compost pile - A collection of various organic materials that serves as a habitat for a variety of organisms. The pile can be an unconstrained heap or can be contained by a compost bin.
compost bin - A structure whose purpose is to contain organic material and to provide habitat superior to that provided by an unconstrained heap. Most bins achieve this purpose, but some do it much better than others.
compost - Noun: The byproduct of the interactions between the compost pile's ingredients, its inhabitants, air, and water.
compost - Verb: The act of converting organic matter into compost.
water - Noun: An ingredient vital to the compost pile habitat.
ideal compost pile - A compost pile consisting of organic materials that are small, completely dead, uniformly distributed, and thoroughly moist.
sifter - An effective tool for harvesting compost.
turn - Verb: To completely rearrange the ingredients of the compost pile.
dry - Two of the steps in the PilePro method. Materials are dried before being added the pile; finished material is allowed to dry before sifting.
CHAPTER 1 - Building the Compost Pile
The first step in making a compost pile is to assemble the materials to be
composted and to assess the order in which they should be added to the
pile, or if they even need to be composted. The most readily available,
most suitable, and easiest materials to compost are fallen tree leaves. If
you do not have enough leaves, your neighbors often do. Particulate
materials, such as coffee grounds, sawdust, and grass clippings can be
used as mulch instead of composting. Practically speaking, the compost
pile can be viewed as a passive shredder, and if the materials are already
suitable for spreading, and if you have a place to spread them, then you
may not want to compost them. It is important to have air inside the pile.
If it is too dense, then the composting process will be slowed or halted.
For example, it would be impossible to compost a pile of sawdust or a pile
of grass clippings because of, among other things, a lack of oxygen. Grass
clippings can accelerate the decomposition of leaves, and they will cause
the pile to heat up, but they can be difficult to work with. When wet they
clump together, and when dry they can be hazardous to your lungs, as can
sawdust. Particulates can be excellent for the pile though, if added
properly. Add them in very thin layers to wet materials in the pile. The
particulates will stick the the wet materials and their dissimilar
properties will speed decomposition. Just do not make the particulates in
the same thick layers that you do with leaves.
Dried and chopped
perennial stems are excellent to mix in with leaves, as are sticks that
are pencil sized. Of course, anything organic will compost, but you will
get the best results if the pile contents are somewhat uniform. If you do
want to compost branches or woody shrub trimmings, place them in the
center recess that is described below. That way they will stay moist, and
decompose more rapidly than if on the top or exterior where they will dry
and the decomposition will halt.
Composting food scraps is a special case; I hope you find an article I wrote on that topic to be enlightening.
It is best if everything is dried
up and completely dead before putting it in the compost pile. A loss of
internal moisture is the first step in the biological decomposition
process. Once material can absorb external moisture, the subsequent
decomposition by micro and macroorganisms proceeds rapidly. Some plants
will live and root inside the pile, especially vines. It is one thing for
seeds to sprout, because these will perish quickly when exposed to air and
dried at turning time, but you do not want vines to grow inside the pile.
However, some people use compost piles as an actual rooting medium for
The goal is to make a uniform pile, with all of the
material moistened thoroughly. However, if you just want to store material
and compost it later, or let rainfall start the process, watering in
unnecessary. The pile will settle considerably even without water, and
insects will start to move in and begin the composting process. Then
whenever you have time, you can easily remove the PilePro from the compost
pile and make a "compost pile proper" adjacent to the pile. This technique
is covered below in Chapter 3
- Turning the Compost Pile".
The most practical way to build
the pile is to make small layers and water each layer. A 30 gallon bag of
leaves that have not been jam packed into the bag is about right for a
layer. Approximately ten of these bags will fill the bin initially, and it
should take about 45 minutes to fill the bin if you work alone. If two
people work together, with one person loading and mixing, and another
watering, the time required is much less.
The tools required for
this task are 1) a hose with spray nozzle or even better, a high volume
low pressure watering wand and 2) a garden fork.
