a compost pile
My compost pile lives in Southern California. Several years ago I decided
to try my hand at producing a few vegetables and plant materials for the
family out of our back yard. I am not an expert or even experienced gardener.
It seemed to make sense that one's plants would only be as good as the
soil in which they grew. With this thought, I decided to create a compost
pile and attempt to augment the soil with my own amendment as opposed
to buying fertilizers and other additives. Our soil here is not particularly
poor, and it has good drainage, but it has always seemed lacking in organic
matter. I figure adding my own compost back into the garden can't hurt.
This is how I got started. Perhaps these tips will help someone else starting
1) I selected an area near the garden that got good sunlight for most
of the day, especially morning sun, but was shaded behind an apricot tree
from mid-day through the afternoon. Summer here can be like the desert
and I think the afternoon shade helps keep moisture in the pile.
2) I use the pile method: everything just piled up on the ground, without
wooden box, wire cage, or any type of container. For me this is easier
to work, to add to, and to move around.
3) Actually I dig a hole about 12" deep and maybe 6' in diameter to start,
piling the soil around the hole for easy access. I do this for two reasons.
One is to harvest some soil to add to the pile as I grow it and the other
is to create a bit of a pit to help retain moisture. Our rains come in
the winter, but we get very little rain water for up to six to eight months
and it gets really dry.
Beneficial Herbs to Add to your compost pile
Good source of green material - grows quickly and the high moisture content
enables them to break down rapidly.
Packed with copper, nitrates and phosphates. Acts as a catalyst for decomposition.
It is said that you don't need much to do a lot of work
High in calcium. Also sweetens the compost and removes the decay smell.
Rich in vitamins A, B12, and C, as well as calcium, phosphorus and potassium.
High in potassium. Easily outgrows its space in the garden, providing
lots of green material.
4) The next most important
thing, after location, is what are you going to use to start your compost
pile. You will need organic material, and lots of it. Whatever you pile
up to create your compost pile will be reduced to 1/4 - 1/3 the volume
when it's done, perhaps even less. Start your compost pile when you have
lots of weeds, tall grass, and other trimmings on your property. Its best
to have a good mix of dry material such as twigs, sticks, straw, leaves,
or corn stalks and green martial such as fresh weeds pulled up root and
all, grass clippings, trimmings from herbs or existing vegetables or other
5) Additionally, kitchen scraps go into the compost pile, especially egg
shells, tea bags, coffee grounds, cooking scraps and trimmings, even bones
go in there. Don't put any meat scraps or oils in the pile and there are
just a few plants that you don't want to use, for example; leaves from
the bay laurel don't go in the compost pile due to a phyto-toxin that
inhibits plant growth. I also do not put Bermuda grass (it loves it here)
in the pile because it just helps it spread and the heat generated within
the pile doesn't seem to kill it. Some things like this you can burn first
and then add the ashes to the pile. Which reminds me, I cleaned out our
outdoor fire pit and added those ashes to the pile.
6) If you are composting in a dry local like me, you will want to make
sure that you have a water source near where you will be creating your
pile. Water is a very important ingredient for a healthy compost pile.
7). Start building your compost pile.
In the bottom of the pit, I laid down 2"-3" of twigs and sticks, about
the size of my little finger. I like to really chop up woody material
because it takes so long to decompose and making the pieces small gives
more surface area for the decomposition process to work. The larger twigs
and sticks also provide an air pocket within your pile. Air is another
important ingredient to healthy composting.
On this base of woody twigs and such, I put down 2"-3" of the dry material.
This is the smaller twigs and cuttings, dry grass, straw, or even a couple
of bags of steer manure, or fresh green manure if you can get your hands
on it. Basically, what you want is stuff that is high in carbon, like
corn stalks or dry leaves, even shredded newspaper or fibre egg cartons.
Over this layer put 2"-3" of the green material, grass clippings, kitchen
waste, pulled up weeds. I like to get the roots when I weed and try to
keep the dirt on them to help add microbes, fungi, and trace elements
which might be hanging out there.
Once I have my three layers piled up, I wet this down with water until
it is pretty well soaked. I don't want to waterlog the pile, just make
sure it is good and wet, but still with air spaces within. The main thing
about composting is that you want to create an ideal environment for the
microscopic plants, animals, and fungi that are going to do the work of
decomposition for you. These organisms love it where it is warm, moist
and dark. That's when they do their best work and they do it the fastest.
Now we need the starter organisms to get this thing going. Shovel 2"-3"
of soil from the piles that you dug out to create the pit. Organisms in
the soil, on the material in the pile and from the air will set to work
decomposing everything as soon as the conditions are right. This layer
of soil will also retain heat in the pile to speed decomposition and hold
the moisture in.
Keep adding layers in the same order as above, except for the base layer
of larger sticks and twigs. As the pile grows, I just throw the soil layer
over the top of the pile and let it cascade down to make sure the pile
is well cover on the sides. Wet the pile as you build it to make sure
that there is plenty of moisture sealed up within. A pile about 3'x3'x3'
is about the minimum to get a good pile working. Anything smaller will
be hard to keep moist in dry locations and will not develop or keep enough
heat in to work well.
After you get a good starter pile, you can add material in any order as
you get it. Just make sure you cover everything, especially kitchen waste,
as soon as you add it. This will not only help "inoculate" the new material,
but it will keep any odors to a minimum. This is also important if you
have any creatures that may want to investigate your compost pile for
a midnight snack, like opossums, raccoons, or dogs. Sprinkling the pile
with water also seems to discourage unwanted visitors.
Compost will be ready to harvest from the pile in six months or so depending
on what material has been used. Woody sticks and branches will take a
year or two to break down, but eventually everything will decompose and
can go back into your garden. Once I get my compost pile to a volume of
about 4' tall and 6' in diameter, I start a new pile right next to the
first one. As I build this second pile, I mix some of the original pile
into it as a starter. This works especially well if the starter is material
that needs more time to decompose.
8). I try to avoid putting pet waste into the compost mix and I understand
that you should never put cat waste into the pile for reasons of disease.
However, I believe that a good dose of horse, cow or even bird manure
would be wonderful in the compost pile if you have access to that. I have
put used wood litter from the pet mouse cage in the pile and have even
interred a couple of mice casualties deep within the pile and figure that
they will come out just fine.
9) The compost is ready to go back into the garden when you can't distinguish
any individual items that were added to the pile. The compost material
will be fluffy, dark, loose particles that have very little odor and that
look like....rich soil.. Add this to your garden when preparing beds for
planting and mix well.
There are many books on gardening that can give you more information and
variations on this theme. These books are written by experienced gardeners
and experts in the field and can provide far more detail and information
than my short list. I have taken a common sense approach to composting
and it seems to be working for me. My attitude about composting is that
if it grows in the soil, it should go back into the soil. This approach
has worked so far.