Starting a Compost Pile

A compost pile can be simple or elaborate. Materials can be placed in a pile directly on the ground, and nature will do the rest. Microorganisms, earthworms, and water encourage decomposition, and the materials will eventually turn into hummus that can be added to the garden

Most gardeners prefer a structured bin to make it easier to contain and manage the compost pile. You can make your own compost bin out of old wood pallets nailed together to make walls that hold the compost, or by stacking bricks or masonry blocks into walls to hold the compost in place. Some gardeners prefer commercial compost bins or tumblers, which can be purchased online or from local stores.

What to Add to the Compost Pile

Any type of plant material can be added to a compost pile with two caveats: first, it must be disease-free, and second, weed-free. Plants carrying mold, fungi or other disease organisms can inadvertently spread problems throughout the garden if the organisms withstand the compost pile's heat. And no gardener wants to spread weed seeds throughout the garden!

You can safely add any of the following materials to your compost pile:

Grass clippings: Grass clippings add nitrogen to the compost pile. Avoid adding large amounts at once, which can form mats and clots that are difficult to break down.
Leaves: Rake autumn leaves into piles and add them to the compost pile for additional nitrogen. Shredding the leaves first before adding them to the pile helps them break down more quickly.
Vegetable and fruit scraps from the kitchen: Any vegetable or fruit scraps from the kitchen can be added to the compost pile. Potato and carrot peels, apple cores, orange and citrus fruit peels, broccoli stems, outside leaves from lettuce and cabbages - these and more make great additions to a compost pile. Keep a covered compost pail in the kitchen to collect scraps throughout the day, and add it each evening to the pile.

Other plant waste:

  • Add the leafy portions of potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables to the compost pile when you harvest vegetables.
  • Eggshells: Crushed eggshells can be sprinkled on the compost pile to add calcium. Make sure you rinse the eggshells out before using them to prevent odors.
  • Coffee grounds, coffee filters and tea bags: All can be added to the compost pile. Tea bags may take a while to decompose. You can remove the tea leaves, add the leaves to the pile, and discard the bag in the regular trash if you find your tea bags aren't decomposing in the compost pile.
  • Paper and cardboard: Shred up your old newspaper and cardboard and add it to the compost pile, too. Avoid using glossy magazine-style paper printed with colored inks, as these may contain unwanted chemicals that will eventually make their way into the soil.
  • Wood ash: Clean wood ash swept from the fireplace or a fire pit adds carbon to the compost pile. Sprinkle it on top for even distribution.
  • Some animal manures: Cow, chicken, rabbit, sheep, goat and horse manure all make fine animal manures to add to the compost pile. You can also let them age separately and add aged manure directly to garden soil.

What Not to Add

Do not add animal products to the compost pile such as meat, bones, skin or fat. Such items create an unpleasant smell, attract vermin, and may even add disease-borne organisms to the soil. The same goes for pet feces; do not add dog or cat manure to the compost pile, as it can add parasites into the compost that eventually make their way into the soil around food crops. When in doubt about adding an item to your compost pile, leave it out.

Care and Feeding of a Compost Pile

Once you've started your pile, time, heat and moisture do the rest, converting kitchen and garden waste into so-called gardener's black gold. Turning the pile or mixing it up once every few weeks or months helps aerate the compost and speeds decomposition. It also uncovers the beautiful, rich compost at the bottom of the pile, which is the best compost to add to the garden.

A healthy compost pile smells earthy, like a forest after a rainstorm. You'll see fat, happy worms wriggling through the pile, and other insects, too. Compost is ready to add to your garden soil when it has the appearance and consistency of crumbled devil's food cake. That's the stuff your plants crave, and the best natural fertilizer for your garden. Mix compost into your garden beds before planting, and let nature do the rest to nourish your garden. You've brought the garden back full circle, returning the plants to their source to feed the next generation.