Making a Compost Pile Explained

Compost Pile

A compost pile can help to provide your garden with the nutrients that it needs to feed you or to enjoy the beauty of the plant’s foliage and blooms. There is a little more that goes into making compost than just throwing grass clippings, leaves, and food scraps into a pile creating some compost. A compost pile is an essential tool for every gardener because all plants require nutrients and about 15 percent organic material in the soil for the optimal growing medium for all plants.

Compost also contains microorganisms within it that help to digest the plant material into usable nutrients. With many different composting options to choose from, there is something that will fit everyone’s needs and budget.

Key Takeaways

  • Choose between a traditional pile, compost bin, or tumbler based on your needs and space
  • Use a mix of “brown” and “green” materials, along with soil, to create a balanced compost
  • Avoid adding diseased plants, seeds, or wood chips to your compost
  • Turn the pile every 3-4 days to maintain microbial activity and proper aeration
  • Monitor temperature using a compost thermometer; ideal range is 100-140°F (38-60°C)
  • Maintain proper moisture levels – damp but not waterlogged
  • Water the pile every 3-7 days, adjusting based on climate conditions
  • Use tools like pitchforks, shovels, and wheelbarrows to manage your compost
  • Consider adding compost starters or activators to boost microorganism activity
  • Allow compost to partially decompose before adding to soil for best results
  • Compost can be used directly in soil or steeped to create liquid fertilizer


There are three methods of decomposing plant matter that vary in the amount of time it takes to decompose the material. A traditional compost pile is an easy method that will work just fine but some soil can be washed away with heavy rain. In summer, a compost pile if turned and watered regularly will take 2 to 4 months to be ready for use.

In winter, the decomposition process will greatly slow down, and the same process will take about six months before it is ready for use. A better method is using a compost bin that holds the pile together preventing it from being washed away and if the bin is closed then the heat will be evenly distributed, decreasing the amount of time needed to complete the decomposition process. A compost bin can be a container that is made for composting, a repurposed container, or you can opt to make one yourself.

They can be as simple as wire fencing with steel U-fencing posts and made into a square or circle. With a compost bin, the decomposition process will take about four weeks before it will be ready for use. If you want to use the compost as a liquid fertilizer, then let the compost site for another 4 to 6 weeks.

Compost tumblers are the best method but the most expensive option. The tumbler is a round or octagon-shaped container made from metal or plastic. The tumbler is on a stand lengthways and spins manually to mix the compost. If the tumbler is turned daily, then this system is able to decompose the contents within 2 – 3 weeks and will be ready for use. They require daily turning which mixes the microbes for faster decomposition.

Related: 7 Things to Know About Composting


A compost tumbler can be expensive to purchase but they can be made for a fraction of the price using a clean metal 55-gallon drum. Holes will need to be added to help with aeration and mixing the compost with the drum turning. Use metal supports that cross near the top to hold a metal pole that will go through the drum, now drill a hole in the top and bottom of the container. Place a metal pole through the drum and attach the pole to the metal supports and the drum will rotate by using your hands.


The tools that are needed to maintain a compost pile are simple and you properly have some of them already.

  • Pitchfork – they come in several different designs with some having a straight handle and others having a D-handle, but this durable tool is great for turning a compost pile.
  • Shovel – pointed shovels are made for digging into hard compacted soils while flat shovels are meant for transferring soils but are also a good choice for turning compost if it is not too compacted.
  • Compost thermometer – they have up to a 60-inch-long probe that reads the temperature of the compost and helps you to keep the decomposition process on track.
  • Moisture meter – knowing the moisture levels in a compost pile is essential to keeping it on track. Some meters just read the moisture level while some also read the pH levels and others are adjustable for compost or soil.
  • Wheelbarrow – they make moving the compost from the pile to the garden easier as well as moving plant matter from the garden to the compost pile

Related: A Beginner Guide to Composting


A compost pile should consist of at least two inches of soil with brown and green plant matter and it will need to be at least a couple of feet tall to have enough material. This is because a huge mound of plant matter will yield a small mound of dirt once the plant material has decomposed. When starting your first compost pile, if you don’t have access to some extra soil then you can just use plant matter, but this will take a little longer to decompose.

