How to Start a Compost Pile Using Kitchen & Garden Scraps, Plus a Lesson on Soil Biodiversity

As organic gardeners, nutritious fruits and vegetables aren’t the only thing we grow – Healthy, organic, biodiverse soil comes first!  If you’ve read my article: 5 Steps to Building Healthy Soil (Part 2), you know that fertile soil is born from a system of mindful practices.  The easiest practice, and one which anyone can do, is composting!  Here, we will learn just HOW to start a compost pile using scraps from your kitchen and garden.  Good Newsflash:  It is so much easier to make compost than you think!

There are a lot of misconceptions about compost that turn people off from starting a pile.  Let me encourage you: It’s not gross.  It’s not poop (unless you put poop in it).  When it’s balanced, it doesn’t stink.  When it’s protected, it doesn’t house mice and rats.  And the flies, beetles, and worms you find in and around compost piles are all a part of the natural cycle of decomposition.  

Totally Related:  Gardening Myths We’re Officially Breaking: Or, Why You Don’t Need Raised Beds and Fertilizers

Everything on this earth will eventually decompose back into its rich earthy elements (everything, that is, except plastic… that sh** isn’t going anywhere) – and we need to take advantage of this amazing, natural process.

Much like our food, we “grow” our compost piles, we harvest fresh compost, and we give back what once came from the ground by adding it to our gardens.  It’s the ultimate gesture of gratitude and appreciation we can provide for our planet. 

 

The Real Dark Stuff (Sorry, But We Got Ourselves Here)

We are losing topsoil on our planet at a ridiculous rate.  Literally half of all the topsoil we’ve ever had has diminished in the past 150 years.  One hundred fifty years.  If you’re racking your brain, the year is 1866 – just a few generations ago.  Our soils are the crutch of all of our lives, and the future of food depends on our ability to regenerate our Soil Food Webs in the here and now.  

Backyard composting is not only the best thing you can do for your garden, but it is also your impassioned response to human-induced soil degradation and climate change.  Consider your compost pile as a form of free crop insurance.

Read more:  5 Steps to Building Healthy Soil: Increasing the Biodiversity of Your Soil Food Web, Part 1


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Benefits of Making Your Own Compost

It’s important to realize that homemade compost is highly superior to bagged compost from garden supply stores and municipal piles.  When we purchase compost from another source, we have no idea what’s really in it, nor if it contains residual herbicides or pesticides.  It could be largely made up of leaves and tree trimmings, or perhaps what has been swept off the street – and there’s nothing biodiverse or organic about it!

You have complete control over what goes in your own compost.  You will add a myriad of different types of fruit, herb and vegetable scraps, along with grass clippings, leaves, and many other types of landscape debris from your yard.  All of these different plant materials feed a diverse combination of microbes across the entire Soil Food Web.  Your concoction of microbes munch and break down all of the plant matter into a rich, black, earthy substance that is the most valuable soil amendment and microbial inoculant you could possibly add to your garden.

Totally Related:  5 Steps to Building Healthy Soil: Increasing the Biodiversity of Your Soil Food Web, Part 2

 

The Benefits of Making Your Own Compost are Extraordinary: 

  • A wider variety of plant matter feeds a wider range of microbes, increasing biodiversity in compost and the potency of nutrients available in the garden soil;
  • Excellent way to add organic matter to your soil over time, reducing the need to mechanically aerate soil and increasing soil moisture holding capacity;
  • – Reduced plant waste going to landfill reduces greenhouse gas emissions;
  • – Opportunities for teaching children about the circle of life are endless;
  • Convenient place to always throw yard waste, no more stinky kitchen garbage, and less need to take out the garbage so often (good stuff!)

The process of composting is so easy.  It’s literally amazing to watch everything you would have otherwise thrown in the garbage, break down into rich, black earth.  You will be so proud when you do it, and encourage others in the process, albeit effortlessly!

 

6 Steps to a Starting Biodiverse Compost Pile

1.  Choose Your Bin

Open Pile – The simplest, cheapest (free!) way to start a compost pile is to pick a spot in your yard and just go for it.  Find a flat spot that is partially shaded if you live in a humid region, or full sun if you live in an arid region.  Dig up any grass or other plant material in a 4’x4’ square.  Any plants you dig up can be transplanted to another part of your yard, or tossed in the compost pile.  Optionally, you could create a barrier around 3 sides of the pile using bales of straw – this will keep the pile nice and contained when you need to turn it.

3-Bin Wire Composter – If you want a pile with a little more structure, this wire compost frame is a good way to go.  It’s easy to set up.  It won’t be as easy to turn your pile in the frame, but this is a minor concern if your main concern is keeping the pile contained.

Tumblers – I have made good compost in several types of tumblers (including both of the options shown below).  Tumblers are great for urban settings because they are raised up off the ground to prevent vermin from getting in, and they make it easy to turn the pile just by cranking a handle.  

Perfect for small gardens and yards with minimal debris
Beautiful bin that holds 25 cubic feet of compost

I recommend getting a tumbler with 2 sides (“2 bin”) like this Yimby one because they allow you to consistently make compost – with a single-bin tumbler, you must wait for the bin to finish before adding new plant materials.  This can take an entire season.  

The honest truth about tumblers, though:  Making compost in them is not quick.  I’ve also found that the compost has a hard time finishing inside the tumbler so I’ve had to dump it out on the ground and let it partially dry out and finish decomposing before adding it to the garden.  Regardless, tumblers are a great choice for those with city yards!

