Beginners guide to composting

We recently started a vegetable garden. For most families, that means considering how much space you have versus what you want to grow. Maybe even strategic planting to ensure the plants get enough sun to produce a nice harvest.

Grocery-budget conscious families would consider what’s the most expensive produce to buy in their area, and try to grow that instead.

My family is a little different. Before any plants or seeds went into our garden, the first thing I did was to start a compost pile.

Why should you compost?

Compost makes the best soil. Think pricey, organic rich garden soil you’d have to pay big bucks for. When you invest a little time learning to compost, it’s all yours, for free!

It’s fun for kids to see how food decomposes. You’ll win the best mom or dad award when you let your kids sift through the finished and half-finished compost and see what creatures have made their homes there. It’s got all the makings of a winning science fair project!

Composting reduces your household trash. You know the Crumbs family is serious about reducing trash, right? Instead of icky lettuce leaves and onion skins festering in the trash can for up to a week, the kitchen scraps can start decomposing right away in the compost pile.

It’s hard to mess up. Your garden plants may wither and die, but compost is pretty much foolproof. You dump your compostables in and forget about them, until it’s time to harvest the rich, crumbly results of your (lack of) labor. That’s my kind of project!

Composting is good for the environment. Some communities even offer a compost material pickup along with trash service. But for most of us, the only way to keep this material out of the landfill is to compost it at home.

Getting started composting is easy. Here’s a list of suggested supplies and printable compost do’s and don’ts. Once you’ve got your supplies, you’re ready to start.

Composting Basics for Beginners: The Basic Set-up

  1. Pick a spot for your pail. I keep mine under my kitchen sink (I’m trying to keep my counters free of clutter).
  2. Tell your family the plan. You might want to leave the pail out for a couple weeks to help everyone remember not to toss those apple cores and banana peels. After a while, it will become second nature and you’ll cringe when you’re away from home and you have to throw those things out. At least, that’s what happened for me.
  3. Pick a spot for you pile or bin. You want a place that isn’t too close to a door or window that’s left open in case you attract flies (but more on how to solve that problem below). You want it to be close enough to the house that it’s not a big deal to carry the pail out every day. Ours is right next to our brand new vegetable garden.

What can you compost?

  • Kitchen waste – Mainly produce trimmings. Think onion skins, celery roots (if you’re not re-growing them), apple cores, banana peels, potato peels.
  • Coffee grounds (filters are fine, too)
  • Tea bags
  • Grass clippings
  • Dead leaves
  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Garden waste

Don’t compost these things:

  • Meat or bones
  • Leftovers that aren’t primarily plant material
  • Tougher plant material from your garden like branches or stalks (it takes too long to break down)
  • Garden waste that has been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizer
  • Weed seeds and roots – you might inadvertently spread them to your garden beds
  • Diseased plant material

Composting in Action

Now that you’re set up, just start collecting compostable material and add it to your pile.

We empty a pail or two daily into our pile and it’s the perfect chore for my 8 year old son. I depend on my kids to do a lot of chores and this is one of their favorites.

I also add garden clippings and dead plants and leaves to the pile as I’m working in the garden.

We have a large lawn so I keep a separate pile of grass clippings and toss a handful or so in over any kitchen scraps that are attracting bugs. Wash out your pail when it gets icky (about every other day for us).

Turn your compost pile.

Every month or so (or less often if you’re not in a hurry for finished compost), grab your pitchfork or a shovel and mix your pile up a bit. This helps speed up the decomposition process, heats up your pile, and keeps away any unwanted pests.

Harvest your finished compost.

Over time, the material at the bottom of your pile will start to look like the nicest, richest soil you’ve ever seen. When you don’t see any more recognizable scraps, the compost is ready to be used.

Harvest your compost from the bottom of your pile once or twice a year. Whatever isn’t yet ready just goes back into the pile to continue breaking down.

Spread your finished compost…

…on your garden beds or use in container gardens. You probably don’t want to bring it into the house since it should be home to many, many little critters.

Potential Problems with Composting


Before we started composting, my husband was concerned it would be a smelly, fly-attracting affair. But that was never really a problem. If your pile starts to stink or you see flies, just give it a quick turn and add some grass clippings or leaves if available.

Not Enough Space

Composting only requires 9 square feet of space, or less if you choose a smaller space-saving bin. And since it’s just about the easiest garden task you can undertake, it’s an excellent use of your yard space.


Depending on where you live, raccoon or rodents may be attracted to your pile. We haven’t had problems, but if you anticipate them, you can either get an animal-resistant bin or turn your pile more regularly (a hot pile isn’t as attractive to animals)


Some people think composting is messy, but it’s really no worse than taking out the trash. Plus, you don’t have that food rotting in the trash can waiting for trash day.

Additional Composting Resources

Our family had composted for many years. I really missed it when we moved to our dream home. I hadn’t made the time to start up again until this spring. Now I’m so glad that I can toss those apple cores into the compost pail and watch them decompose before my eyes!

Do you compost? Why or why not?

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1. Grass clippings add necessary nitrogen to a compost pile, but be sure to mix with the “brown” materials that add carbon. Both are necessary for quick decomposition and rich compost. Piles made up of just grass will compact, slow down and start to stink.

