4. Let it heat up.
You need the pile to get fairly warm inside to encourage decomposition. (Yes, fallen leaves left alone will eventually turn into dirt—but this takes quite a while.) Once the temperature in the compost pile hits 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you can turn the compost to encourage decomposition and prevent it from getting too hot. Use a thermometer to check the temperature in several locations throughout the pile, paying particular attention to the center. (You may need to dig down a bit to get the thermometer in the right spot). You don’t want it too hot, since that will kill off the helpful microorganisms.
Good news, you don’t need to get too concerned about chilly temperatures. “You can still compost through winter,” says Alexa Kielty, a zero waste specialist at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. The microbes will slow down their activity in the cold and the compost pile may grow dormant, but it will pick up again once it gets warmer. If your compost bin will be in cold temperatures, you can try insulating it with a tarp or hay bales.
If you’re vermicomposting (using worms to aid in the decomposition process), you’ll need to keep the bin between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, per the Environmental Protection Agency. For bokashi composting, keep your bucket at room temperature.
5. Keep pests out.
Pile up a bunch of food, and it’s easy to attract all the area critters to your home or yard. That’s where rodent-resistant containers come in. And, remember, your compost will be less attractive to pests if it doesn’t have foods on the “no” list, such as meat or dairy.
If the compost is attracting animals and you don’t want to switch to a pest-proof container, you can use mesh hardware cloth around the pile or immediately cover food with brown materials. Burying food under brown material can also help avoid flies.
6. Reap the benefits.
It’s fairly apparent when compost is done. “You can take it in your hand and when you smell it, it should smell like sweet soil—it should not smell like a rotting food,” Kielty says. You also won’t see big chunks in it.
You can mix the compost and dirt in a one-to-one mix, she says, and plant from there. “You don’t want to overuse the compost on your plants, because it’s high in nitrogen,” Kielty says—too much will burn the plant. You can also use it as mulch around trees and plants, without letting it touch them directly.
Smart Tip: Neighbors with a large garden space or local community gardens will likely be grateful for any excess compost you can pass along.