How to Make a Homemade Compost Accelerator

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Making your own compost accelerator is easier than you think, and can be done with very basic equipment at a low cost. What compost accelerators do is promote the decomposition process by encouraging the growth of bacteria and fungi, which will help break down organic materials in your compost heap. At the same time the compost accelerator will ensure that your compost heap stays moist, which is an important criteria for a successful decomposition process.

Making your own, homemade compost accelerator requires nothing but a bucket, a flat beer, a can of regular cola, and half a cup of household ammonia. Mixing these ingredients and adding them to your compost heap along with a few shovels of garden soil gives you the perfect cocktail to speed up the decomposition process.

Understanding the composting process

If you want to know more about the decomposition process itself and why it’s important to ensure a proper environment in order for your compost heap to turn into a material rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the University of Illinois has a guide called The Composting Process. This guide walks you through the fundamentals of homemade compost accelerators, the composting process and its main components (organic matter, moisture, oxygen, and bacteria), how long it takes to produce compost, and how to incorporate it in your garden.

According to the Henry Doubleday Research Association’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, your compost pile is to be considered as a manufacturing plant whose sole purpose is to produce a high-quality compost that improves your soil and promotes better growth among your plants and crops.

The decomposition process is one of many wonders of nature, employing multiple elements to aid the process from start till end:

  • Microorganisms (bacteria, fungi)
  • Worms and maggots
  • Oxygen
  • Moisture

When these elements are present in a compost heap, you’ll get perfect compost that will enhance the quality of your soil as you incorporate it into the ground.

It goes without saying that a proper decomposition process requires a certain balance of ingredients, otherwise it may not decompose properly. A compost accelerator could help jumpstart this process, and make sure it goes as quickly as possible.

Homemade compost accelerator recipe

Making your own compost accelerator is easier than you think, and requires just a few basic ingredients before adding it to the compost heap.

Below is an easy step-by-step guide that explains how to create a homemade compost accelerator that will jumpstart the decomposition process.

Step 1: Gather your ingredients

Making your own compost accelerator is easy, and doesn’t require a lot of complicated elements. Below is a list of ingredients that you need for a homemade compost accelerator:

  • Large bucket, (5 gallons minimum)
  • 1 gallon of warm water
  • 1 can of flat, room-temperature beer (open the can and leave for 24 hours)
  • 1 can of regular cola that isn’t sugar free
  • ½ cup of household ammonia

You want your compost heap to stay moist, which is why a good compost accelerator has a lot of liquid in it. If your compost heap dries out, the rate of decomposition is slowed down or – in the worst case – stopped completely. Microorganisms need moisture to thrive, otherwise they’ll die and your compost heap becomes “inactive”. 

Step 2: Mix your ingredients

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, simply pour them all into the bucket. Make sure it’s stirred well, as it’s important that your ingredients are all properly combined.

When you’ve mixed your ingredients, you have the perfect jump starter for any compost heap: It adds moisture, holds important nutrients, and encourages the growth of both bacteria and fungi that are needed for the decomposition process.

Step 3: Apply to the compost heap

Black garden composter bin made of recycled plastic
A garden composter bin keeps your compost heap dark and moist at all times.

Once your solution is ready for use, pour it slowly over your compost heap. After you’ve applied the entire bucket of compost accelerator, add 2-3 shovels full of regular garden soil. The garden soil holds additional microorganisms, which will speed up the process even further. This additional layer of garden soil will also ensure that your compost heap stays dark and moist at all times, and it is recommended to keep the top of your compost heap covered with a layer of soil at all times – or even better, get a compost bin that retains moisture and keeps light out at the same time.

Step 4: Toss your compost for even distribution

After you’ve added your homemade compost accelerator along with a few shovels full of regular garden soil, it’s time to toss the compost with a rake (or shovel) to distribute the accelerator through the upper layers and ensure that it’s properly mixed in with the pile. Otherwise your compost heap could develop hot spots which, according to the Cornell Waste Management Institute, could cause some of the beneficial microorganisms to die off.

5 Commonly used compost activators

Aside from the homemade compost accelerator recipe listed above, there are a few other things you could use to activate your compost heap and jump start the process.

According to The Grow Network, these 5 things are great compost boosters and are often completely free:

1. Yard waste

Worx WG430 foldable bladeless electric leaf mulcher
Yard waste is easily broken into small, uniform pieces if you run it through a leaf mulcher like the WORX WG430.

Once you’re done weeding your garden or mowing the lawn, save the clippings and add it to your pile. Another great idea mentioned on The Grow Network, is to walk around your neighborhood and ask your neighbors if they have yard waste to spare. They would likely be happy to share it with you, and you’ll quickly get started building your compost heap.

We recommend that you avoid adding any thick branches and/or thick leaves to your pile, as they’ll take forever to decompose and your compost won’t be as uniform as desired.

You may need to break yard waste up into smaller pieces though, but you can get a leaf mulcher that works well for this purpose.

2. Past-date produce

It’s no secret that a lot of produce goes to waste because it’s old and/or spoiled, yet it could perfectly go into your compost heap.

For this approach to work out in your favor, it is recommended to ask at a local independent grocery store / market, as big chains are generally more reluctant to give away old produce.