2. Do not compost fats, pet droppings or animal products. They will attract pests to the pile and can spread disease.

3. Newspaper or plain white paper from the computer is excellent for composting – just remember to shred it first to speed up the process (see Composting Paper).

4. Got compost? When finished it should look, feel and smell like rich, dark soil. You should not be able to recognize any of the items you put in there.

5. Worms love coffee grounds!

6. If adding ashes to your compost bin, do so sparingly. They are alkaline and affect the pH of the pile. In contrast, acidic materials include pine needles and oak leaves.

7. Plants that have been treated with pesticides and/or herbicides (weeds and lawn clippings) should be avoided. When in doubt, throw it out!

Purchase a kitchen pail or crock from Planet Natural and there’s no need to run out to the pile after each meal – just lift the lid and toss-in table scraps. They’re fitted with activated carbon filters to eliminate odors and look great too!

8. The microbes responsible for breaking down your compost pile need a balanced diet of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen comes from green materials such as food scraps, manure and grass clippings. Carbon comes from brown materials such as dead leaves, hay, wood chips and shredded newspaper. A ratio that contains equal portions by weight (not volume) of both works best.

9. Algae and seaweed make excellent additions to your compost pile. Be sure to rinse off any salts before using.

10. Composting bacteria work best under neutral to acidic conditions, with pH’s in the range of 5.5 to 8.

11. Finished compost is usually less than half the volume of the materials you started with, but it’s much denser.

12. The more you add to your pile at one time, the more it will heat up. In other words, one “super-sized” meal is better than several smaller snacks.

13. Keep your compost pile in a black plastic bin and in direct sunlight to continue the composting process through winter. Hay bales can be used to further insulate the pile.

14. Clean wooden pallets make excellent compost bins. Start with one pallet on the ground. Drive two metal stakes into each side. Slide additional pallets over each support and you have a bin ready for compost.

15. Straw is an excellent source of carbon for your compost pile. However, it may contain weed seeds, so make sure the pile is “cooking” properly.

16. The ideal temperature range for a worm bin is between 55-77°F. Relatively compact, they can be kept in a basement or insulated garage – even under the kitchen sink!

17. The perfect size for a compost pile is one that is at least 3′ x 3′ x 3′. It’s not only a manageable size to turn, but it’s ideal for retaining heat while still allowing air flow.

18. The more “green” materials you add to the pile the less water you’ll need.

19. Most kitchen waste, including vegetable peels, fruit rinds, coffee grounds, tea bags and egg shells, can be fed to worms. Meat and dairy products should not be used in a worm bin.

20. Compost decomposes fastest between 120-160˚F. Decomposition will occur at lower temperatures, but it takes much longer. Purchase a compost thermometer to measure the core temperature of your bin or pile.

21. Purchase a kitchen compost pail from Planet Natural and there’s no need to run out to the pile after each meal – just lift the lid and toss-in table scraps. They’re fitted with activated carbon filters to eliminate odors and look great too!

22. Maintaining a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio somewhere around 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen is ideal for quality composting.

23. Many nitrogen-rich materials, like grass clippings, lack structural strength and collapse during decomposition. Mix in hedge trimmings, shredded newspaper and other fibrous materials to improve air circulation.

24. Don’t throw away your kitchen waste in the winter – try an indoor composter.

25. Compost piles should remain damp but not wet. As you build your compost pile, make sure that each layer is moist as it is added. The surface should also remain damp (think of a wrung out sponge), especially during the summer months.

26. Redworms do best if the pH is around 7.0, but can tolerate levels from 4.2 to 8.0 or higher.

27. Does your compost pile smell? It’s probably due to a large number of anaerobic microbes, which are working hard to break down your compost, but creating a smelly situation in the process. To cut down on the anaerobic process, aerate your pile regularly, creating air spaces and limiting the anaerobic microbes while stimulating the less stinky aerobic microbes.

28. Meat and fish can be composted, but your bin must be animal proof and it will attract flies. In most cases, these materials should be avoided.

29. Help start a new compost pile with aged manure, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, blood meal or compost starter. They are rich in nitrogen and help jump-start the microbes responsible for breaking down organic matter into compost.

30. A bin that is working well will produce temperatures of 140-170°F.

31. Anything that was living at one time is great for compost bins. Think of leaves, vegetables and grass clippings.

32. Compost piles can either be layered – thin layers of alternating greens and browns, or they can all be thrown in together and mixed well. Either way works!

33. Woody stalks and corn cobs from the garden have a tendency to decompose slowly. Smash them with a hammer or rock to make it easier for the microorganisms in your pile to break them down.

34. No problem. Worms can be left for a couple weeks, just feed them a little more before you go. If you will be gone for more than 3-weeks, it’s probably a good idea to get a worm-sitter.

35. For faster results, use a compost turner every two weeks to aerate your pile.

36. Soak finished compost in water to “brew” compost tea, a nutrient-rich liquid that can be used for foliar feeding or for watering your flowers, herb, vegetables and practically anything else that grows.

37. Apply finished compost to your garden about 2-4 weeks before you plant, giving the compost time to integrate and stabilize within the soil.

38. The main reason a 30:1 C:N ratio is recommend in your pile is for odor and pest control. While a 20:1 or even a 10:1 ratio will provide faster decomposition – odors and pest problems will become a real issue.

