This, Not That, Thursday – How to start a compost pile

For this week’s installment of “This, Not That, Thursday” we’re discussing “how to start a compost pile.”

The EPA estimates that 22 percent of solid waste that enters the landfill is food.

Composting is a perfect way to divert a lot of that organic matter away from the landfill. While it’s still important to cut down on food waste by eating leftovers and using up produce before it goes bad, no one is perfect. So, composting the kitchen waste that can’t be saved is a great way to reduce food waste.

How to start a compost pile

Starting a compost pile requires a few simple steps: creating the compost heap, adding organic materials, and watering and turning the compost as necessary. 

Creating your compost heap 

Location – One of the most important factors for starting a compost pile is its location. Choose an open, level area with good drainage. You do not want your compost to sit in standing water. An area with partial sun or shade is also ideal. Too much sun can dry the pile out, while too much shade can keep it overly wet. Finally, choose a site that is easy for you to get to and avoid areas near dogs or other meat-eating animals. 

Size – The recommended size for a compost pile is generally no smaller than 3 feet high and wide and no larger than 5 feet. Anything smaller may not heat up efficiently and anything larger may hold too much water and become difficult to turn. It is recommended to start your pile on the bare ground rather than on asphalt or concrete. This impedes aeration and inhibits microbes. Placing a pallet underneath the pile is fine, however, if you prefer. 

Adding organic materials 

Many organic materials can be composted, but there are some items that you should keep out of your compost pile. 

These include: 

  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Fat
  • oil products 
  • Carnivorous pet feces (e.g. dog, cat) 
  • Diseased plants, or weeds that have seeded Human waste Charcoal or coal ash (wood ash is ok though) 

The key materials for composting are nitrogen/greens and carbon/browns. When starting a compost pile, the recommended practice is to layer or alternate these greens and browns, the same way as you would for making lasagna. 

Your bulkier organic materials do best in the first ground layer, so start with a layer of browns, such as twigs (less than ½ inch in diameter) or straw, about 4 to 6 inches. 

Next, add in some green materials, such as kitchen waste and grass clippings, again about 4 to 6 inches thick. Additionally, animal manure and fertilizers serve as activators that accelerate the heating of your pile and provide a nitrogen source for beneficial microbes. 

Continue to add layers of nitrogen and carbon materials until you reach the top or run out. Lightly water each layer as it is added, firming it down but do not compact. 

Watering and turning the compost 

Your compost pile should be moist, but not soggy. Most of your water will come from rain, as well as the moisture in green materials, but you may need to water the pile yourself on occasion. If the pile gets too wet, you can turn it more frequently to dry it or add more brown materials to soak up excess moisture. Once you turn the pile the first time, these materials will get mixed together and compost more efficiently. Keeping the compost pile turned on a frequent basis will help with aeration and speed up decomposition. Using these simple instructions for composting, you will be well on your way to creating the ideal compost for your garden. 

-Dr. P
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