The easiest way
to load the bin is to invert the bag and place it on the ground inside the
bin. Then remove the bag from the contents. If they have been in the bag
for a while, the leaves will remain in a lump as shown in the photo. Spray
the mass on all sides with water, and it will begin to fall apart as the
water weighs down the material. After about 10 to 15 seconds of watering,
gently rake the material into a flat layer, lightly mixing and patting the
material down as you do, so that the layer is uniform. Take care not to
catch the fork or rake on the bin wires. Water again for another 10 to 15
seconds. If the bag is larger than 30 gallons, or densely packed, then not
all of the bag should be added at once. Rather, grab as much as you can
with two hands, and make each layer several handfuls instead of an entire
bag. If you do this with imported leaves from your neighbors, remember
that there could be sharp foreign objects or thorns inside the bag, and
proceed carefully. A large plastic container, such as a curbside recycling
bin, serves as an excellent measuring cup.
At this point, all of
the material should be glistening from moisture. To check on your
technique, mix the material around some to be sure that everything is
moist. If it is not, you will find out at turning time, when a dry pocket
of fresh looking leaves expands from the dense pile as you turn it. The
pile cannot really be overwatered, so don't worry about trying to make it
moist like a wrung out sponge. It is better to overwater than to
underwater. The area around the bin will get soggy, so a few stepping
stones around the bin might be a good idea. Wearing old shoes is a good
idea as well!
Once the layer is thoroughly wet, move the center
material uniformly towards the sides. The layer will take on the form of a
birds nest. The reason for doing this is that instead of just making a
tall heap with the densest portion at the center, you will be making a
pile with maximum density in a perimeter, and the center of the pile will
be less dense, with a relatively airy center, and the pile will be able to
breathe better. Also, by making the pile this way it will be more stable.
After your PilePro is completely full you can gently rock it back and forth from the top
center with your hand, and you will be able to see how stable the confined
mass has become.
Continue making layers in this fashion and build
the pile. The nice thing about having the recess in the middle is that it
is a great place to put sticks and other bushy or brushy and difficult to
compost material, or food scraps. Just realize that brushy materials and
sticks will decompose much more slowly than leaves, food scraps, and finer
materials. You will not want to spread this kind of material towards the
sides, so simply cover it with other material. Once the layer on top of
the bushy material is thick enough, you can spread that layer outwards
until the bushy materials are no longer exposed. Confined to the pile
interior, the bushy material will decompose at a rate closer to the rest
of the pile. The idea is to get everything in the bin to compost at as
close to the same rate as possible.
A topic related to making a compost pile is that of ventilation tubes. I have experimented with several, and wrote an article about my experiences.
CHAPTER 2 - Maintaining the Compost Pile
only thing you will need to do to your pile is to occasionally add water to it. Since the exterior dries quickly, it is probably best to water on a weekly basis. Rainfall wets the top of the pile, but not the sides. If possible, water the pile on all sides, especially the south side if your pile is in a sunny area. Watering takes just a minute, and can be done when you are watering other plants. Make it as convenient as possible.
That's about it. As the pile decomposes and settles, you will be able to add more material. It is best to add small amounts of aged matter if possible, for example, leaves raked from a curb or bed, to keep the age of all the contents about the same. But if you want to add fresh material that is fine. At turning time, the fresher material will form the bottom layers of the new pile where they will undergo rapid decomposition.
It is fine to add food scraps, as these decompose more quickly than yard waste. Dig out a spot in the middle of the pile, add the food, and then cover it. Or, if the food scraps are vegetative and can dry quickly, it is OK to place them directly on top of the pile. Discretion is best here. If you place thinly sliced fruit you will probably see birds appear to feed, leaving just the peels!
Be proud of your compost pile, and enjoy it. Birds will visit frequently, as it quickly becomes a food and nesting material source for them. Dig around some and look at the different creatures that use the pile as their habitat. The compost pile can be a wonderful way to educate children about living things.
