How To Build A Compost Heap: A Beginner’s Guide to Nutrient-Rich Garden Gold

If you’re eager to embrace eco-friendly practices and enrich your garden’s vitality, learning how to build a compost heap is an essential endeavor. In this article, we’ll delve into the art of creating a nutrient-packed compost pit, guiding you through the step-by-step process. Discover what to compost, explore the benefits of composting and gain insights into maintaining a thriving compost heap.

compost heap

Our comprehensive guide will take you through the construction of a DIY compost pit, providing clear instructions on setting up the ideal environment for organic matter to transform into valuable “black gold.” We’ll cover the range of materials that can be composted, from kitchen scraps to yard waste, while also offering insights into where to purchase compost bins if building one isn’t your preference. Additionally, we’ll share expert tips on proper layering techniques to maximize decomposition efficiency and maintain a well-balanced compost pile. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced gardener, by the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to create and manage a productive compost heap, fostering sustainability and natural abundance in your own backyard.

Garden and organic food waste are some of the many items you can repurpose in your compost bin or heap. Using natural waste to create a compost heap is a greener option that can help you improve the structure and health of your soil. 

How to build a compost bin

Building a basic compost bin from pallets or pieces of timber is a very straightforward process. Here’s a quick guide to get you started. You can find free pallets pretty much anywhere in your local area. Try driving around some local industrial estates and ask if you can have a few. Most businesses will be happy to say goodbye to them. Here are some I found on the side of the road next to a construction site.

pallets on the side of the road

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.

chicken wire on floor

Building four walls

The basic structure consists of three taller walls and one shallow wall. (Or four tall walls where one can easily be removed.) If you’re using pallets then these can be secured together with 50mm screws. Place three together to form a C shape. The final pallet can be cut down to 1/3 the size of the others and secured to the front. This will help you start the compost pile without it spilling out. Here’s a great example of a compost heap that’s just been opened up to remove the fertile compost.

compost heap from pallets

If you have the space then it’s a good idea to consider multiple compost heaps. This way you can keep alternating the materials you add and the stages of decomposition, allowing for a continuous supply of compost for your garden. One heap can be actively receiving new kitchen and garden waste while the other matures. This rotation not only maximizes compost production but also ensures that you always have well-developed compost on hand.

multiple compost heaps

Additionally, having multiple compost heaps allows you to segregate materials based on their decomposition rates and specific composting requirements. This level of organization can lead to better compost quality and efficient waste management in your composting process.

What to put in a compost bin

Composting is a great way to recycle organic materials and create nutrient-rich soil for your garden. Here’s a list of things you can compost and some things you really need to avoid.

compost heap from old posts

Start with a layer of twigs and leaves

The first simple 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 suitable drainage. 

Add your compostable materials

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.

Green Materials (Nitrogen-Rich)

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.

  1. Fruit and vegetable scraps
  2. Coffee grounds and tea bags
  3. Eggshells (crushed)
  4. Green plant trimmings (e.g., grass clippings, weeds)
  5. Fresh leaves
  6. Seaweed and kelp
  7. Kitchen scraps (avoid meat, dairy, and oily foods)
  8. Flowers and plant prunings
  9. Manure from herbivores (e.g., cows, horses, rabbits)
  10. Livestock bedding (e.g., straw, sawdust)

Brown Materials (Carbon-Rich)

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).

  1. Dry leaves
  2. Shredded newspaper and cardboard
  3. Paper towels and napkins (unbleached)
  4. Straw and hay
  5. Wood chips and sawdust (untreated wood)
  6. Corn cobs and stalks
  7. Pine needles
  8. Twigs and small branches
  9. Dry plant materials
  10. Cotton and wool scraps (natural fibers)

We’ve been shredding our cardboard and paper to mix into our compost, which helps create a well-balanced carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and encourages efficient decomposition.

