How to Set Up a Compost System

Designing a compost system is more a matter of personal convenience
and choice than following a formula. Do nothing at all and compost will
still happen. Take an active approach, and you'll have great mounds of
leaves, branches, wood chips, manure and so forth melt into a much
smaller pile of near perfect fertilizer and soil amendment. Find out for
yourself why some people call homemade compost "black gold."


    • 1

      Make compost by combining brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) materials in roughly equal proportions. Moisten the pile and nature will take it from there. Brown materials include dry leaves, straw and sawdust; green matter includes green leaves and plant parts as well as vegetable waste from the kitchen. This combination of green and brown plus moisture provides the balanced diet microorganisms need to live and, in the process, transform the dead plant parts into compost.

    • 2

      Make compost quickly or slowly. The former is hot composting, where microorganisms are more active; and the latter is cold composting, where they are less active (and so are you). A third approach, called vermicomposting, utilizes red wiggler worms to break down organic matter. All three methods produce useful and beneficial compost.

    • 3

      Assume your compost will be cold if you just add small amounts to it at a time. Only piles of sufficient mass and moisture that are composed of appropriate materials will allow for the explosion of microorganism populations that results in high temperatures.

    • 4

      Make a freestanding compost pile 3 to 5 feet (91 to 152 cm) high and wide so that it has sufficient mass to cook materials in the center of the pile. Situate the compost where there is room for two piles so that you can turn the pile over every two or three weeks.

    • 5

      Enclose the freestanding pile in a bin made of hardware cloth wire. Make a hoop about 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter (which requires 13 feet or 4 m of wire) and 3 to 4 feet (91 to 122 cm) high. Once the pile shrinks, pull the wire up and off the pile, set it to the side, and turn the slumped pile back into the wire hoop.

    • 6

      Make a permanent multiple-bin compost system if you have the space, or investigate ready-made models at stores such as Smith & Hawken ( and Gardener's Supply ( This would essentially be one long rectangular bin divided into three square compartments. Add fresh material to the bin at one end as it's generated. Once the pile shrinks, turn it into the middle bin. Wait for it to shrink again and then again into the last bin to finish. This process can take a week or two or as long as a month, and depends upon the material being composted and other variables.

    • 7

      Use a compost bin with a tight-fitting lid and screened base to compost kitchen scraps. The lid and base are needed to exclude rodents and other animals that may learn to use the bin as a food source. Many versions of this type bin are available at nurseries. Some cities give them away to encourage composting.

    • 8

      Choose a tumbler-type composter for a clean-looking system that is sealed from pests. Agitate compost by turning a crank.

Tips & Warnings

  • Shredding or chopping the raw materials opens more surfaces for microorganisms to work on and thus speeds composting.
  • Compost inoculants aren't necessary. Instead, use a small amount of healthy garden soil. It includes all the microorganisms necessary to get your compost started.
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