How to Start a Compost Pile

Get expert advice for planning and beginning a new compost pile in your garden.

Hurdle Style Compost Bin

Hurdle Style Compost Bin

As well as looking attractive, a hurdle-style compost bin offers good ventilation. The heap is accessed by removing one side.

©2007 Dorling Kindersley Limited

2007 Dorling Kindersley Limited

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Composting can be a fun, exciting process. Just like it’s a good idea to slow down and plan a garden bed before rushing out to buy your plants, it’s also smart to do a little planning before starting a compost heap. Taking a little extra time to plan ahead can save a headache or simply make composting a little easier later on. Here are five important factors to consider.


Placing the bin adjacent to or actually in the garden will save some time and labor when it’s time to apply your finished product. One cubic yard of compost can weigh up to a ton! Cutting the space between the bin and the garden will save a few steps pushing a heavy wheelbarrow. The shorter trip will also be helpful when you’re adding clippings and spent plants from your garden to the bin. 

Water Access

Water is key to decomposition – a dry pile takes longer to break down. Look for a spot that you can easily reach with your garden hose. Some folks tuck their compost bin in a far corner of the yard so that it’s out of sight, but then have difficulty keeping it adequately watered. If you site your pile near a garden shed, consider collecting rain from the roof in a rain barrel to water your compost.

Sun or Shade?

A little shade is a good thing for folks who compost in a warm, southern climate. Bins that sit in the shade of a tree or fence will lose less water to evaporation in the hot summer months. Be sure to avoid composting directly against a wooden fence. The same decomposers that are breaking down your compost could damage the fence too!

A sunny spot may be better for northern composters. The extra heat from the sun will keep the pile a little warmer earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Remember, warm compost piles decompose faster than cool ones.

Soil Contact

Many of the organisms that you want to live in your pile find their way in from the soil in your yard. Compost piles that are set on a concrete pad or weed fabric suffer because they are cut off from the soil ecosystem. If you’re worried about weeds sneaking in from the lawn, remove the turf below the bin and generously layer woodchips, newspaper or cardboard between the soil and the compost.

Nutrients that leach out of the pile when it rains will improve the soil below the bin. If you compost in a pile or using a moveable bin, it’s a good idea to set up shop on a fallow bed. The quality of the soil below the bin will improve, and you can easily mix the finished product in when it’s ready.

Law of the Land

Some cities may have ordinances that regulate composting. These strict rules may have to do with what can and can’t be added to your bin or the sorts of bins that are allowed. Be sure to check with your local government, county extension service, or homeowners’ association to get the scoop on composting for your area.

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