Ask a Local Master Gardener: How to start a compost pile

  • Composting bins can be large and intricate, or as simple as a single stack. TNS/Joan Morris

For the Gazette
Published: 10/18/2019 1:00:18 AM
Modified: 10/18/2019 1:00:07 AM

Q: How do I start a compost pile? I’ve decided it’s time to make one. —L.S., Easthampton

A: Glad to hear you are taking the plunge into making black gold for your garden soil, L.S. When it comes to gardening, it’s all about the soil. A pleasant, earthy whiff of healthy soil makes a gardener’s heart sing.

Let’s get you started. Think of compost as a soil conditioner as opposed to fertilizer. It helps create the soil structure — the mix of solid soil particles to air pockets — that makes nutrients, air, and microbial activity more accessible to plants’ roots. It helps fertilizer work well and release slowly.

Compost is organic matter decomposed. Good options include coffee grinds, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and leaves. Time to get full use out of that java!

There are many composting methods and no perfect way to compost, so do what best suits your space and your personality. The two main methods are passive and active composting.

Passive composting is just as it sounds. Find an easily accessible place for your compost pile, enclose it with fencing if desired, add organic matter, and wait for it to decompose over time.

Active composting is intentional. One effective method is to create three adjoining piles or bins, measuring 3 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. For example, place three non-pressure treated wooden pallets side by side as a base, then surround each on three sides with staked wire fencing. Keep one side open for access.

Compost requires four ingredients: nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. Once your structure is in place, add organic matter. Add it to the leftmost bin first. Alternate roughly equal parts green material (grass clippings, vegetable and flower leaves and stalks) for nitrogen and brown material (dry leaves, straw, small twigs, coffee grinds) for carbon. Spray lightly with water so the pile is damp, not dripping. Repeat.

Once your pile is about three feet high, turn it over into the adjacent bin using a pitchfork or shovel. This adds air. Refill the first bin. Turn compost again, this time turning both full bins. Repeat until it’s time to empty the last bin. By now your most-turned compost should be almost completely decomposed and look like new soil. And it’s all free! Just a little elbow grease required.

One consideration with open compost is critters. If you want to add food scraps to your compost pile, using enclosed compost bins helps avoid unintentionally inviting them over for snacks.

Earth Machine compost bins and turning compost bins are good enclosed options. The City of Northampton’s Department of Public Works sells these bins to both city residents and non-residents. Visit for related forms.

Items to keep out of the compost pile include meat or dairy products, grease or oil, fish, diseased plant material, and weeds.

If you add weeds, know their seeds will not be killed unless your pile is suitably hot. That’s a whole other topic!

Good question, L.S. Thanks for asking a (local) Master Gardener.

Have a gardening dilemma? Please send questions, along with your name/initials and community, to the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association at One question will be answered per week.
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