Breaking Down Compost: A Step-By-Step Guide

Breaking Down Compost: A Step-By-Step Guide

Last time we talked about the how-to behind compost teas; now we’re going to talk about making compost! It’s one of my favorite ways to stay grounded to nature; here’s nothing that connects me to the world like composting. Decomposition is nature’s method of waste disposal and bio-remediation, condensing, purifying, and recycling through the power of microorganisms. Compost is a great way to get organic matter into your soil, enourage beneficial microorganisms, and provide safe nutrition for your plants. Soils that have compost retain water better and grow healthier plants! I’m going to show you my method for a traditional, hot process compost pile.

Most people seem to treat their compost pile as an outdoor dump space. Old fruit, vegetable stalks, grass clippings, and branches are all carelessly tossed into a mound, and the pile gets larger and larger. After a year, old fruit scraps are still visible, and the whole thing is rancid and covered with flies. Yuck!

Composting is more than a pile of watermelon rinds thrown out the window. A well prepared compost pile never smells, requires little to no turning, and can be garden ready in as little as six to eight weeks!

Let’s make some compost!


What you’ll need:


Compost Materials:

Anything biodegradable falls into this category. When composting, we are essentially creating a pile of materials20150529_115236 for bacteria to consume and break down into plant available nutrition. These bacteria require two basic food categories from our pile: carbon for energy, and nitrogen for reproduction.

As composters, we tend sort our compost materials into two groups:

Carbon/brown materials: These are materials provide carbon to your pile in bulk, and contain relatively little nitrogen. Examples of materials with a high carbon to nitrogen ratio are woodchips, paper, cargreensdboard, leaves, and dried plant stalks.

Nitrogen/green materials: These are materials that contain some carbon, but much more nitrogen. Examples of nitrogen rich materials are fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds, weeds, fruit and vegetable scraps, and manure.

Bacteria use up carbon much quicker than nitrogen, which means that your compost pile will need more carbon materials than nitrogen. For a visual guide, your compost pile should be around 2/3 carbon rich material and 1/3 nitrogen rich material.


Moisture is crucial for bacteria to function. For a four pallet sized compost pile, you’ll find yourself needing 5-10 gallons of water.

Compost thermometer:

Compost thermometers are great for keeping track of the heat being generated from your compost pile. If your source materials are sketchy and likely to be contaminated with pathogens, it’s recommended to get your compost to generate an interior temperature of 135-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping track of heat can tell us if our pile needs to be turned, altered, remedied in any way.


This is completely up to your own personal preference; some composters like to inoculate their compost pile with starter microorganisms, add extra sugar or nitrogen in the form of blood/bone meals to speed up microbial activity, or toss in their favorite soil amendments when building their compost pile. Commercial microbe starters are completely unnecessary in my opinion, as you’ll be attracting plenty of microorganisms just by building a compost pile. If you’re looking for a quick and cheap way to jumpstart your bacteria, try sprinkling a little garden soil throughout your pile. Nitrogen boosters like blood meal, however, can sometimes come in handy if you’re really low on nitrogen materials.


The Process:


First, select a spot for your compost pile. . Take the weather into consideration when selecting a suitable spot. Temperature, sun exposure, rain, and drainage are all going to have an effect on your compost pile.

Some people like to use solid walled composting bins, but I prefer to let my compost have ample access to air. Four sided bins made from pallets are good for providing structural support and protection from critters without impeding too much airflow.



Once your spot is selected, begin building your pile. First, add a solid layer of brown carbon material. Use some of the stockiest material you have on hand for the bottom; rigid stalks and small twigs/branches will allow air to enter through the bottom of your pile, as well as allow for extra water to drain out.


Once your first layer is 3-6 inches tall, wet everything thoroughly with a hose or watering can.


Next add in a layer of greens. Then water.


Keep adding layers, alternating between your carbon materials and your nitrogen materials, watering after every layer until your pile has reached a sufficient height.


Once your pile is built and has been sufficiently watered, insert your compost thermometer. Over the next couple days, observe the temperature of your compost pile. If your pile is having a hard time heating up within a week, you may need to add some more nitrogen to your pile.

Every so often, open up the middle of your pile and give it the sniff test. Your compost should smell like good clean earth (that smell is actually produced by the actinobacteria active in your compost pile). If you detect any fermenting or rotting-like smells in your pile, turn your pile with a pitchfork to aerate it and add a little extra carbon material

After most of the organic matter in your compost is no longer recognizable, it is considered “garden-ready”, but can be allowed to mature for up to 6 months. The longer you let your compost mature, the more time you’ll give to allow microorganisms such as beneficial nematodes to move in and beneficial fungi to establish and create some structure.

The composting process is about experimentation. It can be difficult to build a perfect compost pile from the start. More than likely your pile will need little adjustments from time to time, but as you learn you’ll be able to produce fast, quality compost with minimal work. Composting is healthy for the environment, your garden, and for you. Use compost with abandon!

Let’s grow some food! Follow my gardening journey at: