How to Start a Compost Pile

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  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Well, fall may not seem like the best time to start a gardening project but with a never-ending supply of leaves and yard clippings on hand, it’s actually the perfect time to start a compost pile.

    TOM: That’s right. Composting is a great way to recycle organic material. It’ll give you homemade fertilizer to help you cut down on all that bagging so many of us have to go through to get rid of organic debris. Here to tell us how to get this job done the right way is Roger Cook, the landscaping pro from TV’s This Old House.
    Hi, Roger.
    ROGER: Hi. You know what they say, compost happens.
    TOM: And it’s a very natural process. So tell us exactly how it works and how we get the best compost to have it ready for spring.
    ROGER: Well, it’s a totally natural operation where things break down to their elements.
    TOM: OK.
    ROGER: So what we’re going to break down is the browns, which tend to be leaves, and the green, which tends to be grass material.
    TOM: OK.
    ROGER: Combine this and what I like to do is have people combine it at a ratio of three to one – three browns to one green – and that should give you the perfect compost when it breaks down.
    LESLIE: And you don’t need to add anything into this pile in your yard? Because I know when you get to sort of household composting – you know, food sources inside the house – there might be like a worm or something that goes in there. Truly, everything you need is outside?
    ROGER: Well, there’s a couple things you can do to kind of – I use an accelerator. And usually, the accelerator I use is other compost, because it already has microbes in it. It’ll have worms in it and it’ll have all the things you need to get that pile started. And when you don’t put it in, those things slowly come up from the bottom of the pile and get into the whole pile. But if you turn the pile over with those, then you’re speeding up the process, too.
    LESLIE: Now, do you actually have to build some sort of containment unit or do I need just a free pile of things sitting in my yard somewhere?
    TOM: And is there a location that’s better? I mean does it need more sun or less sun?
    ROGER: Sun is always better and someplace where if it does rain, it’ll get some rainfall helps; so not directly underneath the tree.
    As far as – there are a gazillion things you can buy to do the compost. There are things that spin that accelerate it very quickly. I’ve used chicken wire to make a circle and fill it with that or if you have enough property, you can just make a large pile. The secret is to turn it over. If you just let it sit there by itself, it can become stagnant.
    LESLIE: If you decide to compost your yard items – the grass, the leaves, et cetera – can you then add, say, the banana peels and the things from inside the house from your food or is it better to just sort of keep those two guys separate?
    ROGER: A lot of people will use them but the problem I have is that rodents will end up getting in the pile. If you’re throwing in some meat, some fruit and things like that – I have a neighbor who does it – and a lot of their vegetation ends up in my yard when the rat (Tom and Leslie chuckle) come – drops it on the way through the yard. Yeah, that’s the only problem with that.
    So if you’re going to do that type of product, you need it in something you can keep closed so that the animals can’t get at it.
    TOM: I would imagine that the microbes probably have a harder time breaking down the meats and the cheeses than they might the grass and the leaves, too.
    ROGER: It’ll take a little longer for the whole process to happen, yeah.
    TOM: But the key is really aeration, as you say.
    ROGER: Aeration and water; that’s what it needs to build up the heat inside that. Now, if you are going to add grass to it, the one recommendation I would make is not to put in a grass that has pesticide or insecticides in it. It can affect the microbes in the pile and we want to just keep those out of our whole compost pile.
    LESLIE: Is there any odor associated? Does it …?
    ROGER: If you’re doing it right, there is no odor to it. If you’re doing it wrong, then you will get a smell from the pile.
    LESLIE:  Then it’s going to stink.
    ROGER: And that’s that stagnant smell that you’re going to get. Good compost, you can pick it up in your hand and it just – earthy smell, that’s all it has.
    TOM: We’re talking to Roger Cook, the landscaping expert from TV’s This Old House.
    Roger, so if we do everything right – we’ve got the right mix; we’ve got the right location; we’ve been aerating; we’ve been watering – how do you know when the cake is ready to eat? How do you know when the compost pile is done?
    LESLIE:  But don’t eat it.
    TOM: But don’t eat it.
    ROGER: Yeah, don’t eat it.
    TOM: Right.
    ROGER: Don’t make compost pie. It’ll …
    TOM: Right.
    ROGER: You’ll take it in your hands and you feel it.
    TOM: Right.
    ROGER: It’ll be all crumbly; everything’ll be broken down and then you know it’s ready. Some people will go as far as to take a heat sample in the middle of it; they look for 150 to 180 degrees. That’s how much heat it’ll build up in the center of this.
    But most people, we just take and feel it and you can tell when it’s done.
    TOM: Great advice. Roger Cook from TV’s This Old House, thanks so much for stopping by The Money Pit.
    ROGER: You’re welcome.
    TOM: And there are lots of great articles on this topic on the This Old House website at
    LESLIE: And remember, you can watch Roger and the entire This Old House team on This Old House and Ask This Old House, on your local PBS station.
    TOM: And This Old House is brought to you by Lumber Liquidators. Hardwood floors for less.

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