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May 24, 2018  |  Login
Building a Compost Pile: Reduce Waste and Improve Your Garden
By Ann Whitman and The National Gardening Association

Composting is not only an easy, effective way to reduce solid waste at home, but it’s also a valuable, natural soil amendment. Adding compost to garden beds and planting holes enhances nutrients and improves soil texture. Compost helps to loosen heavy clay soils, and it increases the water-holding capacity of sandy soils.

A compost pile is a collection of plant (and sometimes animal) materials, combined in a way to encourage quick decomposition. Soil microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) break down this organic material into a soil-like consistency. These organisms need oxygen and water to survive. Turning the pile over provides oxygen, and an occasional watering helps keep it moist. If the pile is well made and the organisms are thriving, it heats up quickly and doesn’t emit any unpleasant odors. Finished compost that looks and feels like dark, crumbly soil can take as little as a month to produce.

Composting Strategies

At least two schools of thought exist on building composting piles:

  • The active school makes uniform piles, mixes materials thoroughly at the correct ratios of carbon (brown stuff) and nitrogen (green stuff) — see the “Getting ratios right” section for more on carbon/nitrogen ratios — and keeps the pile watered just enough to keep it moist, but has enough air to breathe. They enjoy finished compost a month or two from the start.
  • A second school says, pile it in the backyard somewhere, and eventually (within six months or so) it’ll turn into usable compost. After all, everything rots doesn’t it?

Although the second school of thought is technically correct, you may find advantages to building a pile by the rules espoused by the first school. A well-constructed pile — built with the proper dimensions and maintained correctly — heats up fast; decomposes uniformly and quickly; kills many diseases, insects, and weed seeds; doesn’t smell; and is easy to turn and maintain. Conversely, a pile just thrown together rarely heats up and, therefore, takes longer to decompose. This type of cold composting doesn’t kill any diseases, insects, or weed seeds; may smell bad; and definitely looks messy. Still, it’s far better than not composting at all, so if cold composting is all you care to do, by all means go for it.

Containing your compost pile makes it look neater, helps you maintain the correct moisture, and prevents animals from getting into it. You can build your own, as shown in Figure 2-1, or buy a commercial home composting unit, such as those in Figure 2-2. 
Read more about buying and building compost bins

Build a simple wooden bin to hold your compost pile
Figure 2.1: Build a simple wooden bin to hold your compost pile

Commercial composters help you make compost yourself.
Figure 2.2: Commercial composters help you make compost yourself.

Here’s what you need to know to build a good compost pile:

  • Choose a well-drained, partly shady location, out of the way, but still within view so that you don’t forget about the pile.

  • Make or buy a bin.
Create a wire cylinder that’s 3 to 4 feet in diameter or build a three-sided box (similar to the one in Figure 2-1), that’s 4 to 5 feet high and wide.
  • Add a 6-inch layer of “brown” organic matter, such as hay, straw, old leaves, and sawdust, to the bottom of the container.
  • Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of “green” organic matter, such as green grass clippings, manure, table scraps, or even high-nitrogen fertilizer, such as cottonseed meal, on top of the brown layer.
  • Repeat these layers, watering each one as you go, until the pile is 4 to 5 feet tall and fills the bin.
A smaller pile won’t heat up well, and a larger pile can be difficult to manage. more


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