How to Make Compost

Any gardening success I have had...

Is because of COMPOST!

60lb pumpkin grown in compost

60lb Pumpkin grown in compost

Compost Bins made from wooden palettes

The Carbon Cycle

"...the carbon cycle is essentially this: 

sunlight converts to biomass, which decomposes (either in digestion or decomposition)

to build humus,

feed the soil food web,

 and make plants more efficient at capturing more sunlight converted to biomass.  

Whatever we can do on farms to tap into this cycle, the better."

                                                                                                                                           - Joel Salatin, Polyface Farmer, Author & Speaker

Silver Edged Squash for pepitas grown in compost


I think of humus as the rich, sponge-like quality of dark, composted earth in a forest.  Contrast this with the holding quality of a sandy soil, and it is easy to understand exactly what humus is.

Sir Albert Howard speaks of experiments to see if humus could be developed with just vegetation in the compost pile, but he was vehemently convinced that animal manures were required to create humus rich compost.

"In Ceylon particularly, attempts have been made to prepare humus without animal wastes.  The results have not fulfilled expectations.  The breaking down of such resistant material as the leaves and prunings of tea is then unsatisfactory; the organisms which synthesize humus are not properly fed: the residue of these organisms which form an important part of the final humus lack the contributions of the animal.  No one has yet succeeded without livestock.  There is no reason therefore to suppose that the tea industry will prove an exception to what, after all, is a rule in nature."                                                                                   

                                                              - Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, New York, 1940

Mammoth sunflower grown in our compost

Worms convert Decaying Matter to Good Soil

Darwin did some research showing how valuable and necessary worms are as the larger biologic life in healthy dirt or a cooled compost pile.  

He found that worms actually swallow a huge amount of dirt, fresh and decayed leaves as well as other organic matter.  He estimated  ten tons of dry earth per acre could pass through their digestive tract annually!  This was how worms contributed to the health of the soil treating much of the top soil every few years.  They can also bring up small rocks and minerals from deeper dirt and nourish the top soil even more.  Worms also provide the benefit of eating the larvae of some pests like nematodes.

Another huge benefit for soil that has been thoroughly worked by earthworms is that the soil becomes so rich with humus that it absorbs far more water.  It becomes sponge-like in comparison to a clay soil and can absorb the equivalent to two inches of rainfall in fifteen seconds!  We have seen this on our own property.  When we moved here eleven years ago there was a season of heavy rains that flooded our backyard.  Recent torrential rains seemed to be completely absorbed by our now earthworm-rich soil!

These little creatures benefit our soil in still another way by increasing the productivity of the plants grown in soil that has had plenty of worms in it.  This is worth experimenting with yourself!  Take two pots of the same size with the same plants and to one add a handful of worms.  Watch what happens over a season or two to the productivity of that plant!

Some have speculated that worms might eat the fine root hairs of some plants.  Rodale found that this was only true if something was out of balance and the soil had no humus.  With sufficient humus the worms leave the roots of plants undisturbed.

Composting is so hugely valuable for your plants (and your ability to show off your green thumb!) 

This page will cover:

  • WHY Compost and what is happening in the soil,
  • HOW to make Compost - simply and easily!
  • ORGANIC AMENDMENTS for greenery, fruiting and flowering


Quality Compost:

  •      Repels pests
  •      Feeds plants and
  •      Nourishes people!

Why Compost is Important

Compost has been shown to work with nature.  It uses the carbon cycle, worms and humus to make nutrient-dense foods to make healthier people!  Read on to see why!

Orange Tomato grown in Compost

Amana Orange Tomato, Spring 2012


Fruit is designed to nourish us humans.   Fruit also provides nourishment as it decomposes for the seed it surrounds.  There is order and logic to how this decomposition feeds soil.

Seed starting soil

Bacteria, fungi & mycorrhizae  

Bacteria, fungi and mycorrhiza (a tiny, very specific fungi that "absorbs water and mineral matters which it transmits to the roots; and there is some reason to believe that it also absorbs soluble organic matters set free in decay of humus but useful again to the plants." Pay Dirt, JI Rodale, c1945 ) This symbiotic relationship works to help the fruit to disintegrate, which makes food for the growing seedling.  Have you ever left a pumpkin or squash to decompose and found pumpkin or squash plants growing on their own early the next year?


If bacteria and fungi are necessary for the normal uptake of nutrients in the soil, anything that interferes with the work of these microorganisms can be a problem.  Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides burn worms and kill such tiny bacterial life and fungi and  disturb the natural balance.  

