How to Know if Your Compost is Ready.

O.K., good! You composted. You threw a bunch of stuff in a pile and it appears to have turned into something other than leaves and food scraps. It looks … composty. But how do you know if your compost is really ready to use in the garden? By testing it. Here’s how …

Dear Chickens,

Stop pooping.

Love Karen

I mailed that letter 2 years ago and have yet to receive a response from the hens. Actually that’s not true. I think out of spite, the chickens are pooping more than ever. They poo on their roost, they poo on their grain scoop, they poo 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 when I first got chickens a decade 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. You can read about how to hot compost here, and you do NOT need to have chicken poop for it.

It looked O.K. but for the first few years of using it I had no idea if my compost was actually ready.  Was it done? How could I tell.  Well, it looked like soil so I figured that was a pretty good indication. And it is!

But there are a few other ways to tell if your compost is really – compost.

How to Test If Your Compost is Ready to Use.

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.

But sometimes it doesn’t look like that. Sometimes after months it still looks a bit rough with pieces of identifiable stuff like sticks or straw.  

If it SMELLS like soil though, your compost is probably ready to use no matter how lumpy. 

One year I was at my deepest depths of compost despair because my compost smelled but didn’t look like soil.  I strongly considering getting rid of the chickens and moving to a shiny skyscraper with a quick witted doorman named Charles. But then I got some secret information.

I went to a talk from a local organic CSA farmer. These people are 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 of course I experimented with this to test it out.

This was the compost in question. It heated up and decomposed like crazy for a few weeks then it just clunked out. It could have needed more nitrogen, more oxygen, more water or more carbons. Or … it could have been be ready. I just didn’t know.

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

So the experiment commenced with me throwing some compost in a pot,  sticking a few radish seeds in it and seeing if they grew. Of course I didn’t use my special multicoloured radish seeds –  I’m adventurous, but I’m not an idiot – I used my regular, every day Raxe radish seeds.

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.)

To round 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.

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 questionable looking compost (on the left) sprouted several dark green radish leaves.  The potting soil, on the other hand sent up one measly germination with a couple of more on the way.  Plus the leaves on the one germinated radish seed had a yellow cast to them.

The moral of this story? Even if your compost doesn’t look ideal, it could be perfectly useable and ready to go.

Even though my compost was full of sticks and straw (and poo), it was the store bought potting soil that turned out to be crappy.

There you have it. The best way to check if your compost is ready without using any testing equipment or pH strips. All you need is a radish seed and a few days.

Now if you want an actual radish, that’s going to take a bit longer.

How to Know if Your Compost is Ready.


  1. Barbara Travis says:

    Hi Karen,

    Do you compost your rhubarb leaves?

    Thank you

  2. Cheryl Fencl says:

    Does anyone have any ideas how to keep mice/rats out of their compost? (We have roof rats because we have a lot of citrus trees.). We have compost containers, 4 of them because we have so much “stuff” but we can’t keep the rats out. The containers have small holes butt they can make it through a dime size hole. We even covered the holes with stucco mesh which is really sharp and they ate through that! Help!

    • Ellen L Caldaro says:

      Hmm, I wonder what you are putting in your compost? I generally save my food scraps (no meat, nothing with oils, no citrus, no onions, no garlic, no banana peals) in a bag in the freezer (so they don’t start to rot/smell), then add them to my bin on the weekend with yard scraps (twigs, leaves, grass clippings, etc). I layer the food scraps on first, then cover with yard waste, then water the pile and cover it. I think covering the food scraps keeps them from smelling and attracting critters. I will even use shredded paper from my office shredder in place of yard waste to cover the food scraps. Works great!

  3. Katt Hunsaker says:

    Speaking of poo, what do you do with all your eggs. In the pandemic we were eating an obscene amount of soufflé, but now that one must wear pants we have run out of ideas.

    Radishes going into the heap today, thanks for the tip. Oh, and do you minimally add your compost to your garden or do you get wild with it?

    • Ellen L Caldaro says:

      I started composting (and gardening) when the pandemic hit. I go HOG WILD with my compost. When a batch is ready I put the whole thing (about the size of a garbage can) in my raised bed, before I put my new plants for the season in. It works great!

  4. Christy Jay says:

    Don’t trust Charles.

  5. Barb says:

    Our field mice that tunnel around in the compost and the giant crows (ravens) that dive bomb them and poke for worms do an excellent job aerating our compost. Hugely entertaining. There’s also the carnival game of not shish kebab’ng mice when turning the pile. You and Rodrigo should come by.

  6. Maria Cabangon says:

    You are a hella of a funny lady. LOVE IT. Thanks for this useful information. It is VERY helpful.
    Love you comments. Please don’t ditch the chicken and move anywhere. THat would definitely be a sad thing. But I also know changes are necessary sometimes.

