There are few things more satisfying than working on a project and seeing it through to completion. This could be tinkering on a car, building a dollhouse for your kid, or remodeling the bathroom or kitchen. For all those with a green thumb, gardening projects are ideal. There are a host of different elements that go into gardening, and one of the most popular is starting a compost pile. 

Compost is organic material added to soil to help plants develop and grow. While it can be challenging to identify the composition of compost upon first glance, there are three fundamental ingredients – greens, browns, and water. Greens are things like coffee grounds, vegetable waste, fruit, or grass clippings. Ever see coffee grounds being given away for free at Starbucks? They’re for compost, so we hope you didn’t think you were receiving free grounds, or worse, brewing them again.

Browns are twigs, branches, dead leaves, and similar items, while water is … water. Having just the right amount of water is crucial, so your browns and greens can mix accordingly.

The greens provide nitrogen, and the browns contain carbon. The water then smooths out the solution with moisture so all that beneficial organic matter can break down nicely. Composting is popular because it enriches the soil, lessens the need for chemical fertilizers, and encourages the production of fungi and bacteria, resulting in a rich, nutrient-filled mixture. Oh, and best yet, this also reduces nasty methane emissions from landfills. All of this adds up to a healthier garden and a lower carbon footprint.     

Can a Compost Pile Catch on Fire?

Can a compost pile catch on fire?

The short answer – yes. In fact, there are stories that emerge now and again of landscaping companies with large compost piles catching fire and their neighbors rightly worried. If the conditions are right, spontaneous combustion can occur, and the results aren’t pretty.

With this said, compost fires are unlikely with individual backyard gardening projects. Large, commercial compost piles are much more susceptible, but it’s wise to understand how a compost pile can catch fire so this unfortunate experience doesn’t happen to you.

There are a handful of ingredients that will lead to a higher likelihood of fire. Overly dry material combined with dry pockets of air is a no-no. As is non-uniform material and improper moisture distribution. Combine all this with an untouched, neglected pile for an extended period of time, and you’ve got an incendiary recipe on your hands.

Now, as a backyard gardener, it’s highly unlikely you’d be storing piles anywhere near this big, nor leaving them dormant for extended periods. But, if you live in climates where temperatures can exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit in warm months, measuring the temperature of your compost pile is a good tactic to take.

To measure your compost pile temperature, get your hands on an industrial-sized thermometer, and stick it directly down the middle of the organic matter. Anything over 190 degrees and you should be concerned. This doesn’t mean a fire is imminent, but at this temperature, you are certainly killing (or beginning to kill) all that great organic matter you took so much time cultivating.

Another thing to keep an eye on is the amount of nitrogen in your pile. Your compost’s green material (food scraps, coffee grounds, and grass clippings) emit nitrogen, and an improper balance (compared to the browns) could cause the entire pile to begin heating up.  

To avoid an overly hot pile, keep piles to a maximum of 1 cubic yard and nothing over 12 feet high. Moreover, check your pile frequently. We’re not saying you need to convert into a helicopter parent with your pile, but don’t let a couple of days pass without giving it a look-over.

Water the layers of the pile as dry conditions are your biggest enemy here. Also, mix up and turn your pile frequently, keeping that compost cool, mixed up, and active. All of these steps should prevent your block from burning, something none of us want.

How to Start a Compost Pile in Your Backyard

How to start a compost pile in your backyard.

Are you excited to get started? You should be – getting your hands dirty and building a compost pile will have your garden looking attractive in no time. We’re going to cover some steps to put you on the path to your very own compost pile.

Referred to by some in the gardening world as “black gold,” gardening with compost is a transformational experience. You’re recycling, leaving a sustainable imprint, and feeding your garden with amazing nutrients.


First up is choosing the location of your future compost pile. Access to a water source is fundamental, so wherever you decide to place the pile, it will need easy access to water. Next, you’ll want sunlight, but only moderately. Exposure to the sun is suitable for composting material, but too much sun will dry the pile out.

What to Compost

As we touched on earlier, greens and browns (at a ratio of 1:2) make up the ingredients of your compost. Greens are nitrogen-based, and some common elements are grass clippings, egg and nutshells, fruit scraps, manure, or bread products. Browns are carbon-based and can be anything from untreated wood, tissues and newspapers, paper egg cartons or dead leaves, needles, and pine cones.

What Not to Compost

This is a very important list, as composting the wrong things can infect a pile and render it useless. Dairy products, treated wood, diseased plants or weeds, cooking oils and fats, meat and bones or grass clippings with herbicides and pesticides are all big no-no’s. If you are in doubt of what to compost, engage in a quick Google search and you will probably find your answer.

Size and Structure

Your compost pile can be anything from a small pile in the backyard to a proper bin, constructed or purchased. If you don’t have a backyard and still want to compost in an apartment, there are many tabletop composters you can build, or even a small bin placed on your balcony will suffice. The three-bin system is a popular choice among gardeners with a yard, where some of the bins are reserved for items to compost, and the last bin is the compost in action.  

Composting Basics

Like any process, composting is broken into four basic steps. The first is layering, where you place gravel (to assist in the draining process) and then layer the brown matter and then the green matter on top. Next, add water until the layers are moist, but take care not to turn the concoction into a soggy mess.

