How And When To Turn Compost

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Every gardening enthusiast should have their own compost bin or pile. Not only is composting a great way to save money on fertilizers, but it’s also a wonderful option for recycling a lot of household waste.

But whether you’re composting kitchen scraps, pizza boxes, or the grass from when you mowed the lawn earlier in the week, there are a few rules that must be followed for the best results.

Turning CompostPin

These rules are often overlooked and can slow or even halt the composting process.

This critical step is called turning, which is comparable to kneading dough as it rises in terms of effect and importance.

Before getting into the process of properly turning your compost, let’s take a moment to look at how composting works.

We’ll then examine why turning is important and explain the best way to turn your compost.

How Composting Works

Most compost is made of four distinct parts:

  • Macro-organisms and microorganisms
  • Moisture
  • Organic materials
  • Oxygen

Macro-organisms and Microorganisms

These are the actual workforce behind the entire composting process.

Bacteria make up the bulk of this workforce, but other microorganisms and even some macroorganisms (especially earthworms and insects) also play a huge role.

For the bacteria to do their job, they need the proper working environment, which includes the other three components and heat.


A moist environment is crucial to the survival of most bacteria, and dry spots in your compost pile won’t break down as easily because the bacteria won’t be as healthy there.

You don’t want the compost to be too wet or too dry (wring out a dish sponge – that’s about how you want your compost to feel), as both can slow the process down.

Due to the need for this balance, hosing the compost is usually done right before turning to ensure the moisture is evenly distributed.

Organic Materials

There are two different categories of organic material:

  • Brow
  • Green

These two can be confusing because the colors for each category sometimes also describe the contents of the other category.

Brown composting materials are carbon-based and act as the kindling for your compost pile’s proverbial fire.

Wood scraps such as twigs and sawdust, tree and shrub leaves, cardboard, straw, and coffee filters are all examples of brown materials.

Conversely, green materials are the fuel and provide most nutrients for your future compost.

Some prime examples of green materials include grass clippings, kitchen scraps, used coffee grinds, and animal waste (manure and sometimes urine).

These materials are high in nitrates, which encourage bacteria and nematodes.

However, without brown material, green material won’t break down properly and (in the case of damp grass clippings) can even catch fire!


Finally, all good compost needs oxygen.

Oxygen helps aerate the compost, so it doesn’t overheat. It’s also necessary for the survival of your little workers.

Much like moisture, oxygen can only be properly distributed throughout the compost through turning.

The Process

A compost pile is usually made of layers (although other methods do exist).

The first layer is a loose mix of brown and green materials, the second a starter of nitrogen-rich green material (such as a layer of fresh cattle manure or even fertilizer), and the third a layer of topsoil or already finished compost.

Again, there are other methods besides layering, but this is one of the most popular.

The compost will build up heat in the middle but not at the edges.

The heat is distributed as the pile gets turned, and the middle will heat up again.

Eventually, this process of building and distributing heat will ensure the entire compost pile breaks down evenly and the resulting nutrients are completely mixed.

The Importance Of Turning

As you can see, turning is an essential part of the composting process.

It‘s a lot like kneading dough or stirring the soup to ensure everything’s evenly distributed and at a uniform temperature.

Without turning, your compost pile will end up like a jelly donut – rapidly cooling on the outside but lava hot on the inside with a clear difference in texture and quality between the two layers.

Turning ensures that wetter materials are mixed in with drier materials, so everything has a uniform moisture level and prevents the material from compacting.

It also ensures that the bacteria and other workers are evenly distributed throughout the compost pile.

As the outer portion of the pile is less hospitable, your workers will try to eat their way back into the middle, so you need to keep sending them back outside.

When Should You Turn Compost?

With all the benefits of turning, you’re probably considering investing in a factory-scale mixing vat, but turning too often can stall the composting process.

After a few days, invest in a nice long thermometer and poke it into the middle of the compost pile.

If you have a good ratio of materials, the central temperature could quickly reach a golden 100 to 120° degrees Fahrenheit mark.

However, the pile will still be okay if you don’t turn it for a week or two, but make sure the internal temperature doesn’t start to decrease before your turn it.

For the best and fastest results, however, you’ll want to check the pile every few days and always turn it as soon as the center reaches that golden temperature range.

How To Turn Compost?

Turning is actually an easy process, but be ready to get your hands dirty.

If you’re using a frame, remove it and reassemble the frame next to your pile so it won’t get in the way.

Step 1: Testing The Waters

Using a trowel or similar tool, dig a few inches down into the middle of the pile and grab a handful of the compost.

Give the compost a good squeeze and:

  • If wet, you’ll need to add more brown materials.
  • If dry, you’ll need to add water.
  • The hydration’s perfect if you get a drop or two of moisture.

Step 2: Turning

This step works best if you’re using a frame but can still be done without it.

The goal is to completely invert the pile so the inside material is on the outside and the outside is in the middle.

If you need to amend with water or additional brown material, add them every few inches to replicate the layering effect.

Alternatively, you can just add them to the top before turning if you aren’t using any type of frame.

Next, take a pitchfork or shovel and scoop the material into the frame or a new pile.

You’ll want the central material to end up around the edges of the frame (or on the outside of the new pile) and the outside material to be buried in the middle of the new pile.

Step 3: Temperature Check

Once you’ve created your new pile by inverting the old one, stick your thermometer in from the side.

The pile will be slightly warmer overall but obviously cooler in the middle.

When the center of the pile reaches the golden temperature range again (usually in 2 to 3 days), it’ll be time to turn the compost once again.

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