How to Hot Compost. (Hot Composting the Fastest Way)

There are two ways to compost. Cold composting and hot.  Both are way easier than a lot of people make them out to be. Don’t be scared or intimidated. I believe you have all the skills needed to allow a bunch of stuff to rot and turn to soil.

A woman's hand holds a fistful of dark brown homemade compost.

 

So you’re looking to make some of your own compost are you? It’s totally understandable that you think rotting a bunch of leaves and kitchen scraps is too hard for you. I mean letting stuff sit in a pile until it rots??!!  That’s must take some Olympic level of training to acquire that level of skill. 

No it doesn’t.

You are letting a bunch of stuff fall apart. That’s it.

But it IS understandable that you think it’s out of your realm of skills because according to most blogs and books composting is HARD. It’s not hard. Please refer to the earlier sentence about how you just  have to let stuff rot.

I’ve been seriously composting since I got chickens because they poop and they poop a lot. Plus they go through a lot of straw which is basically their cat litter but for chickens.

Chickens run through a backyard chicken run laid with straw.

With all this straw and poop I quickly learned to compost and also quickly learned you do not need to have a huge brain to achieve this skill.

You need, like, part of a frontal lobe and basically no back lobe. That’s it. If you have just a corner of a brain you can compost.

For this little step-by-step on how to make compost I’m going to talk about hot composting because it’s the fastest way to get compost.

The Difference Between Hot and Cold Composting

  • Hot composting (The Berkley method) is a method where a large pile of organic matter is created and brought to high temperature over and over again. Compost can be achieved in a month or so.
  • Cold composting has you adding bits and pieces over time.  This type of compost is good and it requires nothing more than dumping your scraps into the bin. But  it can take a year or two to completely break down and it doesn’t have the level of beneficial microorganisms in it that hot compost does.

I have a full step by step guide later on in this post, but these are always the most popular questions I get about composting so let’s address them now shall we?

Best Compost Bins

Which one should you get?  Well, you have quite a few options including not having one at all.

City provided

A standard black, square compost bin provided by many municipalities sits against a brick wall.

A lot of people think they’re going to try composting, fail, and then stick their composting bin on the road for someone else to take. That’s how I got  the square bin that’s in my chicken coop.

Most cities provide this same model for their community members either for free or at a much cheaper price than you would pay to buy the same one from Amazon or a home improvement store.

Tumbling compost bins.

Hand turned compost tumbler on bed of grass.

Tumbling compost bins are the easiest way to guarantee success.  Turning compost is a lot of work so most people just don’t do it. This means their compost takes a longggggg time to decompose and turn into soil. Using a tumbling bin means your’e much more likely to turn your compost since all you have to do is tumble the bin.

Tumblers with handles for turning them are the easiest to use and require less strength but larger tumblers that you spin by  hand (like the one you see above) hold more compost and will generally produce compost more quickly. I don’t have this tumbler, I’ve never used this tumbler, but I would very much like this tumbler. (or figure out a way to make one myself)

DIY out of pallets

Compost bins overflowing with green material made out of old pallets sit in a field seen behind a chain link fence.

Yet another thing that wood pallets can be used for. Prop them against each other and tie or screw them together to create a big compost bin. Just leave the front of it open for easy turning of the compost or prop the final pallet against it so you can easily pull it away for turning. 

My community garden used these compost bins made out of screwed together wood pallets for years to produce perfect, crumbly compost out of all our garden waste and vegetation. Rotted tomatoes, twigs, bolted lettuce and whatever else we had to pull out of our gardens went into them.

We’ve now moved to a system where each garden has their own compost bins within their plots.

A pile with a tarp draped over it

Steaming pile of compost under green tarp in backyard.

The truth is you don’t need to buy or build anything to have a productive compost pile. It’s ugly, but you can just cover your compost with a dark tarp. (dark attracts the sun and makes your compost heat up more easily)

 All of the nice clean straw you see here, will become the dark looking compost you see under the tarp within a couple of weeks.  IF you hot compost properly.

What you’ve learned so far.

