, grass clippings, and food scraps into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil. It’s an easy way to dispose of waste from your yard and kitchen while creating a nutrient-rich material to nourish your plants and garden.
While composting happens on its own over time, there are several techniques you can use to speed up the decomposition process and get finished compost faster. In this guide, I’ll cover all the methods and tips for accelerating your compost so you can make the most of this sustainable gardening practice.
Why speed up composting?
Composting speeds up the natural process of decay that happens as microbes, fungi, and invertebrates break down organic materials. Under ideal conditions, compost can finish in as little as 4-6 weeks. But sometimes, a compost pile can take many months to break down without strategic intervention.
Here are some reasons why you might want to speed up your compost:
Get compost faster. Finished compost takes less time to become usable if the decomposition process is sped up. This gives you ready-to-use compost sooner.
Destroy pathogens and weed seeds: Active composting generates higher temperatures to kill off pathogens and weed seeds and prevent diseased plant materials from spreading in the finished compost.
Reduce pile volume: speeding up decomposition shrinks the overall size of the compost pile, so it takes up less space.
Prevent odor and pests: A fast-moving compost pile is less likely to emit foul odors or attract pests looking for rotting food matter.
Make space for new inputs. Quickly processing compost materials means you can empty out finished compost and keep adding new inputs to the pile.
10 Tips for Faster Composting
Composting seems simple, but there are many factors that affect the pace of decomposition. Follow these key tips to accelerate your compost pile:
1. Use a Ratio of 2:1 Browns to Greens
- Browns are carbon-rich dry materials like leaves, straw, sawdust, paper, and cardboard.
Greens are nitrogen-rich fresh materials like food scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds.
The ideal C:N ratio for composting is 25-30:1. Mixing browns and greens in a 2:1 ratio helps achieve this balance.
Too many greens pack the pile too densely. Too many browns don’t provide enough nitrogen.
2. Chop Up Large Pieces Before Adding
Break down the materials into smaller pieces before adding them to the pile. Aim for 1-2-inch pieces.
Smaller pieces mean more surface area for microorganisms to feast on the compost.
Use a lawn mower on leaves, pruning shears on twigs, and shred paper materials.
3. Fluff and turn the pillow.
Turning or stirring the compost pile once a week provides aeration.
Oxygen is essential for aerobic bacteria that drive decomposition. Turning prevents dead zones.
Use a compost turning tool, or pitchfork to lift and mix up the materials from the center and edges.
4. Monitor Moisture Levels
Compost needs 40–60% moisture, similar to a wrung-out sponge. Too wet or dry slows the process.
If the pile feels dry, add water while turning. If too soggy, add dry browns like sawdust or straw.
Covering the pile helps retain moisture. But remove the cover when turning to test moisture.
5. Get the Temperature Right
The optimal composting temperature is 130–150 °F, achieved by an active decomposition process.
When the center is too cold, turn the pile to reboot the decomposition cycle and increase airflow.
If the pile gets too hot (over 160°F), it needs more aeration to encourage aerobic bacteria over anaerobic bacteria.
6. Modify Particle Size for Faster Heat
Grinding up inputs before adding them to the pile generates heat more quickly.
More particles mean more surface area for the bacteria to colonize and decompose.
Using a wood chipper, mulcher, or blender makes particles smaller for speedier composting.
7. Insulate the Pile
Insulation traps heat to maintain high temperatures for strong microbial activity and decomposition.
In cold weather, surround bins with bales of straw or plastic bubble wrap.
Place compost in the center of plant rings or under a tarp hoop to retain heat.
8. Use a Compost Tumbler
Tumblers are enclosed drums on a rotating stand to easily mix and aerate compost.
The rolling agitation introduces oxygen while keeping in heat and moisture for accelerated composting.
Give the tumbler 5–10 rotations every 2-3 days to boost decomposition speed.
9. Try Aeration Pipes
Bury perforated PVC pipes throughout the pile to improve interior airflow.
The holes allow passive ventilation without having to actively turn the compost.
Place pipes every 12 inches vertically and horizontally when building the pile.
10. Add Compost Activators
Special compost activators provide microorganisms, enzymes, and heat to kickstart decomposition.
Nutrient boosters like nitrogen and carbon increase microbial activity levels.
