Build a Compost Pile

Sep. 5, 2010

Ironic, isn’t it, that we’d trash or burn yard refuse, then in the same stroke, run to the store and buy bags of compost for the garden? With an overall conscious effort to recycle, people are getting smarter and reusing what would be garbage. The latest and greatest ‘Lasagna gardening’, teaches us that some materials dont even have to break down completely to be usable.

Everything natural decomposes. Thinking accordingly, consider the forest floor, where a mix of all types of organic materials fall, layering themselves, slowly decomposing to create a sustainable environment for future growth. Varying degrees of decomposition of many types of material aid in nutrition, drainage and water retention.

So lets learn how to convert our waste into soluble organic material, supportive to plant growth, disease resistance and pest control and build a compost pile. It is one of the best things to do for your garden.

Containment: Compost Bins
A fancy compost bin isn’t required to build a compost pile, though a compost tumbler may make it easier to maintain. You could simply throw a pile of scraps in a garbage can, or directly on the ground… mix or layer and let it rot. I constructed my own bin from 20 year old boards, and rusty chain link fencing donated by a neighbor. Even with poor construction, I still receive compliments on the bin.

Homemade Compost Bin

Hot Composting Simplified

When it comes to compost materials, the more the merrier. Different types of materials contain different nutrients and a good mix will ensure a balanced diet for your plants. Two overall types of materials are necessary:

Carbon and Nitrogen.
You’ll need an approximate 50/50 mix of brown materials (carbon/energy) and live green materials (nitrogen/protein).


  • Leaves
  • Shredded Paper/cardboard (biodegradable paper cups and plates)
  • Straw (chop for faster decomposition)


  • Grass Clippings
  • Coffee grounds+filters and Tea bags
  • Kitchen Scraps (fruit and veggies, egg shells)


  • Chemically treated grass clippings
  • Diseased plants
  • Noxious weeds
  • Poisonous plants
  • Oil/fat
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Pet feces

Build a Compost Pile

Build A compost Pile - Layers 


The Instructions couldnt be easier.

  1. Line to bottom with brush, twigs or straw for drainage and air flow. If you plan on turning your pile often, skip this step. Sticks and thick stems take long to break down and just get in the way.
  2. Alternate 4” layers of green and brown materials. Some people add a layer of soil as an activator. Go light if you choose to do so, soil makes compost heavy.
  3. Optional: Add an accelerator. Good sources are high in nitrogen. You can use horse, cow or chicken manure, or even garden fertilizer to accelerate decomposition. I used rabbit food pellets (25 lbs for $7 at walmart), the main ingredient being alfalfa meal, said to be a powerful compost accelerator.
  4. Water each layer lightly. Dont Over water!
  5. Keep layering until your pile is at 3 to 5 feet high, or roughly a full garbage can.

It isnt necessarily important to layer a compost pile perfectly. You could just as easily throw everything in, mix it up a little and be equally as effective.

Compost Chemistry. The Science of Rotting Garbage.

Heat. The decomposition process generates heat through the microbial breakdown of materials. You might notice steam in the early morning or when you turn the pile. Heat is essential to ‘cook’ your compost pile. When your pile is cooking, you’ll know that its actively decomposing, killing pathogens and weed seeds.

Moisture. You may notice white powdery dry spots in your compost pile, and this is most natural, but dry spots are not actively breaking down. The pile needs to be turned and watered. Dont over water, a soupy mess wont break down either and may leach nutrients from the pile. Everyone says ‘wrung out sponge’ and thats about right.

Oxygen. Microorganisms known for breaking down a compost pile need oxygen to breathe, therefore aeration is a necessity. Turning keeps the pile oxygenated and distributes moisture evenly.

Size. The size of the compost pile also aids in the decomposition process. It should be large enough to retain moisture and generate heat and small enough to allow air flow. The recommended size is 3-5 feet wide and tall.

Whats that Smell?
Most commonly, you’ll encounter a smelly compost pile. Properly constructed compost piles wont smell, but if yours does, its easy enough to remedy.

  • I frequently encounter an ammonia smell which is most reminiscent of animal urine. This is caused by too much nitrogen. Mixing in more carbon rich brown material will fix the problem fast. Shredded newspaper is most available, so I use it a lot.
  • If the pile smells rotten, like sewage or rotten eggs, its said to be caused by anaerobic activity. Turning the pile adds more oxygen and should relieve that rotten stench.
  • In a pinch Ive covered the pile with some finished compost to mask bad smells.

Turning The Pile.
There are differing opinions on turning compost. Some research says that untouched compost piles still retain oxygen and heat levels adequately, doing away with the necessity to turn. Though this may be true, I simply cant wait 6 months to a year before my compost is ready. I’ve found that turning the pile breaks it down faster, and have read that, as a rule, every turn of your pile cuts composting time in half. Turning large piles of compost is hard work so it’s understandable the desire to just let it sit. And that works, but a pile located in direct sun, turned daily, without the addition of new materials, can be broken down in 2-3 weeks. That’s more like it, and worth the effort. In the first few days, I turn with a pitch fork. After the grass clippings have decomposed past the bulky stage, the Mantis Tiller works like a pro and makes the job a breeze! 😀

Other Cool Places to learn about composting

Where to buy those Fancy Compost Bins

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16 Responses to “Build a Compost Pile”

  1. Good morning, I would like to say many thanks for an great blog about a topic I have had an interest in for quite some time now. I’ve been browsing in and reading through the commentary and just wanted to express my many thanks for giving me some rather exciting reading material. I watch for reading more, and getting a more active part in the chats here, whilst picking up some expertise as well 🙂

    • Trisha says:

      Great, Iris! Im so glad that you find the site useful. Gardening is glorious, isnt it? By now, im totally hooked… Absolutely, share your questions, ideas, experience, I love feedback and would love to hear from you again!

  2. Veronique says:

    Thank you for this great site! i’m working on a vegetable garden in my school.

    • Trisha says:

      Verinique, Im so glad you like the site! Gardens are a great way for your kids to learn about science and our environment. I hope you get to enjoy it more!

  3. Jana says:

    Hi. I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this site. Great accurate information. I’ve been browsing sites for bin construction options and found lots of inaccurate information. I only know because I have done composting previously. So, my current problem is keeping the dogs out of the compost. I had a primitive pile, which worked fine. Then I got new dogs and they followed me out to the pile and dug out whatever I buried. !! So, now I’ve been buying for a couple of years and I”m tired of it. I’m so sad to throw out my compostables and then I have to buy what I need for my garden. I’ve decided to go with a more “designed ” bin, chicken wire, and I’m looking for ways to make access for me, to get to the compost and to turn the pile, while still keeping the dogs out. !!
    Anyway, thanks for the great site. I’ll keep coming back. Jana

    • Trisha says:

      Hi Jana, Thanks for your comment! Dogs get into everything dont they, but you gotta love them 😀 I built one compost bin prior to the one shown here with used pallets. Lie them upright and secure them together with brackets to make a box shape. Of course you need a front that can be removed so that you can get in and out, but your dogs cant!

      If youre handy at all, you could build a wooden frame to hang your chicken wire on. On the front you could build doors on hinges to make it functional and look nice.

      Best of luck on your composting!

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