Menu Join now Search

Starting Your Own Compost Pile

“Don’t throw that out!” my mom said. “Put it in the urn!”

I nodded, half asleep. I was visiting my parents one weekend. We’d just finished breakfast and I was throwing out some melon rinds.

She motioned toward an urn cluttering the counter top.

My mom explained that she now put all her leftover kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, and other things in the urn.

She grabbed it off the counter and took it outside with me at her heels. She opened a bin and dumped it in.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“My compost pile,” she smiled proudly.

I hadn’t pictured my mom doing this kind of thing. It’s not as though you need to be an environmentalist to start a compost heap, but still, I was impressed. The more I thought about it the compost pile made sense. Her mother-in-law had done it years ago. And she had always cared about her children and nature, so this was just a natural extension of that.

Turns out she’d started the pile several months earlier.

“Composting is easier than you think. It’s all about the layering of greens and browns,” she said.

Composting is pretty easy. Compost itself is really just decayed organic matter. Microorganisms, bacteria, and insects break down the plant matter, transforming it into decayed organic matter.

Why Compost?

There are many reasons to compost:

  • Composting reduces your garbage from 25 to 50 percent
  • Your garden will thank you. The rich, healthy soil provides more nutrients and water than typical soil in your garden. That means healthier plants. Compost can also be mixed with soil for use on your lawn.
  • An abundance of plants means cleaner air
  • It’s practical and easy
  • You’re returning something good to the Earth. Solid waste materials that would otherwise wind up in landfills or incinerators get reused. That’s both environmentally friendly and economically sound.
  • It’s another way to incorporate sustainability into your life!

Here’s how to start your own compost pile.

Choose Your Structure and Site.
You might want to keep it simple and start with a pile. If you’d rather use a bin, there are all kinds of compost bins on the market. Simple is best. The kind of bin you use depends on how much time you have, the expense, and local ordinances. Some people prefer structures with three or more bins.

Consider putting the pile “downwind” from your home. Sometimes the pile will emit odors.

Ensure that there’s enough sunlight, putting it near a deciduous tree if possible. It will need sufficient sunlight in the winter months and some shade in summer so that it doesn’t dry out.

Good drainage is also essential so that water doesn’t accumulate around it.

Gather Your Materials.
As women we’re natural gatherers, so this part is particularly fun, I think. Start collecting kitchen scraps and yard trimmings. Save rinds, peels, skins, seeds, leaves, egg shells, corncobs, tea bags, and coffee grounds. Save yard trimmings, including pine needles, hay, leaves, grass, prunings, straw, brush, and other yard debris.

Avoid oils, animal fats, meats, disease-infected plants, weeds, or dog and cat feces.

Read the list below from the EPA before you get started.

What to Compost.

  • Animal manure
  • Cardboard rolls
  • Clean paper
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Cotton rags
  • Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
  • Eggshells
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Grass clippings
  • Hair and fur
  • Hay and straw
  • Houseplants
  • Leaves
  • Nut shells
  • Sawdust
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Tea bags
  • Wood chips
  • Wool rags
  • Yard trimmings

What Not to Compost.

  • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Dairy products (e.g., butter, egg yolks, milk, sour cream, yogurt)
  • Diseased or insect-ridden plants
  • Fats, grease, lard, or oils
  • Meat or fish bones and scraps
  • Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
  • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides

Build It.
Here are your materials:

Browns (provide carbon): dead leaves, branches, twigs, etc.

Greens (provide nitrogen): grass clippings, fruit and vegetable waste, coffee grounds, etc.

Water (provides moisture)

Start a small pile, about 3 x 3 x 3. Begin by building layers of greens and browns (about two to four inches thick), with coarse materials like twigs and wood chips at the bottom of the pile. Make sure the larger pieces are chopped up. Alternate between green and brown layers.

After about two layers, moisten it. Make sure it’s not saturated.

Put kitchen scraps in the center of the pile (about ten inches down).

Add garden soil periodically.

Save your autumn leaves, adding them in spring and summer.

If it’s a pile, you might want to cover it with a tarp to keep it moist. (Most bins have covers.)

Using a pitchfork, turn the compost lightly. Alternatively, you might just want to punch holes in the pile so it’s properly aerated that way.

If you turn it periodically, you may get faster results. Read up on turning if you decide to do this though.

It’s like cooking. You never know how it’s going to turn out. You have to improvise. You might decide it’s dry and add water. If it’s too hot, there’s too much nitrogen. (Add more carbon materials.) If it smells very bad, there may be too much nitrogen.

Decomposing may take two weeks or two years. It depends on the materials you use, how often you turn it, and the size of the pile.

The bottom layer eventually becomes a rich dark color. This indicates it’s ready to use.

Composting is an inexact science. Once you do it, you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t.

You might want to join a workshop or class. There is a plethora of information on the Web, too. Find composting programs in your area.