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Starting a compost pile

Note–The Madison County MU Extension Center announces its July Specialist of the Month, Donna Aufdenberg. Donna has been with Extension for 12 years and is the Horticulture Specialist serving Madison County. Her specialties include vegetable gardening, flower gardening, plant propagation and greenhouse growing, but she is an excellent resource for any horticulture topic. Her current projects include garden journaling to a better garden, vegetable grafting, and utilizing natives in the landscape. You may remember her from teaching the Spring Garden Series; she loves to teach the Master Gardener Program and nearly any garden topic. You may contact Donna directly at 573-238-2420 or

I hear comments all the time from gardeners about how bad their soil is in their garden. If you have less than desirable garden soil, a great way of improving that soil is by adding compost. If you have good garden soil, a way to make it even better is by adding compost. I believe that every gardener should have a compost pile!

Compost is partially decomposed organic matter. It is dark, easily crumbles and has an earthy aroma. When decomposition is complete, compost has turned to a dark-brown material called humus.

Adding compost to soil is beneficial because it adds nutrients and beneficial microbes. It can improve the texture of clay soils, allowing greater water and air movement while making the soil easier to work. It encourages healthy roots and improves plant growth. It attracts and feeds earthworms and other beneficial soil organisms. It also helps control soil erosion, moderate soil temperature and reduces weeds when used as mulch.

So did I peak your interest in having a compost pile? To start a good compost pile, you need a good ratio between “browns” (Carbons) and “greens” (nitrogen) materials. Leaves, newspaper, twigs, dried grass clippings, hay or straw, old potting mix, corn stalks are considered browns. Green materials include vegetable scraps from the kitchen fruit peelings, coffee grounds, young weed (no seed heads), green grass clippings and manure. Items that you should avoid composting include mature weeds with seeds, diseased plant material, grease, fat, meat scraps and bones.

When composting, layer browns and greens. A good rule of thumb is six inches of brown carbon material to one inch of green nitrogen material. As the layers are added, it is a good idea to moisten each successive layer until the recommended five feet high and five feet deep is reached. You will be surprised how quickly the pile shrinks as composting happens.

Some gardeners choose to heap the layers on the ground and others prefer to use a bin. There are several types of bins that you can either buy or build yourself. They can be as simple as using pallets for walls or elaborate as a compost tumbler which is turned every day.

The time it takes to form compost can range from several weeks to several months. This all depends on the compost materials and ratios as well as aerations, moisture and temperature.


• Use smaller pieces in the compost pile – they break down faster.

• Locate the compost bin in a shady spot near a water supply. Shade helps the compost retain moisture.

• Put the compost pile near the garden site so you won’t have to transport it and you’ll see it every day and remember to use it when it’s ready.

• Keep your compost aerated! If you are composting with a tumbling composter, make sure you turn it whenever you add new materials. If you are composting with a pile, be sure to mix up the contents so that the pile gets oxygen and can break down effectively.

• Don’t let the compost completely dry out. A compost pile needs moisture to keep the composting process active.

• Don’t keep your compost too wet so that it gets soggy and starts to stink. Just as too dry is bad, too wet is also something that you should avoid. Keep compost as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

• For faster composting, turn the compost pile every few days.

• Too much of any one material will slow down the composting process. If you have all leaves, all grass clippings or an overload of any other single type of material, it can throw off the balance of the pile. In general, it’s good to keep a mix of green and brown materials.

University of Missouri Extension Guides G6956 “Making and Using Compost” and G6957 “How to Build a Compost Bin” are great sources of information on composting. If you would like these guides on composting or more information on gardening, contact the University of Missouri Extension Office.

Donna Aufdenberg, Horticulture specialist, MU Extension

Donna Aufdenberg, Horticulture specialist, MU Extension

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