    Bless you.

  7. Feral Turtle says:

    Thanks Karen! This is some great information.

  8. Ashley W says:

    Great post Karen, as always. But the comments just may have won this time. :)

  9. kathy says:

    I subscribed last night and it was perfect timing. Started laughing with the ex that took the compost, all the silver fox comments and of course the reasons why this silver fox doesn’t meet the mark. Then there is my interest in compost ( I am trying the garbage can plan) and I love radishes. Glad to be here:)

    • Karen says:

      Hi Kathy! Welcome to The Art of Doing Stuff. With regards to today, it always seems to be like that around here, lol. ~ karen!

  10. Robin says:

    I’m still puzzling over the man who took the compost pile with him when he moved out.
    Must have been some good compost.

  11. jainegayer says:

    You had me scared there for a minute with talk of ditching the chickens, moving to a shiny skyscraper and Charles. Then you’d probably get a shiny new job and leave us.
    I’m going to have a glass of wine now and destress.

  12. Cynthia Jones says:

    Oops, feel I did something bad. Promise I will ‘pull my head in’ as Nanna used to say and stick to the topic.
    At least you had a look and it gladdened my heart. Wishing a lovely day with coffee, poop and projects.

  13. Karen Duke says:

    I’m sorry to report that you shouldn’t add dog or cat poop to your compost. Don’t throw in meat, or poop from a meat-eating animal. However, I do add lobster shells and shrimp shells and they break down ok… if they manage to compost before my chickens find and eat the seafood shells. I figure that if the chickens eat the composted material before it rots down on its own then it just skips that link in the composting chain.

  14. Teresa says:

    I am saving this one! Just getting started with composting and the Back to Eden Garden method. The only thing I am lacking is the chicken poop! Our city can’t make-up its mind if the citizens can handle backyard flocks, so the ordinance/guidelines/whatever they call it has been tabled for almost a year now. Trying to outsource some poo, but shoveling it into my mini-van for transport to our Garden of Eatin’ here on the Farm in the Dal somehow grosses my kids and the man out. Go figure?

    • Olga says:

      I wonder if it’s illegal to mail poo in the box? I could definitely share some chicken poop with you (o:

  15. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    What the hell happened here???

    • Karen says:

      Nancy … I have no idea, lol. O.k. everyone, listen up. I did not meet the silver haired man. I met his brother (who gave the talk). I am not in any way, shape or form looking for another man to take care of. No I am not. No ma’am. No sir. And yes, I do agree he’s a handsome man but from the looks of it I’d almost bet he’s never been incarcerated which means he’s probably not my type. There are very few men out there that I think could do anything but bore me after a week or two so it’s good that I’m perfectly happy on my own. But thank you all for scouting and (in the words of the fella’s father) trying to cut one out of the herd for me. ~ karen!

      • Olga says:

        I agree, I don’t know why people thought he was your type. lol To me he looks like a mail men, and I think you’re type would be rebel with a long pinky nail, who doesn’t care about helmet laws and can move more then a pile of poo lol.
        Now that we done and over with this, let’s make something! lol

        • Karen says:

          Oh my god, lol. I’m gonna have to vote no on the long pinkie nail man, but I get your point. ;) ~ karen

      • Nancy Blue Moon says:

        AMEN to that Honey..especially the incarcerated part..same type I

      • Tigersmom says:

        I wasn’t saying you should adopt him. I was thinking more of a test drive for a week or two. Like a vacation or something.

  16. Rebecca says:

    Oohh this is so interesting! Thank you for sharing, Karen.

  17. Alicia says:

    Karen…really now, why aren’t you even acknowledging all of our silver fox comments? You know we’ll just keep going!
    At least tell us you agree on the looks but he has an awful personality, or a shockingly high-pitched voice so we can stop daydreaming on your behalf!

  18. Christie says:

    That is super helpful!

  19. Olga says:

    I can’t get my compost going either. Technically, I do everything “right”, I put poop, I put brown, I put green, I’ve even added some dirt from my garden beds, I keep it moist (when I don’t forget about it), spin the compost bin, but my compost just does not break down to the compost like texture. Sometimes it’s get hot, but not steamy hot, and I have my hopes that it’s start moving along, but then I forget and ignore it, and it crap just sits there. I really wish my crap start smelling all sweet and earthy, but it hasn’t got me that excited yet. I’m willing to add some dog poo, as I get plenty of that from our great dane also. I envy your smelly compost.
    On another note, I’m sorry, but I don’t know why everyone think that grandpa on the picture is a saint fell from the sky. He looks like an ordinary middle aged dude. Put some brown shorts and shirt on him and he might as well drive UPS truck… Sometimes I wonder if people visiting your blog just live in the woods and never see normal looking people haha.

