Beginning a Basic Backyard Compost Pile

By Callie Martin

In the heat and cool of May, our gardens soon become jungles. As you weed, snip, and snack, collections for your home compost are also building. If you’re new to backyard composting, spring is a great time to start! Composting happens naturally, as one of nature’s methods for returning the nutrients to the health of the soil. With a few handy skills, you can make compost happen a little faster than nature’s pace, and right in alignment with amending the garden beds for fall.

Skill 1: Build Your Compost Critter Salad

Think of your compost pile like putting together a dinner salad. Begin your heap with a mix of traditional yard waste, grass clippings, twigs, some weeds, and prunings. I like to start with a minimum of a cubic yard sized pile, because it takes less sweat equity to manage and speeds up the composting process. Be sure to set up your heap somewhere near a water source, and one that is easy to access by wheelbarrow.

A mixture of both green and brown materials are essential to fire up the chemical reaction of decay. By mixing the two, you invite millions of microorganisms, soil insects, bacteria and healthy fungi to join in on something of a Salsa ‘dance off’ in your compost pile. Their munching and moving creates heat and in turn, a faster, usable finished compost.

Color isn’t the only characteristic that differentiates a “green” material from a “brown” one. Green materials tend to be moist and colorful, while browns tend to be dry and colorless. Mix them in a 3:1 ratio, where you combine three handfuls of browns for every one handful of greens to cook up a balanced food source for the soil critters.

Gathering materials from your garden in the form of “greens” and “browns” may look something like this:

Greens Browns
Weeds Shredded paper (newspaper or office shreddings)
Grass clippings Straw
Twiggy prunings Dryer lint
Leaves Cardboard
Dead headed flowers Woodchips
Coffee grounds and loose leaf tea Leafless twigs and sticks

Make sure you leave your compost pile free of the following:

  • Grass clippings treated with chemical lawn fertilizers
  • Diseased plant trimmings
  • Large clods of dirt or sod (too difficult to turn with a pitchfork)
  • Invasive weeds
  • Dog and cat manures
  • Food scraps from the kitchen. While valuable for composting, food scraps are best placed in closed composting systems. Added to open-air compost piles, food scraps may draw rodents who’d love the chance to nap, nest and graze in a jackpot of delicious treats.


A quick affordable way to create a backyard compost heap



Skill 2: Toss Your Compost Critter Salad

The same compost critters that love munching your green and brown compost mixture also love having adequate amounts of moisture and oxygen. Once your pile has reached a cubic yard in size, pull out your pitchfork and turn the pile over once every 7-10 days. Turning your compost increases airflow, speeds up decomposition, and creates variance for the critters’ diets. When it comes to backyard composting, there’s no such thing as too much turning. Extra oxygenation brings relief to a pile that is not heating up (60 degrees F or below) or is too hot (above 160 degrees F).

Skill 3: Dress Your Compost Critter Salad (With Water)
A dry pile is a lifeless pile, or at maximum, very slow to decay. A moisture balance that feels like a wrung out sponge or a piece of moist chocolate cake is best. If it feels like my compost is too dry, I’ll give it a spray as I turn it. However, too much moisture can cause problems. Like skin, soil and compost have pores. These pores are actually small pockets of oxygen. If those pores get water-logged, the oxygen levels drop below what is normal for the helpful compost critters. Even worse, your compost will begin to smell poorly, which is no fun to show off to your gardening friends.

Skill 4: Adding Extras

There are three essential tools to becoming a great composter:

  • A pitchfork
  • A long-wand compost thermometer
  • A machete

The machete chops materials down to the size soil critters can get at, the pitchfork is the easiest tool to toss with, and a long wand thermometer shows you the heating and cooling trends of your pile. To kill basic weed seeds like dandelions, it’s best if your compost reaches 135 degrees F at least three times before heading into its curing phase. Curing takes place toward the end of the composting process, when you allow your pile to rest for 4-6 weeks in order to finish decomposing.

Skill 5: Celebrating Success

Put on your gloves, grab a pitchfork and a smile and join in on the miraculous journey to making compost happen in your backyard this spring. By using it, you’ll see improvements in waste generation from your house and yard, better water retention in your garden beds, improved drainage in soils, and an overall healthier backyard. You can apply compost in many different ways. Mix it into your vegetable garden; use it as a nutrient-rich, weed-suppressing mulch; or sprinkle it across your lawn at the beginning of fall or spring as organic fertilizer—the options won’t let you down. Composting is easy to do! The health and wealth of your yard and garden will be visible for years to come.