You will find when such chemicals are used on a soil, the life within it dies and the humus that would otherwise nourish the soil is eliminated.

Watermelon grown in homemade compost


Beneficial Bacteria

One of the memorable take-aways from the book, Pay Dirt,  to me, was learning how soil is alive - not just alive, but "teeming with life".  "It is very much alive and dynamic.  It teems with bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, molds, yeasts, protozoa, algae and other minute organisms."  Soil is alive with both tiny plant and animal life.  There are "good guys" and "bad guys" - just as in the human microbiome - that live together in a delicate balance.  Yes, even "bad guys" serve a purpose, but they are kept in check by the "good guys", just like in our gut when it is healthy.

Rodale says that, "for growing crops the more microbial life in the soil the better."

Pay Dirt is truly one of my favorite books for understanding how beneficial bacteria overcomes the bad guys in a compost pile - just like in the human body!

Organic Manure

He also says, "Practically all investigators agree that the application of organic manures stimulates and increases the biologic life of the soil to a much greater extent than chemical or mineral fertilizers."  We have found chicken droppings can heat up a compost pile, but so can cow manure purchased in inexpensive bags at the local home store.  We have even used horse manure in our compost piles that we collected from grateful neighbors who are only allowed to fill so many trash cans full per week.  When we had bunnies, we also collected their droppings, but those could be put directly into the garden soil or under trees as the bunny pellets are not as "hot" as chicken, cow or horse manure (please do not try putting the hot manures directly onto the garden or under trees as it can damage plants before it has had time to compost.)

Rodale makes a compelling case that part of the problems with conventional agriculture, fertilizers and pesticides is the destruction that they cause for the beneficial microorganisms inherent in healthy soil."  (He also makes it clear that although limestone, dolomite and ground rocks may be considered chemicals, they do not seem to have the same deleterious effects as chemical fertilizers that reduce the soil life.  Rodale did not  place them in the chemical fertilizer category, rather they are considered to be beneficial soil amendments.)

He found that soils that destroy their earthworms would then adversely affect the bacterial population.


Ingredients For Making Compost

A working (hot) compost pile needs only a few things to get started:


- in the form of animal manures, greens and/or kitchen scraps

  • NEVER include grains, meat, dairy or the manures of humans or meat eaters in your compost pile!
  • For a "hot pile" that works quickly (and burns off weed seeds) use chicken droppings                                          or a bag of cow manure to provide extra nitrogen


- think of dried leaves, dried weeds (before they go to seed!) and straw

Calla Lillies grown in Compost

Calla Lillies grown in Composted Soil


- For us in California this requires a water hose.  In a wetter climate, you may need to protect the pile from too much water.  The compost should be maintained moist like a damp sponge for the ideal conditions to heat up.


- aeration from tossing and turning the pile every three days or so

How to Mix Compost for Best Results

Layer nitrogen materials and carbon materials.

Toss to oxygenate while you moisten with a hose to the point of a moist sponge.

SIZE - the pile should be 3-4' tall and wide to heat up properly


Large pieces of weeds and small tree branches can decompose if let to sit in a pile for a year.

Smaller pieces, turned regulary, with the right amount of water can actually make great smelling earth in as little as three weeks! 


When the pile has the right amount of water and air, there should be no odor!  The pile should also heat up (internal temperatures can exceed 160 degrees) and shrink to half it's size in a few days when the pieces are small.  These are signs that you are doing it right.

Every few days (or whenever you can) it is helpful to turn the materials from the outer edge of the pile inward tossing with more moisture and incorporating more oxygen.  This should make a working compost heat up again!

Repeat until it stops heating up! 


The Fresh Scent Of Earth

The best test to show that the compost is decomposed enough for your garden is that it smells good!   Compost will usually continue to decompose - even after it is put into the garden - but it shouldn't still get hot.

How To Make Compost For Different Gardening Needs


 To put it simply, if you want the greenery of your plants to flourish, more nitrogen may be added.


When leaves are green, they are rich in nitrogen.  When they dry out and brown, they become carbonaceous or carbon-rich.

Organic substances that contain Nitrogen include:
  • Fish Emulsion
  • Cottonseed Meal
  • Bat Guano
  • Composted Chicken, Cow or Horse Manure
  • Bunny droppings

(Be aware of the products on the market today that say, "sourced from Organic..." and watch the ingredient labels for ammoniacal Nitrogen, as that is not for use in Organics and even if it is FROM a good source, it is still a chemical fertilizer.)

