Building a Compost Pile

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You should develop an individual approach to compost-making based on how much space you have, how much compost you need for the garden bed, and how elaborate a layout you're inclined to construct As a guide, following are five different approaches to setting up a compost pile, using a range of devices from a simple plastic bag to a permanent group of bins.

Plastic bag compost:

  1. Buy a dark-colored plastic bag, the kind used to line 20- or 30-gallon garbage cans.
  2. Inside, put a 2-inch layer of soil or peat moss.
  3. Add randomly any kind of waste kitchen materials (as noted before) and maybe occasionally garden wastes.
  4. When full, set the bag out in full sunlight for about three weeks. The compost will then be ready to use.

Garbage can method:

  1. Buy a galvanized garbage can (a 20- or 30-gallon size), and punch several small holes in the bottom. Put the can up on a few bricks, and place a pan underneath to catch any liquid that might drain from the moisture contained in the decaying garbage that you will be adding.
  2. Put a 3-inch layer of soil or peat moss on the inside bottom of the can.
  3. If you like, buy some red worms—the fishing kind— and add them to the soil at the bottom.
  4. Add 2 to 3 inches of kitchen garbage, then a 2-inch layer of grass clippings and leaves, another layer of kitchen garbage, a layer of grass clippings and leaves, and so on until the can is full.
  5. Put the lid on the can. The ripe compost will be ready in about 3 or 4 months. If you start the can in the fall, the compost will be ready to add to your garden by spring. (You don't have to worry about the moisture content of this kind of pile, nor does it need to be turned.)

Conventional compost pile:

  1. Clear off a 5- or 6-foot square ground area.
  2. On top of the cleared area put down a 6-inch layer of fairly coarse material—twigs, brush, a few corn stalks, sunflower stalks, and so on. This provides ventilation underneath the pile.
  3. Start building the main body of the heap in layers. Put down a 6-inch layer of waste vegetation—grass clippings, leaves, weeds, vegetable remains, organic garbage, and so on. On top of this greenery, add a 2-inch layer of fresh manure. (You can also add rock phosphate and a thin layer of limestone to improve bacterial action and hasten the decomposition.)
  4. For every two or three layers of vegetation (and manure), add a 1-inch layer of soil. This soil contains bacteria that will help break down the organic material. Mow wet down the pile until it is just moist, not saturated.
  5. Repeat this procedure until the pile reaches a height of about 5 feet
  6. When finished, add a thin covering of soil to the pile to help seal in the moisture. You must also keep air flowing throughout the pile in order to keep bacterial action high; take a stick or thin pole and punch vertical holes from the top of the pile, reaching all the way to the bottom. Make the holes 2 to 3 feet apart
  7. Always keep the moisture content of the pile at 40 to 60 percent—about the consistency, as we've said, of a squeezed-out wet sponge. Check the moisture by feeling inside the pile with your hand, and then add water whenever necessary. Watering may be required every 4 to 5 days in hot weather.
  8. Except for watering, let the pile sit undisturbed for two to three weeks. Then turn it, putting the material from the top and sides into the middle. Turn it again at three-week intervals. When the inside materials turn brownish and crumble on touch, you can be sure that the compost is ready for your garden. This usually takes 31/2 to four months. The University of California quick method: In

1953, the University of California at the Organic Experimental Farm developed a composting method that's just great for the impatient because the compost is ready in just 14 days. The decomposition is speeded up by shredding the materials and mixing them all together so that the bacteria have many surfaces to work on at once.

  1. Mix together one part fresh manure and two parts other compost ingredients (leaves, grass clippings, cut-up corn stalks, table scraps, and so on). You can obtain fresh manure from a local riding stable. It must be fresh, not processed.
  2. Using a rotary lawnmower, shred everything completely. (You have to catch the shreddings in a grass bag, naturally.) Just put down a small pile of waste and run the lawnmower over it Then put down another pile and repeat the process. Better yet, use a power shredder. Either way, the material must be shredded into very small particles for this method to work well.
  3. Mix everything together, and form the mixture into a 4 x 6 foot heap, four feet high.
  4. By the second or third day, the middle of the pile should have heated up to around 130 to 160° F. If it hasn't, add more manure.
  5. Turn the heap on the fourth day. Make sure it's warm and moist Simply put your hand inside, but watch for the heat If it isn't moist to the touch, (again, about like a squeezed-out wet sponge) add water.
  6. Turn the heap again on the seventh day.
  7. Turn it once more on the tenth day. The heap should now have started to cool off, for it's almost ready.
  8. It's ready on the fourteenth day. It won't look like fine humus, but the materials will have broken down into a dark, rich, fairly crumbly substance. You can let it rot further if you wish, or you can use it in your garden right away.

