Q&A: Starting a Compost Pile

This is the year I’m going to start composting. Do you have any advice to help me get my compost pile going?

Answer: There are only five words to remember when making compost: brown, green, chopped, water and air. Mix brown (dead leaves or straw, for example) with green (grass clippings, vegetable trimmings), chop them up with a lawnmower or shredder and add a little moisture. Toss it all together like a big stir-fry, and that’s it.

You need much more brown than green but there’s plenty of leeway, so don’t bother measuring exactly. You can make perfectly good compost with 1 part green stuff and anywhere from 10 to 25 parts of brown stuff, so long as they’re somewhat chopped and slightly moistened. Try to get the mixture about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Use a garden fork to fluff it when you make it, and do this again after about a week. After that, you can leave it alone until you add more stuff, when you should fluff it again, mixing old and new as thoroughly as possible.

While it probably won’t do any harm to stir in one of those secret-formula compost additives, they really aren’t necessary. You don’t need lime or fertilizer either. Everything you add to your compost pile will rapidly grow billions of bacteria without any more help than just a little moisture and some air. Indeed, there will so much furious activity that the pile will heat up. The dead brown stuff is the carbon, which is the fuel. Anything green is the nitrogen, the fire. In the presence of water and oxygen they begin to decompose, creating heat.

One apparent contradiction is that manure—horse, cow, chicken or rabbit—counts as a green ingredient, because manures are rich in nitrogen. Animal manure mixed into your pile will get things going a lot faster. However, do not use dog or cat manure, which may contain pathogens.

Fancy compost bins look nice, but all you need is about 12 feet of sturdy wire fencing, formed into a circle and joined at the ends for a “bin” that’s about the right size. It’s easy to lift the fencing off the pile, set it down a couple of feet away and then fork everything from the pile back into it. This will mix and aerate the material thoroughly. If you aren’t in a hurry to get finished compost, you can just let everything sit there and quietly rot for a few months.

The end result, good compost, is something of a natural miracle, but there’s no mystery to it. All it takes is brown and green, chopped, plus water and air.

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