“Is It Done Yet?”
Testing Compost MaturityThe degree of “doneness” that is appropriate depends on how the compost is going tobe used. If you are using compost as a topdressing or mulch on garden beds, it isappropriate to use coarser, somewhat less finished compost. If you aregoing to be working compost directly into the soil close to planting time,then the compost should be mature and should be fine enough to fitthrough a ½ inch screen. This excludes wood chips or other coarsematerial that might not yet be fully decomposed. For making up a pottingsoil for germinating seeds, the highest level of maturity is required and afiner screening – such as to ¼ inch or even
inch – would be desirable.With respect to soil incorporation or potting mixes, the reasons for beingcareful about maturity are summarized as follows in A Green Guide toYard Care by Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, 1/98:“Using compost before it is ready can damage plants. Undecayed ‘brown’ materials inthe soil can temporarily reduce plant-available nitrogen. Undecayed ‘green’ materialscan harbor pests and diseases. Immature compost can also introduce weed seeds androot-damaging organic acids.”Simple checks of compost maturity:Compost should be dark, crumbly, with no recognizable food.Compost should have an earthy smell.… but these alone are not enough! If you know your compost is alreadya year or two old, you don’t have to worry. But if you are trying to getcompost into your garden quickly, it’s best to take a little time to test itfurther, especially if you will be planting the area soon. Two additionaltests are described below:The “Jar Test”:Put some compost in a jar, add water to make it soggy, and seal the jar tightly.Leave it alone for a week, then open the jar (carefully!) and check for odor. If it smellslike nice wet earth, then the compost is done. If you notice bad odors then it means thatthe materials in the compost were not sufficiently decomposed and anaerobic organismshave gone to work on the nutrients that remain. These anaerobes produce unpleasantodors as a by-product, so bad smells are the indicator!