The classic method of composting—the method purists would call the “right” way—is known as hot composting. This simply means that you turn the pile regularly and allowing it to really heat up to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A properly maintained hot compost pile will kill weed seeds, as well as many other pathogens, so you can compost weeds without having to worry about them popping up in your garden beds.
How do you know if your compost is getting hot enough to kill all weeds? A variety of compost thermometers are available that can gauge the temperature of your pile. Experienced gardeners may simply thrust a hand into the pile. If it feels uncomfortably warm to the touch, it likely is warm enough to kill all seeds and roots in the pile.
A gardener who experiences such an explosion of volunteer weeds may well swear off composting altogether, or at least stop adding weed material to the compost pile. To be clear, there is no reason to stop composting weeds. With a slight adjustment to the composting process, you can ensure that weeds and their seeds will be killed completely and won’t be resurrected where you least want them.
This can actually be rather charming when the volunteers are tiny impatiens seedlings, tomato plants, or even pumpkins that volunteer because last Halloween/s jack o’ lanterns were added to the compost heap. It’s far less charming when the volunteer plants are hundreds of dandelions or tiny sprigs of bindweed or crabgrass that get into the garden via the compost you spread.
Done correctly, composting creates a sterile organic material that does nothing but good things for your garden and the plants in it. However, nearly every gardener who practices composting has occasionally experienced “volunteer” plants sprouting up in the garden where the compost has been spread.
For hot composting to fully kill all weed seeds and roots, follow these tips:
In an ideal compost heap, the temperatures generated by the breakdown of plant material can get quite warm, and if temperatures exceed 145 degrees Fahrenheit, pretty much all seeds and roots will be killed. However, if the temperatures do not get warm enough—or if a portion of the compost heap does not experience sufficiently high temperatures—seeds or perennial roots can survive the composting process. When these seeds or bits of root later reach your garden inside the compost, they can—and usually do—quickly germinate or take root again.
When the Pile Is Not Heating Up Enough
A compost pile that gives off water vapor is working hard to kill weed seeds. Source: Anatomy of Living, http://www.youtube.com
Ideally, you wouldn’t add weeds that are in seed or even in the late part of their blooming cycle to the compost pile. Thus you can avoid the problem of their seeds germinating in the garden when you later use the compost you produced. But sometimes, you have little choice: perhaps the most easily available compostable material (horse manure, hay, etc.) contains seeds or else the endless sorting of weeds according to their “seediness” would just be too complicated. Or, like me, you just feel that everything organic should be composted.
*Note that such temperatures will also kill any weed roots and rhizomes placed in the compost. Two birds with one stone!
The compost bins commonly sold generally can’t hold enough material to ensure high temperatures. If you’re using one, you’ll have to resort to other methods if you want to kill weed seeds in your compost.
In general, the bigger the compost pile, the more heat it produces … and heat kills seeds, even weed seeds.
Fortunately, there are other solutions.
To find out if your compost pile heats up enough to kill weed seeds, simply insert a compost thermometer into it and note the temperature. If you don’t have a compost thermometer, try sinking your hand into the pile. If it’s so hot you to feel uncomfortable, it’s heating up enough.