Starting a compost pile for your home garden isn’t hard. It takes a bit of knowledge to start it off right but once it gets going nature will take over and help you make beautiful garden compost.
Table of contents
- Make Nutrient-Rich Compost for Your Garden
- Garden Soil – It’s More than Dirt
- What is compost?
- Starting a compost pile: first steps
- What can you add to the compost pile?
- Starting a compost pile – easy layering method
- How can you tell compost is ready to add to the garden?
- No Time to Make Compost? Buy Compost
- Now it’s your turn!
- Shop for Composting Bins, Tumblers and Pails
Make Nutrient-Rich Compost for Your Garden
Garden Soil – It’s More than Dirt
Garden soil is made up of minerals, air, water and nutrients, as well as living beings that form a microscopic ecosystem, an interconnected web of life within the dirt. Fungi, bacteria, worms and insects interact within this microcosm to break down plant material into nutrients that other plants can absorb. During this process, they may feed upon the plant material and excrete wastes that end up feeding the soil and soil bacteria.
Soil bacteria, the good guys
Some bacteria actually form a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial relationship, with plants. The bacteria break down materials in the soil that can be absorbed plants; plants in turn feed the bacteria.
The soil in your backyard teems with life. Most of this life thrives under the earth, where you can’t see it, but you can see the results. Healthy garden soil nurtures healthy plants. A thriving lawn, strong and stately trees, juicy fruits and vegetables, and beautiful flowers are all the results of the complex interplay between air, soil and water.
What is compost?
Compost is essentially decayed organic material used as plant fertilizer. When gardeners speak of adding compost to the garden, they’re talking about the end product of a weeks or months-long process of decomposition that transforms plant material and animal manures into nutritious fertilizer for the garden.
Starting a compost pile: first steps
Making your own compost is a lot like making your own soup or stew: the end product takes time for the flavors to meld. A compost pile should be started as soon as possible, because it will take several weeks or months for the flavors, or materials added to the pile, to ‘blend’ and breakdown and form the actual compost that is added to garden soil.
Compost requires materials, heat, water and air in order for the bacteria living among the scraps to work efficiently. Starting a compost pile requires the right ingredients to “cook” or break down into organic material that can be easily added to soil.
What can you add to the compost pile?
Any plant-based materials can be added to the pile. This includes kitchen scraps, such as fruit and vegetable peels and cores. I always toss in the outer leaves of cabbages and lettuce leaves that are wilted or brown.
Grass and leaves
Grass clippings make a great addition and will “heat” the pile during decomposition. In the fall when you rake leaves, add them to the pile, too.
There are a few other items you can safely add to the compost pile. These include egg shells. Rinse egg shells out and crush them up before adding them to the pile.
Newspapers and plain paper
Newspapers and other papers can be shredded and added too (but not shiny magazine pages or catalog pages – the paper and ink used in colorful, shiny paper is not good for composting.)
And coffee grinds and paper filters as well as tea bags and tea leaves are also great additions to the compost pile.
What you can add to the pile:
- Grass clippings
- Vegetable scraps from the kitchen, such as tops of carrots, peels, and similar items
- Fruit peels and cores
- Hay, straw and other plant residue
- Garden debris such as pea vines, spent flowers
What about manure?
If you have access to a horse farm and an offer of free horse manure, get a bucket and shovel ready. Yes, you can add certain animal manures to the pile but a few words of warning.
Always use only the manure of herbivores. An herbivore is an animal that eats plants such as grass or hay. Horse, cow, sheep, goat, and rabbit manure is great for the compost pile. However, hay that animals eat contains seeds. They poop out the seeds.
If your pile doesn’t reach temperatures to kill grass seeds, you may get extra weeds in the garden. Commercial, bagged manure sold at garden centers is heated to prevent weed germination.
Make sure manure is broken down first before adding to garden soil
Good well-aged manures also enhance your garden soil. Cow manure is an old standby, but horse manure may be easier to come by in your area. Just make sure it’s well rotted; don’t add fresh manure to your garden beds. It’s too high in nitrogen and can burn delicate plant roots.
What shouldn’t you add?
Never use animal fats, animal manures, or animal scraps in a compost pile. This includes adding dog or cat feces. Animal by-products do not break down quickly enough and rot in the pile, adding foul odors, potential disease-causing microbes and parasites, and attracting vermin like rats.
Do not add weeds
Some gardening guides suggest composting weeds, but I advise against it. Unless your compost pile gets very hot inside, it won’t kill the weed seeds, and you’ll end up sowing them back into your garden the following year when you spread your compost. That’s not what you want to grow, is it?