It helps a lot if you know the employees in the produce section well, as they would be more likely to help you out if they know that you make a lot of compost and therefore would love to help them out by removing their old, past-date produce.

3. Coffee grounds

According to the Oregon State University, used coffee grounds are a great addition to any compost pile. They’re rich in nitrogen and provide the microorganisms the energy they need in order to keep turning organic matter into nutritious compost.

You may not want to use manure for one reason or another, and coffee is a good substitute for this.

In order to collect enough coffee grounds for a large compost heap, you could try visiting your local coffee shop and ask politely if they would like you to expedite their used coffee grounds for them. More often than not the answer will be “yes”, as the coffee shops have no use of spent coffee grounds.

Just remember to always ask them politely, and bring a clean bucket for the coffee grounds.

4. Hair

As with used coffee grounds, hair is a great source of nitrogen for your compost heap. According to Ecology Action, hair will slowly release nitrogen over time as it breaks down. 

An obvious source of hair could be your local hair salon. They’ll most likely have large bags full of hair, that you can get for free. As long as you ask politely and explain your situation, the worst thing that could happen is a “no”.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that some hair could’ve been treated prior to being cut – and there may still be some chemical residue left on the hair strains. If this is a concern for you, you could wrap the hair in a large, finely weaved cotton sheet and rinse it in a tub. Afterwards, you simply empty the tub in a drain and add the hair to your compost heap.

5. Urine

It’s no secret that human pee is a great fertilizer, and it has been used as such for thousands of years. Even National Geographic acknowledges this.

Because urine is rich in nitrogen, it will boost the decomposition process of your compost heap. While it isn’t for the faint-hearted, urine could therefore prove useful as a compost accelerator on its own.

In order to collect enough urine for your compost heap, you can collect it in a bottle in your bathroom and empty it every night.

Remember to toss the pile afterwards, to distribute it evenly.

Homemade vs. store-bought compost accelerators

Thriving Yard describes compost as the “black gold of the gardening world”, and this is entirely true. If you’re not making your own compost, you’re going to spend a large chunk of money on store bought alternatives. The same applies to store bought compost accelerators.

With the knowledge we’ve been gathering on how to make your own compost accelerator at home, there’s absolutely no need to shell out money for a store bought product. You’ll quickly end up spending more than $10 for just a couple of pounds, whereas a homemade compost accelerator could be made for no more than a few dollars. If you’re making a lot of compost, you’re looking at a major saving.

Another advantage with a homemade compost accelerator is that you know exactly what ingredients go into the product. With store bought accelerators you don’t have the choice of ingredients, and you may have to settle with a product that contains unwanted additives.

Do compost accelerators work (and do you actually need them)?

With the knowledge we have of composting, we can safely say that compost accelerator products work, but whether they’re necessary or not depends on the condition of your compost heap.

Mother Earth News discussed whether compost accelerators work or not, and based on most independent studies the conclusion is that store bought compost accelerators aren’t worth the money.

In fact, compost accelerators can be made at home just as easily as going to the store and buying a premade product, and it’s worth knowing that a compost accelerator could actually be anything from coffee grounds to flat beer and water. For example, if your compost pile is drying out, adding water and tossing the pile could solve the issue on its own. Adding coffee grounds increases the level of nitrogen which is an essential nutrient for microorganisms. All these elements are necessary for the compost pile to “function” properly, and therefore all beneficial elements are described as compost accelerators or activators.

Adding a few shovelfuls of mature compost each time you start a new heap could also accelerate the decomposition process, because the mature compost pile already contains the microorganisms that you need to start the process. We also recommend adding a layer of mature compost in between each layer of kitchen scraps and other organic waste, in order to keep the process as quick as possible.

How to further accelerate the composting process

Besides adding a homemade compost accelerator, there are a few additional things you could do to further accelerate the composting process.

#1 Mix the contents properly

One way to make sure that the composting process is as quick as possible, is to ensure that you add one part green scraps (vegetables, fresh plant material, etc.) to two part brown scraps (dead/dried plant materials, hay, etc.). This ensures optimal decomposition, as the conditions are optimal for microorganisms.

#2 Keep track of internal temperature

As previously mentioned in this article, keeping the right temperature is important for your microorganisms to thrive. If your compost heap gets too hot, some microorganisms could die.

The recommended temperature is between 120 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature drops below 120 degrees, try tossing the pile in order to mix the contents.

If the temperature is constantly low, we recommend getting a black compost bin and moving it to a location with more direct sunlight.

#3 Cover your compost pile when it rains

Plastic bins are popular for those making compost at home, because they’re waterproof and provide an insulating layer as well.

If your compost heap gets too much moisture, the decomposition process slows down. Protect the pile against large rain showers by adding a cover on top, so it stays moist without getting completely soaked.

Your compost should never dry out completely, but feel slightly similar to a wrung-out sponge.

#4 Insulate your compost heap in cold weather

During cold days you may want to insulate the compost bin. For this purpose, you could use hay bales or get an insulated compost bin.

Another idea could be to invest in actual insulation material, which you can get at any local hardware store in large or small batches.