Compost Heaven

How To Compost

Part 2: Water, Air and Extras

In part one we covered the first step to understanding how to compost.  The first step is balancing your green and brown organic material.

Now we'll give the pile the other key ingredients it needs.

How To Compost --Step Two: Maintain Proper Moisture

Compost PilesStep 2 on how to compost is learning how wet your pile should be.  Proper moisture is vital for a compost pile--as important as your brown and green mixture, however this can be equally elusive.

A pile needs the moisture of a wringed out sponge.

Easy to say but not always easy to maintain.

As I build a pile, I always try to get the correct moisture.

If it has been raining, I may take a moment to turn the pile and let the insides dry out.  If it has been dry, I'll get the hose and sprinkle the material I'm adding to add water to the pile.  My best system to gently wet a dry pile was when I had a helper--the helper held the hose on a gentle spray and misted the pile as I turned it with a pitchfork.  The pile was gently moist when I was done.

This is great, but as soon as you go inside, Mother Nature will have her way.  It will rain or the sun will beat down--either way, controlling the moisture becomes at best, laborious, and at worst, impossible.

Ideas to keep the moisture levels even:

  • Use a tumbler so that the moisture is less likely to evaporate and rain can't get in.
  • If you live in the dessert, but your pile in as shady a spot as you can find.  Your piles will tend to dehydrate.  Enclose them if you can.
  • Use water from a rain barrel if you are going to wet your pile.  This way you don't use valuable resources for a compost pile.
  • If you live in a very wet area, find a spot protected from the rain to protect your pile.  Try building your pile on old pallets so that there is room to drain underneath it.  This makes it hard for worms to make their way to your pile, so you could add some compost to your pile to get it started.

How to Compost--Step Three:  Air, Air, Air

The last vital ingredient for your pile is air.  You want to promote anaerobic decomposition because it doesn't stink and in general, the decomposition is faster.  You want the bacteria that need air.

If you are using an enclosure like a tumbler or bin for your pile, be sure there are holes on the sides for air circulation.

One quick and easy way to turn your piles is to use a tumbler.

Be sure your pile is not too large.  Generally home compost piles are one cubic yard (one cubic meter).  Bigger than that and the inside of the pile gets suffocated.  Commercial piles can be many times this size, but this is the most workable for home use.

As your pile matures, you may need to turn it or aerate it.  It is perfectly fine to just leave a pile, but again, the process may slow down.  Anytime you want to amp up your pile, get some air to it and see what happens.  As long as there is good green stuff left, and there is still matter to break down, it will heat up and speed up.

How to Compost--Step Four:  Refinement

Compost piles can, of course, become much more complicated than just managing these 3 steps.  University people love to find all the environmental and chemical variables which can affect your pile.  Some of the other variables you can monkey with include temperature, pH, calcium, potash, phosphorous, etc.


You can manage the temperature in the pile from the standpoint of what you add and how often your turn it, but you can't manage the external temperature around a pile.  Most piles slow to a virtual stop in a cold, northern winter.  Equally, if you have a sudden heat streak, your pile may stop working as the bacteria on the outside of the pile cook.

Temperature does affect your pile but there's not much you can do about it.


Because bacteria and fungi all have their preferred pH to live in, the pH of your pile can definitely affect its outcome.

Realist composters, however, don't worry too much about this.

If you are obviously skewing your pH, for example if you are composting a big pile of acidic pine needles, you may make note of that and add some lime.

And if you are deliberating making compost to spread around your acid loving plants, you may start by composting acidic materials.

But generally, it is not necessary to worry about your pile's pH.

Other Nutrients

Calcium, potash, phosphorous, iodine, boron, copper, magnesium...

All of these nutrients are necessary for a good pile.

However, if you are adding good, healthy, varied organic material into your pile, your pile will do just fine.  It's a bit like taking vitamins--eat a good diet and the vitamins are unnecessary.  I don't think learning how to manage these minerals is neccessary for learning how to compost.

If your garden needs any of these elements, it is better to adjust them in your garden than to add them to your compost pile.

Bonus step:  Activators

The final step to how to compost is optional.  Activators can get your pile cranking, but they are not neccessary.  If you want to really speed up the process, give them a try.  If not, save yourself the trouble.

Nitrogen, carbon, water and air.  These are the main ingredients that you compost pile needs.  Add them with general guidelines in mind, and you're sure to have compost for your garden.

Back to "How to Compost--Part 1: Composting in Four Easy Steps"

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