Wood ash, yes or no?
Other items to avoid adding directly to a compost pile are lime and wood ash. Both can increase soil pH and can be dangerous to add to the soil without having a thorough soil test conducted at your local Cooperative Extension office.
Starting a compost pile – easy layering method
Experts recommend a specific layering sequence so that the materials heat up properly and speed up the composting process.
- First, put down a layer of either raked autumn leaves or grass clippings, depending on when you start your compost pile.
- The leaves are called brown material, and the grass is called green.
- Compost piles should be an even mixture of brown and green. Brown is cool, and decomposes slowly; green gets hot, and decomposes quickly.
- Too much green material makes compost piles stinky, but brown leaves added to green materials evens out the decay process and reduces nitrogen and ammonia that turns sweet smelling compost into a stinky mess.
- Keep layering whatever you have handy.
- Keep a container such as a pail or bowl in your kitchen to easily collect kitchen scraps for your compost pile. Good things to add to a pile are lettuce leaves, fruit peels, vegetable peels, tops and bottoms of carrots and similar veggies, coffee filters and used grinds, tea bags and used tea, and even shredded paper. Do not add meat, fat, or bones.
- When your kitchen container fills up, add it to the pile.
- If fruit flies become problematic, use a lid on your pail.
Don’t panic if you see steam
Once the pile gets going, you may see steam rising from the top. Steam is good! It shows that the pile is getting warm inside. The warmth increases the rate at which the beneficial bacteria can multiple and do their ‘dirty work’ to decompose the materials in the compost pile.
Make sure the pile can breathe – add air
Aeration speeds composting. My dad used to take a PVC pipe, drill holes along the side, and stick the pipe into the pile like a vent stack to aerate the entire pile without turning. I used the same method successfully, too.
What is turning over?
Turning compost over means using a spade or pitchfork to dig into the compost pile and flip it so that the top is on the bottom. By digging into the pile and flipping spadefuls over and over again, you add air and mix up the compost, enabling the bacteria and other microbes to do their work. It mixes in air, moisture, and plant materials to help with decomposition.
A compost tumbler, which looks like a barrel with a handle and crank, does the same thing with less labor. Plant materials go into the tumbler barrel, you close the hatch and turn the crank. The tumbling action aerates and mixes the compost just like turning it mixes it.
Water also helps plant materials break down into usable fertilizer
Compost must be kept moist to help it decompose. Most piles do just fine without added water. Rainfall is typically enough to help plant materials compost along, but if you’re afraid your pile is too dry, just give it a little sprinkle with your garden hose. Compost shouldn’t be soaking wet, but it should be brittle dry, either.
Simple three-sided compost bin.
Do you need to make a compost bin?
Many people prefer to use a bin instead of simply piling up the compost in a corner. Bins do keep compost contained and tidy, and they’re easy to make. They are basically square containers, sometimes with two separate sides for new and old compost, with mesh or chicken wire sides to allow good air circulation. You can build the frame with scraps of lumber, old pallets, bricks or stones.
Piling up bricks to form walls
My last compost pile had walls built of bricks we recycled from a construction project a few blocks away – they were throwing away the old bricks, which had been used on a walkway and gotten very green with algae, and so we asked and the homeowner said sure, take them. So we carted them back to the house and used an existing fence as the back two walls, and the leftover bricks for the third wall, simply piling them up. The fourth wall we left open to easily access the finished product.
Plastic compost bins and tumblers
You can also purchase bins made of plastic. Most of these have study construction and are easy to assemble. For those living in urban or suburban environments, such a compost bin comes in handy. It keeps the peace with your neighbors who might object to a lovely pile of rotting leaves in a corner of your yard. I wouldn’t object – I’d be more likely to ask if I could borrow some compost – but not everyone understands us gardeners, you know what I mean?
How can you tell compost is ready to add to the garden?
Now we get to the fun part – how to tell when your compost is ready to add to the garden.
Good compost looks like crumbled Devil’s food cake.
It should be dark brown, crumbly and rich looking, and smell like sweet soil. If you can still see things like banana peels (and recognize it as “Hey, that was my banana from October!” it’s not done yet.)
Worms and bugs are great! Welcome the wigglers!
There may be worms, millipedes or other bugs crawling in the compost pile. That’s good – you want to see those critters there. Worms, for instance, eat up decaying plants and poop out nutrients. They’re like little squirmy fertilizer factories. Don’t you just love nature?
