How to Start a Compost Pile in Your Backyard

A yellow wheelbarrow full of rich, black soil, with a shovel.

Compost is an excellent way to enrich your garden soil - and if you make your own compost, it's practically free. 

Here's how to use garden waste, kitchen waste and more to make your own rich compost right in your own backyard.

How to start composting in your backyard

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.

My raised garden 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 brush 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 quickly raked it all up. I'm not one to let green waste material 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. Manure is often added to the pile as well.

Layered together and allowed to decay, eventually you'll have rich organic material to be used as fertilizer and planting medium. 

The waste materials used to make compost are divided into "green" and "brown" catergories. Green ingredients are high in nitrogen and brown ingredients are high in carbon. 

(By the way, the green and brown classifications 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 do 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.

If you want to contain the composting materials a little more neatly, you can make an enclosure from pallets or fencing wire or whatever you happen to have on hand. Keep reading for details.

A "side benefit" of having a compost pile

Amazingly, the ground underneath my 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 - and from raised bed to raised bed in the off season - to take advantage of this side benefit.

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Compost pile ideas - designing an enclosure

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.

What if you live in city, in the suburbs, or have an HOA (Homeowners' Association)? Can you still make compost? Yes!

You'll find my tips for composting in town, and how to build a DIY composting bin from a plastic trash can.

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 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.

A yellow wheelbarrow with grass clippings and weeds inside.

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

Day by day, week by week, add new waste materials as you have them. Bury kitchen waste inside the pile and cover it 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 make faster compost

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.

Yellow wheelbarrow and blue rake on a green lawn.

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 and dig into the middle. 

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, even better!

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. You'll be more successful if you 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") such as straw, wood shavings or autumn leaves. 

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. 

Or you might need to give the pile more moisture, or help it to conserve moisture by covering the pile with a tarp.

A large compost pile next to a wheelbarrow.

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

You'll find a comprehensive list of items you can add and what you shouldn't put in your compost pile in my printable 10-page list Can I Compost That? The Crazy-Long List of Compost Ingredients.

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.

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Related posts:

How to Grow Cabbage in Your Backyard Garden
How to Make Comfrey Tea to Fertilize Your Garden Plants
Four Reasons Why You Should Be Composting

A woman's hand full of rich, dark compost. Text: "How to start composting for your best garden ever."


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