Build a Backyard Compost Pile

This page is for the beginner or someone considering a compost pile at home. The instructions give easy, basic steps to build a backyard compost pile. If you are more advanced and want to improve your composting skills, see Step-by-Step Instructions instead.

You may read this document from beginning to end, or use the links below to jump to any point in the document.

How much work is really involved?

Composting can be as much or as little work as you want to make it. The more effort you put into it, the faster you will have finished compost. Building a "hot pile" takes more effort and decomposes faster than a "cold pile". A "hot pile" is a pile that has been built with optimum mass, moisture, air, and materials in a 30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. It is called a "hot pile" because the pile reaches over 140 degrees F at its center as these conditions attract the most efficient microbes, the thermophylic bacteria.

To get your pile going, you may want to follow the least effort alternatives. You can always come back and find ways to speed up the process by taking additional steps.

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Equipment Required

The only required equipment is a shovel or pitchfork to turn or move the contents of the pile.

Equipment you may use:

  • shovel
  • pitchfork
  • compost bin(s)
  • water hose
  • axe, weedeater, mulching mower or other chopping instrument
  • garden gloves
  • wheelbarrow

Equipment you may use if you are REALLY serious:

  • aeration tool
  • thermometer
  • compost sifter

Note added 2010:
Check out the Minimum Composting Equipment Requirements and the How to Use a Compost Thermometer articles I wrote for CompostMania's LEARN section.

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Build a Compost Pile

The following provides a beginner's overview. For detailed information about each step, refer to the Step-by-Step Instructions for Building a Compost Pile.

  • Find a Location for the Pile

    Your pile can be built anywhere except up against a structure such as a house or fence. Macroorganisms, i.e., bugs, etc., will assist you in the composting process. You want them in the pile, not in the house. Locate your pile at least 2 feet from any structure.

  • Set up a Compost Bin (Optional)

    A bin is unnecessary. You can just build your pile on the ground. However, bins are useful for keeping your pile looking neat, retaining heat and moisture, and avoiding the negative effects of wind and weather. If you live in a rural area where food wastes are composted in your pile, a bin can help deter pests. If you want to use a bin, you may build one or buy one.

  • Prepare the Materials (Optional)

    Ensure you have both nitrogens (grass, manure) and carbons (leaves, dried hay) available, and shred those carbons that are more than 1-2" in size.

  • Build the Pile

    You may simply throw in organic materials as they become available. This will result in a very slow decomposition process, but may be appropriate if you are not in need of the finished compost.

    If you are building a pile using the batch process for faster decomposition, follow these steps:

    • Wet the Ground Under the Pile
    • Put Twigs or other unshredded carbon on the bottom of the pile to provide some aeration at the base.
    • Layer the rest of your materials, alternating nitrogen and carbon layers. Add water as you go.
    • End with a carbon layer.

  • Cover the Pile (Optional)

    Experts disagree on whether a cover is necessary. If you live in a region that is excessively dry or excessively wet, cover the pile with a black plastic garbage bag to retain moisture or guard against rain.

  • Monitor the Pile (Optional)

    Check to see that your pile becomes hot within a few days. The pile's heat should peak again after turning. After that, it should peak again every time you turn it, although the peak temperature will be lower and lower with each turn.

    Also monitor the moisture content of your pile. When you pick up a handful of material, it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.

  • Turn the Pile (Optional)

    Turning the pile means stirring it up by some method. Turn the pile to decrease composting time. Turning the pile allows all the material to be exposed to the hot center and increases aeration. I turn mine once a week to once a month.

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When is Compost Finished?

The finished compost will take up only 25 - 40% of the space occupied by the original pile. When the individual materials can no longer be identified and the pile resembles dark rich soil, the compost is completed. It will smell sweet, woodsy, and earthy. It will crumble through your fingers.

From beginning to end, the composting process can take from 6 weeks to 2 years. Hot composting times will be much less than cold composting. Factors noted in the instructions above will determine how long the process takes. Everything matters -- how often the pile is turned, what materials went into the pile, the condition of the materials, moisture, adequate air, presence of insulation around the pile, size of the pile, etc.

If you add materials as you get them, instead of building batches of compost, you will find that after 6 months to two years, the inside and bottom if the pile, i.e., the matter you added first, has become compost. You may remove this from the bottom of the pile and use it. Return the rest of the materials to the bin or pile location to continue decomposing.

Once you master these basics, move on to techniques for faster composting described on the Step-by-Step Instructions for Building a Compost Pile page!

Online Stores
Compost Tea eBook
Build a brewer with a bucket and less than $15 worth of components, and make aerated compost tea.
Composting the Holidays eBook
Compost fall leaves, hay bales, holly wreaths, pine trees, etc. Compost pumpkins (food waste) in a compost pile.



  1. ** Build a Compost Pile: Basics **
  2. Build a Pile: Advanced
  3. More on Building a Pile
  4. Compost Ingredients
  5. Use Finished Compost
  6. Leon's Composting

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