I learned how to start a compost pile many years ago from both my dad and my neighbor on Long Island, Mr. Hoffman. Starting a compost pile is fairly easy. I’m considering a new method of composting called lasagna gardening or lasagna composting, and I thought I’d share with you tips for how to start a compost pile as well as this new method that will be my winter experiment here at Seven Oaks.
What Is Compost?
What is compost? Compost is the name given to garden and kitchen scraps that break down into nutrient-rich material that nourishes the soil. In nature, leaves and other plants tumble to the ground, where water and weather begin the process of decomposition. Worms get the party started by munching the tasty decaying materials, and bacteria, fungi and other microbes join the party. Soon the plant material turns into crumbly, nitrogen-rich material that looks like dark chocolate cake mix. That’s compost, and it’s called “gardener’s black gold” for a good reason. It nourishes and replenishes the soil, adds valuable macro and micro nutrients, builds up the soil composition, and adds healthy bacteria into the soil. It’s just plain good for your soil.
A compost pile is simply a contained place to create compost. Nature does the hard work. You prepare a welcoming place for worms and microbes to do their job, and let time and nature do the rest.
Compost piles can be simple, homemade, elaborate or complicated. It really depends on your own personal preferences, time and budget.
The first compost piles I knew on Long Island were in my yard and my next door neighbor’s yard. My dad used old bricks recycled from a friend’s house; his pal called and said he was tearing out a brick patio, and would my dad like the bricks? Of course! The bricks were piled into a wall in the corner of our tiny urban yard. My dad had built a lean-to greenhouse next to the detached garage. The fence corner formed two walls of the compost pile, the greenhouse wall the third, and the bricks, the fourth. Pretty simple, right?
Our next door neighbor build his compost pile from some of the extra bricks my dad didn’t need and treated wood 2 x 4s he’d nailed into a box shape behind his shed.
Notice that both my dad and my neighbor hid the compost piles. While they shouldn’t smell, they can develop an earthy, grassy odor. A well maintained compost pile doesn’t stink. During the time my dad and neighbor gardened in that small little town, the pile DID stink – a strong ammonia odor. That’s a sign the compost is decomposing too quickly and the pile is getting too hot. The problem started when fresh green grass clippings were added without brown matter, or leaves, to counteract the nitrogen and heat. Adding air to the pile and sprinkling lime onto it helped. But if you do live close to your neighbors, make sure your pile smells sweet and fresh…don’t let it get smelly!
- Choose a location: I prefer my compost piles out of sight and out of the way, but that also makes them difficult to access during bad weather or at night, when it’s dark. Consider how easy it will be to walk your kitchen scraps out to the compost pile on a dark, cold February night and then you’ll get a good idea of how close to place it near your house. Most people like to place compost piles behind sheds, garages, or at the rear of the garden, and that’s fine. It’s helpful but not required to have a water source nearby such as a hose to add water to the pile, but you can add water using a bucket or simply rely on rainwater.
- Build your walls: You can use cinder blocks, bricks or wood. Wooden pallets, often discarded by warehouses and other stores, can be obtained either free or at a very low cost and nailed into a square with and open top. That’s my favorite method of creating the compost bin; it recycles something most people throw out and anyone can nail together pallets! If using bricks or cinder blocks, stack them in a staggered pattern and don’t build the walls too high without mortar.
The compost bin above is actually a commercially available product called the Leisure Season CB2730 Compost Bin. You can make one similar to this with old pallets. Adding screens or chicken wire on the inside of the bin keeps compost inside the bin. This one is convenient and so pretty you won’t mind seeing it in the garden. The Leisure Season CB2730 Compost Bin is available online from Amazon. I’m an affiliate, so if you click the link, I get a little money if you buy something, but it does not increase your price.
3. Add the first layers of compost: The bottom layers can be any organic material. I prefer using old newspapers or cardboard. It kills weeds and encourages worms, those garden friends who will transform your kitchen waste into black gold.
4. Add additional layers of garden and kitchen scraps: Here’s what you can add to a compost pile: grass clippings, leaves you rake up from your trees, and any scraps from the kitchen that are uncooked and made of plants. Lettuce leaves, potato and carrot peels, celery tops, and any vegetables that have gone “off” are fine. You can also add used tea bags, coffee grounds and filters. I add eggshells, first rinsing them with clear water in the sink, then smashing them up with a spoon so that pieces go into the compost pile. If you can find horse, cow, sheep, goat or chicken manure, add it to the compost pile. What NOT to add: any animal products such as meat, poultry, pork, fish or bones from animals. Not only will your compost pile smell like a refrigerator where all the meat has spoiled, you’ll end up attracting all sorts of unpleasant vermin to your yard. Who wants raccoons, skunks and coyotes rummaging around in the compost? Not me! DO NOT add cat or dog feces either. It smells bad and can also add diseases, including potential parasites, into your soil where YOU and your family will eventually eat it. YUCK! No! Just think “green” as in “plants” of what to add to your pile.