Shredded paper and cardboard

Other Compostable Items

  1. Fireplace ashes (in moderation)
  2. Hair and pet fur
  3. Nut shells (crushed)
  4. Natural fibers (100% cotton, linen, jute)
  5. Seashells (crushed)
  6. Dryer lint (from natural fibers)
  7. Stale bread and grains
  8. Spent flowers and plants
  9. Vacuum cleaner contents (if no synthetic materials)
  10. Natural wine corks (chopped or shredded)

Avoid composting these materials

  1. Meat, fish, and bones (attracts pests)
  2. Dairy products (can lead to odors)
  3. Oily and fatty foods (slow decomposition)
  4. Diseased or pest-infested plant material
  5. Weeds with mature seeds
  6. Synthetic materials (plastics, metals, treated wood)
  7. Glossy or colored paper (contains chemicals)
  8. Cat and dog waste (can contain harmful pathogens)

Remember, successful composting requires a balance between green and brown materials, moisture, and regular turning or mixing. This helps promote proper decomposition and prevents odors or pest problems.

Add manure

Adding manure to your compost heap can significantly enhance the quality and nutrient content of your compost. Manure, especially from herbivores like cows, horses, or rabbits, is rich in nitrogen and beneficial microorganisms that accelerate the decomposition process. The high nitrogen content heats up the compost pile, aiding in the breakdown of tougher materials. As manure breaks down, it introduces valuable organic matter and minerals, contributing to the creation of nutrient-rich humus.

manure pile

However, it’s important to use manure from healthy animals, avoid adding excessive amounts that might unbalance the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and ensure that the manure is well-aged or composted to avoid potential issues with pathogens. When integrated thoughtfully, manure can transform your compost heap into a potent source of fertility for your garden, promoting plant growth and soil health.

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!

Should I add worms to my compost?

Yes, adding worms to your compost can be a great idea, especially if you’re aiming for efficient and nutrient-rich composting. Worms, specifically certain types of composting worms like red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), play a crucial role in the decomposition process through a method known as vermicomposting.

compost worms

Here are some benefits of adding worms to your compost:

  1. Faster Breakdown: Worms are excellent decomposers. They consume organic materials and break them down into smaller particles, which speeds up the composting process.
  2. Increased Microbial Activity: Worms’ digestive systems contain beneficial microbes that aid in the breakdown of organic matter. This boosts the overall microbial activity in the compost, enhancing decomposition.
  3. Aeration and Mixing: As worms move through the compost, they create channels that allow for better aeration and moisture distribution. This helps maintain optimal conditions for decomposition.
  4. Nutrient-Rich Castings: Worms excrete nutrient-rich castings, which are a highly valuable form of compost. These castings are full of beneficial microorganisms and nutrients that improve soil fertility.
  5. Improved Compost Quality: Vermicompost produced by worms tends to have a well-balanced nutrient profile, making it an excellent soil amendment for plant growth.
  6. Reduced Odor and Pests: Worms help break down materials more efficiently, reducing the likelihood of unpleasant odors or pest problems in the compost pile.

However, it’s important to consider a few factors when adding worms:

  • Worm Species: Use composting worms like red wigglers, as they thrive in the conditions of a compost pile. Earthworms found in the soil might not adapt well to composting.
  • Suitable Conditions: Worms require a moist environment with proper aeration. Make sure your compost pile or bin provides these conditions.
  • Food Sources: Worms need a continuous supply of organic materials like kitchen scraps and small pieces of paper. Avoid overfeeding, as excess food can attract pests.
  • Temperature: Worms have temperature preferences. They work best in the temperature range of around 13-25°C (55-77°F). Extreme cold or heat can affect their activity.
  • Avoid: Avoid adding materials that are too acidic, salty, or oily, as well as meat, dairy and pet waste. These can harm the worms or attract pests.

In summary, adding worms to your composting setup, especially in a controlled environment like a vermicomposting bin, can enhance the efficiency and quality of your compost while providing valuable worm castings for your garden.

How long does a compost heap take to produce good quality compost?

The time it takes for a compost heap to produce good quality compost can vary widely based on several factors. On average, under ideal conditions, it can take anywhere from a few months to a year for compost to be fully mature and ready for use.

good quality compost

A compost heap like the one described above often referred to as a “cold composting” method, generally takes a longer time to compost compared to other methods like hot composting or vermicomposting. The timeframe for an open compost heap to fully break down materials into mature compost can vary widely depending on various factors. On average, it might take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years for an open compost heap to produce finished compost.

