How Long Does It Take for Tree Branches to Decompose answered guide

How Long Does It Take for Tree Branches to Decompose?

In Gardening, Lawn & Garden by Jamie

Yard work inevitably leads to green waste- and for the environmentally minded this may seem like a possible opportunity. For others, leftover wood scrapes are an eyesore. Can you compost cuttings like tree branches or logs? How long do tree branches take to decompose?

You can compost tree branches and similar materials, but it is not a quick process. The size of the tree branch plays a huge role in how long it will take to decompose. Small tree branches can decompose in 2 to 5 years, while larger tree branches may take 10 to 50 years, potentially even longer. 

You can make them decompose much faster by manipulating the conditions, which I will discuss below.

How Does Organic Matter Decompose?

The world around us is covered in a thin layer of harmless bacteria. This bacterium has an important job – it keeps dead material from building up. When something like a plant or animal dies, this bacterium eats it and turns it into fertile dirt.

This process is slow because the bacteria are so small, but some things decompose faster than others because they are easier for the bacteria to break down. Some examples of things that decompose quickly are leaves and grass clippings.

What Factors Affect How Fast Something Decomposes?

You may have noticed that the range for how long things take to decompose is exceptionally large. This is because several factors affect decomposition speed. Here are the five most important factors:

Heat

When something is decomposing, hotter is always faster. This is why composting is done in sunny places and piles. The center of a compost pile can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit, or 65 degrees Celsius. The bacteria are responsible for decomposition function much better in warm, humid environments.

Moisture

A small amount of moisture is necessary to keep things decomposing because the bacteria use the water to stay alive. Too much standing water, however, will cool the material down and slow the process. The fastest decomposition happens when organic matter is in a hot, humid place without being soaked.

Presence of Bacteria

As mentioned, decomposition relies upon bacteria eating the organic matter. This bacterium is likely to reach most organic matter left out in the open eventually, but we can help it by seeding the area with finished compost or dirt.

Oxygen Content

Exposure of the area to oxygen is maybe the most important factor in decomposition next to moisture. Bacteria, like most living things, require air to live. Any area without adequate oxygen circulation will have no bacteria, and thus no decomposition. This is the main reason that branches decompose so slowly. The available surface area is small in comparison to the overall size of the branch.

How Nitrogen-Rich the Material Is

The nitrogen content of a material will contribute to how quickly bacteria spread across the surface because bacteria use nitrogen to reproduce. The more bacteria there are, the faster the object will decompose. For the fastest decomposition, you want the entire surface to be covered in bacteria. Unlike the other factors, this one is difficult to change. The tree branch has a fixed amount of nitrogen in it, as does any other organic matter.

Factors Affect How Fast Something Decomposes

Three Ways to Speed Up Tree Branch Decomposition

Many of the factors in decomposition speed can be manipulated to our advantage. The result is that we can make something like a tree branch decompose in a fraction of the time.

Chipping the Wood

Because the surface area exposed to air and moisture is a big factor in decomposition speed, anything that makes the tree branch into smaller pieces will make it decompose faster. The most efficient way to decompose wood is to make it into chips.

You can chip wood at home, you can purchase heavy duty wood chippers or more lightweight chippers for smaller branches. Either way, this chips the wood and it can be decomposed faster or used as wood mulch for the garden. You can see our wood chipping machine options in our detailed guide here. 

Layering the Wood with Dirt and Green Material

You can also layer the branches with dirt or green material (grass clippings or food waste work best). These materials will decompose much faster than wood and support the fast growth of bacteria. As they decompose, they release moisture, heat, and nitrogen all of which will speed up the decomposition rate of nearby material.

Keeping the Area Covered

Covering the branches in a tarp is a great idea because it keeps moisture from the decomposition process from escaping, insulates the branches to keep them warmer, and keeps them from getting soaked during inclement weather. An occasional spritz of water is also helpful.

Moving the Branches to a Sunny Place

Moving the branches somewhere sunny will make them decompose faster because the heat from the sun will keep the branches warmer than they would be in the shade. Heat speeds up decomposition, just make sure that the branches do not dry out too much.

Read Related: How Long Does It Take for Leaves to Decompose?

Related Questions

How long does a tree take to decompose?

Depending on the size and conditions, a dead tree can take between fifty to two hundred years to decompose. Only the portions of the tree exposed to air can rot, so trees will decompose from the outside.

How long does food waste take to decompose?

Depending on the type of food waste it can take between one week and a couple of months to decompose. Important to note is that for this to take place, the food waste must be exposed to oxygen. As such, much of the food waste in landfills will not decompose. You can mix food waste into your tree branch compost, it does not cause any issues for either. Food decomposes much faster than trees and their branches. 

What is petrified wood?

You may have seen something called petrified wood in museums and wondered “How did that wood last so long underground?” The answer is that it was not exposed to oxygen. The bacteria that cause decomposition require moisture and oxygen to function, meaning that if the wood is quickly buried in compact earth it cannot rot. Eventually, after thousands of years, the tree will petrify.

Can you just burn wood to get rid of it? 

Yes, you can simply burn branches and old trees in a controlled fire. This natural wood is the best to burn as it does not contain harsh chemicals like pressure treated lumber would. Simply burn it outside in the fire pit or in your wood burning fire pit/stove inside. Of course, seasoned dry wood is best so let the stuff dry out before burning it for the best burning experience. 

Final Thoughts

When something dies, or organic material is shed (like a tree branch falling or being cut off) bacteria quickly go to work on breaking it down. This is how new dirt is formed and is the same process humans take advantage of in composting. Many factors affect how efficiently things decompose including heat, moisture, oxygen availability, nitrogen availability, and the quantity of bacteria present.

Usually, branches take an exceptionally long time to decompose – depending on size anywhere from 2 years up to 100 years. When you do not want these branches cluttering your yard, that number can seem insurmountable.

Luckily, when we want something to decompose faster, there are several things we can do to manipulate these forces including covering the material with a tarp, layering the wood with other materials, chipping the branch (making it into smaller pieces), and putting the branches somewhere sunny.

When we optimize the decomposition process like this, a branch can decompose in a matter of months instead of several years. That is a pretty big difference!