Quality activators can shorten compost time by 2-4 weeks when used properly per label instructions.
Avoid These Composting Mistakes
While actively managing your compost pile is important, there are also some common mistakes that can slow down the composting process:
Too much brown material: an overabundance of browns makes nitrogen unavailable, slowing microbial growth.
Not enough greens: Lack of nitrogen from greens limits how fast microbes can break down browns.
Pile too small: Under 3x3x3 feet, the volume is too little to hold heat and moisture.
Lack of oxygen: Anaerobic conditions from compacted piles produce bad odors, not active composting.
Ignoring moisture: Too dry or too wet both hinder decomposition. Check moisture weekly.
Chopping incorrectly: Large, whole pieces resist breakdown. Shred into small bits.
Letting piles heat excessively: Temperatures over 160°F kill beneficial microbes. Turn the pile to cool it down.
Correcting these issues and refining your compost management will remove the obstacles to faster composting.
How long does fast composting take?
With the techniques for optimizing speed, an actively managed compost pile can produce usable compost in:
4-6 weeks if you stay on top of turning, moisture, and temperatures.
2-3 months for a moderately maintained pile using occasional turning and moisture control.
6 months+: An untended, static pile left alone will compost, but very slowly over many months.
The faster timeframe requires vigilantly tending to the compost pile. But the trade-off is that you get usable compost much more quickly.
Composting in Cold Weather
Freezing winter temperatures don’t have to halt your composting entirely. But colder conditions do slow down microbial activity. Here are some tips for counteracting chillier composting:
Build the pile in a sunny, sheltered spot away from the wind. Near a wall, tree line, or compost enclosure.
Make the base with 8–12 inches of wood chips or straw to insulate from frozen ground.
Use a tarp or compost bag to help retain heat in the decomposing materials.
Store fresh green scraps like produce, then add them in batches to heat up a cold pile.
Mix in extra browns like paper, sawdust, or wood ashes to provide insulation.
Install an aeration tube to improve airflow if turning the pile is difficult in the winter.
Use a thermal compost sensor to monitor internal temperature, turning or adjusting as needed.
With a few adjustments, you can keep the compost warm enough for the cold-hardy microbes and fungi to actively work away through the winter.
Troubleshooting Slow Compost
Sometimes, a compost pile just doesn’t seem to be decomposing at an optimal pace. Here are some troubleshooting tips if your compost is slow:
The pile is dry. Turn and mix in water or fresh grass clippings to add moisture. Cover the top with a tarp to retain moisture.
The pile is soggy. Add dry browns like leaves or sawdust to soak up excess moisture. Turn or fluff piles to improve airflow and drainage.
Lack of nitrogen: Mix in nitrogen-rich greens like food scraps, coffee grounds, or manure.
Poor aeration: Use an aeration tool or compost turner to introduce more air into the pile. Or add sticks to create air gaps.
Cold weather: Insulate the exterior of the bin, add fresh greens, and monitor the temperature. Turn portions that are heating.
The pile is too small. Expand the volume to at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. The bigger, the better for heat retention.
Wrong materials: avoid diseased plants, animal products, woody debris, and weeds. Stick to standard compostable materials.
Not chopping materials: Break down large pieces into 1-2 inch sizes so microbes can access the organic matter.
Making adjustments based on the symptoms of poor composting will get your pile back on track for faster decomposition.
Achieving Hot Composting
For the fastest compost, aim for hot composting with sustained high temperatures. Hot composting requires more work but can convert materials into finished compost in just 4-6 weeks.
Follow these steps for hot, fast composting:
Reach critical mass: a minimum of 1 cubic meter of materials helps compost self-heat.
Monitor temperatures. Track heat using a compost thermometer. Turn or adjust the pile to maintain 130–150°F.
Aerate frequently. Turn or stir every 1-3 days to prevent overheating and reintroduce oxygen.
Maintain moisture. Compost should feel damp but not soggy. Add water while turning if it is dry.
Small particle size: shred or chip materials into very small bits before adding them to the pile.
Balance inputs: Carefully mix greens and browns for ideal carbon and nitrogen ratios.
Insulate: Use insulation blankets or wrap piles in thermal mass, like straw bales, to retain heat.
