How to Start a Compost Pile

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

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.

There are a few ingredients you should never add to your composting pile:

  • meat
  • oily or greasy food and paper
  • manure from meat-eating animals, such as dogs and cats
  • herbicide-treated grass or other clippings

Keep it Going

Now that you have a pile of mixed vegetable matter, what do you do with it? You will want to keep it damp, similar to a wrung-out sponge. To speed up the decomposing process (this is where the space beside the container comes in) turn the material every week or two. The easiest way to do this is to lift the cage off and set it next to the pile. Then fork the pile back into the cage, thus inverting and mixing the material. If the material seems dry, spray it with your garden hose while you’re turning the pile. It is not necessary to turn the pile, but it will accelerate the process. Over time, unless you are adding a lot of new material, your pile will decrease in size as it decomposes.

Within a few months of adding to the mix and regularly turning it, you will have rich, nutritious compost to add to your garden soil.

Have questions about compost? Fire away! Just submit them toAsk Our Experts. Do you have a composting tip to share? Please add it to the comments section below.

Heidi Hunt is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. She has been on the editorial staff since 2001 when Ogden Publications acquired the magazine. Heidi especially enjoys interacting with readers and answering the myriad of questions they throw her way. You can also follow Heidi on .