This is your definitive guide for how to start a compost pile outside.
Composting is the best way to recycle organic material back into the soil that grows your backyard veggies, potted plants, and lush lawns.
It drastically reduces food and yard waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and it’s a great activity for teaching kids about the importance of preserving nature.
No matter where you live, or how small your yard is, making compost is a straightforward process that only requires some knowledge and a few tools to turn your organic food and yard waste into nutrient-rich food for your garden and lawn.
Let’s get started with the basic elements of a pile.
What is the compost pile method?
A compost pile is a heap of vegetation, food waste, yard waste, animal manure, and other organic matter laid on top of each other in order to decompose. Sometimes people will also call it a compost heap, accumulation heap, agglomerate, cumulus or mound.
How To Make a Compost Pile Outside
Step 1: Gather your organic material
For many individuals in a variety of climates, autumn is the best time to start their first compost pile. With ample amounts of fall leaves and garden trimmings, there’s usually more than enough material available that would otherwise go in the trash can.
Keep in mind that starting a compost pile requires a large volume of organic material.
If you’re only eyeing a small amount of grass clippings, a few peels from fruits, some vegetable ends, and a handful of leaves right now, this is not going to be quite enough to get started.
You should gather enough leaves, kitchen scraps, yard waste, and lawn clippings to fill at least 1 tall kitchen trash bag.
Step 2: Choose a practical location for the compost pile
A pile that will produce enough compost for a small garden and yard requires at least 3 square feet of space. You’ll want your pile to be easily accessible so that you have room to walk around it to add material and turn the layers.
Step 3: Decide if you want to use a compost bin
If your yard doesn’t have an appropriately out-of-the-way yet accessible spot for an open pile of compost, then you might want to start your pile in a compost bin.
A closed bin is a good choice if you’re worried about the way your compost pile will look or smell. There are also some containers called compost tumblers that make the process of turning a pile MUCH easier. If you opt for a container over an open pile, there are multiple options that you can both make and buy.
To start, look for a bin that’s about 3 feet in diameter and not much taller than your waistline for easier use. Use chicken wire or a simple fence to protect your compost bin from pets or other critters such as raccoons in your neighborhood.
Step 4: Start adding organic material to the pile
That’s it! You’re now composting.
What should go into the pile?
Any material that was once a plant can be composted. Even shredded newspaper, computer paper, and some paper coffee filters serve an important purpose in your compost.
The formula for making compost is simple:
3:1 = 3 parts “brown” material to 1 part “green” material
Most “browns” come from trees. They’re rich in carbon.
“Greens” come from fresher materials, like garden and kitchen waste. But any ingredient that is rich in nitrogen qualifies as a “green.”
- Pine needles
- Straw or Hay
- Kitchen scraps
- Grass clippings
- Coffee grounds
- Manure and other organic fertilizers
When made of 3 parts “browns” and 1 part “greens,” any compost pile should make good progress.
TIP: If you have an abundance of browns from a tree-filled yard but not a lot of greens from kitchen scraps, mix grass clippings from UNTREATED lawns into a leaf-based compost to help a stalled pile.
What does not go into a compost pile?
While they are compostable, dairy or animal products (even bones) will start to emit an odor and attract pests, so do not add them to your compost pile.
The same goes for any fats, oils, and pet waste. But there is a safe and effective way to compost dog poop.
How should I layer my pile?
Start your pile with a layer of both browns and greens such as dried leaves, straw, pesticide-free grass clippings, egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit peels, or other food waste from around the house.
Every layer after that should adhere to the 3:1 ration of browns to greens.
Maintaining this carefully balanced ratio is important because carbon-rich browns feed the microorganisms that break down the greens. The greens supply nitrogen, which is key for building the strong cell structures of new soil.
To utilize garden trimmings, combine them with kitchen waste to help them decompose a little faster. You can also chop leaves with a mulching mower or leaf shredder to speed decomposition.
Sprinkle your new pile with a couple of shovelfuls of topsoil or previously composted materials to add a boost of already-working microbes.
Remember that your compost needs oxygen and moisture. Without air, your pile will start to rot and stink.
Moisture helps break everything down; sprinkle your compost pile with water every now and then, unless your scraps are damp enough on their own.
TIP: When sprinkled between layers or mixed in well, organic fertilizers made from poultry manure provide an additional boost of nitrogen for your new compost pile.
Depending on the season and the size of your pile, your compost should start to smell like earthy dirt in 6-9 months.