Making a Basic Compost Pile

Learn what goes on in a compost pile, how to make one, and how to end up with black gold! Your plants and garden will thank you after using compost.

Reader Contribution by Michael Perry And Schikoy Rayn
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by Pexels/Eva Bronzini

Learn what can be composted in a compost pile, how to make one, and how to end up with black gold! Your plants and garden will thank you after using compost.

Ah, the sweet smell of spring is creeping in, finally here in Vermont. Garden planning seems to be at the forefront of our minds, where every seed packet that hits the store shelves or your local co-op calls you in with sweet whispers of “Grow me!” or “Hey, look at me I’m green, I’m purple, grow me!” But, that’s just where it starts.

These tiny seeds you start are tucked away in their little seed cells until they burst up with their set of true leaves. Soon following is the third and fourth set of leaves and, bam! You’ve got to get ready to put these little babies into the garden. So you go out and realize you need some fresh compost to feed the not so little guys and gals. Instead of buying compost or using fossil fuels to have some delivered, it’s best to use the microorganisms and bacteria right there under your feet. These are the most familiar to your garden and your gut already.

Getting Started

Many people think composting is difficult, time-consuming, and labor-intensive, not to mention the fact that everyone seems to think it takes years. It doesn’t. It can happen in as little as three months. It can have some labor involved in it, but I’d call it more of a labor of love than anything — I consider it exercise, actually. If you consider eating labor, then maybe. If you think taking care of your garden is labor, then I guess so. But really all it is is your kitchen/garden scraps, weeds, some brown material, and some water if the rain isn’t showing itself too much.

We will briefly review the basics of a compost heap, and then you can try your hand at it! Remember, you can’t mess it up! No matter what you do, how you do it, or what measurements of what you put in, you’re likely to get some decent compost by the end of it all!

Basically, you want a moist (not soaked) pile of a little bit of nitrogenous material with lots of carbonaceous material mixed in. I know, this sounds scientific, but it can be simplified. Composting actually is a science, but it’s also nature doing what nature does best. The microorganisms and bacteria in your pile do the work for you, as long as they have the right environment to thrive. You want aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria to dominate–which is where the turning of the pile comes into play. If you leave the pile unturned, anaerobic bacteria will dominate, and this is where the putrid smells come from. Let’s simplify and break things down a bit (pun intended)!

Materials Ratio and What Can Be Composted

The ideal ratio for a compost pile or heap is around 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 30:1. We can simplify this by using the ever-popular composting terms “brown” for carbon and “green” for nitrogen. This means that brown materials are ones that are dry, fluffy materials like hay or straw, leaves, newspaper, and other materials of that sort. Green materials are things that have more moisture in them, things like kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, weeds, manure, and such. The reason we want so much carbon to nitrogen is because carbon is what gives the bacteria their energy, and nitrogen gives them their proteins and other necessary nutrients to do their jobs. To simplify it further, think of carbon as carbohydrates and sugars for humans, and nitrogen as the protein for us. We need many more carbs a day than protein-rich foods to survive. Maintaining this balance is the quickest way to ensure that decomposition is happening. Too much carbon and it will slow down; too much nitrogen and it will turn anaerobic and start to smell.


Now using this 30:1 ratio doesn’t mean using this in terms of volume, we’re talking 30 parts of carbon to every 1 part of nitrogen, but every ingredient has both carbon and nitrogen in it, meaning they have their own ratios of carbon to nitrogen. So to simplify things even further than we have, play around with different “part to part” ratios. A good practice is to use two “parts” brown, to one “part” green. This can look like two buckets brown to one packed bucket green, or maybe it’s manure mixed with some bedding.

Turning the Pile

Another key element to a quick compost pile is to make sure you turn it, which gives oxygen to the pile and the bacteria within it. We turn ours about once every five days or so. You don’t have to be on a strict schedule, but make sure you do it regularly. When the pile heats up in its core (this can be measured with a compost probe, which is basically a super long meat thermometer) that means that thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria are at work. This will only last for about 2 to 3 days, then they run out of energy and let other types of bacteria take over.

However, the thermophilic bacteria are some of our most powerful allies when composting. They create a bacterial fever so to speak, and the extreme temperature makes the environment inhospitable to potential pathogenic spores, in addition to killing any viable weed seeds that may be in your materials. Turning gives the thermophilic bacteria another chance to heat things up, but they’ll always stop when they run out of food or energy.


You also want to make sure the pile is adequately moist, rain most often does the trick here but in the dry months of midsummer you may have to water your compost. Yes, that’s right, I said you may have to water your compost. But when you think about it, this is what bacteria loves: warm and moist locations. This can usually be accomplished by making sure there’s enough green or nitrogen, but not always. Water is necessary for all of life, including the worms, microorganisms, and bacteria in your pile.

You don’t need to have a large amount of materials to start a productive compost heap, and you don’t necessarily have to do it the way we just explained it either! There is real magic in the works of nature, and no matter what you do, you’ll be doing at least one thing right. In addition, you’re preventing large scale waste when you compost, turning that “waste” into real value.

So what are you waiting for?! Get out there with some buckets of your kitchen scraps, yard waste, lawn clippings, and leaves, and turn that stuff into black gold! Your garden, the planet, and your wallet may thank you.

Michael Perry and Schikoy Rayn operate Sacred Circle Homestead, a small-scale, low-tech perennial nursery focusing primarily on medicinal and edible species utilizing principles of permaculture and indigenous wisdom. Learn about the classes they teach at their website or at The Trillium Center, a healing center where they hold workshops in Burlington, VT. 

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