How to Begin a Pile of Compost

Pine needles, small branches and paper provide microorganisms with the energy they need to reproduce.

Pine needles, small branches and paper provide microorganisms with the energy they need to reproduce.

Billions of bacteria and fungi are ready to go to work making compost for you. All you need to do is provide them with the conditions they need to grow and reproduce. Start saving the table scraps and yard waste you would normally toss out and use them to begin your compost pile. Adding compost to your garden improves soil structure, fertility and moisture retention. It also cuts back on the garbage your household generates.

Gather plant materials with relatively high levels of nitrogen. Compost needs nitrogen to help its microorganisms like bacteria and fungi reproduce. Nitrogen-rich materials include straw, coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings and table scraps. Avoid table scraps containing animal products like meat, cheese or eggs; they will attract skunks and other vermin.

Gather plant materials high in carbon like straw, leaves, pine needles, paper, wood chips and small branches. High carbon materials are typically brown or yellow in color, bulky and dry and provide the microorganisms with the energy they need to keep functioning and reproducing.

Locate a well-drained, shady spot and begin layering your materials in a pile on the ground. Begin with a 3- to 6-inch layer of high-carbon materials, followed by a 2- to 3-inch layer of high-nitrogen materials. Follow this layering process as you add to your pile over time.

Sprinkle each layer with water from a hose or watering can and check it every few days. Ingredients need to stay wet for the plant matter to properly decompose. Your aim is to create a pile that is about as damp as a moist sponge.

Add rich garden soil or compost to each layer to help get the decomposition process started. When your pile is 5 to 6 feet high, start a new one. Piles that are too tall tend to compress, which slows down the process.

Items you will need

  • Table scraps
  • Yard waste
  • Straw
  • Hose or watering can
  • Shovel or pitch fork


  • You can speed up the rate of decomposition in your pile by occasionally turning and mixing the materials with a shovel or pitch fork.
  • In dry climates, build a pile with a sunken top to help hold moisture, and in wet climates build the pile in a mound to help drain excess water.
  • If no shady spot is available, add a layer of straw to the top of the pile to retain moisture.
  • Add a wide variety of materials to your compost; it will improve the final product.

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About the Author

Suzanna Didier's work appears in online publications including the National Geographic website, SFGate and Local.com. She is an avid cook who lives on a hobby farm, direct-markets organic produce to local restaurants and has taught at the preschool, elementary and college levels. Didier holds a Master of Arts in education from the University of Oregon.

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