Backyard Composting: How to Start a Compost Pile

Composting has great benefits from helping our wallets to helping our environment. It’s also ridiculously easy and rewarding. If you’re a suburban folk, keep reading to learn How to Start a Compost Pile In Your Backyard.

But before we start learning about how to start a compost bin, do you live in a city or have other questions about composting? I have some other articles that may also help you start composting at home.

Why Compost? The Benefits of Compost

A Simple Guide to Apartment Composting

What Can You Compost? Compostable Materials List

Backyard Composting

If you have a backyard you can freely use to compost, you’re one of the lucky ducks. Why? Because everything you compost you can actually use for yourself. Gone are the days where you need to make several trips to the home & garden store for soil. Now, you can make your very own black gold with your backyard compost bin.

When it comes to compost, everyone is different with varying yards, varying lives, and varying needs. First, I’m going to walk you through the quick steps on backyard composting. In my next post, I’m going to present you with a description of several outdoor composting bins to find which backyard composters work best for you. I also refer to this post in several parts of this article.

How to Start a Compost Pile

Step 1: Choose An Outdoor Compost Bin

Start with determining what type of backyard compost bin you’ll use and where you’ll put it. There are so many different types of outdoor compost bins that can fit your own personal needs. Your ideal backyard compost bin depends on several factors such as the time you have, space available, weather, zone, and more.

If you’ve never composted before, continue reading through this article, and then visit my post on recommended backyard compost bins.

Step 2: Add Compostable Materials To Your Outdoor Compost Bin

Composting requires addition of organic matter (meaning: living or from living organisms). This includes most things that can decompose such as dry leaves, grass clippings, fruit and vegetables scraps, newspaper, and more. All these things are easily consumed by us on a regular basis, making composting at home super easy and efficient.

Click here to view my quick and easy infographic on what you can and can’t put in your compost bin.

Generally, you should add a mix of ‘brown’ material and ‘green’ material so that your compost pile has plenty of nutrients and decomposes at a decent rate. Brown material tends to be dry and more concentrated in Carbon, while green materials are fresher, moist, and high in Nitrogen. An appropriate Carbon:Nitrogen ratio of 25-30: 1 is generally recommended.

brown leaves on the ground

But measuring for a specific ratio when composting at home can be complicated and unnecessary. I’m definitely not going to keep track of everything I put in my backyard compost. Instead, I just make it a general rule of thumb to add a layer of dry leaves or dry glass clippings (brown materials) to my compost as I’m adding my weekly food scraps (green materials).

Step 3: Add Compost Layers

Some gardeners recommend layering which helps make sure materials are evenly distributed to promote decomposition. I personally like if you’re just composting at home, and not for a larger entity, there’s no need to make layering scientific. I simply just start with a brown base, add green to it, and then continue adding both as the weeks progress.

I’m also super low maintenance so I try to make composting at home as easy as possible. That’s why I really take advantage of grass in the summer to help build my compost layers. When grass is green it’s higher in nitrogen and is considered “green material”. But when it dries out it’s more concentrated in carbon and is considered “brown material”. As we cut the grass in the summer, I keep a pile of grass clippings out to dry near my compost bin. As I to add food scraps (green material) to the pile during the week, I’ll grab some grass clippings as well to put on top. This helps me easily add compost layers and nutrients without making the process too complicated.

Step 3: Add Soil Or Worms To Your Home Compost Pile

Adding worms to your compost pile are not required but can help speed up the decomposition process. Worms eat and digest food scraps, turning it into nutritious compost. If you’re using worms in a closed bin, be sure the bin has holes or vents for air circulation.

trowel sprinkling soil with flowers in the background

Some people prefer to purchase worms, which is a great option if you’re in an urban area and are using an indoor worm bin. But I like to be resourceful. Instead of purchasing worms, I typically just add a layer or two of soil from my backyard into the compost bin. Regardless, since I’ve been using wire compost bins, happy little worms always seem to find their way in.

Step 4: Continue To Add Materials To Your Compost As The Season Progresses

There are some people who seem to make their compost pile in one day, but that simply isn’t doable for my personal life. Even though it’s great to layer your compost for quicker decomposition, I’m a layer as I go type gal because I’m continuously adding to my outdoor composter.

Before you start backyard composting, set a timeline for yourself for how long you want to add waste to your bin. As I’ll go into detail more below, I typically add to one pile for an entire year. But some people with only one compost bin may add to it only for a few weeks. Whichever length of time you use, continue to add a mixture of food scraps and brown material as you come across them.

But, if you have plenty of time and want your compost quick, click here to learn more about backyard composting in batches.

Step 5: Get Your Backyard Compost Warm

Compost needs to get hot in order for the thermophilic bacteria to break it down. According to Cornell, temperatures above 40 C (104 F) are ideal for thermophilic bacteria. These bacteria break down the structural components of plant structures, releasing more heat. Anything above 55 C (131 F) kills human pathogens. However, getting too hot (such as 65 C, or 149 F), can kill all microrganisms and limit the decomposition rate. To prevent too high of temperature, aeration is recommended.

Depending on where you live, warming up your compost pile can be easy to achieve or relatively difficult. Living in Connecticut, I had to keep my compost pile in a warm, sunny spot in order for it to reach the thermophilic phase. I also couldn’t rely on anything actually decomposing all winter. I had better luck using a container rather than a open wire bin, as the container trapped in heat while the wire bin allowed most of the pile to freeze.

