How To Speed Up A Compost Pile – 5 Easy Tips

Compost is a beautiful thing. It gives gardeners the option to reuse what would otherwise become landfill waste, improving soil health in the meantime.

The only downside is that composting takes time. But does it have to take so long to make? In this article, I’ll share 5 tips for how to speed up your compost pile at home.

You’ll also find some very useful info about what you should and should not compost, along with other FAQs on composting. Although composting is never an overnight process, I’ve learned some tricks to help hurry it along.

Compost pile with compost thermometer

How To Speed Up A Compost Pile

1. Make sure it is large enough

This tip may seem counter-intuitive, however, a larger compost pile will actually decompose faster than a smaller one. As a rule, your compost pile should be at least 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide when it is started. The pile’s size will naturally diminish over time as the materials decompose.

The larger size helps retain moisture and heat, and will heat up to a higher temperature for longer. This higher heat leads to better digestion of the organic materials in your pile, and more quickly.

Not only does this speed up composting, but it also helps kill off any pest larvae, weed seeds, and heat-sensitive pathogens in your pile. A simple compost thermometer is an essential tool to keeping track of your compost’s health in the first few weeks of its life.

Compost pile with thermometer reading 135°F
Larger piles reach higher temperatures, helping speed up decomposition.

If you have a hard time finding enough material to bulk up your pile, here are some simple sources:

  • Grass clippings (avoid herbicides, green material)
  • Spent coffee grounds from your local coffee shop (green material)
  • Cardboard boxes, shredded (brown material)
  • Fallen leaves (brown material)

2. Adjust moisture levels

My second tip to speed up the compost pile is the get moisture levels right. The bacteria responsible for hot composting needs water and oxygen to survive and thrive.

Small compost pile start
It is important to water your compost pile thoroughly when it is first formed.

Therefore, without enough water, the bacteria will fail to inoculate the pile fully, slowing its break down. On the other hand, too much water can lead to anaerobic conditions, starving the bacteria of the oxygen they need.

Too much moisture in your compost

If you are composting in the open (in a pile on the ground), then it is difficult to over-water your pile. If it is too wet, then it likely has more to do with the materials used than the water that has been added.

It is more likely to have too much moisture in an enclosed composting system, such as a bin or tumbler. The solution to too much moisture is to either add more dry materials, or cover the pile and allow it to dry out. Mixing the pile can also help aerate and dry out an overly wet compost pile.

  • Allow for drainage and aeration in closed compost bins
  • Add brown materials (cardboard, woodchips, dried leaves)
  • Cover the pile to divert excessive rainfall

Too little moisture in your compost

While this may seem like an obvious fix, a dry compost pile may be a result of more than just “not watering enough.” If your compost pile seems to never hold onto moisture, it may be for one of these reasons:

  • Pile is too small
  • Size of particles is too large (big woodchips, un-shredded cardboard, etc.)
  • Hot, dry, or windy conditions
  • Too little nitrogen

Do your best to maintain even-moisture throughout your pile from the start. Simply adding some water and mixing it in can turn your pile around!

3. Adjust ratio of brown to green materials

If you’re new to composting, you’ll want to learn the difference between brown and green materials. Essentially, brown materials are rich in carbon, while green materials are rich in nitrogen.

By combining these materials, we create the perfect environment for rapid decomposition. However, if the ratio leans too much in favor of one, the pile will break down more slowly.

Small compost pile end
Too much brown or green material will slow down the compost pile.

Moisture level is the best sign that the green/brown ratio is off. Brown materials tend to be dry, while green materials contain more moisture.

The most basic test you can run is to simply pick up some of the compost and squeeze it. The compost should feel damp, but not sopping wet (similar to a wrung out sponge).

If the materials crumble apart in your hand, then you should add some green materials. If the compost is soaking wet, dripping with water, add some brown materials.

Unfinished compost in hand
Squeeze your compost – it should be evenly damp without feeling soggy.

Another indication of an imbalance in your pile is its aroma. Healthy compost smells sweet and earthy, similar to fresh soil.

If your pile smells rancid or like rotten eggs, you probably have too much green material. This excess nitrogen can lead to anaerobic conditions, which invites different (stinky) types of bacteria to begin breaking down your pile. Essentially, your anaerobic pile starts to produce methane.

Learn more about which materials should be composted together below.

4. Consider particle size

Another factor that can change your compost pile’s rate of decomposition is the size of the particles in the pile. In other words, how large of the pieces of material in your pile?

A good example material to use is wood. Small twigs and branches, woodchips, and sawdust are all essentially the same material in different sizes.

The small particles of sawdust provide more carbon per cubic foot, but also have poor aeration. Larger woodchips are great for improving aeration throughout the pile, but provide less carbon for the bacteria to use.

Try shredding your materials (such as leaves or cardboard) into smaller pieces before adding them to the pile. The increased surface area of smaller pieces allows the bacteria to feed and multiply faster.

5. Turn the pile!

For beginner composters, this one is important! Turning your compost regularly helps keep moisture levels even throughout and allows for even decomposition.

I like to use a pitch fork to turn our compost every day or two early on. After the compost cools down (after 1-2 weeks), turning isn’t needed as frequently.

