Starting a Compost Pile for Beginners

Updated on April 22, 2019

So You Want to Start a Compost Pile?

The makings of a great compost pile.
The makings of a great compost pile.

That's great! Starting a compost pile is good for your garden because the compost will provide it with loose, rich, well draining soil. It's also good for the environment because composting materials recycles them for another purpose instead of sending them off to landfills. Finally, it's good for you as well because building and turning a compost pile are pretty good workouts.

Do I Need a Compost Bin to Start a Pile?

Nope. Though using a bin of some sort to keep your materials contained, it isn't necessary. The only things that you will need to make a compost pile are the materials that you will be composting, a way to get them to your compost pile, and a rake, shovel, garden fork, or whatever tool you choose to use to turn your pile once every week or 2. That's it! Compost will, and does happen whether it's in a bin, or a loose pile on the ground.

What Materials Should I Use to Build My Compost Pile?

Every single person that I know that has a compost pile has their own formula or recipe to make the best compost, but as a beginner, there are only 3 types of materials that you need to concentrate on:

Carbon-Rich Materials (Browns)

Carbon-rich materials are materials that are dry for the most part. Browns, as a lot of people call them, are easy to identify because they are materials that have been dead for a while and may already have started to decompose on their own. Carbons help keep the air in the compost and keep it from getting waterlogged and going anaerobic. You will know if you need to add more carbon to the pile because it will stink. Some good sources of carbon-rich materials that you can compost are:

  • Wood chips
  • Twigs and branches
  • Toilet paper/paper towel tubes
  • Paper towels
  • Newspaper (not glossy)
  • Junk mail (not glossy)
  • Computer paper
  • Sawdust
  • Dry leaves

Nitrogen-Rich Materials (Greens)

Nitrogen-rich sources, or greens, are going to be wet, and have been alive more recently than the browns. Greens feed the bacteria in the pile and get it cooking. (Literally) You can tell when you have too much nitrogen in your pile because it will go anaerobic quickly and start to stink. Some examples of nitrogen-rich additives to your pile are:

  • Manure

  • Melon rinds

  • Banana peels
  • Egg shells
  • Coffee and tea grounds
  • Green leaves
  • Apple cores
  • Almost any fruit or vegetable waste

Materials that You Do Not Want to Compost

These materials will compost eventually, but you might not want to throw them in the pile because they attract vermin. Just trust me on this, please. Turning over your pile to uncover a rats nest isn't a good memory to make. Do not put these in your pile:

  • Milk or dairy
  • Bones
  • Meat
  • Fats and oils
  • Prepared bread products

How Should I Build My Compost Pile?

In order to build your compost pile, you must first select an area where you will be able to build a 3-foot long x 3 foot wide by 3-foot high pile. To have an area where you could build 3 piles exactly like that it would be great, but let's just focus on 1 first.

Start with a 3 x 3 layer of coarse carbon material like sticks and twigs, or shredded cardboard. Try to get this layer between 6 and 10 inches thick. This should provide plenty of airflow up into your pile to keep the aerobic bacteria thriving. They work a lot faster than anaerobic bacteria and stink a lot less.

Water your pile after you put every layer on from here on out. You always want your compost pile to be damp. The living things that break your pile down need water and if they don't have water then they are going to go somewhere else. It's good to just start to attract them now.

The next layer of the pile will be nitrogen, then carbon, then nitrogen, then carbon in 2 to 4 inch, equal layers until you are out of material. End the building of the pile with a brown like sawdust, leaves, or paper to help soak up any odors that will attract any critters to surprise you. Don't forget to water that too.

Turning and Maintaining Your Pile

Good compost comes as much from maintaining the pile well, as it does from what it's composed of. Give your pile 2 weeks before you turn it the first time, and try to make it a point to turn it once every week or 2 after that.

Turning the pile is easy when a 3 bin or 3 pile system comes in handy. To turn the pile with a 3 pile system, you just fork, shovel, or rake it into the next bin making sure to completely turn the pile upside down. Then a new pile can be started in place of the working pile.

Turning a pile where you only have room for 1 isn't quite as easy but it is doable. Just use whichever tool you prefer to use, to move the pile in sections to a different spot. Then move the pile, starting with the first bit you moved, and ending with the last bit, back into the same spot. This should turn your pile upside down and is exactly what you wanted it to do.
Make sure to cover your pile with a tarp if it rains heavily or snows, and water it if it seems dry at all.

How Long Will My Compost Take?

The best answer that I can give for this question is, "Your compost isn't completely done until it looks like the soil in the picture above."

I just can't say for sure how long your compost will take because I don't know where you are. I have composted in central Pennsylvania, and in eastern North Carolina and, I do have to say that here in N.C., compost happens a lot faster because the climate is warmer.

I also can't say for sure because I don't know how big the material was that you started your pile with. The whole process of composting revolves around microbes and soil life breaking the materials in your pile down into the soil. The larger the materials are to begin with, the longer they will take to be composted.

What Do I Do When My Compost is Finished?

Use your compost to fix your native soil, make your own potting mixes, pass it through a sieve to make your own seed starting mix......anything that you would use bagged soil for. And be sure to start another pile immediately because once you have seen the results that fresh, organic compost makes, you WILL need more.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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