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How to build a compost pile

Updated on September 12, 2011

There is no one correct way to compost

Composting is something every gardener should be doing to produce top quality fertilizer for plants. It's also a very green method for disposing of organic material. There are many different methods to composting, so it's important to try out a few different ones to find the composting method that will best serve your needs.

Know the difference between brown and green

One of the essentials of composting is finding the right mixture of brown and green material. Brown material includes dead leaves that fall off trees during autumn, hay, tea bags (yes, tea bags!) and unprinted cardboard. Green material would include fresh grass clippings, fresh manure, coffee grounds, fruit peels, and other recently deceased plant material. Do not use too much grass at one time, as grass tends to get really slimy and create matted surfaces that don't allow the free flow of oxygen through the pile.

I won't get into the nerdy details of what's going on here, but basically brown material adds carbon to your compost pile and green material adds material that will release nitrogen, which is essential for a compost pile and also part of the process that makes a pile hot and steamy.

Taking care of a compost pile

Now that we've got the ingredients for a good compost pile, let's discuss how to take care of it. For one thing, you need to turn it very often, basically whenever you pass by. This exposes more of the pile to oxygen in the air and mixes together the various organic materials. The bacteria that live in your pile need oxygen to thrive, so this step is very important.

Moisture is also important for a compost pile. Grab a handful of your well-mixed compost and squeeze it. It should feel moist but you shouldn't notice water wringing out of it as if you had just squeezed a saturated sponge. If you have too much water, add hay or other dry brown material and mix it well.

Other tips to make composting easier

There are a few other things you can do for your compost pile to make it healthier. For one, you can use a compost tumbler that will mix your compost better. Also, you can try adding alfalfa meal to your pile, which is loaded with nitrogen and protein that is readily released. Dog food is a good substitute if you don't have any alfalfa meal laying around.

It's also advisable to shred your organic material, like tree branches, into wood chips to help it break down in the compost pile faster.

I recommend that you have many different compost piles going at once. Don't add new material to an old pile, because after a while a lot of the nutrients will have seeped out due to rain water. Use your old piles on your garden while your new piles are developing.

Try different methods of composting. The Berkeley methods is fairly popular, and try worm composting if you've got a lot of food scraps.

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