39. The best worm to use in a home vermicomposting system is by far the Red Wiggler (Eisenia foetida). In its natural habitat, it consumes large amount of leaves, manure and many other decaying materials. It also produces copious amounts of castings (worm poo), an excellent addition to any garden.

40. Add too many “browns” to the mix and your pile will take years to break-down. Add too many “greens” and it will turn into a smelly heap.

41. Exposed piles and bins can become water logged in rainy weather and dried out in hot climates. An enclosed tumbler or covered bin will protect the contents and help with moisture control.

42. Chop yard and garden waste into smaller pieces (a lawn mower works great!) to speed the decomposition process.

43. Finished compost can be used to build soil anytime of year without fear of burning plants or polluting water. In the garden, there is no such thing as too much compost.

44. Worms can be used to convert pet poop into castings, a nutrient-rich soil amendment, and because they eat the odor producing bacteria, there is very little smell. Castings from pet waste should not be used in vegetable gardens.

45. Lawn clippings and food scraps are about 80% water and need to be mixed with straw, woody waste or cardboard to keep your pile from becoming a slimy mess.

46. A good potting mix recipe contains equal parts of compost, sand or perlite and garden topsoil. Compost is often too heavy to be used alone in containers.

47. Low C:N ratios (excess nitrogen) can be raised by adding “brown” materials, such as peanut shells, sawdust or shredded cardboard.

48. Grab a handful of compost from the center of your pile and squeeze. If you get a few drops of water, that’s perfect.

49. An easy way to use compost is to mulch with it. Apply it in a thick layer around plants and worms will help mix it with the soil below.

50. Relax! Even if you do everything wrong, you will eventually make great compost.

Related Questions

  • What products to compost


    You will be able to source all of the essential elements in order to build a great compost pile without having to look too far! As long as your carbon to nitrogen ratio is optimal (25-30:1) your compost pile will be breaking down properly. Here are some lists of acceptable additions:

    Carbon Rich Material “Browns”
    Cardboard (free of dyes)
    Corn stalks
    Fruit waste
    Peat Moss
    Saw dust
    Stems & twigs

    Nitrogen Rich Material “Greens”
    Coffee grounds
    Kitchen food waste
    Garden waste
    Grass clippings
    Hedge clippings
    Vegetable scraps
    Weeds (that have NOT gone to seed)

    ​Things to Avoid
    ​Diseased plant material
    Colored paper
    Cat/dog waste
    Manures from carnivorous animals
    Citrus peels

    As for the rhododendron and holly leaves, you can definitely put them in your compost pile. However, it is a good idea to really chop or shred them up, as they take much longer to break down due to their fibrous and waxy make up. It really depends on how quickly you are trying to create usable compost. It might be a good idea to have a separate pile going that you incorporate those leaves into and another pile that you do not. That way you can have a pile you know will rapidly break down into garden goodness and have yet another ready to use later on. Good luck!

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your garden is feed it with nutrient-rich compost. This mix of decaying vegetable matter, grass clippings, and leaves may not be glamorous, but it improves soil structure and provides the nutrients your plants need to thrive. And it’s easy to create your own compost in your backyard or patio, at little or no cost. But don’t delay: it takes about a year for compost to be ready to spread on your vegetable patch. Ready to start? Here are a few simple steps to composting at home:
Choose Your Container
Garden centers sell a variety of containers for making compost. You can buy a sealed composting bin that has a little door in it for adding organic matter—or a composting barrel on a stand that allows you to tumble it. Traditionalist might want to create a conventional compost heap. To do that, build a four-sided container from scrap timber that fits comfortably in a corner of your yard, says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia, which grows more than 2,300 varieties and 22 million plants annually. It’s best to position your heap away from the house and any outdoor areas where people gather, as compost can get a little stinky when it’s not sealed in a container.

Start Piling
If you an organic garden (or close to it), make sure everything you put into your compost is organic, notes Robert McLaughlin, CEO of Organic Bouquet in Maitland, Florida. “Don’t put chemically-treated produce in there or you’ll just be putting in chemicals.” Most of your compost should be vegetables and fruit, but paper, newspapers, small sticks, grass clippings and straw make excellent additions. “I’d venture to say the amount of chemicals in newspapers is so minor it won’t make a big difference,” reveals Staddon. If you find yourself short on organic matter, knock on your neighbors’ door and ask for their extra grass clippings or vegetable refuse. “You could be doing them a favor,” says Staddon. If you or your neighbors own horses, chickens, or goats, you can also add nutrient-packed manure.
Hit the Right Ratio
It’s important to keep a healthy ratio of carbon-rich matter and nitrogen-rich matter in your compost heap, says Nell Foster, horticulturist, gardening blogger and owner of Joy Us in Santa Barbara, California, which creates eco-conscious garden accessories. The fastest way to produce fertile, aromatic compost is to maintain a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of approximately 25 to 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too high (excess carbon), decomposition slows down. If the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is too low (excess nitrogen), you’ll end up with a smelly pile.
Good sources of carbon include (finely shredded) cardboard, corn stalks, straw, fruit, leaves, peanut shells, sawdust, pine needles and ashes. Sources higher in nitrogen are vegetables scraps, coffee grounds, clover, garden waste, grass clippings, manure, seaweed and hay. “Do a little research on composting before you start throwing things in,” says Foster. Also, don’t throw in things that have gone to seed or they’ll take root in your compost. For example, toss in a rotting jack-o’-lantern and you’re likely to find a plethora of pumpkins suddenly sprouting out of your compost!
Stir Regularly
It’s critical to turn your compost regularly with a garden fork. This aerates the soil, which speeds up bacterial activity. You can tell when compost is ready to use by how it looks; it should be broken down to a point where it has the appearance of rich, healthy soil.
Keep it Warm
Compost breaks down faster in warm conditions, so try to keep your bin or heap insulated from the cold. (That’s why so many bins are black—the color attracts the most sun. If you have a heap instead of a container, cover it with a black tarp for the same effect.) The ideal temperature for fast decomposition is between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. But don’t worry too much—the microbes in compost generate their own heat and some decomposition will continue to happen as long as your compost heap remains above freezing.

