Compost – A Wonderful Food for your Garden

Crop productionSoil health


Today we’re going to talk about compost. We’ll explain what compost is, and why it is good for your soil and plants. Then we will tell you how to build a compost pile.

Compost is a dark brown or black material that looks and smells like soil, but is lighter in weight and more crumbly. It can be made of plants, animal manure and other types of organic matter. It also contains the remains of tiny creatures called microbes which eat the organic matter, breaking it down into tiny pieces. These tiny creatures eat and break down plant and animal materials all the time in the forest or on the farm. You have probably seen how plants and animal parts rot over time.

When you make a compost pile, you are just speeding up this natural process of rotting, or decomposing.

Mixing compost into your soil or using it as a mulch has many benefits for your plants and your soil. Just as people need food that contains nutrients, plants need nutrients too. And compost can provide those nutrients.

And adding compost to your soil makes your soil softer and easier to plough. Roots grow deeper and more easily in soil that is rich in compost. Compost helps your soil hold moisture, so that it does not dry out.

And when lots of rain falls compost soaks up the water so it doesn’t wash away across the soil surface. Also, water drains out of the soil more easily, so plant roots do not become waterlogged and die. Plants that grow in soil with lots of compost have fewer diseases and insect problems, so you don’t have to use as many pesticides. This saves you both time and money.

Here’s another good thing about compost – it is easy and inexpensive to make. You already have everything you need to make compost around your farm and in your house. You don’t need to buy any machinery. And you can make compost at any time of year. Many people make compost between growing seasons, when there is less work to do around the farm.

The first thing to do is find a flat piece of ground. This is where you will make your compost pile. Or you might want to build a raised platform, which lets air circulate underneath the pile. Make the pile as close as possible to your garden or field. It should also be at least 25 metres from where you get your drinking water.

You will need two kinds of materials to make the pile: those that contain lots of carbon, and those that contain lots of nitrogen. Examples of carbon-rich materials are rice stalks, maize stalks and stalks from other grains. Materials with lots of carbon are usually brown and dry.

Examples of nitrogen-rich materials are green weeds or grass, vegetable or fruit wastes from the kitchen or garden, and manure.

Nitrogen-rich materials are usually green and moist. Remember, though, that manure is a nitrogen-rich material. You should use two to three times as much high carbon materials as high nitrogen materials in your compost pile. Bring all your materials together and, for faster composting, chop them into little pieces with a machete or an axe, and mix them together thoroughly.

Now you can build your compost pile. Heap up the mixed materials until your pile is one and a half metres high. One and a half metres is about twice as long as your arm. The height of the pile is important. If the pile is less than one and a half metres high, it will take longer to make compost. The pile should be about one-and-a-half metres wide, and one-and-a-half metres long. In other words, you want to make a pile in the shape of a large cube. It is best to gather enough materials to make the pile all at once. If you build the pile a little at a time, disease organisms and pests will not die, and you will have to wait much longer for the compost to be ready.

After you make the pile, check to see if there is enough water in it.

The materials should feel as damp as a squeezed-out sponge. If you squeeze a handful and cannot wring out even one drop, it is too dry. Add enough water so that everything in the pile is damp. Then cover the pile with banana leaves or old burlap sacks – not plastic – and leave it alone for a few days. When you cover the compost pile, it helps the materials break down faster.

Your compost pile needs air. The microbes, those tiny creatures too small to be seen, feed on the plants and manure in a compost pile, breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces. These microbes need air.

You can keep air moving through the pile if you build it on a raised platform. Or you can insert long poles such as bamboo stalks into the centre of the pile, and remove them after a few days. These poles will direct air into the pile.

The compost pile should always be damp. Microbes also need water. Add water whenever it dries out. However, if the microbes get too much water, then they will drown, and you will have a stinky mess. This is another reason to cover the pile, but don’t use plastic because the microbes still have to breathe.

It may help you to think of the compost pile as a living thing which is made up of many millions of microbes. These microbes make compost more quickly when there is a mixture of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials in the pile. As the microbes become active, they create heat. This heat kills disease and insect pests in the pile.

You will know your compost is ready when it is dark brown to black in colour and crumbly in texture. You won’t recognize any of the materials in the pile. And the pile will be much smaller than when you made it.

When you see these signs, your compost is ready to use.

When your compost is ready, you can mix it into the top six inches of your garden soil, or you can use it to cover the soil between your plants. You can also put a handful of compost into planting holes for field crops like corn and wheat.


  • This script was written by Vijay Cuddeford, writer/researcher at the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. It was reviewed by Cary Oshins, composting specialist, Rodale Farm, Kutztown, PA, U.S.A.

Information sources

  • A natural process: The science (and art) of composting in tropical conditions“, Julia Rosetti, Ceres, No. 149, (Vol. 26, No. 5, September/October 1994, pages 42-47. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.
  • Composting Methods“, AT/80, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1983, pages 7-9. Published by AT/80 c/o Association of Foundations, 4th Floor, Yutivo Building, 270 Dasmarinas St., Binondo, Manila, Philippines.
  • Compost (Indore), 1 page factsheet. International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Y. C. James Yen Center, Silang, Cavile 4118, Philippines.
  • Soil Management: compost production and use in tropical and subtropical environments, H.W. Dalzell, A.J. Riddlestone, K.R. Gray, & K. Thurairajan, 1987. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy.
  • Composting in tropical agriculture, by H.W. Dalzell, K.R. Gray, and A.J. Biddlestone. International Institute of Biological Husbandry, 9 Station Approach, Needham Market, Ipswich IP6 8AT, England.
  • Better crops from healthy soil with compost, 1994, 24 pages. Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO, Japan Publishers Building, No. 6, Fukuromachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 162 Japan.
  • An agricultural testament, Sir Albert Howard. 1940. Oxford Press, London.
  • Methods of compost preparation“, N.A. Mnzava, and J. Ruttle, Proceedings of Workshop on Resource-Efficient Farming Methods for Tanzania, May 16-20, 1993, pages 58-62. Rodale Press Inc., Emmaus, Pennsylvania, USA.
  • Making compost“, A.S. Leng, Harvest, Vol. 8, No. 4, Fourth Quarter 1982, pages 165-170. Department of Agriculture and Livestock, Hohola, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.