Basics of Composting

How to Build a Compost Pile

Find a Location for the Pile

Your pile can be built anywhere except up against a structure such as a house or fence. Macro organisms, i.e., bugs, etc., will assist you in the composting process. You want them in the pile, not in the house. Locate your pile at least 2 feet from any structure.

Set up a Compost Bin (Optional)

A bin is not completely required. You can just build your pile on the ground. However, bins are useful for keeping your pile looking neat, retaining heat and moisture, and avoiding the effects of wind and weather.

Prepare the Materials 

Ensure you have both GREENS–nitrogen (grass, weeds, vegetable peelings, ) and BROWNS–carbons (leaves, wood chips) available, and  chop up carbons that are more than a few inches in size.  Ideally you want more BROWNS than GREENS – a 60/40 ratio is best.  Add these materials to the compost pile and mix.

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Do NOT add any meats, dairy items, high protein items, fats, bones, so called “compostable” plastics, or prepared foods.  Your backyard composting environment is unlikely to reach a high enough temperature to process these items; they require a commerical composting environment instead.  Put these items in the trash.

Turn the Pile

Turning the pile means stirring it up by some method to increase aeration.  This will help the aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria decompose materials more quickly and more effectively.  Not turning the pile can result in anaerobic (oxygen-deprived) bacteria which can create offensive odors and emissions. Ideally turn the pile at least weekly, more frequently is even better. Turning the pile allows all the material to be exposed to the hot center and increases aeration.

Monitor the Pile

If you are turning frequently, the pile should start to heat up.  If not, it will not heat up as much and will take longer to break down.  The compost pile’s heat should peak after turning. After that, it should peak again every time you turn it, although the peak temperature will be lower and lower with each turn. Also monitor the moisture content of your pile. When you pick up a handful of material, ideallyl it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.  If not, add some mositure.

When is Compost Finished?

The finished compost will take up only 25–40% of the space occupied by the original pile. When the individual materials can no longer be identified and the pile resembles dark rich soil, the compost is completed. It will smell sweet, woodsy, and earthy. It will crumble through your fingers.

From beginning to end, the composting process can take from 6 weeks to a year or more depending on how attentive you are to your GREEN/BROWN ratios and stirring it regularly. Hot composting times will be much less than cold. Everything matters–how often the pile is turned, what materials went into the pile, the condition of the materials, moisture, adequate air, presence of insulation around the pile, size of the pile, etc. If you add materials as you get them, instead of building batches of compost, you will find that after 6 months to two years, the inside and bottom if the pile, i.e., the matter you added first, has become compost. You may remove this from the bottom of the pile and use it on your garden, lawn, or landscaping.  Return the rest of the materials to the bin or pile location to continue decomposing.

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