Here are the factors that influence the composting duration in an open heap:

  1. Materials: The types of materials you add to the heap, as well as their carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, will affect the decomposition speed. A mix of diverse materials can lead to a better balance and faster breakdown.
  2. Particle Size: Smaller pieces decompose faster. Larger materials might take longer to break down.
  3. Aeration: Regularly turning or mixing the heap introduces oxygen, which speeds up decomposition. However, in an open heap, turning might not be as frequent as in hot composting.
  4. Moisture: Adequate moisture is essential for microbial activity, but excess moisture can lead to slow decomposition or bad odors.
  5. Climate: Cold weather can slow down microbial activity and decomposition. Warm seasons with moderate temperatures will accelerate the process.
  6. Microbial Activity: The natural activity of microorganisms in the heap drives decomposition. Adding compostable materials rich in microorganisms (like soil) can help jumpstart the process.

Given these variables, if you’re using an open compost heap and are passively managing it without regular turning, it might take around 1 to 2 years for the compost to fully mature. However, if you’re able to turn the heap periodically (even if not as frequently as hot composting), you might see results in the range of 6 to 12 months.

To help speed up the process in an open compost heap, consider adding a variety of materials, keeping the heap moist but not waterlogged, and occasionally turning or mixing the pile to promote aeration and microbial activity. If you’re looking for quicker results, you might want to explore more active composting methods like hot composting or vermicomposting.

Hot composting

We recently invested in a HotBin composter which has dramatically sped up the time it takes to produce good-quality compost. In less than 4 months we have transformed our kitchen scraps and garden waste into a rich, dark, earthy compost that’s ready to nourish our plants. The HotBin’s innovative design harnesses heat generated by microbial activity, allowing us to achieve higher temperatures compared to traditional composting methods. This accelerated the breakdown of materials, effectively killing weed seeds and harmful pathogens in the process. The consistent high temperatures also mean that a wider variety of materials can be composted, including some that wouldn’t be suitable for cold composting. With its efficiency and speed, the HotBin composter has revolutionized our composting experience, offering a sustainable solution that aligns perfectly with our gardening goals.

HotBin composter

This is the HotBin Mini which has a capacity of 100 litres. There is also a 200-litre version and if you want to get serious about hot composting then they also have a 450l and 700l version.

The HotBin is an ideal compost bin for those committed to composting and waste reduction. Operating as a hot aerobic composter, it reaches temperatures of 40-60°C, breaking down food and garden waste into compost within 30-90 days.

HOTBIN Composter thermometer

Unlike cold composting, its high temperature enables rapid breakdown, efficiently composting even challenging items like bones and eliminating weed seeds, pathogens, fly eggs and larvae.

HotBin Mini composter open lid

We find this size and style of composting ideal for our small Cornish garden.

small cornish garden veg planters

Another great feature of the HotBin is the leachate collection system. This collects any draining liquid from the compost heap into a funnel that can be collected as a high-nutrient fertiliser for your plants.

HOTBIN Mini Composter (100l)

HotBin mini hot composter
  • Compost production in under 90 days
  • RECYCLE your food and garden waste into RICH compost fast
  • 100 litre capacity
  • HOT composts all year
  • No assembly is required
  • 115 x 45 x 45cm (45 x 17 x 17 inches)
  • Designed for an average 3-5 person household with a small/medium garden
  • Easy to set up and use – no back breaking turning or tumbling, undue odour, flies
  • Locate on any even surface – Sun or shade

Or here is the 200l version for those with a larger garden.

HOTBIN Compost – Extra (200l)

hotbin composter extra Amazon
  • Compost production in under 90 days
  • RECYCLE your food and garden waste into RICH compost fast
  • 200 litre capacity
  • HOT composts all year
  • No assembly is required
  • 115 x 55 x 55cm (45x22x22 inches)
  • Designed for an average 3-5 person household with a small/medium garden
  • Easy to set up and use – no back breaking turning or tumbling, undue odour, flies
  • Locate on any even surface – Sun or shade


Composting stands as a powerful ally in the journey toward sustainable living. By transforming kitchen scraps and garden waste into nutrient-rich soil, composting not only reduces our environmental impact but also rewards us with bountiful gardens. Whether through the traditional cold composting method, the accelerated heat of hot composting, or the diligent partnership with composting worms, the process empowers us to actively contribute to a healthier planet. As we witness the metamorphosis of organic matter into dark, crumbly humus, we’re reminded that even small actions can yield significant change. Embracing composting is a tangible step towards closing the loop in the natural cycle of growth, decay, and renewal, reminding us of the intricate connections between our daily choices and the vitality of the Earth.

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