If your compost pile is built correctly, with a perfect balance of nitrogen, carbon, water and air, the compost bacteria will show up. They will quickly get to work and start breaking down the pile. As they combine carbon with oxygen, they produce carbon dioxide and energy. Some of this energy is used by the microorganisms themselves, to grow and reproduce. The rest is given off as heat, which increases the temperature of your pile. The mesophilic bacteria thrive in these rising temperatures, up to about 111℉. This is the first phase of composting, which will last a few days if conditions are good.
As your pile heats up further, a different set of bacteria moves in. Thermophilic bacteria thrive in temps from 111℉ – 158℉, but it’s best to keep your pile below 155℉. This heating stage takes place pretty quickly, as the heat-loving bacteria multiply rapidly, devouring all of the readily-available nutrients. This phase can last a few days, weeks or months, depending on the size and conditions of your pile.
After the thermophiles have done their work, you will still have pretty coarse material in your pile and the temperature will start dropping. Those mesophiles that were there in the beginning will return, because they are happy in the mid-range temps. This phase takes time, especially if your pile has a lot of woody material.
This is the longest and most important phase. Don’t rush it! This one can take from a month up to a year, depending on the quality of your pile and your climate. Most people don’t have the patience for this, but it’s worth the wait – like aging a fine wine. Maturing your compost ensures that it is completely free of pathogens. If you add immature compost to your garden, it can include toxins that are harmful to your plants. Let your compost rest, and get busy starting a new pile.