    • Nancy Ann Page says:

      Well, ha. I live in the woods and never see normal looking people but he still looks like a UPS driver to me…

  20. judy says:

    Sorry about the Iraq thing-watch a lot of news and right now it is Iraq Iraq and nothing but IRAQ! if we send American kids back into that mess we are certifiably coo coo!

  21. judy says:

    We have two dogs 140 Lbs. and 98 lbs. that generate an ENORMOUS amt. of excrement-had a poop overload there-sorry, can it be used? Being in my seventies I didn’t look @ the “guy” but I wonder being as hot as he is and silver haired if he might not bat for the other side , which might explain his seeming availability. I have noticed, and I haven’t a clue why but gorgeous guys always seem to be with other guys? Go figure…none of my business but as an old lady I find we humans endlessly fascinating. Why do we do what we do? A trillion tax $ spent in Iraq and its going to hell in a hand basket. Why did we and why do they? when logic screams-spend it on something good, like education,inventions,medical research etc.

  22. Debbie says:

    I notice your not talking about a possible cutie pie, so I will ask if you know anything about bunny poop? Can I use it like chicken poo?

    • Olga says:

      Debbie, I have heard that rabbit poop (and I’m assuming rabbits and bunnies have same poop lol) is a great poop for lawns and gardens, and apparently it doesn’t even need to be composted because their poop is not “hot” like chickens, dogs, humans etc. I have not used rabbit poop myself in my garden, but we have plenty of rabbits on our lawn every night.

  23. jeannie B says:

    I used to pick up free compost at the landfill site. Big mountains of steaming, dark, rich compost to add to my flower beds. Many questions in my head today. If I ordered a ” box” from the Organic brothers, would it be delivered to my door by the handsome silver fox, who would then, help me wash and scrub the vegetables.
    Nah, that won’t happen so I’ll just continue getting my chemically treated produce from the store. Two brothers, one wife! Hmmmmm.

  24. Manisha says:

    Thanks for this post. I had neglected my compost pile for years and recently discovered I had “compost” but it was was not crumbly. I used it anyway for beans and peas which are now a couple of feet high. I knew that all was OK but this post gave me a lot of needed reassurance!

  25. Marion says:

    ^^^ all these silver fox comments are making me snicker at work. Seriously though, he is a very nice looking gentleman. Also, thanks for the compost tip! Why radishes though? Would this work with other seeds?

  26. Deneen says:

    Holy shit!!!…and I’m not talking about chicken poop! The silver haired fox is dead sexy! I think Betty needs to take control of the situation & get this ball rolling like only a mother can :)

  27. Tara says:

    This just made my day. (and I haven’t even checked out the silver fox yet! but you can bet yer ass I’m gonna!)

  28. Tigersmom says:

    Originally, I was going to play off your “No pot needed” statement and make a comment about requiring pot to get me into composting. And then I was going to applaud you for remembering to add a control to your experiment. That was until I checked out Rodrigo at the urging of the other commenters.

    DAMN! I’d have to go back and get another (preferably private) lesson on hot, steamy composting right away.

  29. Sally A says:

    I agree with Dagmar… Not that you need a man to be happy, but that’s no ordinary man. :0)

    Oh and your compost info is super interesting! Does it work with any kind of poop? My neighbors dogs leave a lot of presents in our yard. Don’t know why the thought of growing things in dog poop sounds worse than growing things in chicken poop.
    AND I noticed your roses… I’m trying to grow some for the first time this spring… Any advice? Have you already blogged about it? Should I put poop on them? Ha!

  30. Melissa in North Carolina says:

    I remember you said you were done with men but, we all strongly suggest you reconsider for this one. We know looks aren’t what make a relationship but OMGOSH, the man is beautiful. You already have something in common….lol, poop!!! Where is your smart remark? Come on, not one smart remark?

    Informative post, thanks.

  31. Beks says:

    Wow. That’s really good to know. I tried composting last year, but I’m almost positive that I didn’t do it right, because it didn’t break down. Like, at all. I should try hot composting this year. Save money on expensive garden soils!

  32. Seriously? “Scoop him up”, “he’s a hottie”, “had to look”, “Yum”, “hunk”…

    Being a guy I had to chuckle because the comments started out about chicken poop and quickly digressed to all about some silver haired guy. Like “Look, something shiny!”

    So no more picking on us for being easily distracted…

  33. Dagmar says:

    Apparently we, your devoted readers, are more interested in making sure you are incredibly happy. And I don’t just mean, “Well look at that my compost radish seeds are blooming!” Of course we care to hear all aboutt there , but we care even more about your happiness.

  34. Sally A says:

    If anyone is interested (evidently I was) his name is Rodrigo! Even his name is sexy. Here’s some more pics cause I’m a little weird and have no life. I also was curious if the first pic was a fluke. It wasn’t.

