Building Your Backyard Compost Pile

This is the fifth post in the backyard composting series.

Now that you’ve have determined where to put your compost pile, collected materials to compost and understand the basic carbon to nitrogen ratios of the materials you have, it is time to put it all together.  The following step-by-step overview is the method I have found the easiest and most successful.  

A step-by-step overview of building a successful pile

There are three main things you need to have to create a successful thermophilic (hot) compost pile.

  1. A proper mix of organic materials. Goal is 25-30:1 C:N overall in the pile.
  2. Moisture.  Too much or too little will hamper your efforts
  3. Size.  To achieve and maintain the proper temperatures for hot composting, your pile should be around 3’x3’x3′ or a 4-5′ gravity pile.

gather your tools

  • Pitch fork and/or shovel
  • Water (hose, irrigation, rainwater)
  • Tarp
  • Compost Thermometer (optional but highly recommended)

NOTE: If using house water, it is advised that you attach a chlorine/chloramine filter to your hose.  Chlorine/chloramines will kill the biology in the soil and reduce your beneficial populations.   

I have had great success with this hose filter by Boogie Brew (affiliate).

starting building

If you’re building directly on the ground, I like to start out with a layer of Browns (high carbon).  This adds a little extra drainage space and helps prevent the bottom from becoming anaerobic. Woodchips are my favorite as they are chunky!

For this example, I am going to build the pile using woodchips, coffee grounds, leaves and fresh manure.    Check out the last post about common C:N Ratios to substitute materials you have.

It is important to break up any chunks while building your pile to ensure the oxygen can reach all parts of the pile.

I am also building a gravity pile.  Meaning the material is stacked without side to shape it.  The pile will look like a rounded pyramid. Goal is 4-5′ feet tall. The base will be roughly the same width

Layer 1: Woodchips 
Add 2-3″ layer of woodchips that covers a 4′ diameter area.

Layer 2: Coffee Grounds
Sprinkle a 1″ layer of coffee grounds over all the woodchips.  Coffee grounds can become hydrophobic (repel water) if they are too dry, so adding in thin layers will help prevent dry pockets in your pile. 

Water your pile. Give your layers a good sprinkle with chlorine free water.  Looking to wet all the materials thoroughly.

Layer 3: Manure
Add a 6″ layer of fresh manure.  If it is mixed in with straw or other bedding materials, that is OK.  

Layer 4: Coffee Grounds
Add a 1″ layer of grounds.

Water your pile. 

Layer 5: Leaves
Add a 2″ layer. Leaves can form a  dense layer in the early stages of composting.  To avoid large pockets of anaerobic activity, we will alternate between thin layers of leaves and our greens (coffee and manure).

Layer 6:  Coffee Grounds or Manure
Add 1″ layer of coffee grounds or manure.

Water your pile

Layer 7-14: Repeat layer 5 & 6 four more times watering after each addition. 

Your pile should be about 2 feet tall now.

Repeat Layers 1-14 to get a 4′ tall gravity pile.

Cover you pile with a tarp.
The purpose of this is to reduce evaporation (if you live in a dry climate) or to prevent water logging (if you live in a wet climate).  It is not to help it heat up. The heat occurs from the decomposition and the micro organisms working to break the material down.

Insert your compost thermometer.
Within 24 hours, your pile should be well on its way to reaching 120+ degree temperatures.  

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