  • Composting is easy, hot composting is using a BIG pile of stuff and you can use a bin or just a big pile.

That doesn’t seem like enough information for you to compost. You also need to know how to do it.

How to Compost

You need to follow a few rules in terms of what you put into your compost pile and how big it is.  Your compost pile needs to be big.   The bigger it is the easier time you’ll have getting it to heat up and become actual compost.

Composting is all based on the reactions between Nitrogen (greens), Carbon (browns), heat and moisture.

To make compost you just need 2 parts GREEN material and 1 part BROWN.

Add all your ingredients together in your pile or bin and stick a thermometer in it. Once it reaches 130F turn the pile to cool it down and start the process over again.  You’ll need to do this 2-4 times before it stops heating up.  

Once your pile stops heating up it should be genuine compost and you can let it rest for a few weeks to gather up more nutrients before using it.

There’s such a thing as a compost thermometer, but I just use a regular meat thermometer for testing the temperature of my soil.  A genuine compost thermometer has a really long probe (20″) that can fit down into the middle of your compost pile and has reminders of the temperatures you want to be at written on it.

 

Nitrogen Materials for Composting (Greens)

vegetable scraps

chicken poop

weeds

food waste

fruit peels

grass clippings

garden trimmings

seaweed

coffee grounds

soil

old plant material

 

Carbon Materials for Composting (Browns)

dry leaves

straw

sawdust

shredded paper

wood chips

wood ashes

dryer lint

pine needles

If you have the right ratio of greens to browns within a couple of days of making your large compost pile  (at least 1 cubic meter) you’ll notice it will get hot. You’re looking for a temperature of around 130°F. 

WARNING:  The first time your pile heats up it will smell like a decrepit old rock star who has incontinence issues.

If you have the right amount of heat your pile will be steaming hot, but keep an old thermometer around to check the temperature so you know exactly how hot it is.  130 F – 140 F is ideal for creating a perfect environment for microorganisms which will do all the work of breaking down your organic material.

Thermometer stuck into the centre of a compost pile showing a temperature of 129 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

How to Know If Your Compost is Done.

  • The pile will be around 50% of the size it was when you started.
  • You won’t be able to distinguish any exact materials.
  • It will be a uniformly dark brown colour.
  • The pile smells earthy, like soil.
  • It feels like soil in your hand.
  • A radish will germinate in it and the leaves will be nice and green (not yellow.)

General Composting Tips

  • Smaller items will compost faster than larger so pruning and clipping larger items will speed everything up.
  • Compost needs moisture! Don’t forget to add it when the pile looks dry. It should be damp. This helps soften the materials and provides a good environment for the microorganisms.
  • Do NOT let your compost pile heat up beyond 130-140. Any hotter and you risk killing the beneficial microbes that are created in hot composting.
  • Your pile should be 1 cu meter or 35 cu ft. To calculate cubic ft.:
  • width x height x length
  • The more diverse the ingredients in your pile, the more diverse the nutrients and microbes it will produce.

Problems

Pile stinks – If the smell lasts longer than a couple of days and smells putrid there is too much nitrogen or too much wateradd some brown material.

Pile won’t heat up – Needs more nitrogen. Add green material, make sure it has enough moisture and turn it to aerate it.

Pile gets too hot – Turn it before it gets over 130 F (55 C)

 

 

A large pile of compost made up of chicken manure and straw is seen steaming from the centre of it.This pile is made up entirely of straw and chicken poop and a tiny bit of shredded newspaper.  There’s actually far more “brown material” (the straw) than “green material”  (the chicken poop)  But, even without the ratios you’re supposed to have for composting, this material heats up within a day or two.

After achieving its initial heating up, your pile will quit.  It will stop getting as hot as it did the first time.  You will get angry and consider throwing it at people.  

Do NOT succumb to this temptation.  Your pile NOW needs to have more oxygen and possibly water added to it. These two things are needed to get the compost moving and shaking again.  

Like a decrepit old rock star after a stadium show, if you give him oxygen and water … he’ll bounce back and be ready for action in no time.

