Making A Compost Pile

finished compost for the gardenHow To Make Your Own Compost Pile

Building a compost pile is easy! Its also an important feature of your garden and has many benefits to both the environment and your fruits, vegetables and flowers. Anything organic will eventually break down on its own, but a compost pile will speed the process up. It will provide nutrients for your garden, keep organic matter out of landfills and build up your soil quality. plus, its fun to build a compost heap. Its a great way to get your kids involved in gardening too!

Location Location Location

You need to select a good spot for your compost pile. Some people dont mind it sitting in their garden, while other people like to have it tucked out of the way. You can put a screen around it too if that helps you keep it out of site. You need to make sure that your pile is easy to get to – you'll be adding to it and using it a lot! Remember that the process of composting is rotting – don't place your compost pile next to anything you don't want to rot away like a shed wall or fence.

large home compost pilesWhen To Start Composting

While you can build a compost pile at any time of year, there are certain seasons when a compost pile will get going more quickly and produce you loads of rich composted material. This is not to say don't build one in the middle of winter, you most definitely can, but there are more of both nitrogen rich and carbon material in the fall so this is the best time of year to start a compost heap. High nitrogen material is the greenery – your vegetable scraps and lawn mowings. Carbon rich material is the leaves which are everywhere in the fall.

What Sort Of Compost Pile?

There are all sorts of compost piles. You can buy a composting bin, you can make a pile, you can build your own enclosure, you can throw it all into a cage. It truly is up to you. Generally, your compost pile will break down more efficiently if you have it contained in a bin or built up with a frame around the edges and enclose it with a cover. A frame can be made of anything – old fencing, rocks, bricks or boards. You are limited only by your imagination and what you have in your yard. 


You will be working with your compost pile fairly regularly. You will be adding your fruit and vegetable scraps every week, but you will also need to turn your pile occasionally and of course remove and use the finished compost. When the weather is dry you may need to water your compost pile to keep it working efficiently, so you should have it in easy reach of your hose. 

Occasionally you will need to stir your pile. Lift the outer edges of the pile into the middle using a pitch fork. You will be able to check if your pile is dry when you turn it over, add water if necessary. (moist not soaked) Stirring yourpile will distribute the heat in your pile. 

Building Your Pile

compost layeringIf you are simply making a mound, you will need about 3 feet square to give you enough room for a good sized pile. A compost pile is built in layers, built up and creating the ideal amount of air, moisture and organic matter ratios to speed up the natural decay process. Start off your pile with a layer of twigs and sticks. This will allow air to get in to the bottom of your pile. Layer organic matter on the top including newspapers, vegetable scraps, hay, sod, grass clippings, leaves, garden debris etc. Anything you have that is organic.

Add a layer of "ignition". These are animal manure, fertilizers and compost starter (no its not cheating) that will start your compost pile off by introducing the microbes you need to start breaking things down. Cover your compost with a layer of top soil and your pile is done. You can put a final cover such as sacking, carpet or other protection on the top if you desire to speed up the heating process. 

These layers should be repeated with every layer a few inches thick. Putting twigs every 8" or so will really help air circulate through your pile so its important to remember to keep adding them.

A gardeners rule of thumb is to have a balance between carbon (dead/brown/dry) and nitrogen (green) material of 60% carbon to 40% ntrogen. When you are building your pile be sure to add a spray of the hose between layers to start the pile off with adequate moisture. ( I don't mean soak it – I mean dampen it) if you are stuck for carbon here are some products you can compost that will add to your carbon percentage:

  • newspaper
  • straw
  • shredded cardboard
  • sawdust (untreated)
  • woodchips (untreated)
  • paper towel
  • small twigs and branches  

What Can You Put In To Your Compost Pile?

Anything that will rot, with a few exceptions. Avoid meat or cheese products – they don't decompose properly and will attract rodents and insects (the wrong sort) to your pile. Diseased plants including weeds do your compost bin no favors. While plants have the potential to rot quickly, if your diseased plants are not in the centre of the pile (the composting powerhouse) where they will quickly decompose they may have time to spread their disease within the compost pile which in turn is reintroduced to your garden. Its not worth it.

Compost pointers

  • Shredding your material will have faster composting process and makes your pile easier to turn. Don't shred your large plants – they will become too 'wet' inside the pile.
  • Compost is a living breathing thing – well ok, maybe not but it still needs air, water and food to thrive. coarse materials in your layering are very important (twigs/branches etc)
  • When the pile no longer heats up the compost is ready. It will look similar to soil.
  • Too much water will kill the microbes and drown the worms (or chase them away). If your pile is too dry it will stop decaying. Your pile should be moist.

Common Composting Problems

Symptoms Potential Problems What To Do
Pile smells bad Possible overwatering; soil too compact; too much nitrogen

Add material which will soak up excess water (sawdust is perfect)

Stir/turn over your pile

Cover the pile

Add more carbon material (dry/brown)

Pile not very warm Pile too small; not enough moisture; insufficient air; insufficient nitrogen

Make the pile bigger by adding organic material

Add moisture and stir the pile

Add more nitrogen (green matter)

Pile is too hot Insufficient air or insufficient carbon

Turn the pile more regularly

Add more carbon materials sawdust and dead leaves are ideal

Pile is damp in the center only Pile is too small

Add more organic materials to your pile

Remember to layer and keep the 60-40 carbon/nitrogen rule of thumb

Rodents visit the pile      Meat scraps

Check for and remove any items in your pile which do not compost effectively – meat. 

Animal proof your pile – build sides, cage enclosure, cover with a tarp etc.

Large items not decomposing or are very slow to decompose     Smaller surface area Remove large items from the pile and chop up / shred

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