It’s the burning question that keeps compost lovers with heaping piles up at night: “Do I turn that sucker or what??”
Turning a compost pile is an absolutely optional maintenance task. Some folks prefer to spend the time and effort of turning a pile on tossing back a cold one with buddies. To them I tip my hat and say, “Cheers!”
However, there are several benefits to grabbing a pitchfork or compost crank and getting deep in the thick of your pile — if only occasionally. The main reason people turn compost is to speed up decomposition. Turning compost distributes moisture, microbes, materials, air and critters throughout your pile, helping to ensure every last nook and cranny gets the elements and attention it needs to transform.
To demonstrate the difference between a turned and unturned compost pile, I spent two summer months only turning half of my outdoor pile. Then I made a video about the results, which is above!
Being a somewhat lazy composter, I didn’t go crazy with turning, averaging one turn a week. In all other regards, I treated the piles the entirely the same. I continued to feed them food scraps, wood shavings (from cutting/splitting logs for the wood stove), and water in equal parts.
As you’ll see, I yielded very different results once the two months were up!
Anyone who has passively nurtured a pile (i.e. just let it sit there) knows that it can take months, if not years, for a mini mountain of food scraps and landscaping waste to become luscious black gold. Turning your pile makes that happen much sooner. In fact, the Rapid (aka Berkeley) Hot Composting Method utilizes a regimented turning schedule, specific volumes of mass, and stringent carbon to nitrogen ratios to get thermophilic “hot” bacteria breaking an entire pile down in just over two weeks!
Making compost quickly has several benefits:
- Soil and plants everywhere will rejoice with more frequent compost deposits
- Folks with limited space to compost in can free up their pile’s real estate sooner
- Any resulting cardio workout and muscle toning will improve your health and spirits
- It’s fun!
Turning your pile also gives you a chance to see what kind of activity is going in there. The better you understand the ecosystem developing in your pile, the more you can tinker to optimize your pile’s health and productivity. Little adjustments in a compost pile can go a long way. For example:
- If you hit soggy, stinky, anaerobic pockets of sludge-formerly-known-as-fruit-salad, you may choose to mix in more dry, carbon rich materials like leaves or shredded newspaper to create a better balance.
- If your pile is bone dry and looks the same as it did several months ago, you can grab the hose and last night’s juicy watermelon rinds to add moisture and nitrogen to get things back on track.
A fun fact I didn’t mention in the video: I ended up harvesting well over seven gallons of black gold from the turned side. WOO HOO! I then spent the next several weeks turning the previously untouched side to yield the same bountiful results!
Also, please note that while the video is of an outdoor, open-air pile, the fundamental concept remains the same. If you have an enclosed outdoor bin, a tumbler, or even a five gallon bucket you’ve rigged to replicate any of a handful of commercial models, you can agitate, mix, stir, and tumble those contents as well with similar fact finding and accelerated results.
Got a story or tip about turning compost? Share it in the comments below!