How long to let the pile sit is up to you. I let my piles sit for two months before turning them. The most practical duration might well be one year, harvesting when new materials become most abundant. For example, if most of your material is autumn leaves, you could just let the pile sit until next autumn, when you have a large amount of new material. By that time, the original contents will most certainly have decomposed completely.
If you want to make multiple piles, let the contained pile sit for a month. By then it will have settled sufficiently to remain intact when the bin is removed. That is a great feature of you PilePro. You can make another pile somewhere else in the garden.
Chapter 3 - Turning the Compost Pile
general, turning a compost pile is the most difficult, and least enjoyable
part of the process. The superior design of the PilePro Compost Bin makes
the task easier than with any other bin.
With heavy, stationary
bins, you have to lift all of the material out of the bin to turn it
properly. Simply stirring the material inside the bin is ineffective. With
other circular bins, the closure mechanisms are not nearly as easy to use
as the PilePro's.
With the PilePro, turning the pile is easier
than with any other bin. Remove the closure rod and gently peel the
PilePro away from the pile, and set it up next to the original pile.
Turning the pile really means deconstructing the original pile and making
a new pile from it. What was on the top goes on the bottom, and if
possible, what was on the outside goes on the inside.
accomplish this you can use a garden fork and your hand to remove a chunk
of the original pile at a time and make a new pile. Or you can just use
your hands, perhaps with gloves, because there may be thorns, and you may
not want to touch your compost. It is up to you. Just be on the watch for
any insects that could bite.
Use the same procedure as described
in Chapter 1above to make
the new pile. The only difference is that you will not have to add as much
water. If the pile was made properly, there will be a dark, dense,
waterlogged core that needs no additional water, and will in fact benefit
from drying some. There will likely be a swampy odor from anaerobic
decompostion, but don't worry - the odor will disappear quickly, and it's
not the bad kind of odor that most people fear when they think of smelly
compost piles. If you have a lot of dry material, place this in the
recessed sections of the pile and add water to it. If you have fresh
material, add it in the recessed sections as well, making sure to moisten
When you are done, your new pile will be much
darker than the first one, and probably smaller, unless you added fresh
material. In another two months it will be ready to harvest.
the turning you will undoubtedly encounter many earthworms. Try to harvest
gently, in an occupant friendly manner, so that you don't kill too many of
them. I generally collect the worms and toss them in a well mulched bed so
that they can make their way into the earth and start to enrich the soil.
To learn more about earthworms, you can read an article I wrote. On this
note, be aware that other less desireable inhabitants may have taken up
residence in your pile. My piles are at times inhabited by the dreaded fire
ant. Once they start boiling out of the pile it is time to walk away. If
you are not careful, they will crawl right up the fork and bite your
hands. This is a good reason to never plunge your fist inside a pile to
see if it is warm! I followed that bad advice once and regretted it! Since
then I have not had a problem with the ants. As the pile is turned, they
recede deeper inside, and eventually go away.
CHAPTER 4 - Harvesting the Compost Pile
If you made your pile properly, turned it after two months, and waited another
two months, it should be ready for harvest. The time frame can vary some
with the season, as the pile will obviously decompose more rapidly in the
summer than in the winter, because its occupants are more active in warmer
right is a pile that has been turned one time, and after two months, is
ready for harvest. It is difficult to see in the photo, but the core of
the pile is completely black. As long as the pile contents were not woody
or brushy, then the pile is ready to harvest. To the left and right are
the dry, unfinished outer portions that have been scraped away. The
interior is ready to spread out in thin layers, where the compost will
dry, fall to pieces, and gradually become part of the soil. You can remove
it chunk by chunk with a garden fork and spread it wherever you like.
After it has dried, you can accelerate its incorporation into the soil by
using a grading rake to help break it up and mix it in with the local
topsoil. But if you want a really high quality product, you will make a
sifter and sift the compost after it has dried.
Depending on your
needs, you may or may not want or need to sift the compost. If your goal
is simply to enrich the soil in the immediate vicinity of the bin, by all
means just knock the pile down, let it dry, and spread it around. If there
are big pieces they will be easy to rake up when everything has settled. I
like to sift mine because it is then so easy to spread uniformly, it makes
a beautiful mulch, and it virtually disappears when broadcast into planted
areas. Plus, my neighbors always like it when I offer them a few buckets
for their own gardens.
