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Pile Composting

A pile is the ideal form of making compost in the small home garden. A well built compost pile generates significant heat (well built: a good mix of green / grown material). Local ordinances should be checked before starting a compost pile as some municipalities regulate if and where compost piles may be used. A well managed compost pile only gives an earthy smell, but if it is not managed properly the odor can become offensive.

For building a compost pile a minimum of one cubic yard of space is needed. The ideal ratio of dry (brown) organic matter to wet (green) organic matter should be 30 to 1. This means 30 bushels of dry leaves or straw to 1 bushel of grass clippings. An easier method to approximate this ration is to add equal weights of dry and wet materials.

Additions to the compost pile can include:

Dry Organic Material

  • Newspaper / paper shredded (no glossy paper)

  • Hay or straw

  • Branches, evergreen needles

  • Sawdust

  • Dried leaves

Wet Organic Material

  • Any green plant materials

  • Non greasy kitchen scraps (eggshells, vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags)

  • Manure (no CAT, DOG, or HUMAN feces)

A compost pile produces humus over a period that varies from a few weeks to a year or longer depending on the microbe content, the frequency of turning, and the material mix.

A well regulated pile can produce high temperatures (140 degrees or higher) and will kill weed seeds and disease organisms, and break down most pesticides on plant material. Plant material treated with insecticides, miticides or herbicides should be composted for at least 6 months.

Layers of organic matter should be 2" — 4" thick. Smaller pieces of matter decompose more quickly. A shredder-chipper or lawn mower can assist in this process. Air space and water are both essential for decay. Layers should be loose and moist. The moisture level should be that of a wrung-out sponge.

Add a few shovels of garden soil after adding the layers of organic material. Adding fertilizer containing nitrogen speeds decay. Lime is often added, but is not necessary.

Composting is not an exact process. Realistically, gardeners will compost the plant materials they have available. It may not consist of the ideal combination of wet and dry materials. This may add to the time needed for decomposition.

Selecting a suitable compost site

Compost piles should be easily accessible, but not necessarily visible from the patio / public areas of the landscape. You also should be concerned about possible odors associated with compost piles. This means keep them away from living quarters, both your own and your neighbors.

Properly built compost piles don't smell, but if things get out of balance (too much grass clippings and too much rain are good examples) the pile can begin smelling. The best way to prevent this is keeping the pile well aerated when you add lots of green matter.

If at all possible, you also don't want to place a compost pile near aggressive trees (silver maples) that will send roots up into the pile once it has been converted into humus.

Building a compost pile

Compost pile made from fencing materialsA compost pile can be as simple as just a hollowed out piece of ground about 4' square or larger. This is the most basic form that works, but you are limited to the height you can achieve with the pile.

Next you can surround your pit with some form of fencing. Wire fencing is probably the easiest, but it depends on how secure your fence posts are.

Compost pile construction using slats of woodWood construction is probably the most productive and secure. The basic construction is to have 4 - 4x4 posts securely set into the ground. Wood slats are then permanently attached to these posts on 3 sides. Compost pile construction detailOn the 4th side, the slats are made so they can be easily removed to facilitate turning and removal of completed compost.

A more advanced compost pile could be constructed similar to above, but with a swinging door. This requires a more extensive wood construction with posts that are firmly anchored into the ground to keep the construction square.

Compost pile with door