The Care and Feeding of Your Compost Pile

compost pile

I'm not ashamed to admit that I love my compost pile. Over the years, no matter where I've gardened, I've built a compost pile from scratch. It soon produces rich crumbly earth that nourishes the garden while recycling scraps that would otherwise end up in a landfill. How great is that?

For the organic garden, the compost pile is essential. Compost is nature's best fertilizer. It costs nothing to make a compost pile unless you want to spend some money on it. Really, you can build one at no cost using recycled materials found around your home or picked from stuff left out on your neighbor's curb on garbage night (been there, done that, built my last compost pile from recycled bricks and lumber!)

Starting a Compost Pile

Consider the following when choosing a location for a new compost pile:

•    Proximity to both garden and house: You want the pile close enough to the house so that bringing scraps to the pile on a cold winter's night won't be a chore, yet far enough away so that any stray odors won't ruin your dinner party. It also needs to be located close to the garden. If it's too far away, you'll soon weary of pushing wheelbarrows of compost back and forth – although it is a great all over body exercise!

•    Size: The pile itself doesn't need to take up a big area. Four feet by four feet is a good size. I like to have one rectangle about six feet by three feet or larger, divided into equal squares. New scraps go in on the right. When I'm ready to turn the compost to retrieve the newly made crumbly organic material at the bottom, I can easily shovel it into the other square. Two garbage barrels can accomplish the same task. My latest compost pile was only 3' x 3'.  I'd simply shovel the new stuff to the back to dig out the nice compost at the bottom. You don't need a big pile. Choose the size that works for you.

•    Accessibility: If you're building walls to retain the compost using lumber or bricks, don't build them too high. A two foot or three foot wall is adequate. Anything large is impossible to step into or lean into with a shovel, and you're going to need to do a tiny bit of routine maintenance to the pile each year.

The Care and Feeding of Your Compost Pile

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, "What do I put into my compost pile?" Any plant scraps can be added to the pile, including:

•    Vegetable peels, tops
•    Fruit peels, cores
•    Shredded paper such as newspaper (but nothing with color ink or glossy paper, such as magazines)
•    Fresh manure such as cow or horse manure
•    Leaves
•    Grass clippings

To begin your compost pile, you can lay down several sheets of paper or newspaper. Or simply start piling the scraps on top. Add leaves, grass clippings, and vegetable scraps. Just let them sit there. You don't need to layer them in any fancy way.

Nature will take care of the rest. Rains add moisture to the pile. Heat cooks it, allowing bacterial naturally present to begin decomposing the scraps and paper. Over time, you may notice worms in the compost pile. Don't panic – they're supposed to be there! Worms eat the scraps and poop out a substance called 'casings'. These are actually very nutritious for your plants. The tunneling action through the compost, digestion of material and production of casings continues the bacterial action of the compost pile to break down material and create compost.

When Compost Is Ready

Like a fine wine, a compost pile needs time to create a masterpiece. Compost is ready when it no longer looks like the scraps you put into the pile. Look for a rich, crumbly brown material at the bottom of the pile. It should look like chocolate cake or crumbled up brownies. That's when it's ready to add to the garden. Simply use a pitchfork or shovel and scoop it out. Mix it into your vegetable beds, and you've just added a wealth of nutrients and beneficial bacteria into the soil. You've helped the environment, recycled and renewed the planet. Now that's time well spent indeed!

After adding compost, most organic garden needs few other amendments. I typically add only well-aged compost to my gardens and sometimes aged manure. This is enough to build up the soil's nutrient profile and grow vigorous, healthy plants.

Please send any gardening questions to me at

Until next time…let it rot – happy composting!

About the Author

Jeanne Grunert is a writer and marketing consultant who moved from New York City to a 17 acre organic farm in rural Virginia. She writes about gardening, health and raw foods for many publications, and her gardening book, Get Your Hands Dirty – A Beginner's Guide to Gardening, is available in paperback ($9.99) and E Book ($5) at ( )  You can read more about life on her organic farm on the Seven Oaks home & garden joy blog here:

These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.  The preceding information and/or products are for educational purposes only and are not meant to diagnose, prescribe, or treat illness. Please consult your doctor before making any changes or before starting ANY exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using this information or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.

Written by:  Jeanne Grunert
Copyright 2010 All rights reserved