Your 7-Step Guide to Starting a Foolproof Compost Pile [2020 Edition]

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Here at Maximum Off Grid, I am all about bringing you solutions to create systems of independence. One massive problem we have today is the monumental amount of food waste that we create. A staggering one pound of food per person per day is thrown away in America.

One great way to combat all this waste is to start a compost pile.

Composting your organic leftovers has immense benefits and can create its own complete independent microbiome system, which is pretty much a fun science experiment for adults (and the kids too).

Let’s take a look at the basics of composting and why it’s a good idea for anyone!

start a compost pile

Why Compost?

Essentially, you are making dirt, and dirt is good!

The main reason to start a compost pile is to create rich and nutritious soil for your garden. Note, this doesn’t have to be for a robust vegetable garden. This can be for your house plants, decorative plants used in landscaping, even tiny kitchen herb gardens.

Compost provides nutrition to seedlings and crops

You can also use compost in areas where you are experiencing soil erosion. It can help break up dirt rich in clays or amend sandy soils for a more solid consistency.

Composting saves you money when feeding your plants. No longer will you need to buy expensive potting soils to amend your plants.

You are helping out the environment by naturally decomposing your own waste versus clogging up a landfill.

It is a great way to decompose your grass and leaf waste. Instead of buying expensive bags and filling up your trashcan, you can naturally eliminate your yard waste in an environmentally friendly way.

It really doesn’t take much effort to begin a composting project. Heck, the whole family can get involved and you can teach the kids a little bit of microbiology!

Compost replenishes and revitalizes old and exhausted soils and reduces soil erosion; it also prevents runoff from storm water.

In the scope of the bigger picture, replacing fertilizers with compost drastically reduces greenhouse emissions. Synthetic fertilizers are created with a huge amount of fossil fuels and impacts environmental and human health. Compost is organic and inert, plain and simple lush dirt, that replaces the need for toxic fertilizers and pesticides!

Organic compost matter improves the growth of plants by improving the structure of preexisting dirt. This is done so by breaking up clays and adding the capacity to hold more water and nutrients in the soil.

At this point, you are pretty convinced to start a compost pile. You may even be excited by the sheer thought of composting! Come on, let’s take this into action!

How to Start a Compost Pile

Composting is one of the easiest projects to get started, is pretty much fool proof, and is quick to deliver with rewarding, lush, dark, rich soil.

The first step to composting is choosing a location.

First off, composting bins, when balanced correctly, do not stink. They should smell like dirt. Placement of your compost pile does not need to be based on smell.

However, a compost bin is not exactly pleasing to the eye, so placing it in a discreet location in your backyard is a better choice than placing it right by the front door.

You do want to consider a convenient location with easy access. Placing your compost pile in the very far back corner behind the hedges isn’t really manageable. Just think of how annoying it is to take out the trash, any unneeded steps feel like drudgery! Same goes for composting. Place it in an easy access location that doesn’t require a lot of steps to get to.

You will need some workspace around the pile for basic maintenance and to retrieve the dirt once the composting is final.

You may have different compost piles for different types of matter. A leaf, grass, and woody compost pile may work better by the trees. If you have a vegetable garden, you may want to place your compost pile directly in the garden for passive soil amendment, or near the garden for easy compost access.

An obvious but important tip for placement is to place directly over soil or grass instead of on your patio or concrete. This will give your pile the benefits of healthy microbes, worms, and other natural decomposers.

Also, make sure to choose a location that is protected from the sun as the sun will evaporate moisture from the pile too quickly. You also don’t want your compost pile in a naturally wet area or an area where rainwater collects.

The second step is to determine the size of your composting location. The basic size for beginner piles is 3 feet by 3 feet and 3 feet tall. Any smaller of a size and your pile will not create the warmth needed for matter breakdown. The maximum size recommended is 5 feet by 5 feet and 5 feet high. Any larger and your pile may hold too much water which constricts airflow to the center. Remember that the pile must be turned so going too big may be too cumbersome to work with.

Third step is to decide on an open heap pile, purchasing a composting bin or building one yourself.

An open heap pile is the cheapest method, as you basically dig a hole in the ground and cover it up with topsoil. This option can be good for yards with lots of space, if you have a lot of organic matter to compost, and if your ground is easy to dig. There are downsides to trench composting; piles can start to sprawl, critters can freely access your pile, or your ground is not viable to dig up easily.

There are a bunch of fancy compost containers to choose from if you want a tidier pile. Stationary composting bins have a large capacity that you can fill, whereas a pile becomes a rounded sprawling heap. Having a lid on your bin is a nice feature as well; lids keep in moisture and curious critters out. A dark colored bin helps with heating up the pile. Most compost bins are bottomless so the good microorganisms and worms can infiltrate the pile. Some of them also have doors for removing finished compost, leaving the unfinished matter on top.

Building a DIY compost container is pretty easy as well. It can be as simple as assembling pallets into a cube and throwing a tarp on top. A stackable milk crate composter is neat because the finished materials work their way to the bottom. A wire fence bin works really well for leaves, woody materials, and grass clippings. You can get creative with any materials you have. Cinder blocks, old plastic bins, even straw bales can be organized into holding organic matter.

The 3 Bin System. I would like to note the success of the 3 bin system. Essentially, you line up 3 bins. The first bin is the starting phase of your compost, all of your organic materials start here. Once that bin has been filled up, you transfer it to the second bin for the medium stage. This matter stays put and is not added to while bin number one slowly fills up again.

start a compost pile with a three bin system

The three bin system is a successful way to run a larger compost operation

Once the first bin is full again, the contents of the second bin go into the third bin for the final composting stage and the first bin gets dumped into the second, so on and so forth.

The chain of composting command is fool proof and provides an ongoing system of fresh compost dirt.

