compost that is ready

When Is Compost Ready? The 3 Signs You Should Be Watching For

Composting is a great way to reduce your waste and help the environment, but the novice composter may have some trouble determining when the compost is actually finished and ready to be used.

So, how do you know when your compost is ready? In this blog post, we will discuss the different signs that indicate whether or not your compost is ready to use!

This post may contain affiliate links, which means I make a small commission on products purchased through these links at no extra cost to you.

finished compost with a pitch fork


It shouldn’t be too hard to tell if your compost is ready to be used or not. If you’re composting at home, there are certain signs you can look for to tell whether your compost is ready to use.

Finish compost, also known as humus, should be:

  • dark
  • crumbly (no identifiable old food scraps!)
  • have an earthy smell
  • should break down easily when mixed with water

If these signs aren’t present, then your compost isn’t ready yet!

However, deciding whether or not your compost is ready may be a matter of personal preference more than anything else. Since you could technically compost food scraps directly into your garden, you might not have any problem using not-quite-finished compost for your vegetable plants.

But if you’re hoping to have some beautiful compost to feed your front lawn, you may want to wait longer for a more finished product, for vanity’s sake.

The humus will continue to break down, regardless of it’s location in your compost bin or in the garden!

Either way, patience is key when it comes to composting! It will be worth it.


Finished compost does not go bad. It simply continues to break down! Over time, it may start to lose nutrients, so the sooner you use it the better. But there’s no reason to ever throw it out!


There are a few telltale signs that your compost is doing its job:

  • Temperature: Your compost heap will be warm when it’s actively decomposing. If you’re curious to know if the microbes are active in your pile, stick a compost thermometer into the center. If you get a reading of 90 degrees F or higher, then your pile is definitely turning to compost!
  • Color: Finished compost is very dark in color. If you start to see what looks like dirt forming in your pile, that’s a great sign!
  • Smell: Foul odors are a sign that something is wrong in your pile. But if it smells moist and earthy, you’re on the right track.
  • Visible breakdown: If you take a look at your compost pile, you should see evidence of things breaking down. Banana peels should stop looking like banana peels. You shouldn’t be able to identify carrot peels. If there’s nothing visibly happening after a couple of months, it might mean that your pile isn’t hot enough or moist enough to break down organic matter.


How long it takes to get finished compost depends on the size of your compost pile and how often you turn it. A general rule of thumb is that it will take about three months to get finished compost, but it could be sooner or later depending on the individual circumstances and what composting method you’re using.

Hot composting: The fastest way to get finished compost. It generally takes about one month, but it can be a lot longer or even shorter if the conditions aren’t right (too much moisture will slow down the process and too little won’t heat up enough).

Compost tumbler: Some composters claim that, under certain conditions, they can get finished compost in as little as 3 weeks in a compost tumbler. But two to three months is a more reasonable expectation.

3 bin method: This is one of the slowest methods of composting. It can take up to a year to get finished compost, though you can speed up the process a bit if you turn your piles often!


There are three phases of composting that you’ll want to be aware of as you tend to your pile while it turns into compost. Knowing these phases will help you more easily determine when your compost is ready!:

Mesophilic stage

This is when your compost pile starts to actively decompose. The mesophilic stage and usually lasts a few days, until the mesophilic bacteria generate enough heat for their thermophilic friends to take over.

Thermophilic stage

When the piles heats up past 115 degrees F, the thermophilic bacteria take over and the composting process speeds up. You may notice steam coming from the center of your pile during this stage, and it can last a few weeks or months.

Maturation stage

Once the thermophilic bacteria have done their work, the pile will start to cool down. The mesophilic bacteria will make a comeback, and finish up any work that the thermophiles left behind. After a few weeks in this stage, you may notice that you have finished compost that’s ready for use.


Now that you have beautiful, finished compost, what should you do with it?

Screen Your Compost

I recommend screening your compost for an even more glorious finished product. Use a compost screener over a wheelbarrow, and gently push your compost through the screen into the wheelbarrow below.

This will help eliminate any non-compostable items that accidentally made their way into your pile such as produce stickers or plastic, and will also break up any large chunks of organic matter that may not have completely broken down.

Uses for Finished Compost

Mulch: Use your finished compost as a mulch for plants around your home instead of the storebought variety. Not only will it keep the weeds down, but it will also add valuable nutrients to the soil.

Fertilizer: Add finished compost to your garden beds as a fertilizer. It’ll help improve drainage, aeration, and water retention while adding much-needed nutrients to the soil.

Compost Tea: Whip up a batch of compost tea by adding a few cups of finished compost to a bucket of water. Let it steep for a day or two, then strain and use as you would any other garden spray.

You can also add compost tea directly to your garden beds to help boost the growth of your plants.

Houseplants: If you don’t have a garden, don’t worry! You can also use finished compost to help keep your houseplants healthy and thriving.


There you have it! Everything you need to know about when is compost ready and how to tell if your compost is working. I hope this was helpful for you. Happy composting!

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