Overall, I still made a wire bin work, but it simply took much longer to decompose (which I’ll get into more detail about below). But whichever bin your chose, it’s important to make sure it can get warm to support your home composting system.

Step 6: Keep Your Backyard Compost Pile Moist

farmers hand holding hose, presumably watering soil

Bacteria like moisture. If you want to get specific, Cornell recommends to provide a moisture content of 40-60% by weight. As I add to my home composting system throughout the season, I simply check to see if it’s damp or not. Excess moisture can lead to a foul-smell and anaerobic conditions, preventing aerobic bacteria from doing their job. While drying out completely creates an non-ideal environment for bacteria.

How much attention you pay to your piles moisture can depend on the type of bin. A wire bin that’s completely open to air and is in a dry climate may need to have water added to it every so often. While a semi-closed container in a moist environment may not require any to be added. It’s a great rule of thumb to make sure your compost is never dry but also never sopping wet.

If you have a general pile that looks dry on the outside, turn it with a pitch fork. You may find that the inner piles are relatively moist and it just needed some turning and a little extra water.

Step 7: Aerate Your Compost Pile

Compost is promoted by aerobic bacteria, which can often be deprived of air in the middle of the pile. You can aerate it in many ways, depending on your pile/container. Many outdoor composting bins have holes or vents to allow air into the bin.

However, it’s important to make sure the entire pile is aerated. Some outdoor composting bins such as tumblers have an arm to help you physically turn and disperse air into all parts of the compost. For simpler outdoor composting bins, an easy way to manually add air is by poking holes in your pile every few days with a pitchfork. I’ve found the best luck by actually turning the compost with a pitchfork on a weekly basis.

Step 8: Wait

When you’re starting a compost pile, remember that patience is a virtue. A compost pile can take anywhere from a month to a year to fully decompose depending on how well it’s managed. When you’re ready to let it fully decompose, stop adding material to it (as you’ll have to wait for that to decompose as well). Continue keeping it moist, aerated, and keeping it warm (if the temperature outside is very cold).

Final Step: Use A Few Weeks Before Planting

Your compost is ready when it looks like fine soil, it’s temperature has dropped, and no longer has a foul smell. A few weeks before planting, either mix the compost into the soil in which you’re using or add it on top. Let it sit for a few weeks for the nutrients to set in.

Some Planning Tips For Backyard Composting

Starting a compost pile isn’t complicated, but gardening for 10 years in a 6b zone taught me that people get a tad dissapointed when their compost takes longer to decompose than expected. A lot of people also think it’s not worth composting in the winter since it won’t start to decompose until late spring. I think it’s important to ask yourself a few questions when trying to plan how you’ll compost:

When do I want to use this compost by?

How cold does it get in my climate?

How many piles do I have space for?

All of these questions are important to ask yourself when setting up your own outdoor compost bin.

Setting a time frame of when you want to use your compost by will give you an idea of how quickly it needs to decompose. Starting a compost pile can be as low maintenance or as high maintenance as you want it to be. If you want your compost ready soon you’ll need to maintain the multiple factors mentioned above that promote decomposition (temperature, air, moisture, bin, composition).

Your climate or zone will largely effect the temperature and potentially moisture of your compost. As mentioned before, a wire bin may not be appropriate for someone in a cold zone if they want to compost all year round as their pile will likely freeze during the winter. While a closed or insulated bin would work much better as it traps heat.

Your space indicates what type or size backyard composting bin you should use. A 1/4 acre plot of land with kids or pets would be much better off with a single, enclosed container. While my parents 2 acre plot was awesome for accommodating my 2-3 piles, allowing me to decompose one, and add to another at the same time. Click here to view my complete list of indoor and outdoor compost bin recommendations.

My Personal Strategy For Backyard Composting

I knew that I would need my compost done no later than early April. But until this winter (thank you climate change) it was impossible to rely on producing complete compost from late November-late April. That means (theoretically) my compost for my 2018 summer garden had to be fully decomposed by November 2017. The only months I could rely on to adequately decompose compost were from late April-early November (if covered).

BUT I wouldn’t want to add anything during that period because I wanted to be sure that everything decomposed. So any organic material I disposed of from November 2016-April 2017 decomposed from April 2017-November 2017, to be laid out in my garden of April 2018.

Yikes! That sounded complicated! Buy what I’m getting at is: you have to find the right strategy for your location and your needs.

I also had a few other things going for me during this time:

  • Lived in a large, semi-permanent location (thanks mom & dad)
  • Was in no rush for my compost finish
  • I am lazy at backyard compostingand have never been one to really ‘manage’ it (so it takes longer to decompose).

So that’s probably why this backyard composting process worked for me. I used two different bins for compost: The First that was actively decomposing that I wouldn’t add to, and the second that I was actively adding to, which would not be used in the near future.

What Backyard Composting Strategies Work Best For You?

What backyard composting strategies you’ll utilize really depends on what type of gardener you are. Hopefully some of the tips above helped you figure out how much you need or want to manage your backyard compost pile. If you’re wondering what bin might work best for your backyard composting, click here to read more.

Any other questions on how to start a compost pile ? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Looking for Different Types of Compost Bins?

Check out my post that guides you to find the perfect compost bin for you.
Click to read Types of Compost Bins

Author: Stephanie Voytek, RDN

Have a healthy and happy relationship with food by cooking with That Certain Touch.

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