Written by Chris Campbell

Fall is a perfect time to build a compost area. Pre-made compost tumblers and bins are nice, but can cost from $75 to several hundred dollars. You can build your own compost pile with a few basic materials and a little time.

Compost piles should be at least three cubic feet (3′ x 3′ x 3′) to maximize heating and minimize drying. Select a level, well-drained area away from your home along a fence line or hedge or near your garden. Measure out an area at least three square feet. Use four 6-foot 2x2s or metal stakes for your corner posts and drive them into the ground until each is solid. Next “fence in” the area with chicken wire or wire mesh that is at least three feet wide (high). To help with aeration, you may want to place some woody material on the ground where you will build your pile.

Good compost is made up from one part nitrogen sources and three parts carbon sources. Nitrogen sources include green plant material, grass clippings, annual and perennial clippings, weeds (with no seed heads or pods), manure, grocery produce trimmings and kitchen waste, such as fruit and vegetable cooked waste and trimmings, juicing pulp residue, tea and coffee grounds. Carbon sources are dry straw-type material, dried and shredded leaves, wood shavings, shredded non-slick paper, corrugated cardboard, box board, office paper and newsprint. Do not use meat, dairy products, cat or dog waste, oily materials or cat litter. Mixing equal amounts of nitrogen and carbon materials as they are added increases the rate of decomposition, as does reducing particle size or adding materials in alternating layers that are 2-4 inches thick. Keeping a “carbon Cache” near the compost pile is handy for mixing with fresh wet additions.

Special activators help get decomposition started. Bonide® Compost Maker is a blend of ocean kelp, fish and alfalfa meals which is designed to accelerate the breakdown of organic materials, to stabilize nutrients and to reduce odors. Some people like to add earthworms into the mix and sprinklings of good garden loam as the first pile is built will also help add soil bacteria for decomposition.

Keep compost piles damp but not soggy and turn weekly to aerate and maximize heating of all parts of the pile. Also, punch holes in the sides of the pile for aeration. The pile will heat then cool. Start turning the pile with the internal temperature gets hot to the touch. Turn or mix the pile every day or two to get compost in 3-4 weeks. Turning every other week will make compost in 1-3 months. After cold winter months, turn your compost as days warm in April and May. Finished compost will smell sweet and be cool and crumbly to the touch.

Composting is not an exact science. If you notice that nothing is happening, you may need to add more nitrogen, water or air. If things are too hot or there is a bad smell, you probably have too much nitrogen. Adding more carbon materials will reduce heating.