How A Compost Starter Can Boost The Speed And Quality Of Your Compost Pile
Very few things excite me more in my garden than setting new plants in fresh homemade compost.
I know this makes me sound like a bit of a gardening nerd (or gardenerd as my kids call me).
But there is something very satisfying about knowing that all that organic food waste didn’t end up at a landfill and now will help grow more food and flowers.
One mistake you want to avoid is not giving your compost piles a kick start to speed up the process and give you much higher quality compost.
Let’s start with the basics of compost starters.
What Is A Compost Starter?
A compost starter is an additive that you mix in with the organic matter in your composting bin to jumpstart the natural decomposition process.
While adding some worms along with food and garden waste like leaves will work pretty well, it can be a slow process to get microbes to join the party.
They require a few more things in the compost pile to fully thrive.
But there are other advantages to your composting efforts too.
When you introduce certain elements at the early stages of the process, you can get a lot more nitrogen-rich soil.
I won’t bore you with a chemistry and biology lecture, but keep in mind that the more nitrogen-rich your compost is, the better your plants will grow.
Do You Need A Compost Starter?
Technically, your pile will do fine as long as you maintain the right mix of food and garden waste with a healthy colony of worms.
But if you’ve ever opened up your compost bin after 3 or 4 months and the soil isn’t as advanced as you thought it would be, then the composting process was probably slow and it would help for you to utilize a compost starter.
What Are Good Compost Starters?
There are four things that I always rely on for every fresh compost pile I start.
You need to keep the right balance of green and brown waste in your compost pile because you want to have the right amount of carbon and nitrogen. 
But at certain times of the year, it can become more difficult to add enough nitrogen-rich materials like leaves. And that might starve the microbes.
Some organic options are soy or alfalfa meal. But if you can get your hands on a supply of chicken manure to sprinkle into your compost bin, that seems to work best.
For best performance, the compost pile, or more to the point the composting microorganisms, require the correct proportion of carbon for energy and nitrogen for protein production.
Both the worms and microorganisms will heavily rely on water and oxygen to thrive.
You can seriously interrupt the composting process by suffocating the pile. This is often the main reason why you might find that the materials you introduce aren’t decomposing.
If you are bin composting, then one thing you can do is regularly rotate the bin to aerate it. But if you have a larger compost pile, then build it up on a base of heavy sticks to allow for easier airflow.
While worms do a lot of the initial heavy lifting, it’s the microbes that break organic products down into tiny particles.
They will grow naturally as the food waste and leaves start to rot, but you could speed things up a lot when you add more through an activator kit.
Most garden centers will have these available, and I would aim to add them to a few layers to my compost pile to spread out the effects.
You should get into the habit of chopping up all your waste as small as possible. The smaller the pieces are, the more surface areas there are for microbes to start feasting on.
If you have a large enough compost pile, I would suggest investing in a mechanical shredder, which every good garden center will stock.
You won’t believe how much this can speed things up.
What Should You Not Use As A Compost Starter?
No, this isn’t the fruit, but an agricultural mineral that farmers use to increase soil pH.  Some people add it to their compost pile as the early stages can be quite acidic.
But that acid naturally levels off and plays a vital role in the early stages to kill off certain bacteria and pathogens.
If you’re still concerned about acidity, then I would suggest measuring it along with nitrogen levels at the very end.
If the pH is still below 5, then add some lime before you start planting.
2. Wood Ash
This is a good source of nutrients for your soil, especially if you end up with acidic compost, similar to the above.
But adding wood ash to a compost pile will just see the nutrients wash away as they have nothing to bind to yet.
Again, my advice is to add it just before planting.
More Tips To Speed Up Your Compost
Along with the above starters, here are the six things you should always do.
1. Keep Rotating The Compost
This is particularly important in the early stages when the microbes might concentrate in small pockets.
Mixing up the materials will spread out the microbes and deliver some fresh oxygen to your compost as well.
