University of Illinois Extension


Soil Shapes Up with Compost

Compost is a dark-colored, loose mixture of well-rotted organic matter that can be used by the gardener to improve garden or potting soil. Any organic matter such as garden waste is a good ingredient for compost.

If soil is hard and crusty when dry or sticky when wet, vegetables do not grow properly. Good garden soil is loose, has high water-holding capacity and proper drainage.

compost structure

Scraps to Use

  • leaves
  • shredded newspaper
  • grass clippings
  • farm manure
  • garden waste
  • sawdust
  • vegetable peelings

Don't Use

  • bones
  • meat scraps
  • cat or dog manure
  • grease
  • diseased plants
  • walnut leaves

Making a Heap of Compost

Put your compost pile in a well-drained area. A shady spot or a place behind bushes will shield the heap from view.

It is possible to accumulate materials in a loose pile but it is better to have an enclosure for the compost. This could be a pit dug 18 inches into the ground of any length and width or an above-ground structure.

Either type of structure should be divided with a partition. One side can be used for composting material and the other for usable compost.

A rectangular pile 2 to 5 feet wide, 5 to 10 feet long and 2 to 4 feet high is adequate for most households. If space is not available, a single, tall pile can be used. Fresh material is added at the top and finished compost dug out at the bottom.

Example Compost Pile

Example Compost Pile

Handy Structures

  • wire
  • wood-slat fencing
  • scrap lumber
  • bricks
  • garbage cans
  • plastic trash bags
  • cement blocks
  • old playpen
  • railroad ties
  • sewer tiles
  • chimney flue tiles

Add Layers

Build your compost pile in layers. First add 6 to 8 inches of garden refuse. Each layer of this organic material should be moistened. Sprinkle fertilizer on top (one cup for a 5-by 5-foot area). Or add a 1- to 2-inch layer of farm manure. A little lime also may be used. Add 1 to 2 inches of soil. Repeat this process as composting material is available.

Keep Pile Active

The top layer should be lower in the center to help collect moisture. Water may have to be added during dry weather to keep the pile going.

Turn the pile with a garden fork a couple of times a month to hasten composting. In about a month the pile should be hot in the center indicating it is decomposing properly. If this doesn't happen, the pile may be too wet or too small. Fertilizer or more frequent turnings could be needed.

A well-maintained, active pile will not attract rodents.

Compost is finished when it is dark, crumbly and has an "earthy" smell. Depending on the type of material used and the time of year, compost should be ready in four to nine months.

Quick Compost

Crumble, grind or shred two bushels of leaves, grass and other organic matter into a 30-gallon black plastic bag. Add two gallons of water, 2 to 6 pounds of a 10-10-10 fertilizer, one shovel of soil and one cup of lime.

Tie the bag and leave it in a sunny spot turning it over every second day. Compost should be ready in about a month. It can be stored in the bag until ready for use.

Landscape waste such as leaves, grass, clippings, etc, can be directly incorporated into the garden in the fall when tilling the soil.