You can purchase compost starters or activators, some of these products will boost the natural microorganisms in your compost, and they act like probiotics adding extra nitrogen and microorganisms to your pile. Anything that is plant matter can go into the compost but don’t add any plants that have flowered so that there are no seeds in the compost. Another thing that should not be added is wood chips because they require a lot of nitrogen to decompose or any plants that have any kind of plant disease or seeds.

Manure can also be added to the pile, but it is recommended to purchase it from a garden center or home improvement store to ensure that you get manure that has been properly sanitized. Many different health issues can be caused by using raw manure on soil that is for food production.


It’s important to turn the pile every three to four days to maintain microbial activity and restore the proper balance in areas where it is needed. Using a thermometer, you can determine when your compost needs to be turned. If you notice that the temperature drops after turning, then it’s time to aerate the pile again.

During the decomposition process, organic materials release a lot of energy in the form of heat. Without sufficient moisture, the compost will not decompose properly. Moisture encourages the growth of microorganisms, which break down organic matter. While it is important to water your compost pile regularly, excessive moisture can lead to anaerobic conditions and foul odors meaning that the pile has spoiled and has gone bad.

Related: How to Improve Soil for Gardening?


There are two options for checking the temperature when composting. You can buy a thermometer that measures the temperature continuously, or you can purchase one with a color-coded dial that is removed after use. A thermometer is most accurate if it is hermetically sealed, but it is still possible to get a fogged dial. If this happens, the thermometer will no longer be useful.

When checking the temperature of the compost, make sure to insert the probe into the center to get an accurate reading with the optimal composting temperature range between 100- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures in this range are optimal for thermophilic bacteria to thrive. The temperature of your compost can vary significantly depending on its moisture content and chemical composition as well as the depth of the pile.


When you’re starting your own pile of compost, you may wonder when it’s appropriate to turn it. The answer is based on the temperature of the pile. When it’s hot, that means that the organism’s activity is high and the air is sucked out more quickly than it can diffuse. Turning the pile will help speed up the decomposition process by mixing the microorganisms, exposing undecomposed plant matter, and aerating the pile.

A compost pile requires air flow and water to function properly. Without air, the decomposition process will be slower with a lower temperature and have an unpleasant odor. In addition, composting needs oxygen to remain active. Turning a compost pile is best done with a pitchfork or shovel, bringing the bottom to the top of the pile.


The amount of watering will depend on the humidity level as well as how windy your area is during dry times, but in general, water should be added every 3 to 7 days. Before adding water, it is best to turn the pile while checking the amount of moisture in the compost. While watering, add a little at a time so you don’t ever do it. If you do, adding dry brown organic material or dry dirt will help to balance the moisture content. If you are using a closed compost bin with a lid or a tumbler then removing the lid will help especially with the heat that they can produce.


Before preparing the compost for your garden it is best to check the pH level and make sure that it matches the plants that will be using it. Compost can be added directly to a garden and tilled into the soil, but it is recommended to not allow the compost to fully decompose. This is because it is best for it to finish the decomposition process in the soil because it will add to the microbiome and in turn will improve the soil, compost helps to hold water, and it will add nutrients as it finishes the decomposition process.

Another option is to let the compost fully decompose, using a five-gallon bucket fill it about three-quarters full then add chlorine-free water to fill the bucket and let sit and steep for at least 24 hours. Use another bucket and cheesecloth or a paint strainer and pour the liquid compost through the filter and into the other bucket. After you have collected the liquid fertilizer, bottle it with a label for future use or add it to another fertilizer. This mixture can be diluted by mixing one quart of fertilizer with one gallon of chlorine-free water.

Joel Simon

As a kid, Joel found enjoyment in caring for the many houseplants he grew up with, learning how to transplant them safely, cloning them, and more. At about the age of 10, he wanted to see if he could sprout an orange seed from a store-bought orange and ended up using it as a science experiment in a school project. Throughout the many years of gardening, he has helped many friends and family set up their food and botanical gardens. After years of caring for plants, he was talking with other gardeners and discovering old methods of farming and botanical gardening. Joel has decided to share his knowledge for others to enjoy as he has for many years.

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