Collect the Run-off
If your compost bin allows rainwater to flow through it and out the bottom, collect the drainage, says McLaughlin. This liquid is amazing fertilizing material—simply pour it around the plants in your garden.

Put it to Work
When your compost is ready, begin adding it into your garden. After plants have taken root and are showing growth (around 10-12 inches), add about an inch of compost on top of the soil around the plants and blend it in, advises McLaughlin.

Want More Info?
If you want extra help with your composting, the Sierra Club has a how-to video on its website. Local garden fairs also often have composting workshops, too.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.

A Beginner’s Guide to Composting: 4 Steps to Reduce Waste and Fertilize Your Garden

When organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings and food scraps break down, you get compost: a dark, dirt-like “soil” that is rich in nutrients. Compost happens even without human involvement; for example, the leaves that fall on the forest floor (or even in your own backyard) will compost and return much-needed nutrients to the soil, like a slow-release fertilizer. How quickly natural matter turns to compost depends on many factors, from the size of the organic matter to the temperature and oxygen availability. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for organic matter to turn into compost.
Many people, from gardeners to farmers to environmentalists, choose to compost for a variety of reasons. Although nature does all of the work, human involvement can help speed up the composting process to ensure the best possible conditions for nature to do its work. Composting is easy, and it has many benefits for the environment and your own backyard.

Why compost?

Food and lawn waste makes up 25 percent of all waste in landfills. Although these natural materials are biodegradable, they do not break down properly in landfills, which are so densely packed that oxygen isn’t readily available. When oxygen is withheld during the decomposition process, the organic matter may emit methane gas, which is 20 times more toxic than carbon dioxide. All this methane is bad for the environment, and the inhospitable conditions of landfills make it difficult if not impossible for natural materials to break down properly. Each ton of organic matter we can divert from a landfill can save 1/3 of a ton of greenhouse gases from being emitted into the environment. Plus, composting can provide you with your very own “black gold” for free, allowing you to condition and enrich your soil.
When we think of recycling, plastic, paper and glass may come to mind, but the most basic method of recycling is the timeless act of breaking down decaying organic matter and returning it back to the soil to once again be used for other living organisms to thrive upon. Let’s stop thinking of yard waste and kitchen scraps as garbage and start reducing the waste we produce so we can save it from heading to the landfills to recycle and reuse it in our own backyards.

Composting is the most natural and beneficial thing we can do for our gardens, flowers, vegetable plants and trees to replenish nutrients, improve drainage and water retention, and protect plant roots when used as mulch.
Anyone can compost, whether you live on a 500-acre farm or in a 500 square foot apartment. At the most basic level, you can collect your kitchen and yard scraps in a pile outside, in a store-bought compost bin on your back porch, or in a plastic bin under the kitchen sink and then wait for Mother Nature to do her work.

Step #1: Set up your bin

There are many types of containers for composting, but you don’t need a container to compost. Containers can help speed the decomposition process (by controlling temperature and moisture) and keep your compost scraps out of sight. The needs of an urban gardener vary greatly from that of the country dweller, so consider the size and needs of your garden before starting to compost. All compost heaps, contained or not, should be approximately 3 x 3 feet to really be most effective. So let’s break down the various composting bins.

