Do You Really Need a Compost Starter? What To Use & When

Psst! Hey, do you want to know a secret? Yes? Okay, look for a pen and paper, and then grab a seat. You seriously do not want to miss or forget anything that we’re about to share. 

Are you ready? Well then, let’s get to it!

So, we’ve just realized that most gardeners aren’t aware of the fact that you can save lots of money by making your own compost starter at home.

They also don’t know that a compost starter isn’t always a requirement in composting or even how to make it.

How did they not know this? In all honesty, we don’t know. But what we do know is, not sharing this knowledge would be a grave injustice.

And yes, we know you’re already itching to know…

What is a good compost starter? A good compost starter contains ingredients rich in nitrogen, carbon, and microorganisms. Commercial compost starters are available in liquid and dried form, but gardeners can easily create their own “activator” by maintaining a minimum 4:1 ratio of browns (carbons) to greens (nitrogen).

You’re already intrigued, right? So continue scrolling, and you’ll learn more about it, including some fascinating tidbits, like why urine might be important to the process.

Compost Starter: Do You Need It?

Now that you know what a good compost starter is, it’s time to talk about why a gardener would feel the need to add a starter into a compost bin, pile, or tumbler.

We’ll explain all that after we’re done answering the question… 

What Is Compost Starter?

By definition, a compost starter is anything that has the ability to accelerate a natural decomposition process.

That is to say, it’s basically an additive that anybody can procure and add into any composting bin that has organic matter.

Maybe you didn’t know this, but microbes are the microorganisms that are responsible for decomposition.

The entire composting process is a tad bit faster if their numbers are high.

We always try to invite them to the party by adding garden waste, food, and worms into the pile or tumbler, but sometimes they just take too long to get there.

Or they do, but in small numbers.

For their numbers to multiply to levels suitable for a faster decomposition, you’ll have to add a few more things into that compost pile.

That’s where the compost starter comes in.

Is Compost Starter Necessary?

Now, to go back to the previous question of whether you need it or not, the answer is yes and no. We know that sounds contradictory, but bare with us. We’re getting to it. 

For a pile to do extraordinarily well, you have to ensure that that mixture of garden waste and food is well maintained.

That, together with a healthy colony of worms (decomposing organisms), will eliminate the need for a compost starter. 

Then again, we still have to take into account the fact that these types of equations come with all sorts of variables.

Some elements can be controlled, while others can’t.

You can control the amount of water that goes into the pile and the air, nitrogen, and carbon, but you can’t control the speed of the process.

That’s why you’ll find some gardeners using compost starters to hasten the process. 

Are Starters, Activators, and Accelerators the Same Thing?

The fact that people keep using these terms interchangeably is the reason why so many home gardeners are confused, and there’s no clear definition anywhere.

We would encourage you to focus on the ingredients being offered instead of focusing on a product pigeonholed as an accelerator, activator, or starter.

Why are we saying this, you ask? 

Well, we realized that some products are classified as starters, but they have the same ingredients as those classified as activators or accelerators.

The same goes for those classified under activators or accelerators.

Just go for products that contain bacteria if you want to add more bacteria into the compost and those classified as fertilizers if that’s what you’re looking for.

As long as the item has the right amount of carbon and nitrogen, you’re good. Also, try to avoid products that lack enough information.

Don’t buy products that have words like “Contains Bacteria” in the description section.

A top brand will want you to know what type of bacteria and ingredients that make up the product. 

What Is Compost Starter Made Of?

In addition to the carbon and nitrogen, a top-quality compost starter will have pH balancers and millions of microbes in it.

The primary function of the microbes is to facilitate the speedy decomposition of the organic matter, as explained earlier.

Should they run out of energy, the different energy sources (carbon) incorporated into the product will juice them up.

Some people believe the energy sources are redundant, but we disagree.

They might not help in speeding up the decomposition process, but ensuring that the microbes don’t lack in the energy department is just as important a job as any. 

The function of the pH balancers is exactly what you learned in chemistry 101. The pH levels of the pile will drop during the first few days, and then rise as time goes by.

That being said, the balancers are there to make sure the environment isn’t too harsh for the microbes. 

When To Use a Compost Starter

How To Use a Compost Accelerator

Using a compost accelerator is not all that difficult.

Obviously, the first step is to search for an accelerator that contains millions of bacteria in a dry form. This will give you a more complete composting.

Once you’ve gotten the product, mix some of it with your compost.

A single cup of the accelerator should be enough to handle about 16 square feet of the pile, so make sure you get that measurement right if you want all the ingredients to break down fully. 

How To Make Your Own Compost Starter

A small pile of food scraps with a sign stuck in the middle that reads "Composting."

So, the steps are simple.