Compost bins: You can make a good compost bin with a few boards. Twelve planks of boards—each 12 inches wide, 1 inch thick and 30 inches long— will work fine. Take four of the boards and nail them together to make a frame or bottomless box. Using the remaining boards, make two more frames. You then set one frame on the ground and stack the other two on top to make a tall bin. next, just chop up the whole material with your lawnmower and load the shredded matter into the bin. You then proceed, using whatever composting method suits you—either The Big, Conventional Pile' or The University of California Quick Method.'

You can multiply your bins easily by taking off the top tier after the compost has sunk below its level. Place it on the ground beside the original, now lower, bin and start to fill it with new materials for compost As the compost in the first bin subsides some more, you should be able to take the second tier of the frame off and place it on top of your fledgling second bin, then, by building one new tier, form another.

A compost bin actually can be made from almost anything. Just make it about 3 feet high and about 21/2 feet square. A neighbor of ours nailed four window screens together with a screen over the top to keep out flies. Let your imagination run!


There are basically three types of commercial compost-makers on the market bins; upright, canlike containers; revolving drums.

Bins: These are usually three to four feet high, constructed of plastic or wire mesh. Two recent models to have been introduced are made with aluminum corner posts and wood or aluminum cross-pieces. Odorless compost is removed from the bottom.

Upright cans: These round, canlike containers made of heavy plastic come in many variations. The Soilsaver compost bin is made of polyethylene with thermal insulated walls and a translucent plastic top that is engineered to trap the soil heat To use, just lift the top and add food waste, grass clippings, leaves and weeds. The finished compost comes out the bottom in four to eight weeks.

The Grass Eater is a heavy, U.V. stabilized polyethylene can-type designed to turn grass-clippings into compost in about eight weeks. This composter snaps together and, using an add-on kit and a leaf-eater activator, allows you to compost fall leaves. The Rotocrop has individual sliding panels with round holes for ventilation. This container is fed from the top, and finished humus is taken from the bottom. A good feature of a can like the Rotocrop is that it doesn't have to be filled all at one time. "Start with

at least 12 inches of materials," the company says, to provide enough bulk for heating up. Thereafter add materials at least once a week whenever you have collected enough materials for a 2- to 3-inch layer. Ultimately, you can add fresh material at the top, remove mature compost at the bottom. You can buy models that will produce 21 feet of compost

Drums: These are simply drums with turning handles and vents to allow air to enter. The tumbler is filled with shredded material (shred with a rotary type lawnmower, catching in a bag or a shredder/grinder); flanges inside ensure that compost tumbles as it is rotated (one to five times a day). This turning and shredding speeds up decomposition to about fourteen days. These are not as popular as they once were. Other essential equipment includes:

  • A compost tool. This is a long tube with four inch blades on the end that close as you insert them into the compost, open as you withdraw. As you pull the blades out they turn and aerate the pile.
  • A handy-hoop bag. This comes with a lock-on ring which holds a plastic bag for collection of garden refuse for composting.


  1. F.S., inc.
  2. O. Box 103,

Scotch Plains, NJ 07076.

• Ringer's Compost Maker. This contains high concentrations of selected microorganisms that charge the compost pile and accelerate decomposition. There are several different types: Brown Leaf Compost Booster—for speeding up decomposition of brown leaves; Grass Clippings Compost Booster— for grass and other green materials; Compost Plus— for twigs, wood chips, hay, straw and other difficult materials; and Compost Pile Recharger—to speed up and recharge' composting after winter dormancy.



9959 Valley View Rd.

Eden Prairie, MPi 55344

Other organic nutrients

Many organic gardeners feed their plants other organic nutrients, in addition to compost, to improve vegetable growth. Such waste materials as peanut hulls, seaweed, manures, cottonseed meal and wood ashes are good sources of the basic nutrients plants need. As explained previously, the three most important elements for healthy plants are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The following are major sources of these nutrients, most readily available to organic gardeners:-


  • Blood meal is 7 to 15 percent nitrogen and can be applied in liquid form.
  • Cottonseed meal is 6 to 9 percent nitrogen and is especially good for acid-loving plants.
  • Fish meal and fish emulsion contain up to 10 percent nitrogen, along with some phosphorus.
  • Activated sewage sludge, the solid product of sewage treatment, is high in nitrogen and provides a wealth of trace elements.


  • Bone meal is 22 to 35 percent phosphoric acid, also containing up to 5 percent nitrogen.
  • Phosphate rock is a finely ground rock powder that is about 30 percent acid and many trace elements.


  • Granite dust is about 8 percent potash and may contain trace elements.
  • Ashes of hardwood contain about 10 percent potash; of soft wood, about 5 percent

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