It’s easy to think that compost is little more than a pile of soil that sits in a corner of the garden and is a handy place to throw food scraps. But your compost heap is a living, breathing organism that needs looking after and cultivating in order to get the very best out of it.
Turning your compost is an important part of this process. When you turn your compost, you ensure that water and oxygen – the vital materials it needs for decomposition – are evenly distributed throughout the pile. Aerating your compost ensures you have better compost, which in turn will help you grow better plants and flowers.
But beware! Turning the compost heap too often can stop the composting process, so that it doesn’t have the time to really get going. You need to find that perfect balance in order to produce the best quality compost.
How Often Should I Turn My Compost Pile?
Many gardening experts and commentators give different views on how often to turn compost, from never to once a week (or more often!). Here’s how we decide:
You should turn your compost when compaction, lack of oxygen, and uneven water content cause aerobic decomposition (hot & fast) to be replaced by anaerobic decomposition (cooler & slower). Use a compost thermometer to measure the right time: if the internal temperature of your heap drops below 100°F this is a sign that it is time to turn the compost.
How Often Should I Turn My Compost Tumbler?
You should turn your compost tumbler a little more often than you would a compost pile. Most composting experts suggest turning your compost tumbler two to three times a week is sufficient. When you do turn it, turn it more than once each time to ensure you are properly mixing the material inside.
Factors That Affect How Often You Should Turn Your Compost Pile
The actual frequency that you’ll have to turn your compost will depends on the size of the pile, the time of year, and the contents of the pile itself. Let’s take a look at each of these factors in turn and how they affect turning frequency:
How The Size of Your Compost Pile Affects Turning Frequency
Many experts suggest a compost pile that’s between 3 feet cubed and 5 feet cubed as this is the most efficient size for your heap. At this size, the ratio of surface area to the rate of compaction works best. Too large, and the pile can’t be turned efficiently. Too small, and the microsystem created won’t really get going.
For an average sized compost heap, most gardeners turn their compost once every 4-5 weeks. However you may get better results if you commit to turning your heap more often. If you don’t want to use a thermometer (you should!) we suggest a turn every 2 weeks would achieve better results in most scenarios. Larger heaps are likely to retain warmth in the center better but compact more, and may need to be turned more often.
How Time of Year Affects How Often You Turn Your Compost
Compost piles work best with heat. The decomposing contents and bacteria together create plenty of it, and the process is helped even more with natural sunlight that warms the pile. In summer, turn the pile using the temperature guidance above.
You should still turn your compost in winter, but be especially wary of turning it too often, which can result in a loss of temperature which could stall the process. To keep the temperature up in the center of the pile, cut items going into the compost into smaller pieces and insulate your bin where you can.
How the Brown/Green Mix Affects How Often You Turn Your Compost
Composting is a chemical reaction that requires a balance of brown ingredients, which add carbon, and green ingredients, which add nitrogen. A ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 brown to green should create the right conditions for creating great compost.
Brown material includes dry leaves, straw, newspaper and wood chips. Green materials include grass clippings, manure, peat moss, weeds, and coffee grounds. Too much of either type will throw off the nitrogen ratio and hinder the reaction.
If the mix is off, or the different materials are separated within your compost, you may have a greater need to turn it. If the mix is too wrong, no amount of turning will rescue it: your compost heap will not decompose at all.
Too much brown material, and the carbon level will be too high. Too much green material, and the compost pile will be too nitrogen-rich. It should be moist, but not full of water, so that when you squeeze it, it feels spongy, and not dry.
To check whether your compost pile is heating up correctly, we suggest you invest in a compost thermometer. Using a thermometer is an easy way to check how the decomposition process is going and understand when to turn the compost pile. The heat in the center of the pile should reach between 100 and 140 degrees for optimum composting conditions.
How To Turn Over Your Compost
Now you know how often to turn compost, we’ll look at what tools should be used for turning:
Turning Your Compost Pile With a Garden Fork
Using a pitchfork to turn the compost pile is a bit like tossing a very large salad! Use the fort to move the pile around, taking material from the bottom to the top, and from the sides to the center. This keeps the moisture level equal and prevents rotting at the bottom of the pile from stagnant water. You can also use a shovel, but a fork is better than a shovel at getting into the pile and really mixing it up.
Some gardeners use multiple compost bins, and then use a fork to transfer the compost from one into the other, mixing and matching so that they all get moved around. It takes more space in the garden to take this multi-bin approach, but can make it easier to ensure you turn the compost equally and efficiently.
How to Use a Compost Aerator to Turn Your Compost
An aerator is similar to a pitchfork, but is specially designed for compost piles. It makes turning your compost much easier, too, as it works like a corkscrew, getting deep into the pile and mixing it well, without you having to manually remove each of the layers, as you would with a fork.
A compost aerator is much easier on your back, too, as all you do it stand over the compost pile and plunge the aerator in, before turning the handles so you turn the compost without having to bend or lift.
Turning Compost With a Compost Tumbler
A compost tumbler is a perfect way to turn compost piles without the stress to your back and arms, as it does most of the work for you. For this reason alone, plenty of gardeners choose to do the composting in their gardens this way.
There are several different types on the market, depending on what you’re looking for. Some composting tumblers are simply a regular compost bin with a mechanism on the side for manually turning compost. Others have measurement-taking devices and will turn automatically when the heat is high enough, or a certain number of weeks have passed.
But not everyone likes to use a compost tumbler for one very good reason: you can’t add worms to one. Worms are a vital part of composting but the heat in a compost tumbler can get so high that the worms will simply die off.
A tumbler can also be a tricky thing to get to work in the winter as it works best with natural heat from the sun. In winter months, the large compost bin cools quickly and the heat inside doesn’t rise sufficiently for effective composting.
However, for bulk composting, and to prevent pests from getting into the pile, a compost tumbler could be a wise move indeed. It redistributes oxygen and water equally with minimum effort and is good enough fun to get the kids involved, too.
8 Reasons Why Turning Your Compost Heap Is Important
There are many benefits to turning your compost:
- It aerates the pile, getting oxygen into all the material to speed up decomposition
- It redistributes heat, so the temperature of the pile is more even
- It prevents rotting in certain areas of the pile
- It redistributes water, preventing excess moisture
- It provides oxygen to the worms and other bugs who live in the pile
- It prevents the material from matting together, causing clumps where the decomposition will halt
- It allows you to see whether the process is working, or whether you need to add more nitrogen-rich ingredients
- It redistributes the important microbes and bacteria so they can get to work on fresh, non-composted areas.
There are untold benefits to be had from turning your compost. It’s a vital part of creating the highest-grade compost that you can, which ensures that you can add nutrients to the soil in your garden. And while it’s easier on your body to get yourself a composting tumbler or other automatic turning machines, it’s really not necessary providing you’re working with an average size compost heap.