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Build a Better Compost Pile in the Fall

Fallen leaves and the last grass clippings of the season make a great start for a compost pile. Image copyright Niki Jabbour.

Fallen leaves and the last grass clippings of the season make a great start for a compost pile. Image copyright Niki Jabbour.

Text by Niki Jabbour for the September/October 2018 issue of Horticulture.

Most gardeners create some type of compost pile for their gardens. Perhaps they compost in a plastic bin, a structure made from wooden pallets or maybe they don’t use any type of bin at all, but instead just pile their organic materials in a corner of their yard to rot. This fall, as you gather garden waste and leaves, put a bit of thought into your composting process to help you build your best compost pile ever.

A better compost pile begins with the right site. I build my compost piles near my vegetable garden so that I don’t have to drag finished compost across my yard in order to use it. I also place the bins in a location that offers a half a day of sun. The sun helps speed up the decomposition process, but full sun can dry out the pile. Organic materials will compost in the shade, but it can take longer.

We’ve all heard you should add “green” (nitrogen) and “brown” (carbon) materials to your compost pile, but do you know that the ratio of these two types of materials will affect the decomposition rate? Aim to add three times the amount of carbon materials than nitrogen-based ingredients. This will help the compost pile heat up and keep those busy microbes well fed. I keep bags of shredded leaves beside my compost bin so that I have a steady supply of carbon-based materials on hand as I add nitrogen waste to the pile.

Now that you know the ratio of carbon to nitrogen materials, what types of actual ingredients should you add to your compost bin? I add garden clippings, disease-free plant materials, vegetable peelings, crushed eggshells, coffee grounds and tea leaves, seaweed, leaves and other natural materials from my yard and kitchen. I don’t add hard stems or stalks to my compost pile without shredding them first, and I never add perennial weeds or those with seed heads.

In order to heat up quickly, it’s ideal to build a compost pile all at once. However, this often isn’t practical for a home compost pile, where bits of compost materials are ready over an extended period of time. If you are able, gather and set aside materials and build the pile when you have enough ingredients to create a heap that is at least three by three feet. I aim to build mine four by four feet, which is large enough to heat up quickly but not so large that it’s difficult to turn every few weeks.

Niki Jabbour grows and harvests vegetables all year at her home in Nova Scotia. Find her in every issue of Horticulture and online at