How to Start a Compost Pile in Your Backyard

How to turn weeds, kitchen garbage and leaves into the best garden soil ever!

Last week I couldn't even see the raised beds in my garden for the tall, thick weeds that grew in the paths.

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We had so much rain this winter and spring that when the warm weather hit, the weeds grew like, well, like weeds. The henbit, chickweed and hairy vetch grew so quickly that even though I was pulling buckets full of early spring weeds every day from the pathways between my raised beds - which the goats totally appreciated - I quickly lost the battle.

The raised beds were impossible to even find in that green jungle, much less plant in. I was too embarrassed to even take a photo of it to show you.

The weeds were too tall to mow down with the lawn mower, and hubby had to order a new belt for the string mower. But the belt finally arrived, was replaced immediately and hubby cut it all down. Hurray!

All that green matter was laying on the ground,and I needed to rake it all up. I'm not one to let green matter go to waste. I had a compost pile to whip into shape!

What is a compost pile?

A compost pile is made up of vegetation, kitchen waste, dried wood products and more. Layered together and allowed to decay, eventually you'll have rich organic material to be used as fertilizer and planting medium. Manure is often added to the pile as well.

The waste materials used to make compost are divided into "green" and "brown" materials. Green ingredients are high in nitrogen and brown ingredients are high in carbon. (By the way, green and brown don't always refer to the color of the ingredients, which can make things rather confusing, yes?)

Mixed together, they fuel the decomposition process and eventually you end up with lovely compost. Yes, I think this decayed and rotted stuff is "lovely."

Compost can be made in a simple pile or heap on the ground, or in a container or bin of some kind. Since we don't have neighbors, I just make a pile on the ground. It's easier for me to turn it regularly.

Amazingly, the ground underneath the compost pile has been dramatically changed too.

What was hard clay when I started the compost pile has turned into the nicest, loose, lovely soil, just from having the compost pile working on top of it for a couple of months. The worms, bugs and microbes don't stop working at the bottom of the compost pile.

I've purposefully moved my compost pile around my garden to take advantage of this side benefit.

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But if you have neighbors who might not enjoy looking at a ragged pile on the ground, or who might complain about odors and insects or other pests, you might want to use a bin of some sort to contain what will inevitably look like a bit of a sprawling mess.

A compost bin can be as simple as forming three pallets into a square with the fourth side open, or you can use a piece of fencing wired into a circular shape. Either one will contain the mess and keep it from spreading all over the place. A pile about three feet by three feet square - or three feet in diameter - is a good size.

How to make a do-it-yourself compost pile in your backyard

Compost piles are built in layers, alternating those greens and browns I mentioned earlier. You'll need approximately twice as much carbon-rich materials as nitrogen-rich ingredients. But I think the ratio actually depends on what kinds of greens and browns you're using.

As a general guideline, if your pile smells bad you need more carbon such as straw; on the other hand, if nothing at all is happening, you probably need more nitrogen such as grass clippings.

How to turn grass clippings, weeds, leaves and kitchen garbage into the best garden soil ever!

You don't have to have all that organic matter to start with, though. Choose a sunny spot to build your compost pile, and layer on what you have.

Day by day, week by week, add new waste materials as you have them, burying kitchen waste inside the pile and covering with a layer of straw or shavings or other brown materials to keep odors to a minimum and discourage critters. Eventually, when you get enough volume, it will heat up and the process will begin.

Just keep alternating those browns and greens as best you can.

Using the hose, I wet down each layer of carbon materials (straw, mulch, unfinished compost, leaves and bedding) before adding the next layer.

How to manage your compost pile and hurry the process along

If you totally ignore your compost pile, it will eventually turn into compost on its own, but the key word there is "eventually." If you don't mind waiting, there's no harm in it. It will work, but slowly.

How a compost pile turns grass clippings, weeds, leaves and kitchen garbage into the best garden soil ever!

But if you want to hurry it along a little and make compost faster - which I totally want to do - here's what to do:
  • Turn the pile weekly, using a pitchfork to move the materials into a new pile next to the old one. This incorporates the air that is needed for decomposition. Add new material in layers while turning.
  • Water the pile to keep it moist inside, but not sopping wet. You'll know when you turn it whether it needs water or not. Often, even if it has rained, mine needs more moisture, but yours might not. Your location and climate will play a part in this.

How do you know if your compost pile is "working"?

Use your pitchfork or shovel to open the pile. If the inside of your compost pile is warm or even hot to the touch, it's working! And if the inside looks as though it's been burned or scorched, it's working!

You can also use a compost thermometer to track the temperature of your compost pile. While it's decomposing the temperature will go up. After a period of time the temperature will cool down, signaling that the composting process has slowed down. This is a good time to turn the pile and add moisture if needed, to restart the decaying process.

Some compost pile tips

While a few twigs are fine, don't expect a pile of sticks and branches to decompose quickly. Solution: chop up branches with a wood chipper. Smaller pieces will always decompose faster.

Adding too much nitrogen ("greens") - especially large amounts of kitchen waste - will result in a slimy, smelly mess that attracts flies and gnats. Solution: add more carbon ("browns"). Bury kitchen waste deep in your compost pile so it won't attract rodents and other critters.

If your compost pile isn't heating up, add more nitrogen such as grass clippings, pulled weeds or fresh manure. You might need to give the pile more moisture, or help it to conserve the moisture by covering the pile with a tarp.

The ideal size for a backyard compost pile is about three feet by three feet square, or three feet in diameter.

Don't compost these items:

  • meat
  • glossy or colored newspaper ads/inserts
  • magazine pages
  • grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with chemicals
  • manure from dogs, cats or pigs
  • diseased plants

How to use compost

Use your finished compost as fertilizer, top dressing on your plants or to top up pots and raised beds. Compost can be used as a planting medium, to amend poor soil, to fill raised beds, or as an ingredient in your seed starting mixture or homemade potting soil.

I fill new raised beds with a mixture of soil and compost, and add more each year to renew the soil and top off the bed.

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting

For more detailed information about composting, check out my ebook The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting for People Without a Science Degree. You'll find tips and tricks to build your own compost pile, how to troubleshoot a pile with problems, how to care for your compost pile over the winter, and more.

You'll also find a crazy-long list of what you can and can't compost, and a recipe for compost tea - an amazing fertilizer for your garden - that doesn't require a pump and bubbler.

For more gardening and simple living ideas and inspiration, subscribe to The Acorn, Oak Hill Homestead's weekly-ish newsletter, and join me on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. I'd love to see you there!

Related posts:

How to Grow Cabbage in Your Backyard Garden
How to Make Comfrey Tea to Fertilize Your Garden Plants

How to turn grass clippings, kitchen waste and fallen leaves into the best garden soil ever!

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  1. I love this! I learned so much, thank you!

  2. I have an abundance of weeds to add to my compost pile right now too! Waiting for it to dry out enough to do some work in the garden.

  3. Aren't weeds the best, Lisa? (Who would ever think of saying that but someone who loves to compost?)

    1. Lol...very true, Kathi! I remember reading that weeds with deep root systems are great for your compost because they have been pulling nutrients from deep in the soil...and when you compost them you're adding all that nutrition back into your topsoil for your garden plants. That really made me think more 'deeply' about the health of my soil and how to reduce my fertilizer needs. :)

      Thanks for sharing your post on Farm Fresh Tuesdays!

  4. Still haven't built ups our compost bin yet on the homestead- it seems the chickens have been getting all the good scraps. But, it's in the works, on the list and a plan to complete:)
    Thanks for sharing on the Family Off the Grid Blog Hop:)


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