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How to Build Your Own Compost Pile

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It’s hard to imagine a reason why a gardener wouldn’t want to compost. Composting is a simple way to recycle and feed your plants a super nutritious diet of homemade fertilizer. It helps your garden stay moist and prevents disease and pest infestations. Think of it as one small way to minimize your carbon footprint and reduce methane emissions. A compost pile also allows you to back off your usage of chemical fertilizers and promotes the production of humus.

So there you have it: lots of incentive to get that compost pile growing. Starting is simple. If you’re composting outside, you don’t even need a bin. A 3x3x3 feet pile will do. A pile of that size has enough mass to decompose on its own.

Here’s what you need:

  • Brown” material: This can be a medley of carbon-rich matter like branches, twigs, dead leaves or flowers, newspaper and straw.
  • “Green” material: This means organic matter that’s heavy in nitrogen, such as grass clippings, plant-based kitchen waste like vegetable peelings and fruit rinds, coffee grounds, and backyard animal manure (but not from cats, dogs or carnivores of any kind).
  • Water
  • A shovel or two of full of garden soil

For outdoor composting, select a shady, dry location with good access to a water source. ‘

Place a layer of coarse, dry brown material that’s several inches thick at the base of your pile. Top it with a layer of several inches of green material. Then add a thin layer of soil, and cover that with another brown coating that’s several inches thick. Moisten the layers. Continue to add on layers until you have a pile that’s three feet high. Try to stick to a ratio of three brown parts for each green. It’s OK if you don’t have enough organic matter to reach three feet initially. If necessary, you can build the pile slowly as you accumulate brown and green material.

If you’re building an indoor compost station, you can buy a special bin at a garden supply or hardware store. You can also make one yourself. The EPA provides instructions for building your own bin from a plastic garbage can:

  • Drill half-an-inch diameter holes in the bottom and sides of the can. You can choose the size of the garbage can depending on the amount of compost you’d like to make.
  • Place a brick in the bottom of a larger garbage can. Surround the brick with a layer of wood chips or soil, and place the smaller can inside on top of the brick.
  • Wrap insulation around the outer can to keep the compost warm and cover the cans with a lid.

Once your indoor compost bin is ready, you can follow the brown/green layering technique described above to begin composting.

Turn the pile using a garden fork or shovel every two weeks. Try to rotate the material at the center of the pile towards the borders, while moving the organic matter on the edges toward the middle of the pile. You should keep the pile moist but never soggy. Eventually you may notice some steam rising from your pile– that’s excellent news! It means things are decomposing and the pile is warming up as a result. Earthworms may start to turn up and the core of the pile will turn into humus or “black gold.”

An indoor compost bin may produce finished compost within 2-5 weeks. Outdoor compost takes a bit longer to reach its peak: anywhere from two months to two years.

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