Constructing a Compost Pile: Step by Step

Clip art demonstrating constructing a compost pile.
Not much technical detail. Just the basics of constructing a compost pile.

Step One

  • Collect enough material to create a one cubic-yard pile. The material should be the right proportions to approximate a 30:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. For help determining a compost mix try our Compost Mix Calculator.
  • Chop or shred any coarse materials to increase their surface area.
  • Start the pile with a 4- to 6-inch layer of high-carbon material (high C:N ratio).This would be material such as straw, paper, leaves or wood chips.
Clip art demonstrating Step 1 of constructing a compost pile.

Step Two

  • Add a 4- to 6-inch layer of high-nitrogen material (low C:N ratio). Animal manure is generally high in nitrogen.
  • Vegetative kitchen wastes should be added in this layer. If very high-nitrogen materials, such as grass clippings, are used, layers less than 4 inches thick may be appropriate.
  • If food wastes are added, an additional thin layer of soil, sawdust, leaves, straw, or compost should be added to absorb odors.
  • Consider the porosity of the mixture. If dense materials, such as manure or wet leaves, are used, wood chips, straw, or other dry, bulky material should be added to improve the porosity. The thickness of the layers will depend on the C:N ratio of the materials being used.
Clip art demonstrating Step 2 of constructing a compost pile.

Step Three

  • Mix the high carbon and high nitrogen layers.
  • You may find it easier to mix the materials in a wheel barrow before putting them in your compost bin. The reason for building the compost pile in layers is that it is easier to get a good mix and even distribution of moisture in each layer than it is to attempt to mix the entire pile all at once.
Clip art demonstrating Step 3 of constructing a compost pile.

Step Four

  • Conduct a squeeze test to gauge the moisture content of the compost.
  • Add water to freshly mixed compost until squeezing a handful will yield one or two drops of water. Adding too much water may leach out nutrients.
Clip art demonstrating Step 4 of constructing a compost pile.
Clip art demonstrating Step 4 of constructing a compost pile.

Step Five

Continue alternating and mixing layers until the pile is three or four feet high.
Clip art demonstrating Step 5 of constructing a compost pile.
That should do it.

In about a week the pile should reach a temperature around 110 degrees Fahrenheit and should be turned or mixed with an aerator tool. For more information on maintaining your compost pile take a look at the Composting Livestock Manure Information.