The Plant Man column
for publication week of 11/27/05 - 12/03/05
The Plant Man
by Steve Jones
"Sold" on compost? Here's how to make your pile
Creating a compost pile is one of the simplest jobs you can do around
your garden and landscape. However, it is also just about the most
effective use of your time because it pays big dividends in the form of
vibrant soil and healthy plants.
As investments go, composting can't be beat. Why? Because in its
simplest form, it's completely free. Starting and maintaining a
compost pile won't cost you a cent, and you'll be reducing the
amount of garbage that will otherwise be hauled away and dumped in a
In my previous column, I reviewed the basics of composting and what can
be added to your compost heap ... as well as some things you should
never use. If you missed that column, you can find it archived at my
Web site. Go to www.landsteward.org and click on the Plant Man heading.
So now that you're "sold" on the idea of composting, let's get
started on building your compost pile. As with last week's column,
we'll go through the process using FAQ's (Frequently Asked
Where should I build my compost pile?
Just about anywhere will work. However, from an aesthetic perspective,
you'll want to locate it somewhere discreet on your landscape. You
will also want to be sure that your pile is at least a few feet away
from any structure - house, shed, garage, fence - because compost
is home to a lot of little organisms.
What tools will I need?
Nothing special. A garden fork or shovel. If you have a pitchfork,
that would be handy, too. Other than that, you'll probably use some
of your regular garden tools, such a wheelbarrow, garden gloves and a
lawn mower for mulching up leaves. As I mentioned last time, you'll
get better results if you chop up kitchen scraps before adding them, so
you'll need a kitchen knife.
Will I need a compost bin?
A bin is not a "must have" item and you can literally build a
compost pile on the ground. That's the cheapest and easiest way.
However there are benefits to using a bin. Bins help to retain heat
and moisture, deter pests and prevent the lighter parts of your compost
from blowing around in the wind. You can buy quite economical bins, or
build one yourself.
How do I start my compost pile?
Here's a simple way that I've found to be effective. First moisten
the ground with a little water. Lay down some small branches and twigs
and maybe some other carbon-based ("brown") material that you have
not chopped up. This will allow for aeration. Start layering your
materials, alternating between layers of nitrogen-based ("green")
and brown materials. Try to maintain the 25:1 ratio between brown and
green materials. Again, for more details about what constitutes brown
and green compost ingredients, refer to the previous column archived at
my Web site, or contact me at email@example.com and I can e-mail a
copy of the column to you.
Should I cover the pile?
That depends on your weather conditions. If you experience excessive
wet or dry conditions, I suggest you cover the top of the pile with a
plastic garbage bag and weight it down with some rocks to keep it in
place. This will help retain moisture or (in areas with heavy
rainfall) prevent your pile from becoming waterlogged.
Now what do I do?
You could just leave it. However, you can speed up the process by
gently "turning" the pile every couple of weeks or so, using a
garden fork or a pitchfork.
How long before I have real compost?
The process takes anything from a couple of months to 2 years,
depending on how well you shredded up the materials, how often you
turned the pile, and the amount of air and moisture involved. When the
material has decomposed and resembles earthy-smelling soil, it's
ready to use as compost. Probably, the most useable compost will be at
the bottom of the pile. Remove it carefully with a shovel and use it
as needed, rebuilding the rest of the pile and adding more materials
from time to time.
If your landscape could smile, you'd see it grinning from ear to ear
after you dig in some of that wonderful, all-natural, nutrient-rich
compost that you created with your own hands!
The Plant Man is here to help. Send questions about trees, shrubs and
landscaping to firstname.lastname@example.org For resources and additional
information, or to subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter, go