How to know if your compost is ready to use.


“Dear Chickens,

Stop pooping.

Love Karen”



I mailed that letter 2 years ago and have yet to receive a response. Actually that’s not true. I think out of spite, the chickens are pooing more than ever. They poo on their roost, they poo on their grain scoop, they poop in their coop.

Because of this unfortunate horror that occurs approximately once every minute, it didn’t take me long to figure out I’d better find a use for this stuff.

On a whim a couple of years ago I threw all of the chickens’ bedding (including all of their poop) into a compost bin and waited. Not a lot happened. Then I discovered hot composting and all KINDS of stuff happened. I can now turn a bin of straw and poop into useable compost in a month.

At least I think it was useable. That’s the problem with compost. How do you know when it’s “done”? It’s not like the skin gets crispy or the comforting “ding” of a timer goes off.

There are a few clues as to when your compost is ready to be used in the garden. It has a sweet sort of smell to it like black earth and it’s crumbly.

So after 2 months of composting I was beginning to wonder if my latest batch of chicken poop and straw was ever going to be ready. Normally, like I said, my compost has broken down after a month so this was not going well.  I could still see the shape of straw and even though it was dark and sweet smelling it wasn’t what you’d call crumbly.

Just as I was at my deepest depths of compost despair, considering getting rid of the chickens and moving to a shiny skyscraper with a quick witted doorman named Charles … I got some secret information.

3 weeks ago I went to a talk from a local organic CSA farmer. This guy is SERIOUSLY into the science of agriculture. Plan B Organics is run by 2 brothers and a wife who not only farm but have travelled to Mexico to learn about generations old organic farming practices.

During this talk I grabbed onto one tiny piece of information and locked it into my brain.  (the stuff about calcium absorption, hormones, plant DNA and such tried really hard to make it into my brain but ricocheted right off unfortunately)

The tiny piece of invaluable information?

To test whether your compost is ready to use or not, drop a few radish seeds into it.

The seeds should germinate in a few days.  If they don’t the compost isn’t ready.

If the seed germinates, but the leaves are yellow, the compost isn’t ready.

If the seed germinates, and the leaves are a nice green the compost IS ready.

So a few days ago I started the great radish experiment.



Testing Compost Title


This is the compost in question. It worked like crazy for a few weeks then it just clunked out. It could be it needs more nitrogen, more water or more carbons. Or … it could be done. Dunno.

Testing Compost 2

It’s nice and dark but you can still see that everything hasn’t completely broken down. Before I add a compost accelerator to it I wanted to see if this compost, even though not completely broken down is ready to use.

Testing Compost 3


The best way to do that? Throw some compost in a pot,  stick a few radish seeds in it and see if they grow. Of course I’m not using my special purple radish seeds from Cubits. I’m using run of the mill, red radish seeds.  I’m adventurous, but I’m not an idiot.

Testing Compost 4


After you get a few seeds in there, cover them up with a thin layer of compost.  (You can even just throw the radish seeds in your compost pile if you don’t plan on turning it.  No pot needed.)

Testing Compost


To even out the great radish experiment I also did a test group in a pot of regular potting mix.  And then I sat. And I waited.

Testing Compost 5


In the lefthand corner weighing slightly less than a malnourished wood mouse, we have the radish seeds in a pretty sketchy looking partially broken down compost mix. On the right, wearing a plastic pot, radish seeds in potting soil.

I suspected the seeds in potting soil were going to win this fight.

So imagine my surprise when 5 or so days later, this is what happened …



The radish seeds in the semi-decomposed (but hot composted) compost has sprouted several dark green radish leaves.  The potting soil, on the other hand has sent up one measly germination with a couple of more on the way.  Plus the leaves on the one germinated radish seed have a yellow cast to them.

I’ll keep these two pots going and update you as to how they get on in terms of growth. It’s getting to be summer here in Southern Ontario which doesn’t hold the best growing conditions for radishes so it may be an unsuccessful experiment.

But as it stands now, the crappy (literally) compost I wasn’t sure about seems to be ready to go. And the potting soil I always figured was fine for planting, has crapped out.

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