    Does this count as stalking?

    • Kim from Milwaukee says:

      Damn, he looks like GEORGE CLOONEY!!! Karen….the universe has spoken….go bring him home!!!

      • Kim from Milwaukee says:

        Sorry, I was looking at another farmer….Rod somethingorother……but you have OPTIONS!

        • Kim from Milwaukee says:

          wait…Rod…Rodrigo….maybe it is the same guy! I dream of finding a man who looks like that and knows compost!! Karen, what are you waiting for?

  35. Su says:

    Hunka Hunka for SURE! now we totally understand why only the fact about radishes penetrated your brain…. :)

  36. Dava says:

    Oh yeah! Definite hottie. So which brother gave the talk?

  37. JennyW says:

    Chicken Poop, SERIOUSLY? You went to their farm and all you came home with is information about Chicken Poop! Pay that Georgous Man another visit and this time take your Mama with you, she’ll know what to do! Mamma’s r like that, they have no shame, “Silver Fox, have you met my Single Daughter Karen?” ;)

  38. Gerrylynn Geyer says:

    Oh my. The silver fox at Plan B is definitely a hottie. I had to look!

  39. Cynthia Jones says:

    ‘Plan B Organics’ website will be crashing with all of this sudden, internet-super-highway interest, out-of-the-blue. Yuk yuk! They will have no idea!

    • Ruth says:

      I wonder if he was the one doing the talk…. it would certainly explain all that info that ‘ricocheted’ off a certain blogger’s brain. He’s a tad distracting…

  40. Cynthia Jones says:

    Right on , Jacquie. Would we lead her astray? ‘Sides, a little flirting never hurt anyone.

  41. Jacquie Carr says:

    Cynthia – I clicked on the link to see the silver haired fox you refer to. If I didn’t live 4000 miles away, I would be on that guy like a shot! Karen, put the poop down and go see the nice man.

  42. Cynthia Jones says:

    Jeez! Karen, I clicked on the link to Plan B Oganics ‘cos the phrase “run by two brother and a wife” leapt out of the screen at me.

    If that silver-haired smiley guy is the one without the wife, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU.

    I sure hope you gave him your card with your email address on it and your phone number. He is damn cute and a farmer and confident without a smarmy look, fit too, nice teeth.

    Gaw’n, go see him again, ring and ask to visit their farm. Gaw’n, do it. Wear y our rough linen pinafore and take him a chicken or an egg, or your version of a batch of scones (or is that too obvious?)

    I realise he may have been Quasimodo’s cousin in real life, but my “Butt-head Monitor” did not give off a signal when I looked at him. If there’s no spark you can talk poop.

    • Louise says:

      Cynthia, your enthusiasm made me go take a look, and OH MY GOD . . . YES! What a hottie! And from the dynamics of that photo, I’d say he is not the one with the wife, so go for it, Karen! How many people can talk knowledgeably with you about chicken poop? You probably have lots of other things in common too. And if he’s smart, he’d be thrilled to get such a good-lookin’, smart, funny, all-out-fabulous woman like you!

      Really, this guy is so good-looking, I’m tempted to use his photo as the wallpaper for my desktop!

      • Ruth says:

        Oooh! You all made me go look, so I have to say….. go for it Karen! :D

      • Sally A says:

        Okay, I had to look too, and YUMMY! Wow is he good looking! I know this is supposed to be about compost, but I must say it again, YUM! Go get him Karen!

    • Ramona says:

      OMG, HUNK!!! That’s all.

    • Shauna says:

      oh wow, Karen, Cynthia is right. Hottie for sure.

  43. TucsonPatty says:

    My ex-husband took the compost pile when he moved out. What a jerk. I need to start another one, obviously. What a difference!

    • Wendy says:

      So you mean he was full of shit . . . and then . . . well, you see where I’m going with this, right?

    • Karen says:

      He … he … HE TOOK THE COMPOST PILE??? ~ karen

      • TucsonPatty says:

        Yup…that was my reaction…and just the kind of person he was – too bad I didn’t realize how full of it he was a long time ago. I’m glad to have to begin anew! By myself.

  44. Wisconsingal says:

    I see a new revenue stream for you. . . Karen’s Hot Chick Organic Compost. Who knows where this may lead?

  45. victoria says:

    Really interesting! I have heard that chicken poop can be too strong and kind of burn the plants? ? I am impatient so I usually just throw in the compost in the planters, ready or not, and throw a layer of potting soil on top. Probably can’t do that with chicken poo…? And what about drying the poop? Have you tried?

  46. Laura Bee says:

    Facinating ~ I need to try harder with my compost efforts. It’s just sitting there eating the scraps I give it. I remember somthing about green & brown & poking it with a stick to get it moving. I have a book somewhere…and you! Time to go re-read that hot compost post.

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