Third is the turning process, which frequently rotates and mixes the pile so the organic material can break down more uniformly. And lastly, repeating the entire process again. A compost pile takes roughly two months to reach a “planting state.” Finished compost will yield a pleasant earthy aroma. It’s so pleasant you won’t want to actually plant with it!

Common Compost Problems

Common compost problems.

The goal of any composter is to achieve the perfect compost. If you were playing in the NBA, the goal is a title. If you’re an accountant, the goal is a flawless tax return. When composting – the Holy Grail is impeccable compost, period. And while this is an achievable goal, there are some things to look out for along the way. 

Too Wet

Some folks like to play it fast and loose with the hose. This is natural, seeing that pile begin to mix and bubble, it’s exhilarating, but excess moisture will lead to foul odors and the eventual production of elements that are not good for your plants.

Also, take note that grass clippings and vegetable peelings already have high water content. Adding too many will add to excess moisture, something you want to avoid. If you find yourself in this pickle, dig out the pile, turn the ingredients, and add more dry materials before you re-stack again. Cardboard, straw, and sawdust are good options.

Too Dry

A compost pile that is too dry will cease to decompose the bacteria. It’s akin to having all the cars at the starting line, their engines revving, but you never wave the flag to get the race going; they’re just sitting there. To kick-start a dry pile, rainwater is ideal. If you don’t have any rain stored, ordinary water is just fine.

As you apply the water to a dry pile, be sure to mix it at the same time. Simply watering over the top might not allow the water to seep through depending on how dry the pile is. You can also add more fresh materials to the pile to balance out the mix.

Too Acidic

And lastly, some piles simply become too acidic. Compost is acidic by nature, but overly wet ingredients can bring acidity to a point where decomposition is compromised, and the smell is unbearable.

A lot of folks have citrus fruit remnants lying around and naturally dump them into their pile. This is fine, but only up to a point. Too many bring acidity levels up, and the best way to counteract this is through sprinkling in some wood ash or even ground lime into the mix. This should bring the acidity down to more appropriate levels.  

Some Backyard Composting Tools

Greenes Fence Cedar Wood Composter

Cedar wood compost add-on kit fence by Greenes Fence.

There’s composting, and then there’s composting like a pro. For those seeking the latter, you’ve arrived. This composter from Greenes is modular by design, where all the corner posts fit seamlessly with the main posts that build out the walls. This results in easy assembly, and best yet, the ability to add on future compost boxes to expand into a two or three set composter set-up.

A bin measures 48″ X 48″ X 31″ and includes 36 spacers, 21 boards, and 2 posts. An optional tarp is available, but it is likely unnecessary unless you live in a heavy rain climate. An all-around great choice for those with the space outside. 

Love it? Click here to buy now. 

MTB Garden Wire Compost Bin

Wire compost bin by MTB Garden.

This compost bin is a great option for a basic setup in your backyard. Easy to assemble and durable, it offers lasting structure that can be tailored to suit your unique composting goals. People love this bin’s straightforward design and excellent results.

Most folks associate composting bins with wood structures. While the wood adds a more natural element to the whole process, metal composting bins also work exceptionally well and are naturally more flexible due to the wiring. These bins can be shaped in ways that a firmer wood bin cannot. 

To learn more, click here.

REOTEMP Backyard Pro Compost Thermometer

Backyard compost thermometer by Reotemp.

The best way to check on your compost pile is with a compost thermometer. This thermometer from REOTEMP features a long stem (24 inches) to reach the center of most medium to large piles. This is where you want to gauge how hot your pile is getting.

The face on the thermometer is large and hermetically sealed. It will not fog up, and most online comments speak to the quality of this specific model. Again, best to always have a thermometer on hand, and use it regularly in hot months. Fires are no laughing matter.

To see pricing, click here.

Espoma Organic Traditions Compost Starter

Espoma organic compost starter.

We want compost piles to heat up, but not too hot. Similar to starting a BBQ and the charcoal not quite catching, sometimes you need a boost. This is where the Espoma compost starter comes in.

Most folks add roughly 1 cup per 16 square feet of compost. Sprinkling this over a layer, then moistening, adding another layer, and sprinkling again is the recipe. Again, use your thermometer to ensure the pile is not overheating. But to jumpstart your pile from a low temperature to something more substantial, this is the product to have on hand.

Ready to buy? Click here.

To Sum it Up… 

Composting not only recycles a host of green and brown material, but the end result is also good for your plants. There is really no reason not to compost, and the best part is, you can do it anywhere – a balcony, outdoor patio, and of course, in your backyard. 

We touched on some things to keep an eye on when composting. Excessive temperatures could result in spontaneous fires, and ensuring your pile is not too dry or too wet and acidic is also vital in ensuring the end result is an ideal mix. There are also some composting basics in terms of where to place your pile, the ratio of greens to browns, and most important, what not to compost. 

And lastly, we reviewed some exceptional products that every composter should have on hand. Your plants can’t speak, but if they could, they’d thank you for this rich, nutrient-filled soil. A “win-win” treat for all!

For more backyard inspiration, check out How to Know What Type of Grass You Have.