Turning Your Compost Heap – How To Aerate A Compost Pile

By: Heather Rhoades

Compost in the garden is often called black gold and for good reason. Compost adds an amazing amount of nutrients and helpful microbes to our soil, so it makes sense that you would want to make as much compost as you can in the shortest amount of time. Turning your compost heap can help with this.

Why Turning Compost Helps

At a basic level, the benefits in turning your compost come down to aeration. Decomposition happens because of microbes and these microbes need to be able to breathe (in a microbial sense) in order to live and function. If there is no oxygen, these microbes die off and decomposition slows down.

Many things can create an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment in a compost pile. All of these problems can be reduced or eliminated by turning your compost. These can include:

  • Compaction– This is the most obvious way that turning can aerate a compost pile. When the particles in your compost get too close to each other, there is no room for air. Turning compost will fluff your compost heap and create pockets where oxygen can get inside the pile and supply the microbes.
  • Too much moisture– In a compost pile that is too wet, the pockets in between the particles will be filled with water rather than air. Turning helps to drain away the water and reopen the pockets to air instead.
  • Over consumption by microbes– When microbes in your compost pile are happy, they will do their job well– sometimes too well. The microbe near the center of the pile may use up the nutrients and oxygen they need to survive and then they will die off. When you turn the compost, you mix the pile up. Healthy microbes and undepleted material will be mixed back into the center of the pile, which will keep the process going.
  • Overheating in the compost pile– This is closely related to over consumption as when microbes do their jobs well, they also produce heat. Unfortunately, this same heat can kill off the microbes if the temperatures get too high. Mixing the compost up will redistribute the hot compost in the center into the cooler outer compost, which will help keep the overall temperature of the compost pile in the ideal range for decomposition.

How to Aerate Compost

For the home gardener, the ways to turn the compost pile is typically limited to either a composting tumbler or manual turning with a pitchfork or shovel. Either of these methods will work well.

A compost tumbler is typically bought as a complete unit and only needs the owner to turn the barrel regularly. There are also DIY directions available on the Internet for building your own compost tumbler.

For gardeners who prefer an open compost pile, a single compost bin can be turned by simply inserting your shovel or fork into the pile and literally turning it over, much like you would toss a salad. Some gardeners with enough space opt for a double or triple compost bin, which allows them to turn the compost by moving it from one bin to the next. These multi-bin composters are nice, as you can be sure that from top to bottom the pile has been thoroughly mixed.

How Often to Turn Compost

How often you should turn compost depends on a number of factors including the size of the pile, the green to brown ratio, and the amount of moisture in the pile. That being said, a good rule of thumb is to turn a compost tumbler every three to four days and the compost pile every three to seven days. As your compost matures, you can turn the tumbler or pile less frequently.

Some signs that you may need to turn the compost pile more frequently include slow decomposition, pest infestations, and smelly compost. Be aware that if your compost pile starts to smell, turning the pile may make the smell worse, initially. You may want to keep wind direction in mind if this is the case.

Your compost pile is one of the greatest tools you have to make a great garden. It only makes sense that you would want to make the most of it. Turning your compost can make sure you get the most out of your compost pile as fast as possible.

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Read more about Composting Basics

Turning a compost pile Cheaply

One of the most commonly used items to turn a compost pile is a special compost turning tool, but why not use items you might already have on hand to turn the compost pile?

Here are a handy items that you can use to turn your compost pile and get it working for you. None of these will break your gardening bank!

  • A garden fork. You may already have this tool, so put it to another use.
  • Old golf clubs. Put the base of the club at the bottom of the pile and lift the compost slightly
  • Recycled curtain rods, especially the ones with the corner shape are great for lifting compost.
  • Insert long pieces of rebar into the center of the compost pile and out through the edges of the bin. Next, have two people stand on either side and move them side to side to aerate the pile
  • An old floor lamp (minus the shade and electrical wires, of course) makes a great lifter for the pile.
  • Old snow skis and water skis can be use to lift and aerate the pile.
  • Old table legs or bar stool table legs can be used to move your pile around.
  • A Cordless drill with bulb augur attachment will work if your tool shed already has one.
  • Make your own compost aerator. Attach a broom handle to a Dollar Store spiral tomato stake.

Can you think of other inexpensive DIY items to turn or aerate your compost pile?

For ideas of what you should and should not add to a compost pile, check out these articles:

5 Simple Secrets To Creating The Perfect Compost Pile

#1 Using The Right Mix Of Materials

There are two basic types of materials that go in a compost pile – brown material (inactive), and green material (active). And a compost pile works best when it’s made up of the right mixture of both.

