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  1. Use a bin. A simple wire enclosure will do. A bin keeps your pile neat and helps retain heat and moisture, two key elements of the compost process. Learn how to build your own compost bin. You may also wish to purchase a ready made bin. The City of Madison hosts a compost bin sale every spring. Details of this sale will be posted on this web page as soon as they are available. You can also purchase bins on line.

  2. The key to a good working compost pile is a balance of green materials, such as grass clippings or food waste that is high in nitrogen and brown material, such as leaves, that are high in carbon. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a 50-50 ratio by weight of green and brown material.

  3. If you are going to compost kitchen waste, bury the material 6-12 below the surface. This keeps flies away from your pile. Compost only vegetable and fruit waste. Do not compost meat, fats, gravy or pet waste.

  4. Don't forget moisture. A compost pile should be damp so be sure to add water to dry material as you build your pile. Don't over water. Materials should be as damp as a wrung out sponge.

Building a Compost Pile

  • 1st layer: 3"-4" of chopped brush or other coarse material on top of the soil surface allows air circulation around the base of the heap.
  • 2nd layer: 3"-6" of "green" material, such as grass clippings, food waste, or fresh plant waste.
  • 3rd layer: 4"-8" of "brown" material, such as leaves. Add water as needed.
  • 4th layer: 1" of soil serves as an inoculate by adding microorganisms to the pile.
  • 5th layer: Repeat steps 2-4 until the bin is almost full. Top off the heap with a layer of leaves or straw and scoop out a "basin" at the top to catch rainwater.

Maintaining Your Compost Pile

A properly made compost pile will reach temperatures of 140-160 degrees F in four or five days. At this time you'll notice the pile "settling," a good sign that your pile is composting properly. After 4 or 5 weeks, turn the pile, putting material from the outside of the pile into the center of the new pile. Add water if necessary. You shouldn't need to turn your heap a second time. Your compost should be ready in 3 to 4 months.