How to Build a Compost Heap

Updated: Jul 21, 2019

By Dianna Kasprzak

Growing food sustainably begins with management of the soil. Without healthy soil, you cannot grow healthy food! One of the ways we do this is to recycle the weeds during the summer and the plants at the end of the growing season. It is a simple and rewarding process, one that returns nutrients to the soil and adds important texture to sandy and clay soils.

How to Set Up a Compost Area

A 3-sided fenced area creates an easy-to-do compost bin

If you are starting a new garden site, the first thing you will want to do after determining the boundaries of your new plot, is to designate and set up your compost site. This is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of gardening. Let's begin.

Compost Heap

A compost heap can be as simple as that -- just a heap where you throw weeds and kitchen veggie scraps. Even without tending to it, this "heap" will eventually turn back to soil, rich with the nutrients of the weeds and scraps that were tossed into the heap.

One summer I had an overabundance of weeds and decided to build a heap away from the garden site. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, I carted the weeds over to the shady spot and made a big heap. It was rewarding to know that this heap would eventually turn back to soil! Imagine my surprise a month later when I went to tend to the heap, to find a nest of baby bunnies right in the middle of the heap!

Compost Bins

If you want to compost in a more methodical manner, you will want to create a structure to "hold" or contain your compost. One method is to create compost bins from discarded pallets. You can wire these together and leave one side completely open, or attach one of the pallets with wire so that the panel can be open and shut, for purposes of tending to the heap.

Visit your local lumber yard to find discarded pallets to use for your compost bin.

My favorite method is to use chicken wire and posts and create a 3-sided area. I do this in the direct vicinity of my garden, where it is quick and easy to build my heap from the weeds. You can use chicken wire and fence posts, making it 3-sided and open on one side, for easy access to the heap for churning and turning the composted matter, steps which hasten the maturing of the compost. To see what this looks like, watch the 2-minute video at the end of this post.

The Basics of the Compost Heap

Once you have designated the area and built your structure (i.e., pallets, wire, or just an open heap), it's time to begin building the compost heap! To facilitate the most efficient composting of organic matter, you will want to think in terms of carbon (brown = low nitrogen) and nitrogen (green = high nitrogen) materials. The basic ratio is 6" of brown (low nitrogen) to 2" green (high nitrogen) -- but don't get overly concerned about this ratio. This ratio creates the "ideal" setting to turn organic matter into composted growing material -- but any ratio of browns-to-greens will result in compost -- it simply will take longer. I generally think in terms of a more generous layer of brown matter and a thinner layer of green. Keep it simple.

Brown (low nitrogen) materials include:

  • hay

  • straw

  • sawdust

  • leaves

  • twigs

  • dried pine needles

  • composted wood chips (not fresh)

  • corrugated cardboard (no printing, no wax)

  • newspaper (no color, no glossy paper)

  • brown paper bags

  • aged manure

Green (high nitrogen) materials include:

  • weeds

  • grass clippings

  • fruit & veggie scraps

  • coffee grounds & tea bags/herbs

  • egg shells

  • fresh manure

Layer the Materials

Begin with the brown materials, followed by the green, watering well between each layer.

Turn the Heap

After one week, using a pitch fork, stir up the pile. I find the easiest way to do this is to pitch the matter out of the compost area onto the ground, then tossing it back into the compost area. It's quick -- and quite a nice workout! Be sure to add some moisture back into the heap. Repeat this process every week. It is likely that in 4 weeks, your compost will be ready to use! It is nutrient-rich, so pack it around your plants to nourish the plants during the peak growing season.

My Compost Heap: Watch the 2-minute Video!

Final Tips

I keep brown materials nearby in bins to create the heap. This makes it quick and easy to build your compost heap. My primary "brown matter" (carbon) is hay.

I stage two separate heaps within the confines of my compost heap area. The original heap is made in the early season of prepping my garden, when I am clearing the area of weeds. I do not till (more about that in another post!). Once I am finished with this heap (usually over a one week period of time), I do not add more materials. This is where the second designated area comes in; you simply start a new heap, so as to not disturb the cycle of the first heap. If you keep adding materials to your first heap, it will not compost as quickly. There is no barrier between the two heaps but there are clearly two heaps on the left and on the right. See the photo at the top of this post and also in the video.

If you do not intend to use the compost for your garden, then it is fine to keep it as one big heap that you keep adding to throughout the summer.

Composting is an integral part of organic, sustainable growing. It's so rewarding! Fresh compost is crumbly and has an earthy, satisfying odor to it. You are literally making soil when you compost! I usually have a generous pile of this rich soil that I use the following year to plant my flowers and potted herbs.

You can start your compost heap at any time during the summer. Ready to get started?

Happy Composting!

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