The Q&A Archives: How to Achieve a "Hot" Compost Pile

Question: My compost bins are the type you get from the cities which are recycled trash containers. I am adding leaves, grass clippings and kitchen waste. It is decomposing, smells wonderful(sweet), but has no heat. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: Well, if it is decomposing and smells sweet, you're doing something right! I love composting, because there really is no "proper" way--no matter what you do, eventually everything will turn into compost. To speed the process along, you need four ingredients: carbon (browns), such as leaves, straw, shredded paper; nitrogen (greens), such as grass clippings, kitchen fruit and veggie scraps, manure; water, and oxygen. An easy way to start out is to mix the carbons and nitrogens in about a 50/50 ratio. As you construct the pile, sprinkle it with water from your hose. The ingredients should be as wet as a damp sponge. Don't try to make the pile and then water it all down from the top. The water finds paths to pour through out the bottom! The pile should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet (1 cubic yard) to have enough mass to insulate and retain heat. As the microorganisms that are doing the decomposing die off, they release heat. When the pile cools, they've probably run out of oxygen, which is where turning the piles frequently comes in. The more turning and reapplying of moisture, the more quickly the materials will decompose, and the "hotter" the pile. On the other hand, you can construct a good pile and then just let it sit. It will decompose, but take 6-8 months. Hint: the smaller the ingredients, the faster they will decompose. This is just a quick outline to get you started. For more info, a great book is "Let it Rot" by Stu Campbell and it's usually available at libraries and bookstores. Enjoy your composting!

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