How To Set Up the Best Compost Pile (and it won't cost a cent)

We show you how easy, and inexpensive, it is to set up a compost station in your yard.

Whether your garden consists of small containers on your deck or raised beds in the yard, every gardener should be knowledgeable about organic composting material. Compost soil, the “black gold” that is created from decomposing organic material, acts as nutrition for the plants. Think of it like a vitamin: plants grown in soil with added compost perform better. Composting can benefit the environment as well. Removing table scraps, coffee grounds and other organic material from your garbage can will reduce landfill material. Luckily for you, setting up a compost station in your yard is easy and inexpensive.

Best ingredients for your compost

  • Green Materials: Nutrient-rich green materials such as grass clippings, flowers, discarded vegetables, fruit rinds and plant-based food scraps. Never use animal proteins or bones. (see full list below)
  • Brown Materials: Carbon-rich brown materials like dried leaves, branches, straw, newspaper and wood chips (see full list below)
  • Water: you’ll water the layers to add moisture for breaking down the ingredients
  • Garden Soil: your existing garden soil is fine to use
  • Animal manure: this is optional. Despite appearing brown, animal manure (from herbivores only) is very high in “green” nitrogen-rich materials and serves as an excellent natural fertilizer for plants. Many local zoos actually sell zoo poo: a mixture of elephant, zebra or other plant-eating animal manure local gardeners swear by. Never use manure from meat-eating animals.
  • This material list was compiled by Earth Easy:
Material
Carbon/Nitrogen
Info
 table scraps
Nitrogen
 add with dry carbon items
 fruit & vegetable scraps
Nitrogen
 add with dry carbon items
 eggshells
neutral
 best when crushed
 leaves
Carbon
 leaves break down faster when shredded
 grass clippings
Nitrogen
 add in thin layers so they don’t mat into clumps
 garden plants
 use disease-free plants only
 lawn & garden weeds
Nitrogen
 only use weeds which have not gone to seed
 shrub prunings
Carbon
 woody prunings are slow to break down
 straw or hay
Carbon
 straw is best; hay (with seeds) is less ideal
 green comfrey leaves
Nitrogen
 excellent compost ‘activator’
 pine needles
Carbon
 acidic; use in moderate amounts
 flowers, cuttings
Nitrogen
 chop up any long woody stems
 seaweed and kelp
Nitrogen
 apply in thin layers; good source for trace minerals
 wood ash
Carbon
 only use ash from clean materials; sprinkle lightly
 chicken manure
Nitrogen
 excellent compost ‘activator’
 coffee grounds
Nitrogen
 filters may also be included
 tea leaves
Nitrogen
 loose or in bags
 newspaper
Carbon
 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks
 shredded paper
Carbon
 avoid using glossy paper and colored inks
 cardboard
Carbon
 shred material to avoid matting
 corn cobs, stalks
Carbon
 slow to decompose; best if chopped up
 dryer lint
Carbon
 best if from natural fibers
 sawdust pellets
Carbon
 high carbon levels; add in layers to avoid clumping
 wood chips / pellets
Carbon
 high carbon levels; use sparingly

How to create the best compost pile

Layer your ingredients in the following manner:

  1. Add several inches of the dry brown material to the bottom of the pile
  2. Add several inches of the moist, green material on top of the brown material
  3. Add a thin layer of soil
  4. Water this first layer until it is wet but not soggy
  5. Repeat the layering of dry, wet, soil, water in that order. The dry material will help drain the moisture, the wet material will activate the decomposition process.
  6. If you add animal manure, add it with your other green material.
  7. Every couple of weeks turn the pile with a pitchfork or shovel, mixing the layers and bringing material from the outer edges inward. The pile should generate heat and eventually you should start to see earthworms in your pile.
  8. The “black gold” or dark soil that is created can be removed and mixed into your existing containers and vegetable gardens. Always add compost to existing soil

Keep your compost balanced

The healthiest ratio for your compost pile is composed of more carbon than nitrogen. Balance your compost pile with 2/3 brown, carbon-rich materials and 1/3 green, nitrogen-rich materials. According to Earth Easy, “The bulkiness of the brown materials allows oxygen to penetrate and nourish the organisms that reside there. Too much nitrogen makes for a dense, smelly, slowly decomposing anaerobic mass.”

Keep your compost hot

Maintaining the right temperature for your compost pile does several things. First, it helps break down the organic materials in an efficient manner. Second, with the right temperature your compost will kill unwanted items such as weed seeds. The middle of the pile should be about 130′ – 150′ degrees Fahrenheit. It takes 30 days at 140’F to kill weed seeds.

Establishing your compost pile

There are several different ways to set up your composting pile. Ideally your compost will sit directly on soil so that organisms, like worms, can have access to your compost pile and assist with the breakdown process (and add valuable nutrients in the process). See the list below for the pros and cons of each method of composting.

Sheet composting

Sheet composting is very easy and works well in small spaces. In an un-used area of your soil, dig a trench about 1 foot deep. Add your organic compost ingredients and cover with a layer of soil. Over time this material will break down and create a trench filled with compost-rich soil.

  • Pros: easy, fast, inexpensive. This is also a great way to break down large amounts of one type of material, like a large pile of leaves or grass clippings.
  • Cons: subject to pests and pets

Open composting

Create a 3 foot by 3 foot area in your yard and add your compost materials directly on to the soil. For easy mixing, some gardeners choose to create a short, walled barrier to contain the mixture but this is not necessary. After layering your mixture you can cover the materials with a tarp. This will keep the odors in, the rain out and add heat for the activation process.

  • Pros: easy, inexpensive, allows you to create several piles in your yard
  • Cons: pets and pests might have access to food scraps and could easily get into the pile, if not covered too much rain can saturate the mixture, odors may escape, could be unsightly

Compost bins

There are many compost bins on the market today. Make sure that your compost bin is designed for easy mixing, good oxygen circulation, drainage and retrieval of the compost soil. Look for one that has a tumbling mechanism – this will be the easiest way to thoroughly mix the ingredients and distribute them for better activation.

  • Pros: the self-contained bins protect your compost from unwanted pests, odor, and rain making it a great choice for climates with seasonal changes. The enclosed bin generates more heat and will therefore create soil faster than an open method.
  • Cons: cost is really the only downside to this method. Bins range in price from $100 on the low end to over $300 for a high-quality model.

To look for a landscaper or gardener in your neighborhood, find one on Porch.

Anne Reagan

Anne Reagan

Editor-In-Chief, Porch.com With a background in furniture and antiques, Anne has spent the last several years writing about home improvement and interior design. An avid traveler, she loves to collect pieces that tell a story and in her off hours she can be found hunting for vintage furniture and textiles.

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