Creating Backyard Compost for Vegetable Gardens

Composting has been called “black gold” because of its tremendous benefit to the garden. Compost improves soil’s structure, and good soil translates into better root growth for your plants, particularly vegetable plants, and better water carrying capacity for the soil.

Think of composting as a form of garden recycling. The process can turn organic debris into a wonderful material that can go back into your vegetable garden. Here are some tips for building and maintaining a backyard compost pile.

Choosing a Location

The location for your compost pile should be close enough to your garden for ease of access yet close enough to a water source, since you’ll need to add water in the process. Make sure the site has good drainage and air circulation, since air is needed in the decomposition process.

Enclosing your compost pile in a container or bin will help to keep your pile neat. Compost bins can range from something as simple as a wire frame cylinder to a “Biostack” compost bin manufactured by Smith & Hawken. A variety of commercial bins are also available from garden products catalogs and your local home improvement center.

With an abundance of material available from garden cleanup, the autumn months are a preferred time for starting a compost pile, but you can begin one at virtually any time during the year.

Gathering Materials for Composting

The best compost is made from an equal mixture of carbon-rich, or brown, materials and nitrogen-rich, or green, materials. Brown materials include items such as dried leaves, sawdust, wood chips and shredded newspaper. Green materials encompass items such as grass clippings, prunings from the garden, spent flowers and plants, and fruit and vegetable scraps.

Do not add any materials that may have been diseased or treated with pesticides, as these products will ultimately contaminate your compost pile. Keep animal products—such as meat, bones, fat and dairy products—out of the compost entirely, as they prevent other organic matter from breaking down.

It’s best to keep materials in small pieces, since smaller pieces will begin to break down quicker than oversized items.

Start by adding a layer of brown materials to a commercial or homemade compost bin, then add a layer of green materials. Next, add a 1-inch layer of garden soil to the organic materials. Sprinkle one cup of 10-10-10 or 6-10-4 fertilizer on top.

Repeat this procedure, layering organic materials, soil and fertilizer again, then sprinkle the mixture with water so that the compost pile becomes moist but not soggy. To speed up the decomposition process, keep the compost pile moist.


Oxygen is essential for proper decomposition. Every week or two, turn the compost pile inside out. Aerating makes the compost pile decompose much faster than one that is turned less often. If your compost bin is a simple 3-sided wire or wooden enclosure, you can use a pitchfork to turn the mixture. Alternatively, to make aerating easier, use a commercial composting tumbler. A well-aerated compost pile should not smell.

Using a Compost Tumbler

With a compost tumbler, you’ll use the same mixture of materials, soil and fertilizer, but you won’t need to add the items in layers. Add a little water and close the door to the tumbler. Openings in the barrel allow air to mix with the organic materials located inside. Give the barrel a turn or two to stir up the ingredients.

Once the tumbler is half full of leaves and other organic matter, don’t add any fresh materials to it. Adding more materials will only slow down the decomposition process.

It’s best to make compost in batches. This ensures that you’ll have only enough compost that you need and can use at one time. When the decomposition is complete, you won’t recognize the ingredients that you originally added. They will have turned into a loose, crumbly soil.

Compost has many uses in the vegetable garden. It adds nutrients to the soil, making it a great amendment for nutrient-starved soil. It can also be used as a top dressing for a garden bed.

With little time and effort from the part of the gardener, you can turn so much of what would normally be thrown away into a rich organic soil conditioner for the vegetable garden.

Sources: Special thanks to Gray Russell, compost project manager, Bronx Green-Up, The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY 10458. Call the Green-Up’s “Rotline” for more information on composting, 718-817-8543.