5. Turn the compost pile: Rain water should be enough to moisten the pile. If not, add some water from the hose. After a few months, you should “turn” the pile. Dig into the compost and move the bottom layers to the top. If they look ready – like crumbly chocolate cake or really rich potting soil – the compost can be added into the garden.
Bugs in the Compost
What if you spot bugs in your compost pile? Don’t worry! Bugs are your friend in the garden. Beetles, worms and other insects all help decompose plant material. They’re harmless and are your helpers and friends in the garden.
As I mentioned earlier, a good compost pile smells nice. Earthy, like the forest after a rainstorm, sometimes with a little sour smell to it but it shouldn’t stink. If it stinks, or smells strongly of ammonia, you’ve got a problem.
A few reasons why your compost pile might smell bad:
- The compost pile isn’t balance: Compost piles should contain a fairly equal mix of fresh, green matter (think cut grass, fresh kitchen scraps) and brown matter (think dead leaves you rake up in the fall). If there’s too much of one thing and not enough of the other, a strong odor can develop. Solution: add more of what’s missing to balance it out.
- The compost isn’t decomposing: If the compost pile isn’t breaking down, it can start to develop an odor. The culprit is usually not enough moisture or air getting into the bottom of the pile. Moisture and air are needed by the microorganisms that break down the compost. Solution: Take your garden hose and ‘water’ the compost pile to add moisture. Air can be added by turning the pile or adding a PVC pipe with 6” or larger diameter. Drill holes into the pipe at random intervals around it and down its length, then push the pipe vertically into the compost pile. You’ve just created a vent stack for your compost pile. Air goes into the holes and into the pile.
- You’ve added fresh manure recently: Yes, manure smells bad. If you’ve just gotten a great load of fresh manure (and yes, gardeners rave about ‘great loads’ of horse or cow manure. I can wax poetic about a great bucket of cow manure any day) and it hasn’t had time to decompose, it might get a bit stinky for a week or two until nature takes over. That’s one good reason to locate your compost pile well away from your home or your neighbor’s home.
What About Commercial Compost Bins?
Commercial compost bins are great for people who have neither the time nor the inclination to build their own. You can purchase a bin-style composter, which offers PVC or other materials for the walls that snack or screw together easily. Most of these are a great size for a home garden and offer convenience for people who are all thumbs when it comes to do it yourself projects.
Another option is a compost tumbler. Compost tumblers look like big old-fashioned whiskey barrels, but they’re made of plastic and mounted on a frame with wheels at the base and a crank handle to turn the barrel around. Turning the barrel moves the materials around inside the composter, and mixes it up like cake batter with air and water so that it decomposes faster. You then tip the compost tumbler or open a hatch to access the final product when it’s ready. Personally, I’ve love to invest in one of these commercial composters as I’ve only heard great things about them. If I could buy one expensive toy for my garden, it would be a compost tumbler!
Above: This is the Yimby Compost Tumbler and it gets great reviews from users. It has two chambers, can hold up to 37 gallons, and the manufacturer says you can create compost in as little as two weeks. If waiting isn’t your thing, check out the Yimby Tumbler Composter.
My Compost Pile Today at Seven Oaks
My compost pile today at Seven Oaks is hidden just beyond the first line of pine trees in the woods surrounding my garden. It’s easy to access, but pushing a full wheelbarrow of compost up the little hill from the pile to the vegetable garden is taxing. That’s one reason why I’ve begun investigating lasagna gardening or lasagna composting. This method “composts in place” during the fall and winter months so that you don’t need to move compost around. Not only does the material you add to the garden bed break down into nutritious soil, it suppresses weeds while transforming the soil. It also encourages worms, the gardener’s friend. I see only positive aspects of this method and few drawbacks, so I plan to try it this winter and photograph my results to share with my readers here at Home Garden Joy. We’ll see how it goes.
Composting doesn’t cost anything, and it adds so much to your garden. It keeps materials out of the landfill and lets nature recycle them into useful components. With so much to offer and few drawbacks, learning how to start a compost pile is a useful, valuable skill that beginner and advanced gardeners alike can learn.
If you liked this article, you may also like:
- Soil for Raised Bed Vegetable Gardens
- Getting Your Soil Professionally Tested
- Different Ways of Building a Compost Bin
My books, available on Amazon and wherever fine books are sold, can also help you learn how to garden.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.