How to Build a Summer Compost Pile

How to build a summer compost pile.

Last year I began composting in earnest. Before that, I'd done it in a haphazard, small-scale fashion but when I expanded the garden and needed to fill those new raised beds, my homegrown compost was the best way to go.

You might remember that I'm attempting this garden expansion with a budget of zero dollars. The materials are reclaimed, and most of the soil is dug from various places on our homestead. Our soil is rather poor though, so I try to mix in a large percentage of compost.

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I did purchase a couple of bags of "compost" and top soil from one of the big box stores to finish filling up the second raised bed, but I was really disappointed in it. It had recognizable chunks of wood, which in my mind means it wasn't completely finished compost. My own homemade compost is so much nicer. But I didn't have very much of it.

How to make your own compost that's far superior to the store-bought bags.

So I began composting more seriously and on a larger scale. I discovered that it's much harder to compost over the winter. I know people do it, but the cold weather really brought my compost pile to a screeching halt. So while I did continue to add my kitchen waste deep in the existing pile, I just waited for spring and warmer weather.

Composting in summer is easy. Summer temperatures make it easy for the compost pile to reach and maintain a high internal temperature for successful composting.

This isn't a technical article on how composting works, but simply put, composting is the art of mixing nitrogen ("green") and carbon ("brown") ingredients and letting them rot. If you never touch the pile again it will eventually turn itself into compost, but you can hurry up the process with a few tricks.

You can find five additional ways to compost (instead of making a pile on the ground like I do) in this post from Our Inspired Roots.

Build your compost pile with layers of green and brown ingredients.

Chopping your ingredients into small pieces will help the process along. Sticks and branches can take years to break down; you'll do better if you can run them through a wood chipper, otherwise you probably shouldn't use them. You can chop fallen leaves by running over them with the lawnmower. Tear cardboard into pieces; run paper through your paper shredder.

Your pile also needs moisture. Oklahoma in summer is a bit light on moisture - unless you're measuring the humidity in the air - so when I water the garden, I stick the hose inside the compost pile and apply a generous amount of water. When turning the pile or layering new ingredients, I water each layer. I've never had a pile that was too wet, but that could be attributed to my weather and summer temperatures.

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A few shovelfuls of regular dirt will give your compost pile the microbes needed to start working on those raw ingredients. You can also give your compost pile a jumpstart with a layer of comfrey leaves if you have them. Just layer them in with the rest of your ingredients. Comfrey breaks down very quickly and is an excellent compost activator.

Turning your pile about once every week or two will speed up the composting process.

Save fallen leaves in autumn to use in your summer compost pile.

My typical compost pile contains layers of horse manure, autumn leaves that I raked up in the fall and saved till spring, grass clippings, shredded paper, weeds I've pulled (unless they've gone to seed, then the goats get them), bedding from the chick brooder and chicken coop, and kitchen waste that includes eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and fruit and vegetable waste. I make my layers rather thin: a week's worth of grass clippings is divided into three or four layers with leaves or other dry material in between. Shredded paper must be layered thinly or it forms a matted mess.

Be sure to bury your food scraps and kitchen waste deep in your pile. Occasionally I have a critter dig them up during the night; I just thank them for turning my compost pile for me and shovel it all back together.

Composting in summer is easy. Your compost pile needs a mix of "green" and "brown" ingredients plus moisture and air.

When my pile gets large enough - about three feet tall as well as wide - I begin a new pile and let the first one cook and then mature into usable compost.

The secret to composting is adding the right balance of "brown" and "green" ingredients. Some sources say you need a ratio of four parts brown to one part green. Others say half and half works. I've discovered that it just depends on what you're using. Some ingredients are wetter than others and the ratio is never absolute. Don't worry too much about this. Just toss your stuff in there, and if the pile is too wet, add more brown (carbon) items to soak up the moisture; if it's too dry, add more green ingredients or water the pile thoroughly. Because my compost pile is directly on the ground, any excess moisture runs right off.

If you need more green or more brown ingredients, you could ask friends if they might have what you need. A friend of mine takes a bucket to church potlucks for table scraps. Another friend once helped me clean my horse barn in return for a truckload of manure. I once scored a large bag of coffee grounds from a coffee shop, but I'm told that isn't as easy to do as it used to be.

What do you do with your grass clippings after mowing the lawn? Compost them, of course!

How do you know if your compost pile is working? When you dig down into the pile to add kitchen waste, you'll notice that it's hot inside. When you turn the pile, you might notice that the inside looks like it's been burned, and you might see steam rising. The easiest way is to use a compost thermometer such as this one (affiliate link) so you can measure the exact temperature and know if it's hot enough to kill those weed seeds.

You'll know your pile is finished by the appearance, when it smells earthy, and because the thermometer shows a cooler temperature. I sieve my pile through a wire screen with 1" x 1/2" holes - it used to be part of a rabbit cage - and add the larger pieces back to my new pile to compost further.

VoilĂ ! You've made compost! It's much nicer than the bags from the store, and it was completely free. You recycled garden waste, kitchen waste and barn waste: this is waste management at its best. Plus you had a great cardio workout every time you turned the pile without having to pay for a gym membership.

Do you compost? Do you know someone who should? Share this post!

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  1. Great post! I did not know that about comfrey.

    I've been composting for about 20 years--more, if you count the years I lived with my parents, who always had a compost pile on the ground like yours. I had one landlord who said compost had to be in a bin, so I started a system with 2, then 3, of the largest size flowerpots. I've just written a 3-part series about composting--that's part 3 with links to the others.

    1. Hi Becca, yes, comfrey is good for SO much!

      I've wondered about bin composting; I've never tried it, but I'm in a group that seems to be mostly based in the UK and everyone talks about their bins. I'm guessing it's a requirement there, that open compost piles aren't allowed. I'll go read about your flowerpot system.

  2. We need to start a compost pile, with having chickens our little composter bin is too small.

    1. You can make larger quantities in a pile. :-) I've not had a problem with it smelling at all, even with chicken litter. Just make sure you put in enough carbon and you'll be fine.

  3. I do compost and love using my own which is, as you said, SOOOOO much nicer than store bought.
    :) gwingal

    1. It *really is*, Gwingal, isn't it? I was amazed at the difference!

  4. I love the idea of taking a bucket to potlucks for food scraps! Thanks for sharing on the #WasteLessWednesday blog hop.

    1. So much better than it all going in the big trash can, isn't it?


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