Even after the turning, drying, and
pulverizing, it is unlikely that all of the pile contents will pass
through a sifter. What does not make it through can be used as a mulch in
out of the way areas, or it can be used as an outstanding catalyst in a
new pile. Layer it in with the fresh materials, but not as thickly. Or, if
you only have a small amount, use it as the final layer of a new pile.
To the right is a
photo of a simple but effective sifter setup. The large round container
catches the sifted compost, and is a tree pot that I obtained from a local
nursery. To the right is a 30 gallon Rubbermaid container into which I
dump the coarse material that did not pass through the sifter. Using this
sifter is good exercise, because you have to move the sifter back and
forth in order to make it work. It is best to sift the compost when it is
completely dry. Wet compost is heavy and it sticks together. It has been
pointed out to me that dry compost doesn't have the same quality as fresh
moist compost, but sometimes you have to compromise. I believe that the
dry compost will quickly come back to life when it hits the soil and is
right is an improved collection setup, with 5 gallon buckets inside of the
tree pot. The buckets make transporting the sifted compost much easier.
The buckets are thrown out all the time, especially by drywall finishing
crews and restaurants.
The sifter in the photos is fairly easy to
make, and plans for it are here. Note that the
screen in the photo is 1/2" hardware cloth. After using it, I have decided
that 1/2" is too fine for a first pass sifter. Now I use a sifter with 1"
poultry netting (chicken wire) to sift compost the first time. Then if I
want to, I use a 1/2" sifter, and finally, if need be, a 1/4" sifter. But
for most people I think that the 1" sifter is just fine. Again, composting
is an individual endeavor, so you can decide which is right for you, or if
you even need to sift at all.
CHAPTER 5 - Spreading the Finished Compost
is the final step in the process, and the one that is most rewarding. Whether your finished product disappears in a bed of ground cover, beautifies a bed, enriches a vegetable garden, adorns the area between
stepping stones, or is simply given away to neighbors, know that you have
accomplished what nature would taken years to.
You have completed
the cycle, diverting much material from a landfill, and instead used it to
enrich the Earth as was meant to be. Give yourself a pat on the back.
While some bin designs have an area for the compost to cure, I see
no reason to do this, though you may have a reason to do so. It is best to
spread the compost right after harvest. Then it is freshest, and full of
While you may want to till the finished product into the
ground, I generally do not recommend this. For one, tilling the ground is
devastating to the earthworm population, because the oxygen that is
introduced causes the bacteria to compete with the worms for food, just
like turning the compost pile initially causes an acceleration in
decomposition. Also, the worm burrows get destroyed, which hampers their
mobility. Finally, your compost may not be completely finished, and
underground it can reduce the nitrogen available to plants. So, I
recommend doing as nature does, and just spreading the material on the
surface. In time, by a variety of mechanisms, it will make its way into
the soil. This is what happens in the forest, and by composting you are
merely accelerating the decomposition that would naturally occur at the
surface. As I say at the beginning of this guide, I prefer to do the least
work I can and let nature do the most. But do with your compost what you
cases I do introduce compost deep into the ground. My native soil is clay,
and during the summertime droughts, large cracks open up. Note the large
crack in my backyard from the summertime 2000 drought. That tape measure
is 3/4" wide and 2' long and the crack is even bigger. Into these I pour
finished compost that has passed through a 1/4" sifter. I figure that
since the soil is so poor that the risk of introducing unfinished compost
into the ground for the sake of creating macropores to absorb moisture is
worth any risk of robbing nitrogen from the soil. Plus, there is no
tilling involved. Most of what I fill the cracks with is finished compost,
and that should be an excellent food source for earthworms.
composting varies with each of us, so use your compost how you see fit.
The important thing is that you are enriching your soil and preventing
organic matter from going to a landfill. Congratulations on completing the