Nitrogen from the Air

Legumes fix nitrogen from the air so that the soil becomes more rich in nitrogen after they have grown in an area of dirt. This is why a season of legumes in healthy soil may well be followed by a season of a nitrogen craving crop like corn.

Kale grown in compost and soil

Green Curly Kale

Bunny droppings may produce gentle nitrogen for soil

Bunny Droppings -> Nitrogen

How to Make Compost that Produces More Fruit or Flowers

 To help the Fruiting or Flowering of your plants, give them Phosphorous from:

  • Bone Meal
  • Egg Shells



Last year our Strawberry patch put out runners (new plants) like crazy! We had planted the new strawberry plants in straight compost that must have been high in Nitrogen.

I kept cutting off the new plants and they just kept producing more! Few Berries, though. As fall approached, I started putting crushed Egg Shells and Coffee Grounds (acidic, to balance the alkalinity of the egg shells and a material that quickly decomposes) at the very edge of the Strawberry Patch (not too close, however, as I wasn't sure how they would react!)

The water must have brought enough phosphorous to where it was needed as, all of a sudden, the Strawberry Plants were producing Strawberries - Lots of them!

It is not a very attractive combination, but it works so well, we are putting Egg Shells and Coffee Grounds under the mulch everywhere that we want more fruit!

Sabrina and Gigi laughing with flowers
Compost, Strawberry Bed With Chicken Wire Above And 1 4 In Mesh Below

Compost, Strawberry Bed With Chicken Wire Above And 1 4 In Mesh Below

Nourishing Soil

Acres USA may help you find books on permaculture and composting.  While there, be sure to find a classic by Dr. William A. Albrecht, Ph.D, The Albrecht Papers.  This book makes the case for the importance of nourishing the soil to nourish the microbes, plant life, insects, birds, herbivores, omnivores, carnivores and ultimately nourishes man. 

He brings out the important fact (that research is now confirming) that a vegetable has only as much nourishment as the soil it was grown in.  Compost has nourishment in a form that allows the plants growing in it to uptake more nourishment.

A few years back there was a news article quoting research that said there was not much difference between organic (likely grown in compost) and conventional produce after looking at 344 studies.  I thought that can't be true, so I dug up the article and, sure, enough, when you looked deeper the journal article said that organic produce contained more "other nutrients" and when you look up the other nutrients, they were vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories!

Pretty important nutrients.  Vitamins and minerals are so named because we can't live without them - there is a deficiency disease attached to NOT having them!

Lady Balfour's Experiments

Lady Balfour did some experimentation with animals and found that foods grown in certain soils could reverse ailments that her animals had gotten, that nothing could compare with compost  for providing the nutrition her animals needed.  She also found that soils on which chemical fertilizers had been used did not have the same healing quality.

She found piglets raised on land that had chemical fertilizers applied would develop white scour when they were a month old.  She found that:

"...if these young pigs are kept supplied with fresh soil from fertile land, that is, rich in humus and where no chemicals have been used, they do not suffer from this trouble.  The soil should first be given when the pigs are about a week old, and should be continued up to the sixth week.  You would be surprised at the large quantities that these baby pigs consume.  Now here is the interesting thing.  If the soil be taken from land that has received the usual dressings of chemical manure, and no compost, it is quite ineffective either as a preventive or cure for this complaint."

                                                                                                                 - Lady Balfour, The Living Soil, Faber & Faber, London, 1943

Pigs can help turn the compost pile

Hannah The Iddy Biddy Piddy Pig

Using animals to Make Your Compost:

Joel Salatin says we need to encourage the pigness of a pig.  Pigs love to dig through your compost for you!  These chickens helped turn our compost piles and loved the treats they would find - like cutworms shown below!

Cutworms are often found breaking up bigger pieces of composting materials Photo by Nick Windsor on Unsplash


Chickens can help turn compost

More Research on Compost

For a deeper understanding of the value in a compost pile, and biodynamic farming and gardening, try to get find the classic book by JI Rodale, Pay Dirt.  The intro says, "a fertile soil is the foundation of healthy crops, healthy live stock, and last but not least healthy human beings."

Albert Howard wrote the forward to Pay Dirt and brought up that JI Rodale started the journal, Organic Gardening.  He found it refreshing that this magazine had overcome the "fragmentation" that Howard considered the disease of civilization, "by which such intimately related subjects as agriculture, food, nutrition, and health have become split up into innumerable rigid and self-contained little units, each in the hands of some group of specialists."

For more information

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