Creating a Backyard Compost Pile

By Phyllis Frederick (Master Gardener, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County)

From backyards to large farms, composting provides a way to recycle all that kitchen waste and improve your soil. Although fall is a perfect time to get started (all those falling leaves provide extra energy for the pile), spring can also be an excellent time to start by using grass clippings and trimmings. Regardless of when you start, though, composting lets you repurpose your vegetable scraps, coffee grinds, egg shells and fruit rinds into rich dirt for your backyard garden.

So what is compost? It is the dark, crumbly, earthy smelling soil conditioner that is the result of the microbial decomposition of organic matter. In other words, it is the breakdown of food and garden waste. Compost can be made from green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) matter. Nitrogen materials are fruits and vegetable food scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds.  Green, colorful, and wet matter provide nutrients and moisture. Carbon materials are leaves and paper. Brown matter provides energy and structure strength. It helps keep the pile porous to prevent compaction and prevents excess moisture.

Meat scraps, dairy products, diseased or infected plants, weeds with seeds, dog and cat feces, and food with grease or soap residue should not be composted in a backyard compost.

There are numerous benefits of composting. Composting helps the environment by reducing the amount of garbage going to landfills, the need for fertilizer, and the need for water. Composting improves soil structure and texture, promotes soil fertility, stimulates healthy root development, and assists in control of soil erosion.

Compost can be made in a bin, tumbler, or open pile. Compost bins are readily available through your local waste management department or where garden supplies are sold. Mix equal weights of brown and green materials. This results in a ratio of approximately two parts carbon to one part nitrogen. The minimum volume of one cubic yard (approximately 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet) enables the pile to retain heat and become sufficiently self-insulating. Even in the fall. Heat reduces the pathogens and promotes faster decomposition.

Caring for your compost pile is a matter of adding water to keep it sufficiently moist (the consistency of a wrung-out sponge) but not soggy. Turn the pile periodically to shift the materials and avoid compaction that will rob the pile of oxygen. When adding food scraps, add to the middle and cover with leaves or paper. Continue to add materials as the pile will shrink as the contents decompose.

Finished compost should be dark and crumbly with an earthy smell. You can spread the compost around plantings to keep roots moist and smother weeds or add it to planting beds and potting mix as a soil conditioner to add organic matter.

Should you have any problems with your compost pile, refer to the following chart:




Pile has a rotten smell

Not enough air

Turn pile

Pile has an ammonia odor

Too many greens

Add brown material such as leaves/straw

Pile is dry

Not enough water; too much woody material

Turn and moisten; add fresh greens

Low pile temperature (pile not composting)

Pile is too small

Add new materials

Insufficient moisture

Add water

Poor aeration

Turn pile

Lack of nitrogen

Mix in greens like grass or food scraps

Cold weather

Insulate pile with layer of straw or cover with tarp

Pests (rats, raccoons, insects)

Presence of meat or fatty food scraps

Remove from pile


William T. Hlubik and others, Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension. “Home Composting.” Fact sheet FS811.

The Penn State Master Gardener Manual. “Home Garden Composting with Leaves and Garden Waste.”