  • Binless “heap” or “pile” method: This is like a “freestyle” method of composting. You simply choose an area in your yard or garden and start layering your organic materials in a pile. This requires no financial investment on your part, but many cities and suburbs prohibit the use of open compost heaps because they can be unsightly and might attract animals (from birds to squirrels and raccoons) seeking the edible food scraps. In reality, a compost heap should be full of worms and other creepy crawlies—not pests! This can be greatly minimized or eliminated altogether by burying your scraps under other organic materials (like grass).
  • Binless “trenching” method: An alternative to a binless compost heap is trenching, in which you bury the organic matter and scraps at least 8 inches in the ground—directly in your garden beds. Let nature do its thing beneath the soil, then plant a garden over it. This should be done at least two months before you wish to use the particular area as a fruit, vegetable or flower garden.
  • DIY garbage can: One of the easiest and most affordable bins is an inexpensive garbage can that you make into a compost bin. This is great for small gardens. Purchase a large plastic or rubber trashcan with a secure-fitting lid. Use a drill to bore five or six holes each in the lid, the sides, and bottom of the can to provide airflow that will be essential to breaking down the organic materials placed inside it. You can use a small, medium or large size can, depending on your needs and space available.
  • DIY wire compost bin: A wire compost bin provides structure to an otherwise open compost pile while maximizing oxygen circulation. If you’re handy, you can make your own wire compost bin, which is ideal for small gardens and households that produce a small amount of food scraps and yard waste. To construct the bin, find an open spot for your compost. Place three or four stakes into the ground in a circular or rectangular shape. Purchase about 10 feet of 36-inch wide wire or plastic mesh. Stretch the mesh fence around the stakes and tie it in place (to each stake) with zip ties or staples.
  • DIY compost pallets: Pick an accessible, level site in your yard before constructing this type of structure. In essence, you are building a three-sided box secured with heavy-duty wire to a pallet on the bottom. The open top and front allows for easy aerating and turning of the pile and can provide ample compost for a medium to large garden. You could easily build additional adjacent bins that can house multiple piles of compost in various stages of completion (more info below). Alternative materials for this method include bales of hay, cinder blocks or untreated wood.
  • Commercial bins: If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, or you are looking for other features in a compost bin, many commercially made bins are available at nurseries, home improvement stores and online retailers. Compared to the DIY method above, store-bought bins can be very expensive, costing up to several hundred dollars. Some commercially made bins are tumblers, which can dramatically speed up the decomposition of your organic waste. Be on the lookout for bins made of recycled plastic, which are more eco-friendly.
  • Worm bin: This method, known as vermicomposting, is ideal for urban gardeners or people who don’t have the outdoor space for the compost bins mentioned above. However, it is not for the faint of heart! You can create a worm bin from a 10-gallon plastic tub (a long, rectangular shape works best, but any size or shape that fits your space, such as under a kitchen sink will do). You’ll need a steady supply of shredded newspaper, food scraps, and 10-15 dozen worms to eat your food garbage. Be sure to use only red worms (Lumbricus rubellus) or manure worms (Eisenia foetida), as night crawlers or earthworms need large amounts of soil and will not survive in a worm-composting bin. Worm castings (feces) contain more nutrients than traditional compost and thus are the perfect fertilizer for any soil. When a worm digests food scraps, it breaks down minerals and other substances into a more soluble form for plants. Your reward will be the finest, most perfect fertilizer available, but this method requires more attention (the worm’s habitat must not be exposed to extreme heat or cold) and involves harvesting the castings of course, which might not be everybody’s cup of tea.

As you can see, bins can be simple or complex, homemade or store-bought. There is a composting method for every budget, space and garden.

Step #2: Gather your gear

All you really need to successfully compost is a place to put your yard and kitchen waste. Depending on your garden size and its proximity to your compost pile, you might also need the following tools, all of which you can purchase at a garden center or home improvement store:

  • Gloves: A good pair is thick and tear-resistant. These will protect your hands while handling debris and working in the garden.
  • Aerator: An aerator is a long-handled tool that you can force into the compost heap. When you pull it back out, it helps mix the heap around, aiding in decomposition. You can also use a pitchfork to help aerate and turn your heap, but an aerator makes the job much easier.
  • Pitchfork: While no substitute for an actual aerating tool, the pitchfork is essential in that it can poke holes deep down into the pile to improve air circulation or turn a heap. It’s also helpful for transporting materials to the compost bin.
  • Screens: Think of these as you would a flour sifter in the kitchen. It separates the larger chunks of compost that are still decomposing from the loamy, dark soil that is ready to be added to your garden. Whatever makes it through the screen is garden-ready; whatever sits on top needs more time in the compost bin.
  • Shovels: The ideal shovels for this project are flat-headed shovels or tapered spades. With these, you can transfer compost from the compost pile to the garden or onto screens, or add organic materials to the heap itself.
  • Wheelbarrow: For larger gardens, these are ideal for transporting large amounts of organic materials to and from the compost heap.

Step #3: Add to your heap

Now that you have your bin and your tools, it’s time to compost! The most important thing is to add the right materials and avoid the wrong ones. Even if all you do is throw your kitchen scraps into your compost bin, you’re still doing okay—your scraps will break down eventually, even if you never turn it, water it, aerate it or “balance” its contents. As a general guide, if it came from a plant, you can compost it.

What to Compost
Grass and lawn clippings
Fruit and vegetable peels, rinds and scraps
Tea bags
Coffee grounds
Garden waste
Weeds that have not seeded
Wood chips and sawdust (from untreated wood)
Dryer lint
Shredded paper
What NOT to Compost
Chemically treated wood
Diseased plants
Human waste
Pet waste
Pernicious weeds
Dairy products
Animal food products
Animal bones
Fats and oils
Cooked food
Peanut butter
Glossy paper
Paper with colored ink
Large chunks of compostable materials

If you want to help your compost break down faster, you can put more time and thought into it to achieve the ideal conditions for decomposition. Compost, while easy enough, is an exercise in balance. To best “balance” your compost pile, include one part nitrogen-rich “greens” for every 15-30 parts of a carbon-rich “browns” in your compost heap. Think of a compost pile like a sandwich with alternating layers. The first step is to build a foundation with a four-inch layer of bulky twigs and small branches. This allows for air to flow upward through it and also keep it off the ground. Water this layer liberally before doing alternating two-inch layers of greens and browns, watering every so often. Do this until your heap is three to five feet tall, making sure no layer is packed too firmly. You want air to be able to reach the inner parts of the pile as much as possible. Finally, sprinkle the top of the heap with a few handfuls of soil from your garden. This soil, while not totally necessary, speeds up the process by using the hundreds of millions of bacteria found in it to your advantage. You will know the process is working when the pile generates heat as it decomposes.

