How to Make and Activate Compost


The myriad composting methods and techniques may quickly overwhelm newcomers to the world of composting. Unless you're limited on space, a compost pile provides an easy, inexpensive composting method that works well for kitchen and yard waste. Constructing a compost pile requires simple techniques that even the most uninitiated amateur gardeners can learn. Knowing how to activate your compost pile reduces overall composting time because it jumpstarts the microbial action in your heap. Opt for organic activators, such as manure, plain topsoil or finished compost, which provide essential protein for the decomposing organisms, according to the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension.

Step 1

Choose a well-draining, sunny composting location. Find an area that is conveniently located near your garden or home for easier maintenance. Out of courtesy, look for a disguised location or one that your close neighbors can't see, so they don't have to stare at your compost pile every day.

Step 2

Scoop a 3-foot-by-3-foot section of turf from your composting location with a shovel or spade to reveal the topsoil, which contains millions of decomposing bacteria ready to consume your organic scraps.

Step 3

Collect a variety of organic waste materials, including both nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials. Fulfill your need for high-nitrogen ingredients by finding a mix of moist, green materials, such as fresh grass clippings, cow manure, vegetable waste and fruit peels. Look for prime sources of brown, high-carbon materials, such as straw, dead leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper or cardboard and old hay. Fill a 5-gallon bucket with plain topsoil, an excellent organic compost activator.

Step 4

Sprinkle a 3- to 4-inch layer of shredded, carbon-rich organic waste across the 3-foot-by-3-foot square of exposed topsoil. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of nitrogen-rich organic waste on top of the carbon-rich layer. Use a trowel to scoop and toss a ¼-inch layer of your compost activator across the double layer of organic waste. Mist the plain topsoil with a light spray of water from your garden hose.

Step 5

Place additional alternating layers of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich organic materials on your compost heap, sprinkling a ¼-inch layer of the compost activator in between each set of layers. Repeat this layering and dampening process until your compost pile is at least 3 feet tall.

Step 6

Leave your compost heap to decompose on its own, a process that may take up to three years, depending upon the types of waste you put in your pile. Mix your compost heap once every two weeks with a manure fork to decrease the composting time, if desired. Monitor the moisture level once weekly to ensure that the compost heap remains about as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

Tips and Warnings

  • Never compost manure from meat-eating animals, since it may contain harmful pathogens that could infect humans.

Things You'll Need

  • Shovel/spade
  • Nitrogen-rich organic waste
  • Carbon-rich organic waste
  • 5-gallon bucket
  • Plain topsoil
  • Trowel
  • Garden hose
  • Manure fork


  • University of Illinois Cooperative Extension: Materials for Composting
  • "The Complete Compost Gardening Guide"; Barbara Pleasant & Deborah Martin; 2008
  • University of Illinois Cooperative Extension: The Science of Composting
Keywords: making compost, activating compost, compost activators

About this Author

Regan Hennessy has been writing professionally for 11 years. A freelance copywriter and certified teacher, Hennessy specializes in the areas of parenting, health, education, agriculture and personal finance. During her time with Demand Studios, Hennessy has produced content for Ehow, Answerbag and Travels. Hennessy graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.