The Basics of Building A Compost Pile

Shovel in compost pile

Last Updated January 25, 2024

One of the most valuable additions to your garden is virtually free to produce. But it comes from some surprising sources -- items that are typically thrown away. Compost is the ultimate recyclable, turning kitchen and yard waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. By learning the how-to fundamentals, you can boost your garden's health, no matter if you grow vegetables or ornamentals.

The Grounds Guys® can help get your composting project started with this quick-start guide that begins with knowing the "why" of composting -- how it benefits your garden.

Benefits of Composting

Compost in a shovel

Breaks Up Heavy Soil

If your clay soil is so heavy and compacted that plant roots don't stand a chance at penetrating it, tilling or spading compost into the soil loosens it up. Plant roots can penetrate the soil more easily, and the soil drains better.

Bulks Up Sandy Soil

If your soil is so sandy that water flows too quickly away from plant roots, adding compost gives the soil substance, which increases water retention.

Sustains Beneficial Microorganisms

Underneath the surface of the soil is an environment that, ideally, should be teeming with beneficial microorganisms, such as certain fungi and bacteria. These microbes are the unsung workhorses of garden soil, fixing nitrogen in the soil, digesting organic matter and converting it into usable nutrients for plants. Compost helps feed this microbial community.

What to Use for Compost

Person pouring kitchen scraps into compost bin

Kitchen scraps, including:

  • vegetable and fruit peelings
  • eggshells
  • coffee grounds
  • teabags

Household waste, such as:

  • paper towels and napkins
  • paper bags
  • cardboard boxes
  • coffee filters

Yard waste:

  • raked leaves
  • grass clippings
  • dead (but not diseased) plants

What Not to Use for Compost

  • Meat
  • Bones
  • Fats, oils
  • Dairy products
  • Pet waste

The Secret Compost Recipe

Left alone in nature, all organic matter eventually decomposes. But to speed things up a bit, use a recipe that includes "browns" and "greens" in a certain mix. "Browns" are things like dead leaves that are high in carbon, and "greens" are things like vegetable peelings that are high in carbon. As close as possible, maintain a compost pile with a ratio of 4:1 -- 4 parts of "brown" ingredients and 1 part of "green ingredients." With these proportions, the components decompose quicker and lack offensive odors.

Building a Compost Pile

Shovel in a compost pile

Building a compost pile is simple as 1-2-3:

  1. Find a suitable location; optimally, in a sunny or partly sunny area close enough to the house so you'll be encouraged to take out kitchen waste. Place it close to a water source, on a level, well-draining site.
  2. Begin adding ingredients and layering the brown and green components. As a rule of thumb, the larger the surface area of the pile, the faster the rate of decomposition. A compost pile that's sized between 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet and 5 feet x 5 feet x 5 feet is ideal.
  3. Keep it damp but not soggy.

Turning and Maintaining

Pitchfork in compost for turning

Aeration is essential in composting. Keeping a pile oxygenated speeds decomposition and minimizes odors. You can use a pitchfork or shovel to turn the pile; simply insert the tool into the pile, lift the contents and turn them over -- as if you were flipping a hamburger. As you turn the whole pile, add water if needed until it's slightly damp, similar to a wet sponge that you've squeezed until the water no longer flows from it.

Request a Free Estimate from The Grounds Guys

Once your compost pile is dark and crumbly, and you can no longer recognize the original components, it's "done" and ready to use in your garden. If you have additional questions about compost, talk to the experts at The Grounds Guys location near you!

The Grounds Guys offer a range of professional lawn care and landscaping services. If you're ready to get started on your next project, request a free estimate today!