Step #4: Now you wait

If you do nothing from this point, you will probably have finished compost in approximately one year. Most people try to nudge Mother Nature into a speedier delivery on their black gold, though, by keeping a healthy amount of moisture (water) and air flowing within the pile. As the heat increases in the pile, moisture is lost, so it is important to regularly water your compost to keep it damp, not dripping wet. Using an aerator or pitchfork to turn your pile, anywhere from once a week to a couple times per month, will help reintroduce oxygen. The more often you turn, the quicker it will break down. Weekly aerating and watering should produce a finished compost heap in several months.
Compost shouldn’t look or smell gross. When done properly, it should not attract animals (although the ones that make it into your backyard may help themselves to the food scraps on occasion). If you notice a foul, rotten-egg smell, you’ve put something from the “do NOT compost” list into your pile, it’s not receiving enough oxygen or it’s getting too wet. To correct this, work in some dry “browns” such as straw, peanut shells or sawdust. If your pile smells like ammonia, you have added too many nitrogen-rich “green” materials, so work in more browns.
Finished compost smells earthy, even sweet, is moist like a wrung-out sponge, and is dark like coffee grounds. Work at least two to four inches of this material into your garden, use as needed in potted plants, or spread around trees and garden beds as mulch. It is among the best substances nature can provide to a gardener.
Composting involves patience, but the reward is absolutely worth it. You can skip on synthetic fertilizers and soil amenders, which cost money and may hurt the environment. Compost also balances your soil’s texture, restores nutrients and diverts countless pounds of useable organic waste from our landfills.

6 Essential Compost Tips for Beginners

What’s not to like about composting? No matter the size of your garden, yours could benefit from a compost heap – plus, it’s a great way to reduce the amount of landfill waste a household can produce. Use this beginner’s guide to get started composting.
1. Get a Bin
Compost bins now come in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit small or large spaces. You can purchase one from a garden center, or you can make one using an online tutorial – compost bins can be fashioned from plastic storage tubs, wooden pallets, plastic garbage cans or even an empty wine barrel.
The natural processes active in your compost heap creates a lot of heat and can pose a slim fire risk. Avoid positioning your heap near a shed, fences or buildings, and make sure you monitor it, especially during periods of warmer weather.
2. Think Green and Brown
You need a mix of fresh green garden waste (think grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and tea leaves, vegetable plant remains and plants) and dry, brown matter (like dead leaves, dead plants and weeds, and hay) for your compost bin. The soft, green garden waste is nitrogen-rich and the dry brown waste is more carbon-rich– both are ideal for developing good compost. Place a layer of woody garden refuse on the bottom to create good airflow, and then layer green and brown matter whenever possible.
3. Think Beyond Green and Brown
Did you know that you can compost egg shells, paper towel rolls, toilet paper rolls, paper bags and torn-up cotton clothing? Add these items in moderation. However, don’t put any cooked food waste in your compost – it attracts vermin!
4. Just Add Water
If you have too much dry matter, a light watering will help it decompose more quickly. Your pile should be damp but not soaked. To help your compost retain more water, consider putting a lid on your compost bin.
5. Then Add Air
The final ingredient for successful compost is … air! Make sure to turn compost regularly (at least every couple of weeks) with a pitchfork or shovel, and make sure your compost bin allows air to enter. Otherwise, your compost could become anaerobic, with a slimy appearance.
Tip: Remove dirt and grime from your shovel, pitchfork and other gardening tools with a few drops of Dawn Ultra Dish Soap.
6. Use Compost to Make Your Garden Healthier
Compost can act as a water-retaining mulch, a liquid fertilizer (called “compost tea”) and a lawn fertilizer:

  • To use as a mulch, spread it in a 2- to 3-inch layer around flowers, bushes, trees and shrubs
  • To make compost tea, steep a shovel-full of compost in a 5-gallon bucket for two to three days, and then pour the resulting liquid on your plants
  • To fertilize your lawn, just add a 1- to 3-inch layer of compost to the grass, and then rake it to evenly distribute it. Over time, rain water will push the compost into the soil, feeding your lawn in the process

Let’s start by dispelling a crucial myth about compost: compost is not smelly! Truly, if you are properly tending your pile, you should have nothing but a deep, rich earthy smell wafting off of your compost. Besides having a pleasant smell, compost is one of the most valuable additions to any garden. With its high nutrient density, it helps alter the natural structure of your garden soil and convert it into something that friable and fertile.

And a little bit goes a long way! Any addition of the composting process to a garden will introduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to make a balanced, pH neutral soil in which to plant. Plus, adding backyard composting to your garden helps with water retention, suppresses plant diseases, and promotes the health of animals within the environment.

For a quick refresher, compost is decayed organic material that becomes plant fertilizer. You can compost everything from eggshells to coffee grounds to food scraps and food waste that easily break down in the composting bin.

So now the question is, how do you find this magically finished compost? Well, the good news is that you can easily and cheaply make it yourself at home.

To Compost in a Bin or Out in the Open?


Your first decision after you’ve settled on the idea of making compost is to elect whether or not to use a fully enclosed bin for home composting. Although bins aren’t necessary to decompose your organic waste, they do have their upsides for collecting kitchen scraps and yard waste.

