My compost pile on day one.

All photos by Andy Kroll

Had New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk parody duo, “Flight of the Conchords,” been in my backyard this morning, they would’ve agreed with me: Conditions were perfect.

Perfect, that is, for building a compost pile.

After some predictably uncooperative Michigan weather, a recent run of warm spring days finally provided an opening for me to build my planned compost pile in my backyard. So I awoke at nine this morning, pulled on some grubby gardening clothes and took to the backyard.

But before getting into my morning adventure, a quick explanation of what composting actually is, courtesy of the University of Illinois (whose composting directions I closely followed):

Composting is the biological decomposition of organic material into a humus-like substance called compost. The process occurs naturally, but can be accelerated and improved by controlling environmental factors. People may wonder, “Why bother with composting if everything organic decomposes eventually anyway?”

If raw wastes are put directly into the soil, the decomposition process will rob the soil of nitrogen, an important nutrient for plants. (Soil incorporation is one method of composting, but requires leaving the area fallow.) Finished compost from a pile is typically a more uniform product with a better balance of nutrients. It can be used throughout the growing season in many different types of applications.

With a pile, composters have more control over adding and mixing the amount of carbon and nitrogen rich materials used to make the end product. In addition, a properly controlled composting environment can ensure production of high temperatures needed for killing weed seeds, diseased plant tissue, and pathogenic organisms.

The University of Illinois’ “Building Your Compost Pile” tutorial also proved immensely helpful in building my compost pile.

Putting together the frame for my compost pile

Using the tutorial’s instructions, I began by constructing my three-side compost box to contain the pile, which was made of three perfectly sized pieces of wood I found in my basement. I dug a little bit into the ground so that the boards would hold firm once I filled the compost pile with more organic materials, soil and fertilizer.

Next, I gathered up a bunch of dry leaves from throughout the backyard and dumped them up in the compost pile area until the first layer of leaves and dead grass was about six inches high. I then dumped a layer of commercial fertilizer—one of the active ingredients in any compost pile— on top of the leaves and grass, and then poured on top of that a layer of ground soil I dug up from the backyard. Unfortunately our house lacks in the gardening and home maintenance department, so when I say “dug” I really mean using a pocket knife to carve up the grass and my hands to dig up the soil.

And the pile grows...

So at this point, I had three layers: Dried, dead leaves and grass; commercial fertilizer; and ground soil. I repeated this process two more times, so there are three layers of each stacked up in the compost pile.

Once I had finally grabbed up enough leaves and dug up enough soil, I fished around my kitchen for some food scraps—orange and banana peels, bread, apple cores. I put as many of these as I could find in a plastic tub and then dumped out the tub on top of the pile, as food scraps are an important part of the composting process.

Moving forward, what I have to do is occasionally “turn” the pile, or use a pitch fork to mix up the pile, and also make sure that the pile stays somewhat moist—“The organic material should feel damp to the touch, with just one or two drops of water expelled when squeezed tightly in the hand,” the University of Illinois tutorial advises.

And now it’s time to sit back and let nature do its work, with a little help on my part. I’ll be sure to keep you updated on how it’s coming and whether the pile is working, though I don’t hold out high hopes as I’m not much of a green thumb. Nonetheless, it’ll be a great learning experience.

The final product — day one