2. Avoid Huge Piles
If you have a large family and garden, your composter can quickly fill up with a lot of organic matter. However, keeping multiple smaller compost piles of about a 3-foot cube can bring the core temperature up quicker for faster decomposition.
3. Balance Your Greens And Browns
You want to make sure that you don’t just end up with food waste and fresh garden clippings, as this will give you the wrong balance of nitrogen and carbon-rich products.
You need to keep the right balance of green and brown waste in your compost pile because you want to have the right amount of carbon and nitrogen.
Make sure you regularly sprinkle dried leaves, sawdust, and even shredded paper to your compost to add more carbon.
4. Don’t Forget To Water The Pile
I tend to sprinkle some water on my pile every few days to keep it moist. It’s essential not to make it saturated, which means you need to adjust the amount of water between summer and winter.
5. Use An Insulated Bin Composter
Worms and microbes love some heat, and they will thrive in warm conditions.
But in the colder months of the year, your pile's core can get a bit cooler, which would slow down the process. To prevent that, use an insulated bin composter. The one that I use is the popular Worm Factory 360.
6. Remember Those Worms
Head to your local fishing and tackle store regularly to introduce more worms to your pile. I myself get mine from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.
This might be especially important if you’ve had an unusually cold spell of weather when worms can quickly die.
How Do You Make A DIY Compost Starter?
If you like doing as much as you can with some materials you already have at home, then this is what you need to do.
1. Collect The Materials
Here’s a shortlist of what you’ll need:
2. Mix It All Up
There’s no real skill involved in this step. Just add the beer, soda, and ammonia products into the container and top it up with water.
You won’t need all of it in one go, which is why I suggest using a sealable container.
3. Sprinkle The Mix
Every few days, you’ll want to add some of this solution, but avoid just dumping it in one place. Use a watering can with a sprinkler head instead.
The idea behind the mix is that the yeast from the beer will digest some brown materials. The ammonia is rich in nitrogen, and the sugar from the soda will help feed the bacteria and grow the colonies.
If that sounds too messy, then let me show you some products I depend on.
Best Compost Starters
Here are three products that I regularly rely on for more efficient composting.
1. All Seasons Bokashi Compost Starter & Microbial Inoculant
I got this recommendation from a friend who lives in an apartment and uses a sealed Bokashi bin. It’s a dried product, and I just sprinkle a few scoops of it onto any fresh pile.
The fine bran includes millions of dormant microbes. Even though they are completely dry in the bag, I’ve found that they activate very quickly, which speeds up the composting a lot.
I also like that there is no smell from this product, so you don’t have to store it outside like many other products.
2. Jobe's Organics Compost Starter
I like this product as it doesn’t just focus on microbes to break down waste. You’ll also get a good dose of minerals, including nitrogen, to help balance your compost.
There’s also a bonus use for it in early spring. Mixing it directly with soil if you’re replanting some flowers to bigger pots can make it into a slow-releasing fertilizer to boost early season growth.
Oh, and it’s organic, which might be important for some grow-your-own folks who want to avoid all those chemicals you find in standard fertilizers.
3. Compost-It Compost Starter/Accelerator Bundle
If you prefer a liquid accelerator, then Compost-It is the one I’ve had the best results with. Spraying it onto a pile does tend to spread out the micro-organisms better.
The included minerals and microbes also don’t mess with the worms, which is a problem I’ve had with some other accelerators.
If you don’t treat the worms well, then they’ll quickly slow down the progress and possibly die off as well.
And you’ll be able to keep your garden organic, as this accelerator doesn’t use any synthetic chemicals at all.
Compost accelerators and starters are by no means a must-have, but if you tend to produce quite a bit of compostable waste, then it would make sense to speed up the process.
It’s relatively easy to use my DIY solution above, but if you want the best possible results, give the All Seasons Bokashi Compost Starter a try. So far, it has never failed me.