The best compost is at the bottom of the pile
The best compost will be at the bottom of your pile or bin, and that’s where the back breaking labor comes in . Sorry to disappoint you, but unless you have a tumbler, you’re going to have to dig into your pile with a pitchfork or shovel to find the black wonderful compost at the bottom of the pile.
Use the second compartment of a commercial compost bin, or dig up the top material, turning it into a second pile. At the bottom of your original pile you’ll strike the compost soon enough. Fork it into a bucket or wheelbarrow, and move it into your garden beds.
If you have raised beds, add it to the soil and use a pitchfork to mix it in. If you have a directly sown garden, till the soil or spade it and add the compost the old-fashioned way. For container gardens, mix about one-third compost to two-thirds soil.
No Time to Make Compost? Buy Compost
Not everyone feels like channeling her inner Mother Nature. Some people just don’t have the time, space or inclination to create a compost pile. That’s okay. You can always buy compost.
Bagged compost is typically made from recycled materials and cow manure. Most of it is heat treated to kill weed seeds, so it may lack some of the beneficial soil bacteria that homemade compost adds to garden soil. Nevertheless, it adds valuable nutrients.
What is mushroom soil?
Mushroom soil is a special type of compost available in specific parts of the country such as Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s composed of leftover materials from the mushroom farming industry.
The rich soil mixture used to grow mushrooms must be discarded after each crop is harvested, so the farmers recycle it. It’s still wonderful for the home garden. Mushroom soil contains horse manure, cow manure, straw or hay, lime and sometimes other vegetative material. It smells like good manure mixed with compost. Mushroom soil is sold by the bag.
Worm composting is a concentrated way of composting in a small amount of space. Worms are kept in the house or garage (somewhere fairly worm) and fed on a steady diet of kitchen and paper scraps. As the worms break down and eat the refuse, they poop out high-quality compost. This is harvested and added to house plants and garden soil.
Now, before you get all grossed out on me, let’s get a few things straight about our friends, the garden worms. They are wonderful little critters that add fertility to the soil. Worms in the garden aerate the soil by digging small tunnels that allow water and air to pass through to the plants’ roots.
Worm poop? Excellent fertilizer for your plants!
And worms do not smell bad or attract flies. They will stay in their bin.
To learn more about worm composting, see our interview with book author and avid worm composter Henry Owen.
The evolution of my compost pile
I’ve had four compost piles in my life.
My dad’s compost pile was made from bricks in a small urban yard.
My dad built a wonderful pile behind the garage in my childhood home from bricks he’d salvaged and scavenged from building sites. He’d ask if he could take the broken or extra bricks home. He simply piled them up, sometimes using mortar, sometimes not, and added shredded leaves, grass clips, and kitchen scraps to the pile. The compost was so rich and wonderful that when we sold his house my older sister dug it up and took it all to her garden.
My husband built a compost pile behind the shed
My husband built a compost pile behind the shed in his parent’s yard after he learned about composting from my dad. We used the same method as my dad’s brick compost pile except we had cement blocks instead of bricks.
We had an open pile here at Seven Oaks
Starting a compost pile can be as easy as piling up plant materials. Our first compost pile on the farm was made similarly to the three-sided bin but we used cement blocks on the three sides. Unfortunately, we didn’t site the pile well and it was in the woods. It never got sunlight so it stayed cold. Worst of all, we built it on top of pine tree roots. We had well-fed trees who loved the compost and none left for our garden.
Our solution: a large, elaborate, cement pile
Our new compost pile is large, elaborate, and made out of poured concrete and cement blocks. We graded the floor of the compost bin so that excess water would flow out the holes in the back. We left plenty of air holes along the sides for aeration and ensured worms and other critters would find the pile by adding aged horse manure obtained from a local farm.
I keep a small plastic kitchen garbage pail behind our big waste receptacle and my family adds kitchen scraps throughout the day. We empty the pail once every other day into the pile and also add grass clippings, leaves, and soil from the containers and window boxes when I empty them at the end of the growing season.
My new pile works wonders and I’m pleased to say I’ve had plenty to add to our raised bed vegetable garden.
Now it’s your turn!
Whether you built it or buy it, adding compost to the garden soil will do wonders for your plants. It recycles scraps and keeps them out of landfills. It adds to soil health and fertility. I hope you start composting today!
Shop for Composting Bins, Tumblers and Pails
I’ve put together a page of products so you can shop for composting bins, tumblers, and pails easily and quickly.
Although you don’t need a commercial bin or tumbler for starting a compost pile, it can help make the process easier.
First published in 2015, this page has been updated several times. The last update on May 4, 2021, includes adding a table of contents and better links to improve the reader’s experience and share more information.