Browns are carbon based materials such as leaves, twigs, wood chips, ashes, dry grass and clippings. Greens on the other hand are nitrogen based. These are materials that heat up the pile to decompose the browns.

Creating a pile with the right mix of materials will help your pile heat up and decompose more quickly.

Greens include chicken, rabbit, horse or cow manure, fresh vegetable scraps, green lawn clippings and even coffee grounds.

How To Create The Right Mix For The Perfect Compost Pile

So what is the right mix of browns and greens? As a good rule of thumb, a compost pile breaks down best when there is a ratio close to 2 parts of brown material (carbon), to 1 part green (nitrogen).

Do you have to be exact? No. But if you stay close to the ratio, the pile heats up and breaks down faster.

Keeping the ratio of browns and greens close to 2:1 helps keep the pile active and hot.

As an example, if you put two buckets of leaves in your pile, you need to add a bucket of manure, coffee grounds or fresh green lawn clippings to keep the pile in balance. (See: 5 Things To Never Put In A Compost Pile)

Creating the right-sized pile with those ingredients is also important. If a pile is too small, it will not generate enough internal heat for decomposition.

A pile at or around 3′ high x 3′ wide works best. It is large enough to create heat. And yet, still small enough to manage for the gardener when turning.

#2 Shred Your Ingredients

Want a perfect compost pile that makes great compost as fast as possible? Then shred your ingredients before adding to the pile! Chopping and shredding materials before adding to a pile gives them a jump start on decomposition.

Shredding materials before adding to the pile will speed decomposition.

All of those torn, rough edges allow for more surface areas to be exposed in the pile. Not to mention, the smaller the material, the less it needs to break down.

Use a lawnmower to quickly shred leaves, grass or straw. In addition, cut kitchen scraps with a few extra chops of the knife before adding. But whatever you do, keep those ingredients as small as possible.

#3 Turn That Compost For The Perfect Pile!

Like humans, a compost pile needs oxygen to breathe, live and work. And the best way to give a pile oxygen is to turn it frequently.

Turning a pile every few days will drastically reduce the time it takes to create finished compost. As a pile breaks down inside, it uses oxygen to fuel the decomposition. And as the oxygen becomes depleted, the process slows.

Turning your compost frequently keeps the pile active and hot.

But turning the pile frequently reintroduces oxygen into the center of the pile where it is needed most.

Use a pitchfork or shovel to lift and turn ingredients at least once a week. Every few days is even better. Try to place the outer ingredients in the center of the pile as you flip to create the perfect level of oxygen in the compost pile.

#4 Keep Your Pile Moist

In addition to oxygen, a compost pile needs water to thrive as well. And when there is a lack of moisture within the pile, decomposition will once again slow to a halt.

As you turn the pile, add a few gallons of water if it appears dry in the center. During extremely hot periods, a tarp can be used to help retain moisture to the pile.

So how much moisture is enough? A perfect compost pile should have the consistency of a well-wrung sponge. Damp, but not dripping.

Unfortunately, too much moisture can be detrimental to your pile too. A saturated, water-logged pile will slow decomposition even more than a dry pile. Keep piles covered with a tarp during periods of excessive rain to shed excess water.

#5 Activate Your Compost Pile

Finally, when starting a new pile, always use an activator to jump start the decomposition process.

An activator is nothing more than a supply of organisms and bacteria that help to start breaking a pile down faster. And the best form of an activator is compost from your old pile!

Finished compost is teeming with all types of bacteria and organisms. And a few buckets of old compost placed into a new pile will quickly re-introduce these organisms to start breaking down the fresh material.

If you are starting a pile from scratch and don’t have access to old compost, use a good quality compost starter as a substitute. (Product Link : Jobes Compost Starter)

Here’s to creating the perfect compost pile this year, and being rewarded with healthier soil and plants!

This Is My Garden is a garden website created by gardeners, publishing two articles every week, 52 weeks a year. This article may contain affiliate links.

Similarities in TAT and NOP piles: Actinobacteria

In both the NOP and the TAT piles, we ran into problems with the growth of actinobacteria. These bacteria are easily recognized as a powdery or ashy white growth that can show up in a compost pile with reduced oxygen. We determined that the standard compost recipe we used was too low in brown materials to deal with the quantity of food waste in the mix, leading to the overgrowth of actinobacteria throughout the trial. Although we didn’t have enough food waste to create leachate, it was still too much for proper oxygenation.

