When to Turn Your Backyard Compost Pile

This is the sixth post in the backyard composting series.

Turning your compost pile is important for several reasons.  Knowing when and how to turn your backyard compost pile will improve your success.  Speeding up the process and maintaining the growth of the beneficial microorganisms!

signs your compost pile is ready to be turned

When to turn your backyard compost pile

Temperature:  Thermophilic (hot) composting requires high temps.  Your pile will be ready for it’s first turn when you have achieved these temperature goals: Temp is taken from the center of the pile. Need a thermometer? Here is the one I use. (affiliate)

  • 131 for 3 days
  • 150 for 2 days
  • 165 for 1 day

These temps should be achieved after each turn.

If you are unable to turn it right after the desired temperature and time has passed, your pile won’t be ruined. You will likely have large pockets of anaerobic material within the pile that may start to smell. But a good turning breaking those up will bring it back to the good side.  Turn it as soon as you can, especially in the beginning, when the materials are more chunky and not broken down much.

things to remember when turning

Break up the clumps.  Manually breaking up large clumps of material will reduce anaerobic conditions.  This is important in the beginning when the materials tend to form large clumps. The end result is more beneficial micro organisms and you compost will finish faster.

Check the water content often. Maintaining the right moisture levels is essential for the pile to break down.  In the high desert of Colorado and other arid or semi-arid climates, you can assume you will need to water your pile.    You are hoping for 50% moisture, which you check by squeezing the material and one -two drops should come out.  Check the pile several times while turning and add water accordingly.

Make sure all the material gets a chance in the center.  Make sure all material has a chance to process in the middle of the compost pile.    When turning think of moving the material around like this:

  • Middle to the bottom layer
  • Top to the middle
  • Bottom layer to the top

After turning 2 times, each layer will have had a chance in the middle.

How you know your pile is finished

Ideally, you have only turned your pile 2-3 times and your temperatures and moisture levels have been maintained throughout the process.  

But how do you know when you compost is finished? Look for these indicators:

  • The organic material you originally added isn’t identifiable.  The pile looks homogenous.
  • The temperature of the pile does not increase after you turn it.  It is close to the ambient air temperature

Next up: How to Store Your Backyard Compost to Preserve the Biology

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