The Q&A Archives: Hot Composting in 55 Gallon Drum

Question: I'm planning on making my first serious attempt at building a compost bin this year but would also like to experiment with making a compost barrel out of a 55 gallon drum. Nothing I've read about composting has mentioned problems with getting it TOO hot. If I could maintain a temperature of 200 degrees for several hours, whether by internal aerobic action or by the periodic application of artificial heat to the outside would that be sufficient to kill disease organisms in plant marerials or dog/cat/human feces? I'm tempted to try it this spring but would like to know what you think. Thanks.

Answer: I applaud your efforts to compost! Good compost takes time; fast compost will lose some of its beneficial properties, but there are proponents of both fast and slow composting, and it boils down to a matter of personal choice. Excessive heat can upset the balance of carbon to nitrogen. If you keep the compost turned, and can keep the temperature below 160F degrees, you can make quick compost and still preserve beneficial organisms. We caution people to keep cat, dog and human feces out of compost bins where the end product will be used in vegetable gardens or where children play. If you want compost these wastes, use a separate container and use the finished compost only around trees or ornamental shrubs. It's difficult to predict whether your compost will cook long enough to kill disease pathogens and weed seeds. Until you perfect your composting skills, it's probably best to keep disease and insect infected plant parts and weeds that have gone to seed out of your compost bin. Good luck!

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