Totally Related:  How to Farm or Garden When You Have No Land Whatsoever – A Homage to Urban Farming

Cedar & Wire Mesh Bins – These are the nicest options when it comes to compost bins.  Their structure is attractive and long-lasting, and if burrowing animals are of concern this will keep them out.  Cedar bins tend to be more expensive, but if you’re handy, they’re also a fun DIY project.

Gorgeous cedar compost bin by Farmer D Organics

2.  Start Your Pile With Browns

When starting a compost pile on the ground, after digging up the grass or other plant materials, you should lay down a cross pattern of brown, woody materials – dead sunflower stalks are ideal, but thin branches work well too.  On top of your woody layer, add a 6-inch layer of straw.  This will allow air to penetrate the pile from below.  

If you have a tumbler: don’t add any big, thick woody pieces to it at all – they will take too long to break down.  Brown leaves, straw, newspaper, brown bags, and paper egg cartons will work great for your carbon elements.

For the wire frame or cedar bin, start by laying a 6-inch layer of straw, thin branches or sunflower stalks at the bottom just as you would to a pile on the ground.

Totally Related:  4 Steps to Cover Cropping Your Backyard Garden

 

  1. 3.  Know Your Ratio: 25N to 1C

So… Your pile (or tumbler, bin, etc.) is set up and you’re ready to start adding garden, yard and kitchen scraps!  If you’ve read anything about maintaining a compost pile before, you’ve heard of adding “browns” and “greens.”  

Browns = Carbon (energy that heats the pile up due to oxidization)

Greens = Nitrogen (feeds the microbes)

Your ideal N:C ratio should be 25:1.  That means for every 25 handfuls of green stuff, you want 1 handful of brown stuff.  The reason for this relationship is all about the microbial activity – much like we need a proper proportion of carbs and protein to synthesize our food, microbes need an optimal 25:1 nitrogen to carbon proportion to synthesize theirs.

Here is a good list of what you should and should not add to your compost pile, detailing what greens and browns are.  

 

4.  Continuously Add Scraps to Your Pile

  • – Add greens and browns in layers, like lasagna, always ending with brown on top to prevent flies and odors – it helps to keep a pile of newspaper, brown paper bags, or a bale of straw nearby for this.
  • TIP:  Sprinkling a small bit of soil on top of green layers will help it decompose faster!
  • – The smaller the pieces are, the quicker they will break down because more surface area is exposed for microbes to decompose – so for example, if you have huge corn stalks, cut them up into smaller pieces before adding.  I recommend cutting everything you throw into your pile into 6-inch long pieces or smaller.

Totally Related:  4 Steps to Planning Your Organic Vegetable Garden

 

5.  Turning and Watering Your Compost Pile

Oxygen is vital for your compost pile to heat up and decompose.  You will need to turn your compost every 2 weeks at minimum.  If you have a pile on the ground, I recommend purchasing a compost fork, which is also a wonderful tool to use for no-till soil prep.  Do not turn the bottom woody/straw portion into the pile – this is still needed to allow oxygen to penetrate the bottom of the pile.

The moisture level of your compost should be like a wrung-out sponge.  If you add a lot of wet material at once, just follow up with dry material, like straw or newspaper.  After successfully making your first few batches, you will discover what works best in your yard.

Watering Tips:  When your pile is big enough, stick a tall piece of lumber or a thick stick in the center of it – this will trickle rainwater down to the center of the pile, much like a rain chain directing water from your roof to the ground.  Or, if you live in a dry, arid region, consider building your pile into a concave form where the center of the pile is sunken in.  This will allow it to catch and hold much more rainwater, reducing the need to water it with a hose. 

Related Enough:  Edible, Medicinal Plants for Your Yard + How to Grow and Use Them

 

  1. 6. Adding Finished Compost to Your Garden

So, how do you know when your compost is “finished”?  

It will look like clean, rich, dark black soil.  No really, I swear.  Nature is so amazing!

Not every scrap you threw in your pile or bin will be totally broken down, so this is where a sifter comes in handy.  We use sifters to separate the fine, completely broken down compost from the bigger bits that still need some time.  You can build your own sifter quite easily by stapling ¼” square mesh onto a wooden frame.  Sift the compost into a bucket or onto a tarp and put the leftover bigger bits that didn’t fall through the mesh back into your pile or bin.  

When adding your fresh compost to your garden, remember that your compost is a microbial inoculant and soil amendment!  It is best incorporated into your soil in the spring during soil prep, and throughout the growing season.  You can side dress your plants during the season, making sure to leave a 3-inch space between the compost and the base of your plants (or the microbes might decide to munch your veggies!) 

 

Making compost is easy.  It’s not dirty or stinky or any other sorts of gross.  It’s something we all can do to increase the biodiversity of our soils and boost the nutrient content of our food we grow.  In turn, our food is more nutritious, we live more sustainable lifestyles, and our planet gets a little break from us.  I challenge you to forget about all the preconceptions you had about compost and get out there and start a pile! 

 

6 Steps to a Biodiverse Compost Pile - Permaculture Composting Guide | Heirloom Soul | heirloomsoul.com

6 Steps to a Biodiverse Compost Pile - Permaculture Composting Guide | Heirloom Soul | heirloomsoul.com

Comments

  1. Reply

    Great article Fran! One other common misconception is that your compost must heat up to break down, but cold composting works fine, it just takes longer. Some people can’t turn their pile because of physical limitations, and that is OK!
    Your website looks great! Best of luck to you!

    1. Reply

      Thank you Saskia! Much love! Yes about cold composting – I didn’t get into explaining extreme temperatures nor aerobic vs. anaerobic. Wanted to keep it on the simple side of things for now. Thanks for your input and feedback! 🙂

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