How to Make a Compost Heap

By Alex N

Compost heaps may sound a little old fashioned, but even in the smallest of gardens, they can still help with recycling kitchen and garden waste.  In this 5th article on Back to Basics, we look at how to make a compost heap.  They may not be pretty, but they are clever and I promise if you do this; you may get hooked on gardening for the rest of your life.

There is something ever-so-slightly primeval about making compost.  And the ‘rush’ you get when you have succeeded in turning vegetable peelings, grass cutting and a few old leaves into wonderful, black crumbly compost is indescribable   Better still, compost, when rotted down, will improve and maintain your soil by adding humus-forming matter, plant foods and beneficial bacteria.

Making compost is a bit like cooking!  Ingredients include grass clippings, flower and vegetable stems that are not too tough, light hedge trimmings, wet peat, wet straw and annual weeds. Leaves can be used, but not in great quantities as they are more valuable for use as leaf mould. A separate bin can be kept in the kitchen for such household waste as tea leaves, vegetable trimmings, hair, egg shells and vacuum cleaner dust. Bonfire ashes, animal manure, and saw­dust are also suitable.

Not suitable for the compost heap are coarse plant material such as cabbage stems and tree pruning’s, diseased plants, pernicious weeds like docks, dandelions, and bindweed roots, any dead plants on which weed-killer has been used, and cooked matter, such as meat or fish.


As a compost heap is unsightly, it is best situated in the working part of the garden and screened from the house. It should be protected from hot sun or cold winds, but not be against a wall or hedge. An ideal site is beneath a tree. The shape of the heap can be circular or rectangular, although most people find a rectangular one easier to cope with. The best size to aim for is about lm (3 ft) wide, l-2m (5-6 ft) long, and l-l.5m (3-5 ft) high when completed.


How to Make a Compost Heap, compost heap, composting, worms, earthworms, wormery

It pays to construct the site of the heap correctly, rather than tipping the waste straight onto the ground. I would recommend digging a shallow pit - about 15cm (6 in) deep.

Place the soil on one side as you will need it later. Then put down in the pit an 8cm (3 in) layer of broken bricks or stones mixed with coarse tree pruning’s, woody cabbage stems, straw and similar tough plant material.

This will help essential drainage and allow air circulation

For detailed construction plans of how to build the frame click here

What to Put In It

When the base is prepared, begin to build up the compost heap. This should be done roughly as follows:

Layer 1: about 15cm (6 in) of organic material.

Layer 2: a sprinkling of a proprietary compost accelerator according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This should supply the essential bacteria, nitrogen and chalk necessary to break down the raw matter into usable compost.

Layer 3: a 2-3cm (1 in) layer of soil, taken from the dug-out heap.

These three layers are repeated until the heap reaches the required height.

Follow these rules for successful composting:

1 Always be sure that each layer of organic material is well firmed down (but not too tightly compressed) by treading on it or beating it flat with a spade blade.

2 If using grass clippings in large quantities, mix them with other materials or they will form a soggy mass in the heap.

3 Check from time to time to make sure that the heap is moist. If it has dried out, either sprinkle water over it or, preferably, hammer stakes into the heap to make holes and then pour water into the holes.

4 To finish off the heap, level the top and put a 2-5cm (1-2 in) thick layer of soil over the top and around the sides to act as a cover.

How to Make a Compost Heap, compost heap, composting, worms, earthworms, wormeryA properly made compost heap pro­vides material to be used either for digging into the ground or for mulching. Mulch is a top dressing layer on the surface of the soil around the plants. The compost will be ready to be dug in after about 10-14 weeks in summer or 14-18 weeks in winter. When the compost is ready for use the heap will consist of a brownish black, crumbly, sweet smelling and easily handled material.

If the heap doesn’t seem to be rotting down well in the allotted time, something has gone wrong with the construction. If this happens, it is worth the trouble of digging a second shallow pit alongside and rebuilding the first heap into that, turning the top to bottom and sides to middle and following the sandwich layer principle again. In any case, as one heap is finished, a second one should be started so that there is always a supply of essential humus-forming material ready to add to the soil.

The method of compost-making described here is simple and cheap. If, however, you have a very small garden, it may be easier for you to buy a pro­prietary bin compost unit, or wormery which has its own instructions for use.

If you would like to learn more about gardening why not consider taking one of MyGardenSchool’s 4 week online gardening courses click here for details

Alex N

I'm passionate about online learning, and lucky enough to work for Learning with Experts. Most recent course: The Pie Shop with River Cottage's Tom Morrell. Next course: Container Gardening with Chris Beardshaw.

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