When a pile isn’t turned frequently enough, or if the pile becomes matted down by too much food waste, the oxygen levels will decrease, and these facultative anaerobic bacteria will take over. The problem is that actinobacteria suppress the growth of other beneficial organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi. Most agricultural soil is lacking a healthy fungal community and has too much bacteria to begin with. So adding heavily bacterial compost to a soil that already has plenty of bacteria doesn’t really benefit the soil microbial population, or result in improved plant growth. Ideally you’ll want to make compost very high in beneficial fungi so that you can begin correcting imbalances in your soil.

How to Build a Compost Pile

Build a compost pile in four easy steps—pick the right spot, start piling, water it, and turn it. It’s that simple. Read on for tips from Grow Your Soil! guaranteed to save you time.

Step 1: Pick the Right Spot

Find a spot that is near a hose with a nozzle. Water needs to be easily and permanently available—you don’t want to have to drag a hose over to wet your compost. You know you’re not gonna do it.

Ideally, the compost spot should also have two adjacent, compost pile–sized areas so you can turn the pile to and fro every week or so. Turning a compost pile completely while moistening it mixes textures and microbes, encourages microbial growth, and aerates it to keep stinky anaerobes at bay.

Step 2: Start Piling

Use whatever organic matter (anything that is currently or formerly alive) you have or can find. You’ll need two kinds:

“GREENS.” These are things that add nitrogen and rot quickly:

  • Kitchen waste. Vegetable peelings, apple cores, that limp celery that’s been in the “crisper” since you used a few stalks of it for stuffing last Thanksgiving
  • Yard waste. Grass clippings, leaves you’ve raked up (or, preferably, that your neighbor raked up and thoughtfully bagged for you), prunings from shrubs and trees, spent plants from your vegetable garden
  • Some types of manure. Manure from farm animals (dog and cat manure has too many microbes that can make humans sick)

“BROWNS.” This is stuff that’s brown and dry:

  • Straw
  • Newspapers
  • Paper from your shredder (paper comes from trees, which used to be alive)
  • Dead leaves, pine needles, or most any other organic matter that has fallen on the ground

When you build a compost pile, you’re shooting for a mix, about three parts by volume of brown, dead matter to one part of fresh green stuff. The greens feed microbes and other members of the soil food web. Browns won’t provide as much food for microbes, but they will give structure to your compost, keeping it from becoming a compacted, stinking mess. Woodier brown materials also contain more lignin, the hard structural cells that turn into humus.

None of the ingredients should be much more than 4 inches long. Longer pieces create a tangled mess that’s difficult to turn. Smaller pieces are easier to turn and compost faster you can chop kitchen waste and yard trimmings into 1-inch pieces to further accelerate the process.

Layer whatever you have to start with in a little (or big) heap, mixing up the ingredients.

Step 3: Water It

Water each layer as you go. It should feel as moist as a wrung-out washcloth—damp but not wet on your skin. It shouldn’t leave a wet spot on you when you touch it. Keeping the level of moisture right is key. Too wet, and the pile becomes stinky. Too dry, and it sits there and refuses to rot.

Step 4: Turn It

Turn the pile once after you build the layers, to make sure everything is nicely mixed. Check the moisture level when you do this, and correct it, either with a squirt of the hose or by adding dry material—straw, dry leaves, paper from your shredder, or torn-up newspaper.

Turning your pile, while correcting moisture, is the most important thing you can do for your compost pile. This gives good germs—the real workhorses of compost—what they need to go forth and multiply. When they do that, they turn raw materials into humus and nutrient-rich compost. To quote a song from the Great Folk Scare of the ’60s: “turn, turn, turn.”

Best of all, if you fail at compost husbandry, you’ll still eventually have compost. Weather and time will decompose anything on the ground. The process won’t bring you joy the way an active compost pile does, but it will manage to rot without your help.

Interested in learning more? Grow Your Soil! will teach you how to harness the power of the soil food web to create your best garden ever.

And be sure to share your compost pile projects with us @aginghippiechickgardening (yep, that’s me!) and @storeypub using the hashtags #growyoursoil and #storeypublishing.


Diane Miessler

Diane Miessler is the author of Grow Your Soil! She is a certified permaculture designer, a soil science enthusiast, and a gardener with more than… See Bio

Watch the video: How to Get Great Compost? Just Build A Johnson-Su Bioreactor!!

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