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How to Tell When Compost is Ready to Use

If you are new to the world of composting, you may be wondering when all of your hard work will be available to use. As you know, the process of composting is not quick, and not only does it require diligence on your part, but also patience while everything decomposes into a nutrient-dense product that is ready to use.

If you use a turning bin, you may be able to use your compost in as little as three weeks, but if you have a large pile in your yard, you may be waiting twelve months. You can tell when your compost is ready based on smell, look, feel, and temperature.

In this article, you will learn about how long it takes for a compost pile to be ready, as well as exactly how you can tell if your compost is ready to use.

Is My Compost Ready?

People typically decide to make compost piles help protect the environment and limit their waste footprint in landfills. When composting, it can take a long time before you see the fruits of your labor, and you will likely find yourself peeking at your pile, wondering when it will be ready. 

If you find yourself in this position, here are some surefire signs your compost is ready to use.

Look at The Compost

When trying to figure out if your compost is ready to use, the easiest way to tell is by looking at it. Remember, you are putting food items into this decomposing pile. 

Compost is ready when you cannot recognize anything that you put into the container. If you look at the compost and see distinct chunks or pieces of food, it is not ready. 

Compost should look like rich, dark soil when it is ready to use. You will also notice that it doesn’t take up nearly as much space as before its decomposition.

If you take time to feel the compost, it will be a course like dirt. (Source: Green Matters)

Smell the Compost

Okay, so this sounds disgusting, but some may argue throwing food scraps into a giant container until they rot away is too. The smell goes hand in hand with composting. 

When compost is ready to use, you will only be able to smell fresh dirt or earth. If you open your compost bin and notice a strong rotting smell, it is safe to assume the compost is not ready to be used yet, or it can indicate a larger problem.

Rotten food smells are likely to indicate that the items in your compost pile are not completely broken down yet. By stirring around the compost, you will likely see pieces of food and other matter that you have placed in the pile.

If this is the case, close the bin back up and let it sit longer until the items are broken down.

Unbalanced compost: Another reason you may be experiencing bad smells is that the balance of your compost pile is off. If you notice everything is broken down, but there is still an odor that isn’t dirt, you likely need to add more items to the compost pile. 

Once you determine the cause of the bad smell, you can work on finding a remedy so you can begin using your compost as soon as possible. (Source: Gardening Know How)

Feel the Compost

Another way you can determine if your compost is ready to use is by feeling it. Remember, this is rotten food that has been decomposed into the soil, so you may wish to use gloves, but it isn’t necessary. When you feel compost, it should be an almost fluffy feeling.

A surefire way to determine if your compost is ready is to run it through a screen. The compost should fall easily through the screen and appear almost fluffy.

This will tell you that your compost is ready to use. Don’t be alarmed if larger items like eggshells, sticks, or corn have not broken down yet. You can remove them and put them back into a new compost bin, or you can even leave them.


When your compost pile goes through the decomposition process, it will produce a significant amount of heat. This heat is produced as the microorganisms begin the process of breaking down the food items. 

To ensure your pile doesn’t get too hot, you often need to make sure you turn the compost pile. Stirring or turning the pile allows proper airflow as well as an even breaking down of the matter. 

An indicator that your compost is ready to use when excessive heat is no longer being produced. The rule of thumb is when a compost pile is less than seventy degrees, it is ready to be used. 

Cooled compost indicates decomposition is complete, which means it is safe for your plants. (Source: Cornell Composting)

Here’s a helpful video with tips for knowing when compost is ready, with more info below:

How Long Until Compost is Ready?

There are many factors in determining the length of time before a compost pile is ready to be used. If you use a turning bin, you may be able to use your compost in as little as three weeks, but if you have a large pile in your yard, you may be waiting twelve months. Some things you need to keep in mind are.

Type of compost container

You will find many different types of compost containers are available on the market. The container you choose is based on your needs and the location you have for storage. When choosing a container, you will be able to choose between plastic, glass, and wood. 

Plastic retains heat the best and is rather inexpensive, so it is a common choice among those making compost. Glass and wood are also good options. Still, because of their inability to retain as much heat, the composting process could take a bit longer to complete. (Source: Public Goods)

Amount of compost being made

The amount of compost you are trying to make will determine the length of time it will take. If you have a large compost pile or bin, it will take longer for everything to be broken down.

However, if you have a small container with a small amount of matter, the process will go much more quickly. The area you have to store compost in will determine how large your pile or bin is.

Can Compost Sit Too Long?

Perhaps you have a compost pile but don’t need to use all of it. In this case, you may be wondering if compost can sit too long. The good news is that compost can be a viable nutrient source for many years, but you need to tend to it and can’t just let it sit.

To help ensure the life of your compost, you will need to make sure it has the proper moisture and, if possible, store it in a cool, dry place. (Source: Growing Green House)

Final Thoughts

Compost piles are not the quickest way to provide nutrients for your garden, but they are an amazing way to give back to the environment. When determining if your compost is ready, you can rely on your senses of smell, sight, and touch. 

When your compost is fluffy and has a fresh earthy smell, you can rest assured it is ready to use. 

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