While composting is great for your garden, the process itself can be quite tedious and time-consuming. Turning your compost heap is a great way to aerate it and substantially speed up the decomposition process. But, how often do you really need to be turning your compost pile to get the best results. Let’s find out.
The Benefits Of Turning Your Compost
Let’s start off with a simple lesson in biology. There are basically two types of bacteria you will find in your compost pit- aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. Aerobic bacteria are super efficient at breaking down the organic waste you dump into the compost. They do, however, require oxygen to thrive and metabolize.
On the other hand anaerobes proliferate in oxygen deprived environments. However, these microorganisms aren’t efficient at decomposing organic compounds. They excrete toxic substances like hydrogen sulfide in the process, which can result in a rather unpleasant smell.
Several problems can create an anaerobic environment in your compost heap. This oxygen deprivation can lead to dwindling populations of aerobic bacteria, slowing down the process of decomposition. Turning your compost can help eliminate most of these problems. Let’s see how
1. Prevents Compaction Of Material
When particles of waste get in close proximity with each other, they leave no room for air. By turning over your compost, you create more space for oxygen to pass through to the microbes residing within.
2. Reduces Excessive Moisture
When your compost heap has excessive moisture, water molecules get into spaces between particles. This leads to lack of ventilation in deeper regions of the heap. Turning your compost drains excessive water from the heap, reopening spaces that allow for better aeration.
3. Creates More Surface Area
Turning the compost creates more surface area of the material. This, in turn, allows more oxygen and air to get inside, resulting in faster decomposition. Another tip to create more surface area is to shred your waste into tiny pieces before throwing it into the compost. This can significantly speed up the composting process.
4. Prevents Over-consumption By Bacteria
The intensity of decomposition is maximum at the center of the compost pile. As such, bacteria at the center may consume all the nutrients and oxygen available, leading it to ultimately perish. Turning the compost helps mix the pile up. When you turn the compost, undepleted material from the periphery reaches the healthy bacteria providing them with more nutrients to grow and flourish further.
5. Maintains Adequate Temperature
When bacteria break down organic material, heat is released as a by-product. This heat is a good sign as it speeds up the decomposition process. However, temperatures higher than 149 degrees Fahrenheit can backfire and kill useful bacteria. Turning your compost helps maintain an ideal temperature range conducive for decomposition by redistributing the heat.
How To Turn Your Compost
As a home gardener you may be limited to either a compost tumbler or simply using a pitchfork to turn your compost. Both these methods work extremely well in aerating your compost heap.
Probably the most comfortable option would be using a compost tumbler. These come with attached handles and axles that make turning the contents of your barrel quite convenient. Although compost tumblers can be purchased, many DIY compost tumblers are also available on the internet these days.
For an open compost pile, simply using a pitchfork or a shovel to turn over the contents should do the trick. Some gardeners may even prefer to use multiple compost bins. In such situations, replacing the content from one bin to another can be a convenient way of mixing up the compost.
A compost aerator tool is another option. The tool is basically a long stick with some teeth at one end. Driving your aerator tool through the pile will mix up material as it moves through it.
How Often Should You Turn Compost
How often to turn compost is dictated by a number of factors- the size of the pile, the ratio of green to brown waste, the moisture content etc. That being said, a general rule of thumb is to turn a compost tumbler every three to four days. For compost piles, turning the contents every four to seven days should give optimum results.
There are also certain signs to look out for that indicate your compost heap needs to be turned more frequently. Slow decomposition, pest infestations and a smelly compost indicate that you need to reset the contents of your compost. Do keep in mind that turning a compost pile that smells could actually worsen the smell initially. Keeping track of the wind direction can help in these cases.
Some over-enthusiastic gardeners turn over the compost more frequently than required. This can actually do more harm than good. Turning a compost pile too often disrupts the growth of useful fungi and actinomycetes. These fungi are crucial for breaking down lignin and cellulose.
Turning too often also prevents the pile from reaching optimum temperatures. Using a compost thermometer to check temperatures at the center of the pile can help. If temperatures at the center of the pile are around 130 F your compost does not require turning. If, however, you notice temperatures dropping below 100 F or above 149 F, you need to turn the compost.
Adding New Material To Your Compost
Adding new material to your compost pile can cool down temperatures and slow the decomposition process. However, many experts claim that regular overturning of compost facilitates the addition of new material without slowing down decomposition. In fact, soft kitchen waste rich in nitrogen content can dissipate in just a few days at the center of a pile. When adding large amounts of new ingredients in your compost, it is necessary to incorporate them by regular turning.
The Process Of Curing The Compost
The composting process does not end when the pile cools down. Allowing the pile to mature/cure for a couple of weeks is extremely crucial to get good quality compost. This is because, during the cooling down process, several critical degradation processes take place.
When temperatures drop below 100 F several helpful microorganisms such as mesophilic bacteria and fungi begin to repopulate and continue the remainder of the decomposition process. Macro-organisms crucial for soil health, such as beetles and worms, also begin to find their way into the compost as temperatures drop. During the maturation phase, turning the compost at regular intervals can improve the quality of compost produced.
How often should you turn your compost to give you the best quality compost in the shortest period of time? Unfortunately, there is no fixed answer. Turning your compost depends on several factors, from the material you throw in to the size of the pile. However, understanding the composting process can help you make the right decisions as to when you need to turn the pile to get optimum results.