  1. First off, we’ll pick a composting site, and remove the sod. The area’s measurement should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet, and the soil collected should be enough to fill a 5-gallon bucket.
  2. Fill another 5-gallon bucket with manure from a plant-eating mammal, such as goats, sheep, cattle, horses, rabbits, etc. Avoid carnivore manure as it contains pathogens, which may survive the composting process, eventually finding their way into your system.
  3. Now collect some carbon-rich waste, and fill the compost site. Collect enough waste to completely cover the space (8 inches deep is great). The waste could include dead leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, or cardboard (learn all about composting cardboard here), etc.
  4. Once you’re finished, look for materials that are rich in nitrogen, and add them to those carbon-rich materials. They could be fruit and vegetable waste, coffee grounds, grass clippings, etc.
  5. With the help of a wheelbarrow, mix the soil in that bucket with the manure in the other bucket. Mix thoroughly, as they’ll now become the compost starter when added to the carbon and nitrogen-rich layers that we’ve made.
  6. After you’re done mixing, sprinkle some warm water onto it. Not too much, though. Just enough to make the area moist and provide the decomposing bacteria with a suitable environment.   

That’s all. Now, wait and see how effective your compost starter will be. 

What Not To Use

The first thing that you shouldn’t use is lime.

By the way, we’re not talking about the fruit, but the mineral that’s often utilized whenever gardeners feel the need to increase their soil’s pH. 

Because they know the pH usually goes down in the early stages of composting, they normally feel the urge to add lime so as to maintain a consistent pH.

What they don’t know is that this acidity is important to the process. It helps to kill off any bacteria or pathogen that might be harmful to the human system.

The only time that you’re allowed to raise the pH levels of the soil is at the very end of the process. But then again, that’s only if the levels are below 5.

Wood ash is the other thing that shouldn’t be added to the mixture. It’s good for the soil, but not a good binding agent.

Long story short, it’s the reason why nutrients are normally washed away even before anything happens. So if you have to add ashes, do it when you’re ready to plant. 

Commercial Compost Starters

Not everybody will have the time or resources to make their own compost starter at home, and that’s why we’re sharing with you commercial compost starters that we’ve purchased in the past and found to be reliable:

Jobe’s Organics Compost Starter

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This particular one is our top choice for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s been OMRI listed for organic gardening by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Secondly, it comes with a microorganism called archaea that’s known for surviving in the harshest of conditions while aggressively breaking down organic material.

Thirdly, the Jobe’s Organics Compost Starter has been designed with nutrients that help improve the soil condition, and it won’t be affected by insects, diseases, or harsh weather.

Last but not least, it has no synthetic chemicals. This means that the chances of it killing your worms are almost zero.

The only downside is the smell.  

Pros:

  • OMRI listed by USDA
  • Has archaea
  • Aggressively break down organic matter
  • Improves soil conditions
  • Isn’t affected by insects or harsh weather
  • No synthetic chemicals

Cons:

  • Has a terrible smell

Gardener’s Supply Company Super Hot Compost Starter

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There’s no doubt in our minds that the Gardener’s Supply Company Compost Starter Super Hot will deliver.

It’s been reformulated with hungry microorganisms and nitrogen-rich ingredients to ensure consumers get the best results from their compost pile. 

Also, if you’re the kind of person who’s into saving the planet, you’ll be happy to hear that the product has been packaged in a handy, resealable bag.

So you don’t have to throw it away once you’re done with it. Just wash it and use it as storage for something else.

This compost starter is very easy to use. Just blend it into your compost pile, sprinkle a little warm water, and remember to aerate at least twice per week.

It’s guaranteed that the job will be done right, even if you’re using a compost tumbler in lieu of a pile.

Sadly though, this product is not exactly the type of product to choose if you live in colder regions. It doesn’t raise the compost temperature that much.

Pros:

  • Has nitrogen-rich ingredients
  • Contains microorganisms
  • Resealable bag
  • Easy to use
  • Applicable on a compost tumbler as well

Cons:

  • Not ideal for cold weather

Bokashi Compost Starter & Microbial Inoculant

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This dried product certainly provides value for the money. Consumers only have to sprinkle a few scoops onto any compost pile, and voilà! The magic happens.

“Microbial Inoculant” means you’ll be purchasing a starter that offers millions of dormant microbes.

They might look as dry as a desert inside that bag, but the minute you add water into that equation, they quickly activate and go to work.

Unlike some compost starters, you can store the Bokashi Compost Starter & Microbial Inoculant anywhere you want because it doesn’t smell at all.

Friendly Reminder: Always check the expiration date on the package before using. 

Pros:

  • Comes as a dried product
  • Has millions of dormant microbes
  • Doesn’t smell
  • Offers value for money

Cons:

  • Short expiration date

Related Questions

How Often Should You Turn Compost?

Turning frequency depends on how big the pile is and how fast you want the composting process to happen. If it’s a larger pile, turn it every 2-3 weeks.

This is enough to give the pile adequate time to heat up and facilitate efficient bacterial activity. For a smaller pile, 4-5 weeks is reasonable.

The same logic also applies when it comes to the rate of composting. The more frequently you turn the pile, the faster the process will be.

Is Urine Good for Compost?

Urine can be composted, seeing as it’s very high in nitrogen. However, if your compost already has sufficient nitrogen-rich material, you don’t have to add urine.

Use carbon-rich materials instead, such as sawdust and dry leaves.

Conclusion

Before signing off, we’d like you to remind you of what we’ve talked about. Carbon, nitrogen, and microorganisms are the key ingredients of the composting process.

If you have them in abundance, you don’t even need a compost starter.