Namely, they are aesthetically more pleasing if you have nearby neighbors and they make it easier for you to contain your pile in one place. Perhaps the best argument in favor of using a bin, however, is that it helps prevent critters from rooting around in your compost materials while the bunch is still decomposing and tracking scraps all over your yard.

On the other hand, if none of this concerns you, you can opt for another composting method such as an “open” compost pile that is built directly on the ground. This method, although not beautiful, is dirt cheap (pun intended) and makes it easy to turn over your compost pile to monitor its progress.

Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, and Oxygen


Outside of a spot to store your compost you only need four things:

  • Carbon organic material (Brown materials such as sawdust, paper towels, cardboard, and egg cartons)
  • Nitrogen organic material (Green materials such as plant trimmings, vegetable scraps, tea bags, and houseplants)
  • Water
  • Oxygen

Yes, it’s as simple as that because compost is created from basic organic matter, which is essentially a composition of carbon and nitrogen. The key is simply to know how much of each to use. To start off, understand that “brown” means predominantly carbon and “green” indicates materials that are heavier in nitrogen.

For compost, you need approximately an equal ratio of nitrogen to carbon to create a healthy mix. Everything from grass clippings to tea leaves to wood chips is excellent compost starters. Nature will help direct you as to whether or not you need more of either at any given time. You will just need to pay attention to how your garden beds respond to your composting materials.

Water and Oxygen

Besides carbon and nitrogen, the only two other ingredients you need to make rich soil are water and oxygen. If you add these two essential ingredients in the right proportions, you can have an active compost pile that can be ready in as little as four weeks.

To guide you in your watering efforts, make sure that your compost pile doesn’t get any wetter than a wrung-out sponge. If you are able to squeeze a little drip of water out of the compost at the center of your pile then you’re right on track.

You’ll know, however, if your pile gets too damp as it will begin to smell. To fix that, simply turn over your oxygen-starved pile to aerate things and you’ll be good to go.

Common Compost Problems


My compost is too wet

Compost can become soggy if you over water of add too much nitrogen. Thankfully, this is an easy fix. All you need to do is add some brown (carbon) and turn your pile to allow oxygen to circulate.

Once your pile is back to 40 percent moisture or about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge, you’re good to go.

1. I have pockets of nitrogen.

You’ll know when you have a pocket of nitrogen when your compost begins to stink. Take a pitchfork and break up the clump and add in some extra carbon-rich material.

2. I accidentally threw in the wrong thing.

If you accidentally threw in an undesirable organic material like meat, fish, dairy products or grease, it’s not the end of the world! Fish it out if you can. If you can’t, cover it with brown material and turn it into the pile where it will break down.

Is My Compost Ready?

You’ll know when you can introduce your organic material into your garden (or give to friends in your community garden) when the compost is a dark, crumbly, earth-smelling pile. For vigilant composters, this can occur in as little as four weeks, but for those who just want to let nature take its course, it may end up being six months to a year before you have your hands on gardening gold.

All it takes is time.

Watch: 7 Edible Weeds in Your Backyard

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Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Compost is any gardener’s best friend. For new veganic gardeners though, it is not only your best friend, but the building block from which your vegan garden will grow. As you build your own compost pile, bin, or tumbler, you’ll learn to love this nutrient-rich pile of possibility. The soil and humus that are created from your scraps do more than just reduce unnecessary additions to the landfill. They are also essential to revitalizing your garden and providing your household and garden plants with the nutrients they need to thrive.

Thankfully, building your own basic compost pile is simple to do. All you need is green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) material from your yard waste and household food scraps, and a good place to put it. I’ll cover the different methods of composting in a later post but for now, no matter what techniques you use, it’s hard to misstep. The speed with which your compost breaks down, the efficiency of maintaining your compost pile (to keep the smell and bugs down), and the potency of the nutrient-rich humus your compost creates is a slightly different story. Thus, all of the techniques and tips contained in this article will speed up the process, preserve the nutrients in the compost, encourage natural worm populations, and help keep your pile smelling like a bed full of, well… good earth.

Balanced and Bountiful
Size Matters
A Breath of Fresh Air
Power in Numbers
Compost Activators: Do you need them?

1. Balanced and Bountiful

If you heaped all your table scraps and yard waste in one big pile and let it sit for long enough, you would eventually have some good soil/humus to work with and use in your garden/plants/lawn treatment.

If you want to have GREAT soil/humus, and cut down on smell and compost time then you might need to do a little math: 30:1 Carbon to Nitrogen. Too much green (nitrogen) and your compost will become green, slimy and probably smelly. Too much brown (carbon) and you’re going to get just that, a pile of brown twigs and plant stalks that take forever to break down. You don’t need to measure how much of each type you’re putting in your pile, but if you simply eye ball it, you can add more of one or the other when you feel like your compost is out of balance.

