How to Start a Compost Pile

Making compost is 1-2-3 easy — layer green and brown vegetable matter, keep it barely moist and stir regularly.

  • compost pile
    Rich compost added to your garden will boost the soil's available nutrition.

  • compost pile

A vegetable garden is more than what you see on the surface — dirt, plants and (hopefully!) some mulch. Under the surface, a complex web of dirt, roots, microbes and fungi transforms plain old dirt into a superior growing medium — soil. But that intricate web will exist only if you boost your plain old dirt with nutritious amendments, such as homemade compost. And in addition to being a garden soil amendment, compost can be worked into the soil around trees, bushes and flowers to also give them a nutritional boost.

Composting is a natural process, similar to the way nature breaks down leaves and other dead material on the forest floor. A combination of green and brown vegetable matter kept barely moist and turned regularly will “rot” into a dark, aromatic material filled with the beneficial bacteria, microbes and fungi that your plants need to grow like champs.

Getting Started

Where will you work your compost? You can easily make a 3-to-4-foot-wide “cage” from chicken wire, welded wire or plastic gardening fencing to contain your compost materials. Place the compost cage in a corner of your garden, where the nutrients carried by rainwater will feed vegetables planted nearby. If there’s no room in the garden install it as close as possible because you’ll also want to add weeds and culled vegetables to the compost heap. Leave a space of equal size adjacent to the container (more on this below).

If you don’t want to build your own cage, there are numerous sizes and shapes of commercial compost tumblers available. While tumblers are compact and convenient to use, a well managed-compost pile can handle a lot more material — and is almost free.

What to Add — Or Not

The best compost heaps contain a good variety of green and brown ingredients:

  • whole or chopped leaves and stalks (if chopped, they will break down quicker)
  • vegetable and fruit trimmings
  • herbicide-free grass clippings
  • weeds
  • straw or hay
  • shredded paper or cardboard
  • manure from grazing animals

If you have too much wet, green material (grass clippings and fruit or veggie trimmings), the pile may get smelly. If you have too much dry, brown material (chopped leaves, straw or shredded paper), the heap will take much longer to decompose. So, a fairly equal ratio of greens and browns will produce the most efficient pile.

6/15/2015 12:36:19 PM

Thank you for this great information! We've featured it in our recent blog post "10 {Easy} Eco-Friendly Backyard Projects". You can see the full post here: We are an established used goods wholesaler located in the Pacific Northwestern United States. ​We purchase used goods (including credential clothing, mixed rags, used shoes, soft and hard toys, bulk linens, and more), customer returns, and overstock merchandise, then pass them on to wholesalers and retailers across the globe with an emphasis on developing nations. Thank you again for the composting information!

8/10/2013 12:29:12 PM

I VISIT my local STARBUCKS about once a week. They save me their used coffee grounds which goes into my compost.

It is one of the best "browns" you could get. Just a little addition of lime neutralizes the acidity.

Dawn Pfahl
7/3/2010 12:14:26 PM

I add all but the worst weeds to my pile. I will not add vines like ivy or morning glory as they will root nearly anywhere, but most weeds once pulled up die rather than rooting in your compost, and if you get them before they go to seed you don't have much to worry about. I try to pull weeds when they are still too small to have produced seeds but even if I don't, I am not worried. If weed seeds aren't growing in my compost pile, why would they suddenly sprout when I spread the compost? They've had access to heat and moisture and all the nutrients they can get. If they're going to grow, they'll grow before the compost is finished. I've known of potatoes and other garden crops growing out of an un-turned compost pile, but I've rarely seen weeds make it!

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