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How to Layer a Compost Pile

Creating a productive compost pile in your yard is a piece of cake. In fact, let a frosted layer cake be your inspiration. Compost is created by stacking thick layers of green or brown plant material (the cake) with thin layers of animal manure or fertilizers (the frosting). The combination of the two main elements creates a bio-dynamic environment where the decaying plant mass can be broken down into compost by microbial activity. Once a compost pile is well established they layering can be less precise with new green and brown material simply churned into the pile but a combination of both elements mixed with a bit of moisture ensures the continuation of the microbial process and ongoing quality compost production.

Establish your compost pile directly on bare soil or an permeable organic material like a wood pallet which will allow drainage and air flow. Do not start the pile on plastic, stone or concrete as this will inhibit the bacterial process and good drainage which can exacerbate foul scents.

Lay down a 6 to 9-inch thick layer of brown and green organic material such as grass clippings, dried leaves, spent flowers and stems, vegetable cuttings and peels, etc. Put the material down in a even layer and do not compact as airflow and oxygenation is critical.

Sprinkle a thin layer of cow or chicken manure, balanced fertilizer or commercial compost starter. If using manure make at least a 1-inch layer. If you choose fertilizer use 1-cup for every 25 square feet of compost. For commercial compost starter consult the label dosing recommendations. When layered over organic material these compounds will stoke the bacteria and microbes with nitrogen speeding up their activity.

Repeat alternating thick and thin layers from steps 2 and 3 until you run out of organic material or reach 4-feet in height. Too high a compost pile will be difficult to work with and churn easily.

Cap the compost pile off with a final 1 to 2-inch layer of completed compost material or garden top soil. This soil will bring more microbes into the process to work from the top down as the exposed soil is introducing them from the bottom up. Refrain from using commercial bagged potting soil for this as it has been sterilized and won't add to the microbial action.


Sprinkle a few cups of water evenly over the finished compost pile to help activate the fertilizer and speed the process along.

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