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.

80 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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?

  5. 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 :)

  6. 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!)

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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…

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    http://greenfusestock.photoshelter.com/gallery/Farmers-at-Work/G0000AzRMJO6jPNQ/1

    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?

  14. Su says:

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

  15. Dava says:

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

  16. 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?” ;)

  17. Gerrylynn Geyer says:

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

  18. 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…

  19. Cynthia Jones says:

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

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. Wisconsingal says:

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

  24. 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?

  25. 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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