Time for step 3, lets get to filling our bin!

The goal for a successful pile is to heat up fast, decompose quickly and uniformly, not smell, and is easy to maintain and turn. Layering your pile correctly is key to a well oiled compost pile.

There are two identifiers of material for your bin: green and brown matter.

Brown matter is high in carbon, decomposes slowly, and is the energy source for the microbes that break down the green materials. Brown matter can be composed of leaves, hay, straw, sawdust,  non-glossy paper, paper towels, tissue, egg shells, woody material, and wood ashes (sparingly). Make sure to break down paper, leaf and woody elements by shredding or mulching them.

Green matter is high in nitrogen, quickly decomposes, and provides the microbes with proteins to reproduce. Green matter consists of all the vegetative materials, manure, kitchen scraps, fresh grass clippings and fresh yard waste.

Start a compost pile with a layer of brown matter, about six to eight inches deep. Make sure your brown layer is mulched or shredded for a nice fluffy texture. The brown layer will absorb moisture and encourage aeration.

Then simply add green matter on top of the brown.

The biochemical interaction between the brown layer and the green layer is where the magic happens. Getting the right ratio between the two causes the thermal effect that breaks down the pile quickly.

Hitting the golden ratio is more of an art over a science. Sure, you can spend time calculating and adjusting the contents of your pile accordingly if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, then adjusting the composition of your pile will typically do the trick. If your pile is too slimy, add more brown matter. If your pile is too dry, add more green matter.

If you like, seal the pile with a layer of brown matter. It acts as a protective covering and can improve aesthetic but is not necessary. A protective brown layer can also help prevent oversaturation of rainwater and can also insulate the pile from losing too much water.

Step 4 is all about watering. Your compost pile has to stay moist for the biochemical breakdown to occur. Now, overwatering can become problematic. You do not want a soggy stinky slimy pile. Rather, aim for the wetness of a sponge, moist but not soaking.

The amount of watering your pile will need will greatly vary with the climate you live in. Check out my Guide to Composting in All Seasons article for tips and advice.

Step 5 time to aerate the pile. Typically, aeration ought to be done about every 3 to 7 days for the first couple of weeks then once a week thereafter. If your pile looks matted and needs some fluff, go ahead and give it a turn. If you add to the pile, mix it every few times. A simple pitchfork will do the job or you can purchase a compost aerator tool.

Step 6 Keep filling your bins. Remember to add your brown layer occasionally to keep air flow to the pile and keep on mixing. Once your bin is full, transfer it into the medium bin for the incubation period if you are using the 3-bin system or simply stop filling your bin. Just remember to turn the pile!

Step 7 enjoy your rich dark compost soil! Your soil is ready once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a dark, luscious rich crumbly soil.

Key takeaways to start a compost pile:

  • Choose a good location that is not too sunny or hot but is protected from rain and wetness and is easily accessible yet concealed from neighbors.
  • Make sure your pile is no less than 3 x 3 x 3 and no greater than 5 x 5 x 5.
  • Choose a bin that is right for you, either store bought, do it yourself, or no bin at all.
  • Fill your bin with a good brown / green ratio. 6 – 8 inches of brown at the bottom, green piles on top, with occasional brown added here and there. An optional brown cap can help.
  • Aerate your pile once a week or a little more.
  • Once the bin is full, transfer over to the medium bin for incubation, or simply stop filling it. Remember to aerate your pile.
  • Once the heat has diminished from the pile and you have a rich dark crumbly soil, the composting process is complete.

If you are planning to start a compost pile indoors, I take this topic further in my Balcony and Indoor Composting Guide.

Common Composting Questions Answered:

Can I use meat in my compost pile?

Only use vegetative waste in your pile. Meat, dairy, and bones can stink up your pile, take longer to break down, and will attract pests such as racoons, rats, and mice. Note that eggshells are ok in piles, just not the egg yolk or whites.

How long does it take for my pile to be ready?

This all depends on how long it takes for your pile to get to incubation period, how often you add scraps to your pile, the time of year it is, how often you turn it, and the biochemical composition of your pile. It could be anywhere in the range of 4 weeks to one year. This is where the 3-bin composting method comes in handy. Your piles are always in a different state of ripening, from collecting green matter, to the middle incubation period, to the final stages. Turning your pile will have a huge impact and reaching the appropriate heat will greatly hasten the process. Over time you will get the feel for the right ratios and how often to mix the pile. Not all piles are created equally!

Do I need to cover my compost?

Many composters like to cover their pile to keep vermin out and help with heat induction. Covers also keep moisture in and help the pile not dry out too quickly. A cover can be made out of the brown carbon base as well. Just add a few inches of mulched dried leaves or woody materials.

How can I accelerate my compost pile?

Having the proper ratio of brown to green will drastically increase the heat reaction within the pile. Brown matter is needed throughout the pile to increase aeration in dense areas. Just remember not to add too much. Mixing the pile on a regular basis will also add to breakdown speed.

You can also look into composting activators. These activators are comprised of nitrogen that provide nutrients to the microbes that break down the pile.

If you are having trouble with your compost pile, head over to my comprehensive Compost Troubleshooting article. 

In Conclusion

Fresh compost is the best!

Composting is one of the easiest independent systems you can create for many benefits. Being able to amend your garden with this nutritious soil is vital in growing robust fruits and vegetables for you and your family. It is also a great way to reduce waste production and keep our landfills cleaner, even if it just a little bit at a time.

And that is what its all about. Making small changes that add up to a healthier and brighter future.

If you are ready to take your composting a step further, then explore my Composting Toilet Systems Explained article.

I hope you have enjoyed my thorough guide to start a compost pile. Please leave me any questions or comments below. Have a wonderful day!

– Regina C.
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