Starting a compost pile

Ed Baines

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 out.

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

German Chamomile...
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 green plants.

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 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.


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