Making a Compost Starter


A backyard compost heap produces a fine organic soil conditioner for the garden. Once you have got the bin and added the right portions of "brown" and "green" materials, you may want to jump-start the process. Numerous commercial chemical or "organic" preparations are available to help. Experienced gardeners, though, know that the well-designed heap holds within it the potential of dark, rich, completely natural humus that takes nothing else but a few easy steps to get started.

Step 1

Water the pile; a dry heap will not decompose. Layer your compost pile with 6 inches of brown materials alternated with 6 inches of greens and mix. The chemical balance (or composite carbon to nitrogen ratio) for a beginning heap will be 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. The weight of brown versus green materials has to be about half and half. Moisture provides the catalyst to begin the spread of nitrogen-based bacteria that digest the carbon-based materials.

Step 2

Dissolve a few cups of garden soil or cow chips (dung) in a bucket of water, let it sit for an hour and pour it over the pile. Use a garden fork to aerate the pile to allow the water to soak in. The soil provides a nitrogen and bacteria boost to start the process.

Step 3

Add more greens to decrease the carbon-nitrogen ratio and water well. Grass clippings or shredded fibrous vegetables will tip the balance toward nitrogen-rich elements. Be sure to top off the pile with a layer of shredded cardboard or other browns to insulate the heap and contain odors.

Step 4

Work in a shovel-full of finished compost or fresh stable (or other omnivorous) manure to provide a leavening or "yeast" for the new pile. The bacteria from the finished product will quickly migrate to the fresh materials.

Step 5

Sprinkle some high-nitrogen fertilizer over the pile and work it in with a garden fork to give it a boost. Lawn fertilizer is high in nitrogen but organic garden fertilizers like fish emulsion, algae, seaweed or blood meal will also work well as accelerants.

Tips and Warnings

  • Too much starter will create a "fast heap", raising temperatures and killing beneficial bacteria. Too much organic starter may also produce a stinky heap. Avoid using pet waste, meats or animal fats in your pile. Although they are high in nitrogen and microorganisms, they may also contain pathogens and their distinctive odor will attract scavengers.

Things You'll Need

  • Garden fork and spade
  • Compost turner
  • Bucket
  • Water
  • Garden soil
  • High-nitrogen chemical or organic fertilizer
  • Finished compost
  • Well-rotted manure
  • Grass clippings
  • Compost or meat thermometer


  • Government of New Brunswick: Compost Activators

Who Can Help

  • Composting 101: What to Use
Keywords: compost starter, making compost, soil conditioners

About this Author

Chicago native Laura Reynolds has been writing for 40 years. She attended American University (D.C.), Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois Chicago and has a B.S. in communications (theater). Originally a secondary school communications and history teacher, she's written one book and edited several others. She has 30 years of experience as a local official, including service as a municipal judge.