What Will Happen If You Left The Compost Too Long?

A few years back, when my compost was ready for spring planting, I found myself involved in a work project that did not allow time for the spring garden, so the compost sat for a few extra months until fall. The only thing I did to preserve it was to throw a tarp over the pile. After some trial and error, this is what I have learned.

If compost is left too long, it will still generally be usable. However, it may lose some of its potency if constantly exposed to the elements. Compost will often just become even finer as the microorganisms continue to work.

Now, let’s go into further detail and answer a few common questions that people ask.

Homemade Compost vs. Store-Bought Compost

First, we have to clarify the type of compost we are talking about. By this, I mean it is bought at the store and never used or homemade compost. So let’s dig a little deeper into the differences between the two types.

What Will Happen if You Left Store-bought Compost Too Long?

As long as store-bought compost was well-composted, nothing would happen if you have never opened it or if it was kept well-sealed so that it wouldn’t be subject to drying out or becoming waterlogged.

In reality, if the compost were still active, it would need a source of air so that it could continue to work, but fully mature compost will keep indefinitely if it was correctly stored to prevent it from drying out or becoming waterlogged.

What Will Happen if You Left the Homemade Compost Too Long?

A couple of years ago, I planned, worked, and watched as my pile of organic materials decomposed and created a fertile compost ready to be used in the flower and vegetable garden. I accidentally forgot about it and left it for longer than intended.

When I got around to using it, the only difference I noticed was that the compost was even finer than it had been in the spring, and the garden produced a bumper crop of fall vegetables.

If the homemade compost is left too long, things to consider are:

  1. If the compost is not entirely finished, it will continue with the decomposition process if it has the necessary 4 ingredients.
  2. If the compost is finished and is located in an area that will allow it to be continuously exposed to the elements, it could lose some of its potency.
  3. If the compost is finished and is located in an area that is sheltered from the elements (like under a tarp), it should be even more potent than before.
  4. If left too long, it will just become part of the soil where it is, and you will not be able to tell where the compost stops and the soil around it starts. If this is the case, anything can be planted and should thrive in the rich soil.

How Long Does It Take to Make Compost?

A compost pile that is being monitored daily and tended to properly will take approximately 4 weeks or one month to be finished. During the process, it will become hot over a 5-day period and then cool over the next 5-day period so that it is heating and cooling approximately four times during the month that it will take for your compost pile to be completely decomposed and ready to use to make your garden spot the best ever!

Pro Tip: Don’t forget, give your new compost time to cool before adding it to your garden as it could burn your young tender plants. If the compost is not entirely finished, it will continue with the decomposition process if it has enough oxygen.

How Do You Know When Your Compost Is Complete?

Even though the location of your compost pile and the climate where you live are essential factors in composting, don’t forget that your compost will not work if you don’t have the right balance of those four primary ingredients: water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Finding out if you have the right combination can be accomplished by using two easy tests:

  1. Your compost should appear dark brown, damp, and crumble easily;
  2. it should produce a few drops of water if squeezed; and
  3. It should have a sweet earthy smell that does not stink.

If your compost is very dry and falls apart too easily and the individual ingredients are distinguishable, it is too dry and needs more greens and more water. If your compost is very wet and smells rotten, it is too wet and needs more brown ingredients and oxygen.

So, you will know that your compost is complete when it is dark brown, damp and produces a few drops of water when squeezed, crumbles easily, has a sweet earthy smell that is not unpleasant, and contains worms, microbes, fungi, and other microorganisms.

The entire process typically takes about 4-8 weeks.

How Do You Tell if My Compost Is Composting or Just Rotting?

If your compost is working, it will have the following characteristics:

  1. The temperature will rise and fall to the correct temperatures approximately four times during a month-long period,
  2. It will be dark and hold together when handled,
  3. It will produce a few drops of water when squeezed,
  4. It will have an earthy smell that is in no way unpleasant, and
  5. It will contain worms, microbes, fungi, and other microorganisms that speed up the decomposition process.

What Happens if You Compost “Wrong”?

A successful compost must include four essential elements:

  1. Carbon
  2. Nitrogen
  3. Air
  4. Water

If your compost doesn’t include all four elements, your compost will, like mine, just sit there, creating nothing.

There Are Loads of Flies in My Compost System – What Can I Do?

Black Soldier Flies are attracted to decomposing plant and animal matter. They fly into the compost and lay their eggs directly into the compost material. When the eggs hatch, the larvae, better known as maggots, emerge from the eggs to live their entire lives as larvae (about 2 weeks) feeding on the rotting compost material.

They then crawl from the compost to find a sheltered, dry place to enter the pupation stage of their life cycle during which they transform into adults.

I Have Mealworms in My Compost. Is This a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

There is conflicting information about whether mealworms would be good for composting. So, I would have to say that if you think you have mealworms in your compost, they may, in fact, be Black Soldier Flies instead, which are attracted to decomposing plant and animal matter. As a matter of fact, the larvae of Black Soldier Flies feed off this rotting organic matter and quickly turn it into rich fertilizer to add to your garden soil. They are one of nature’s efficient recycling plants for the conversion of dead things into soil-building fertilizer.

But, if they really are mealworms that are in your compost, they will probably not survive the “hot” portion of the composting process as they thrive in a cooler environment.

How Do I Make Sure That Composting Doesn’t Stink?

As long as the compost has the right balance of those 4 essential items necessary for compost to work properly, air, water, browns, and greens, there should not be any foul odors. The main conditions that result in the foul odors are:

  1. Materials are compacted and not getting enough air, creating an environment where the bacteria and microorganisms that enable decomposition cannot survive.
  2. Compost is too wet, which will keep the composted materials from breaking down.
  3. Adding too many greens creating high nitrogen content.
  4. Adding too many browns creating high carbon content.
  5. Materials not being mixed well.
  6. Lack of microorganisms preventing decomposition.
  7. The addition of meats, dairy, and oils which will go rancid and cause a foul odor.

Final Thoughts

The good news here is that whether you have purchased the compost or created it in a compost bin or pile, you don’t have to worry if you aren’t going to use it right away. It will still be good as long as it is stored under proper conditions so that it will not dry out or become waterlogged, which would cause the compost to lose some of its nutritional value and render it ineffective, or at least less effective, as a soil builder.

Thanks for stopping by to talk gardening with me, which is truly one of my favorite topics. Hope you come back soon!

Jelly Grandma

For more, don’t miss What Is a Composting Toilet? (And Should You Get One?)

Anne James

Anne James has a wealth of experience in a wide array of interests and is an expert in quilting, cooking, gardening, camping, mixing drinks (bartending), and making jelly. Anne has a professional canning business, has been featured in the local newspaper as well as on the Hershey website, and has been her family canner for decades. Anyone growing up in the South knows that there is always a person in the family who has knowledge of the “old ways,” and this is exactly what Anne is. With over 55 years of experience in these endeavors, she brings a level of hands-on knowledge that is hard to surpass. Amazingly, she doesn’t need to reference many resources due to her vast wealth of experience. She IS the source. Anne wants nothing more than to pass on her extensive knowledge to the next generations, whether that be family or anyone visiting her website, her YouTube channel, or survivalfreedom.com.

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