Hot composting requires vigilance but yields the quickest finished compost if done properly. Thermophilic bacteria thrive at extremely high temperatures to rapidly process organic waste.
Uses for Finished Compost
Once your compost is fully broken down, here are some ways to use that “black gold” around your home and garden:
Soil amendment: till compost into garden beds, lawns, and potting mixes to enrich soil.
Mulch: Spread an even layer of compost around plants, trees, and landscaping to retain moisture.
Seed starter: Combine compost with soil or coconut coir to create starter mixes for seed propagation.
Plant Food: Mix compost with water to make a nutritious compost tea fertilizer for your plants.
Pest deterrent: Spread compost around garden perimeters and plant bases to block pests. It also attracts beneficial insects.
Erosion control: Apply compost to slopes, hills, and bare or damaged soil as an organic groundcover to prevent erosion.
With a continuous cycle of adding organic scraps and using finished compost, you can sustainably nourish soil health, plants, and food gardens without relying only on chemical fertilizers.
Composting Dos and Don’ts
To produce high-quality compost, follow these basic guidelines for what you should and should not include:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Leaf litter and plant debris
- Coffee grounds and tea bags
- Crushed eggshells
- Livestock manure (not pet waste)
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Straw and hay
- Wood chips, sawdust
- Shredded paper/cardboard
- Cotton and wool rags
- Nut shells
- Wood ash
- Meat, fish, bones, oils, and dairy
- Large woody debris or branches
- Diseased or pest-ridden plants
- Weeds and invasive plants
- Pet waste
- Charcoal or coal ash
- Sawdust from treated wood
- Biohazardous waste
- Synthetic materials
This list covers most standard compostable items. When in doubt, leave it out of your compost to avoid contaminating the final product.
Speeding up the natural process of composting is possible with some strategic management of your compost pile. Paying attention to key factors like particle size, aeration, moisture, temperature, and inputs will accelerate decomposition dramatically. With active maintenance, you can shrink compost time from many months to just 4-6 weeks.
Composting provides a simple, earth-friendly way of recycling yard waste and food scraps that would otherwise end up in landfills. By making your own compost at home, you can nourish your garden soil, plants, lawn, and landscape. Mastering the tricks of faster composting will help you streamline the process and put your finished compost to work sooner rather than later.
How often should I turn my compost pile?
Turning frequency depends on the composting method. For hot composting, turn the pile every 1-3 days. For slower composting, turn every 1-2 weeks. And a passively managed pile may only need turning every month or so.
Can I use compost activators or starters?
Yes, quality compost activators can introduce beneficial bacteria to kickstart decomposition. Look for natural, organic products with a diversity of microbes. Follow package instructions carefully.
What materials make the best insulation for compost?
Straw, leaves, sawdust, wood chips, and plant debris provide good insulation for retaining heat. Avoid plastic sheeting, which restricts airflow. Insulate piles in winter or cold climates.
How to speed up compost in winter?
Composting is slower in cold weather but can be accelerated with some adjustments. First, build your pile in a sunny, sheltered location protected from wind, ideally near a wall or tree line. Insulate the base with a thick 8-12 inch layer of straw or leaves to prevent heat loss into frozen ground. Cover the pile with a tarp or compost bag to retain heat generated by the decomposing materials. Monitor internal temperatures using a compost thermometer. Turn portions of the pile that are actively heating to introduce oxygen. Add dry, browns like sawdust, shredded paper or wood ash to provide insulation. Store fresh greens like food scraps to add in batches for a warming boost.
How can I speed up the decomposition of my compost bin?
To accelerate the breakdown of food scraps in a compost pile, start by chopping and grinding the waste into smaller pieces to increase surface area. Maintain proper moisture levels between 40-60% to aid bacterial growth. Turn and stir the pile frequently, at least once a week, to introduce more air. Use an aeration tool to poke holes throughout the pile for improved oxygen flow. Monitor temperatures with a compost thermometer and adjust as needed to keep the internal heat between 130-150F. Insulate the bin with straw bales or bubble wrap to retain heat. Add high-nitrogen activators or fertilizers to provide microbial food sources. Turning a properly managed compost pile daily can yield finished compost from food wastes within 4-6 weeks.