Hay compost pile before and after
Compost primarily made of hay – before (right) and after (left side) decomposing.

If you have a huge pile, then you may need some heavy machinery to turn the pile. Do your best to mix the pile thoroughly. The center of your pile will typically be the most active part of the compost, so rotating materials helps even out the digestion.

Compost Materials Chart

If you are new to composting, you may be overwhelmed with what you can and cannot add to your pile. To help, I’ve made a simple compost materials chart, indicating what materials to add, and which to avoid.

I recommend starting with a 3:1 ratio of brown to green materials by volume. There should always be more carbon-rich material than nitrogen to avoid a smelly, anaerobic pile.

Some gardeners go as low as 2:1 browns to greens for a quicker compost, but the risk of going anaerobic is much higher.

Compost materials chart guide graphic

What can you compost (and what can’t you)?

If we compost everything we possibly can, we could save a lot of things from ending up in the landfill. Almost anything organic can be broken down in a compost bin.

There are some items to avoid, but not because they won’t break down. Instead, we avoid adding things like fish because they are more likely to attract animals to your yard, potentially destroying the pile.

Pet feces can introduce bad pathogens to your pile, while herbicides will not break down. These can potentially causing your pile to harm future garden plants.

DO CompostDO NOT Compost
Fruit and veggie scraps (green)Fish
Fresh grass clippings (green)Oil and fats
Fallen leaves (brown)Pet feces
Spent coffee grounds (green)Cat litter
Coffee filters (brown)Citrus peels
Weeds and garden waste (green)Dairy products
Cardboard and paper (brown)Herbicide treated grass or plants
Wood ashes (brown)Diseased plant matter
Dryer lint (brown)
Chicken and cow manure (green)
Flowers (green)
Bread and pasta (green)
Eggshells (powdered only)
Hair and pet fur

Common Questions About Composting

When I made my first compost pile, I was lost. There were so many questions. So here I’ve rounded up some of the most common questions about making a compost pile.

Does compost need sun?

Compost does not require sun. I recommend tucking your compost pile away in a shady spot. It will, however, benefit from good airflow and rainfall.

compost pile large

Is mold good for compost?

If you see mold forming on your compost, this is not a bad sign. However, it could indicate that your pile is richer in brown materials than greens. So, I’d recommend adding some nitrogen-rich materials to the pile to encourage more bacterial break down.

Can I compost indoors (without worms)?

Indoor composting is not ideal, as it is more difficult to maintain optimal conditions. However, it is possible. Outdoors, you have worms and other larger animals breaking down the materials in your pile.

If you’re dead-set on composting without worms, your best bet is to compost outdoors. Use a kitchen compost caddy to collect compost in the kitchen, then bring it outdoors every few days to add to the pile.

To compost indoors without worms, use a purpose made indoor composter like the (very expensive) Lomi composter.

Can you compost meat?

While meat will break down in a compost pile, it poses several risks. The odor of decomposing meat attracts potential disease-carrying pests such as rats and flies. Raw meat can also carry pathogens which can contaminate your pile.

I hope you have learned a few tricks to speed up your compost pile. Making homemade compost is rewarding and is a very responsible way to feed your gardens. Let me know if you have any further tips for composting faster in the comments below!

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  1. This is probably the best article ive read on composting. It’s simple an informative tux for sharing

  2. The way you wrote 3:1 ratio! Green to brown is wrong! Your chart is correct. I think it should read 3:1 brown to green.

  3. Composting DRYER LINT makes no sense.

    You’re risking adding microplastics to your compost depending on what you run thru the dryer.

    I can see it working if you only wear 100% cotton or wool and ZERO synthetic material and tumble with wool dryer balls.

    But if not, acrylic particles AND using chemical-filled dryer sheets will render dryer lint inorganic.

    Please correct me if my opinion is unfounded concern.

    1. Hi Dawn – You make a really interesting point and it’s not something we thought of. We don’t use dryer sheets at home but this likely isn’t the case for everyone. I would advise leaving the dryer lint out of the pile if you’re using anything in your dryer that may be of concern.

  4. Best way: dig a 2’X 2′ hole in a safe area in the ground. Drop your compostable materials in there add a little soil (to act as catalyst), mix and chop with a shovel. Spray with water. Top with a little more soil to avoid attracting gnats and flies. Collect more compostable materials in a bucket and cover. When ready or full, add that into the hole, mix, spray with water and top again with some soil. Poke the pile with the shovel every now and then to speed up decomposition. Also, you can cover the pile if you have kids to avoid accidents. To use the compost: mix with equal volume of soil.

    1. Immature compost can cause issues, though they will resolve once the compost finishes breaking down. Namely, it can lead to burning, especially if it contains fresh manure.

    1. No need to change your methods if its working for you. Moderation is key as an excessive amount wouldn’t be good. They also take longer to break down, so we generally recommend chopping them before adding to the pile if using.

  5. I am going to mirror Larry Crumps question. Why no citrus? I have used citrus peels and complete lemons with no issues experienced as yet. Granted not a tree full of citrus but some. So why no citrus? Thank you for the reply as who wants to do all the work to find out they have screwed up the compost pile?

  6. Great thoughts, much appreciated. Further, if we add waste decomposer in pile it will be beneficial.

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