The footprint of your compost pile will be somewhat dictated by the method and location you choose. For sheet and trench composting, the size of your future garden bed will be the determiner; just as the size of your compost tumbler will dictate the volume it holds. Sheet composting will be done right on the ground surface over dirt or sod, with organic matter layered, lasagna style. For trench composting, start by digging a 12 inch deep bed or hole. Materials will then be layered in it just as you would in a bin.
If you are building a compost bin, 4 foot by 4 foot square, 3 to 4 feet high is often considered ideal. Natural air penetration from all sides of the pile is typically up to 24 inches. Too large a bin may hold too much water, leading to anaerobic (oxygen starved) conditions in the center or the pile.
Repurposing shipping pallets as sides make set-up quick and easy. Just lash or wire them to metal fence posts set in the corners and you are good to go. Since most pallet boards have some space between them, aeration should be adequate. Often 2 or 3 bins are built adjacent to each other — one for starting, one for cooking, and one for finished compost. The side-by-side arrangement makes turning easier. Fine mesh chicken wire or hardware cloth is another easy quick-to-setup material to use for the bin sides.
No matter which composting method you select. The principles are pretty much the same. You layer various materials to allow for aeration, moisture penetration, and microbial activity. The idea is to create a layer of organic matter, topped by a layer that will encourage initial microbial activity and heat generation, capped with an inch or two of microbe bearing material. If you have lots of material or are in a hurry to create copious compost, you can repeat with multiple layers.
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Compost Conundrums — Troubleshooting your compost pile