How to build a proper compost heap

When you cut the grass or rake fallen leaves from the trees in your garden, or when you finish a meal but leave food on the plate, your first instinct might be to bag up the cuttings and leaves, or scrape the food into the bin and throw it out. That’s bad news for the environment because once the waste goes into landfill, it emits harmful greenhouse gases as it decomposes.  A compost heap will help alleviate this.

There’s a better solution. Garden and organic food waste are one of the many items you can repurpose and do the planet a good turn. Using the waste to create a compost heap is a greener option that can help you improve the structure and health of your soil. 

compost heap

Here’s how to build a real compost heap:

1. Choose a good site

Choose a nice flat, earth base in straight shade or light shade. You don’t want the base to be subject to extreme temperatures or extreme moisture. The base needs to be earth for drainage and for organisms to aerate the soil. If you’re concerned about rats getting in, cover the base with chicken wire. You might also choose to create a compost bin by placing pallets around the heap and which can make the waste decompose faster. 

2. Lay twigs and leaves first

The simple next step is to layer twigs and leaves across the base. These should be a few inches deep. They’ll add bulk to the heap and help to aerate it. They’ll also facilitate drainage. 

3. Add your materials in alternate layers

Once you’ve created your first layer, it’s time to start adding the materials. Do this in layers, alternating between dry (browns) and moist (greens) layers and ensuring a good balance between the two. 


The twigs and leaves are ‘browns’ and serve to feed soil organisms that work with microbes to break down the pile. Other browns include chipped tree branches, bark, sawdust, corrugated cardboard and paper (newspaper, writing paper, coffee filters, napkins and paper plates).

The ‘greens’ are the moist items and are rich in protein and nitrogen. Their purpose is to heat the heap up so that microorganisms in the pile can grow quickly and multiply. Fruit and vegetable scraps, seaweed, animal manures, teabags, coffee granules and grass clippings are all examples of green items.

(Be aware there are so many different materials you can put into a compost heap that it’s easy to get carried away and throw everything but the kitchen sink in there. Materials you should avoid adding to your heap include cat droppings, dog droppings, meat products, dairy products, litter, diseased plants, nappies, plastics, metals and glass.)

4. Add manure

Add manure, green manure or other nitrogen sources to activate the heap. Buckwheat is one example of green manure. This can move the process along more quickly.

manure

Tips for looking after your compost heap (or bin)

Building your heap will require a little patience. To get the best out of the heap once you’ve built it, you’ve got to look after it, which you can do by following the tips below:

Water your compost heap regularly

Water your compost heap regularly to add moisture. Don’t saturate it, however. It just needs a little moisture. Balancing the proportions between ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials in the filling stage can help to prevent your heap becoming too dry.

Cover your compost heap

Covering your compost heap is essential for several reasons. First of all, it keeps the heap warm and moist; and secondly, it protects the heap from rain, keeping the structure strong and preventing excess water from driving air out of the heap. 

Turn your compost heap every few weeks

Turning the compost heap is important for good results. The upheaval of the heap will help to aerate it and quicken the process. When the pile is established, you should mix new materials into the heap, rather than add new layers. 

compost heap

Above, you have the steps to rock compost heap building and, at the same time, do your bit for the planet. Best of all, it doesn’t take much hard work to build or maintain. The result is good-quality compost that you can use as a surface mulch to maintain soil moisture in the spring and release nutrients into the soil; as a potting compost to help your plants grow; or as soil conditioner, again allowing nutrients to enter the soil. Time to get started!

Why not try some of my other garden posts for some inspiration:

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