Building a Compost Pile
previous next

“Building a Compost Pile,” Ensign, Apr. 1985, 73

Building a Compost Pile

If you want a productive garden year after year, you need to replace the minerals used by the plants and lost to leaching. A compost pile is an excellent way to return these lost minerals to the soil.

The success of a compost pile often depends on the materials collected. These materials can be collected all year and saved in large airtight plastic bags until you are ready to make the pile (about six weeks before you prepare your garden for planting). During the year, mix a little soil with the materials and sprinkle them with water. This speeds up the decaying process and helps eliminate odors.

Materials which can be used in composting include almost any organic material. The following is a partial list:

  • Leaves (which can be collected in the autumn and mixed with animal waste)

  • Bales of wet or spoiled hay or alfalfa

  • Weeds pulled from your garden

  • Animal waste of herbivorous animals (carnivorous animal wastes may contaminate the soil)

  • Small amounts of sawdust and woodchips

  • Vegetable garbage from the kitchen

  • Oak leaf mold, decomposed pine needles, or other decaying matter

  • New grass clippings (which must be used within a few days, as they heat up quickly and begin to smell; don’t try to store them)

Once you have gathered materials and the weather is warming, you are ready to build your compost pile. In a compost pile, air and moisture must be able to reach the innermost parts of the pile. It is therefore more helpful to build several small piles rather than one large one. To keep air circulating under the pile, lift the base of the stack off the ground. This can be done by placing two-by-two boards lengthwise on the ground about three and one-half feet apart and using other boards (one to one and one-half inches wide) to form a grid on top of them.

Now you are ready to pile your materials in layers. Start with a firm base; hay works well. Spread this about four inches deep over the surface of the grid, patting it down with a pitchfork or shovel. If possible, place a three- or four-inch layer of grass clippings over the hay. Then add a layer of vegetable refuse, weeds, and grass. Lightly cover these layers with soil and sprinkle with just enough water to barely wet the layers. Next add a layer of animal waste about four inches thick and again spray the layers. Add new layers alternating the different materials you have collected. Add another light layer of soil and water about every foot.

When you are finished (the pile should be from three to four feet high), press down the middle, forming a three or four inch depression which holds and distributes water throughout the pile. Sprinkle a layer of soil on the top. The soil kills odors and the bacteria in the soil helps to break down the other materials in the pile. Make holes from the top to the bottom of the pile with a rake handle. This allows air to reach the center of the moist pile.

Check the pile occasionally to make sure these holes have not filled up and, if needed, spray the top with water. Cover the pile with something that will hold the materials in place and keep in the heat. Black plastic sheets with holes above the holes made by the rake handle work well. This cover also helps reduce the odor of the decaying materials. Put rocks around the bottom of the sheet firmly enough to keep the wind from blowing it off, but loose enough to let air seep in underneath, providing needed oxygen.

Occasionally check the layers to see if they are mixing together. When the different layers all look about the same (after three to four weeks), make another grid base and restack the pile. Use the top compost of the old pile as the bottom of the new one. As you repile the stack, shake the materials to break up any lumps and to let the air hit them. Pat the new pile firmly, but not too tightly; sprinkle it again. Cover this new pile and let it sit for another week or two. The compost pile is then ready to use. Gordon Claridge Young, Salt Lake City, Utah