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How to Make a Compost Pile for Gardening

October 13th, 2009

how-to-make-compost-pile.jpgThis article from my PLR collection on how to build a compost pile contains some useful information for those who are looking for a good source of fertilizer to use for their gardens. This is one of those things that I might like to try; up to now I have been using a combination of Miracle Gro and manure-fortified top soil for my gardening efforts, but having a local source of organic material to mix with the soil would be even better because it would save me the time of having to haul around some of those heavy bags of dirt.

I’m not going to spend much time on cool composting. All you do with that is pile up your ingredients, cover them with a tarp or straw so nutrients won’t leach out, and leave them alone for a year or two or three.

The skill, and thrill, of composting comes in making hot compost. Why do I say “skill”? Because there’s a technique involved here, namely getting the right proportions of carbon-rich (brown) and nitrogen-rich (green) ingredients. Compost theoreticians say that the official ratio of carbon to nitrogen should be out 25 to 1, an intimidating-sounding and utterly useless statement to most gardeners. (Nobody I know keeps track of the C-to-N ratio of the various ingredients in their compost piles, believe me.)

In real life when you are figuring out how to make a compost pile for your gardening, you will almost always need more carbon-rich material than nitrogen-rich material, and sometimes it may take a bit of fiddling to get the proportions right, depending on what materials you have on hand. Shepherd Ogden, owner of The Cook’s Garden seed company, feels a good rule of thumb is using four to five times as much carbon-rich material as nitrogen-rich material. My neighbor (and former head gardener for The Mother Earth News magazine) Susan Sides likes a 5:5:2 pattern: a 5-inch layer of green matter, a 5-inch layer of brown matter, and a 2-inch layer of animal manure. Eliot Coleman, Maine grower and author, alternates a 3-inch layer of dry, brown material with a 1- to 6-inch layer of green matter (1-inch with dense green matter like kitchen scraps or grass clippings, 6-inch with loose, open material like tomato stems or bean vines).

All these formulas work. In any case, layer your ingredients. Start on bare, loosened earth, so earthworms and microorganisms in the soil can have a chance to move up into your pile. Then, to help aerate the pile, either put down a layer of sticks or (my preference) the fluffiest brown matter you have. Add a layer of green matter. Then put on a thin layer of soil, manure, or commercial compost activator to “spark” your biological fire.

From then on alternate brown, green, and spark layers. Your pile needs to be at least 3 to 4 feet on a side and just as tall to have enough internal mass to heat up well. And if your materials are dry, dampen them some with a hose as you go. The ingredients need to be damp, not soggy, to compost. As the old gardener’s expression (originated by the father of modern day composting, Sir Albert Howard) goes, the pile should be “damp as a wrung-out sponge.” Once you’re finished, cover the top with a tarp or thick layer of straw to help hold heat in and keep rain out (too much rain might leach out nutrients or make the pile too soggy).

If you build a bin for your compost, try to make at least one side removable (ideally, board by board) to make it easier to fill. Actually, the ideal bin has two compartments: one to build the initial pile, another for turning that pile into. Well, actually, the ideal bin has three compartments: the third holds finished (or almost finished) pile 4 compost while the other two are used for the next one you’re making.

If all goes well, in a few days the interior of your pile should start to heat up (you can poke a plastic-covered meat thermometer or your arm in there to see). Gradually, tin inside of the pile should get downright hot. If so, congratulations! You’re composting in style!

After a couple of weeks the pile will begin to cool down. To get the quickest results, that is when you should turn the pile, mixing the parts that were on the outside into the inside. The new mixing and air supply should start another heating cycle. Many people will let it age on its own after that. Others will turn the pile one more time.

The end result should be a dark, fertile mound of gardener’s gold. If the compost is complete, you won’t be able to identify any of the original ingredients. You can still use it if it’s only partly done, but the less finished the compost, the longer you should wait until planting in a spot.

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