How to Best Build Up Your Compost Pile

Layering Materials for Quicker and More Complete Decomposition

Obtaining composted soil for use in the garden requires a little patience and forethought, but the rewards are manifold if we take the time. Humus, the end result of decomposed organic materials, can single-handedly sustain flower and vegetable gardens, making fertilizers and other soil enhancers unnecessary. The process of decomposition can be sped up with a properly built compost pile; including the right ingredients can also ensure that the composted soil we end up with will be rich with all the nutrients that plants need.

You can begin work on your own pile by setting aside three good-sized buckets and labelling them for different materials: one for carbon-rich "brown" matter like leaves (preferably shredded), dry manure, shredded alfalfa hay, dry vegetation, and shredded newspaper; one for "green" vegetation like broccoli, cauliflower, beans, peas, kale, weeds, grass clippings, vegetable peelings, and even tea leaves, coffee grounds and crushed eggshells; and a final one for roughage like brush and corn stalks. Nearly anything organic can decompose in a compost pile, but for sanitary reasons you should avoid dog and cat waste and diseased or poisonous plants.

Keep collecting material until you have at least enough to make, from each bucket, a layer some 3 or 4 inches thick and four feet in diameter. Lay down the layer of roughage first. This will allow more air to circulate from the bottom of the pile upwards. The roughage should then be covered with an equally thick layer of "brown" materials. Moisten this before adding the green layer (to equivalent thickness); then moisten that as well. Finally, cover the small pile with a layer of garden soil about two inches thick. This contains the microorganisms that will actually accomplish the work of decomposition (earthworms, if you're lucky enough to find them, can expedite the process, too). Using a stick, pitchfork, broom handle, or similar object, poke air holes in the top of your pile (about eight inches deep) to allow for ventilation and the movement of water throughout.

As you collect more material for your compost, you can follow the same steps to build it up higher, always finishing with a layer of garden soil. An optimum height is about 4 feet. This will give you a constantly-renewing supply of humus at the bottom of the heap. You may find materials along the outer edges that haven't decomposed; they can be removed when ou pile is sifted and then placed at the bottom where they will be completely broken down. Some people let a pile sit for a year before turning and sifting; others find that turning it over and moistening it every 3 or 4 months makes the materials decompose faster.

If you have difficulty gathering enough materials to make a sufficiently-large pile (especially of greens, probably the most significant ingredient), you might consider devoting one garden bed exclusively to growing compost. Otherwise, the ordinary waste that you accumulate just in the course of gardening and preparing meals in the kitchen should be sufficient to sustain your compost once it's been built to a 4-foot height.