How to Build Compost Piles


With all the advice that universities and compost enthusiasts publish about commercially sold metal drums and compost bins made out of wooden pallets, chicken wire cages and trash cans, the beginning composter might think that a compost bin is the first thing they need to begin making compost. But you can create compost from a pile with no container to hold it. Compost piles require more attention to grooming to keep the pile contained, but the action of composting will still convert the pile into loamy soil.

Step 1

Collect organic materials for a compost pile. Organic materials are any material that was once a living thing. This ranges from wood chips and sawdust to kitchen scraps and animal manures from herbivores.

Step 2

Sort your organic materials into nitrogen-rich green compost material and carbon-filled brown compost material. Examples of green material include animal manure, peat moss, kitchen scraps, clover and grass clippings. Examples of brown material includes sawdust, wood shavings and chips, straw, hay and dead leaves.

Step 3

Chop up the organic materials into pieces that are 1 inch or smaller in size. Cut down kitchen scraps with a food processor or kitchen shears. Render grasses, mulch, hay and clover down in size by mowing with a lawn mower.

Step 4

Layer the organic green material and organic brown material into a pile that is between 3 and 5 cubic feet in size. The organic brown layers should be twice as thick as the organic green layers.

Step 5

Water your compost pile to kick off the decomposition process. The pile should remain as damp as a wrung-out sponge throughout the process.

Step 6

Insert an oven thermometer into the center of the pile every day to check the temperature of the pile. The center of the pile should remain between 120 and 160 degrees F. Stir the pile if the internal temperature drops below 120 degrees F. Do not stir the pile if the temperature climbs near 160 degrees F. This temperature range keeps microbes active and speeds up the decomposition process.

Step 7

Cover the pile with a tarp to keep vermin away.

Step 8

Sift through the pile when it is reduced to loamy soil. Pick out any undigested bits of compost and use them to start a new compost pile. Use the loamy compost as a top dressing, soil amendment or potting soil.

Tips and Warnings

  • Avoid using animal fats, meats or anything that would turn rancid or attract the attention of vermin.

Things You'll Need

  • Wood chips or sawdust, straw, hay or dead leaves
  • Kitchen scraps, manure, peat moss, clover or grass clippings
  • Food processor
  • Kitchen shears
  • Lawn mower
  • Garden hose
  • Gardening fork
  • Shovel
  • Tarp
  • Garden hose
  • Garden sieve


  • Washington State University Extension: Backyard Composting
  • University of Minnesota Extension: Composting and Mulching
  • Extension: Making and Using Compost for Organic Farming

Who Can Help

  • Ohio State University Extension: Composting at Home
Keywords: building compost piles, sustainable gardening, making compost

About this Author

Tracy S. Morris has been a freelance writer since 2000. She has published two novels and numerous online articles. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers, including "Ferrets," "CatFancy," "Lexington Herald Leader" and "The Tulsa World."