In my research on the Internet I’ve found that not nearly enough emphasis is given to keeping your pile damp.  

Not sopping wet, but definitely damp. So once your pile has cooled down, turn it and mix it.  This will move the compost from the outside of the pile to the inside (where it gets hotter).  It will also add much needed oxygen to the mixture. Then, if the pile seems dry, water it.

Straw, newspaper and chicken droppings turning into steaming compost in a square compost bin.

If you happen to have chickens and a loose pile of compost you can let them do the work of turning the pile.  Just let them loose on it for a day and it’ll be all mixed up and turned ready to start heating up again.

Otherwise, that tumbling compost bin I mentioned earlier makes turning your pile WAY easier.  You just turn the handle and the bin tumbles away.

A Rhode Island Red chicken scratches through a compost pile with green tarp to the side.

If you maintain this schedule of monitoring the temperature, aerating and keeping the pile damp you can have compost in as little as a month.

How to Hot Compost.

How to Hot Compost.

Active Time: 60 days 20 hours
Total Time: 60 days 20 hours
Difficulty: Easy(ish)
Estimated Cost: $0

How to turn food scraps and garden waste into compost in 1 month using hot composting, also known as "The Berkley Method".

Materials

  • Green materials
  • Brown materials
  • Water

Tools

  • Pitchfork
  • or
  • Compost turner

Instructions

  1. Fill your compost bin or pile all of the green and brown material you have. (some people layer but you don't have to)
  2. 2 parts green material to 1 part brown (But if you don't have that exact ratio don't worry about it! It'll still turn to compost, just not as quickly)
  3. Water the compost material if it's dry. You want the pile to be damp and it might need quite a lot of water.
  4. Put the compost bin lid on to help retain heat or cover your pile with a tarp.
  5. In 2 days check the temperature of your pile by pulling away some material from the centre and inserting a thermometer. Note the temperature.
  6. Continue to do this until the pile reaches 130 - 140 F (55-60 C) Once that heat level is achieved turn the pile. This will cool it down and get it ready to heat up once again.
  7. Continue doing this until the pile no longer heats up after turning it. Your pile will get less hot with each time you turn it. If it isn't achieving the 130 degree mark and only gets to 110 F for example, then turn the pile once starts to cool down on its own. Then let it rest for 2-6 weeks before using it.

Notes

How to Know If Your Compost is Done.

  • The pile will be around 50% of the size it was when you started.
  • You won't be able to distinguish any exact materials.
  • It will be a uniformly dark brown colour.
  • The pile smells earthy, like soil.
  • It feels like soil in your hand.
  • A radish will germinate in it and the leaves will be nice and green (not yellow.)

General Composting Tips

  • Smaller items will compost faster than larger so pruning and clipping larger items will speed everything up.
  • Compost needs moisture! Don't forget to add it when the pile looks dry. It should be damp. This helps soften the materials and provides a good environment for the microorganisms.
  • Do NOT let your compost pile heat up beyond 130-140. Any hotter and you risk killing the beneficial microbes that are created in hot composting.
  • Your pile should be 1 cu meter or 35 cu ft. To calculate cubic ft.:
  • width x height x length
  • The more diverse the ingredients in your pile, the more diverse the nutrients and microbes it will produce.


Problems

Pile stinks - If the smell lasts longer than a couple of days and smells putrid there is too much nitrogen or too much water, add some brown material.

Pile won't heat up - Needs more nitrogen. Add green material, make sure it has enough moisture and turn it to aerate it.

Pile gets too hot - Turn it before it gets over 130 F (55 C)

** Don't forget to add your weeds to your hot compost pile. It gets hot enough to destroy weed seeds, plus weeds have LOTS of diverse nutrients in them that will add a lot to your compost - dandelion leaves, comfrey and chickweed are great examples of this**

You’ll know you have finished compost ready for the garden bed when it looks like soil and SMELLS like soil. As opposed to smelling like Keith Richards.

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How to Hot Compost. (Hot Composting the Fastest Way)
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