What you can put in your compost pile:

Brown (Carbon):

• Dry leaves
• Hay & straw
• Dried grass
• Cornstalks, cobs and other plant stems (Chopped finely or shredded)
• Sawdust (See caution section below)*
• Bits of wood and pruning
• Wood Ash (Completely cooled)
• Tea bags
• Peat Moss
• Coffee filters
• Stems
• Pine needles (In small quantities, as they are very acidic)

Green (Nitrogen):

• Fresh (green) grass clippings
• Flowers and cuttings
• Fresh manure from rescued herbivorous animals (horses, rabbits, cows)
• Weeds (without seeds and chopped if needed to prevent re-growth)
• Green plant cuttings
• Leftover fruits and veggies from the garden
• Vegetable & fruit peelings
• Coffee grounds
• Young hedge trimmings
• Seaweed and kelp

Ingredients to avoid:

– Animal products: Cheese, meat, eggs etc. Animal products can attract other animals, smell unpleasantly and introduce disease and unwanted bacteria into your compost pile.
– Weeds that easily spread: If you’re having a hard time keeping certain weeds out of your garden, it’s probably best not to put them in the compost. The heat of a good compost pile can kill some weeds, but be careful which ones you choose to put in the pile.
– Diseased plants: If you didn’t want it in your garden, than you don’t want to add it to the compost, which will eventually be used in the garden.
– Shredded paper scraps: Unless you know that they are free from harmful chemicals, it’s best not to put paper in the compost due to the inks and other chemicals they contain. Recycling is a safer way to go.
– Dog or cat poop: It’s smelly, and you run the risk of adding diseases or unwanted bacteria to your compost.

* Sawdust/Wood shavings, chips and bark – It’s fine to add some wood chips and sawdust to your compost, although these items do take longer to break down, so add these items sparingly. Wood has a high carbon content so it takes a long time to break down and can overwhelm a compost pile. Sawdust or small chips are best layered lightly over fresh compost scraps to cut down on smells and dissuade flying critters. Sawdust and wood chips can also be helpful when your pile is overwhelmed with green material, but it should be used in moderation. Never use black walnut sawdust, which retards or destroys plant growth.

2. Size Matters

If you’re throwing half a watermelon rind or large twigs and branches into the compost pile, you’re going to be waiting a long time before you can use your new soil. If you can afford to purchase a shredder for woody items it will help solve these carbon-based woes, but if not, simply chopping up the larger pieces before adding them to the pile will help. Pruning shears work well on harder items. Nitrogen-rich materials such as vegetable waste and green pruning(s) can also be shredded, but it is less important than with carbon-rich material. The more you shred or chop the larger/harder items going into your compost, the easier it will be for the beneficial microbes in your compost to break them down and keep moisture even throughout the pile.

3. A Breath of Fresh Air

If you want your compost to break down quickly then it needs to breathe. This is because many of the good bacteria that help break down your household/yard waste need air to survive. You can usually tell that the oxygen level has dropped in your compost pile when the temperature of the pile drops (the core heat emanating from it should be between 120-160 degrees F.) This usually starts to happen around every two weeks, which makes every two weeks a good time to flip the compost. Even if you don’t have time to do a full flip, prodding the compost pile with a garden fork, stick, or metal rod will go a long way towards aerating the pile and speeding up the process.

When you turn the compost pile, pull material from the outer edges into the middle of the heap and break up any large clumps that may have formed. If any part of the pile is dry, moisten it as you go, but be careful of over-watering (covered in the next tip.)

There are also ways to create “No-Turn” piles such as building a tumbler or simply building your compost pile to circulate air (although I recommend flipping if you’re using a good amount of green material.)

Building a pile that breathes on its own:

The secret is to mix in enough coarse material, like straw, when building the compost pile. The compost will develop as fast as if you were flipping it regularly. Lay straw/hay or twigs first, at least a few inches deep. This allows for drainage and helps aerate the pile (just like flipping). Add compost materials in layers, alternating moist and dry, and ta-da! you’ve got a no-turn pile.

4. Moisture

Keeping your compost pile moist is one of the keys to keeping it active and decomposing at a good speed. On average, you want about 50-60% moisture content. What does that mean? You can eye ball it, but if you’re not afraid of a little dirt, grab a handful of compost (from the middle of the pile – the bits that are well on their way to dirt) and squeeze it.

– No water comes out and it crumbles apart when you open your hand: The compost is too dry.
– Water comes out: The compost is too wet.
– No water comes out, but the compost stays compact: Perfect!

Basically, you want your compost lightly moistened, but water shouldn’t be running off it and it shouldn’t be dry enough to notice. If you’re in a dry area you may need to spray a bit of water on the pile from time to time. If you’re in a rainy area, covering the top of the pile with a tarp or other sort of covering will protect it from getting too soggy.

5. Power in Numbers

If you only have space for one pile, then one is better then none, but if you have the space to create two or three smaller piles, go for it. Every time you add new material to your compost pile you’re setting your “ready” date back. Starting a new pile once you have enough material to create a good source of heat and compost (approximately 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet) allows you to move forward faster. The longer your compost takes to break down, the more nutrients that will be lost into the soil below the pile

6. Compost Activators: Do you need them?

While some garden stores may try to sell you “compost activators,” most likely you’ve got all the good microbes and fungi you need clinging to your garden/yard waste already. If your compost doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ you’d like it to, you can spray EM-1 solution on your pile, or add alfalfa meal and/or comfrey leaves to the pile to super-charge the contents.

Comfrey leaves are probably your cheapest and easiest, simplest bet. All you need is a bit of spare ground, or better yet, a garden bed you’re not using. Comfrey’s deep roots absorb nutrients from below the topsoil (subsoil), which is then transferred to and stored in the leaves. As this plant grows, the leaves and the soil they are grown in become nitrogen-rich, which is part of the reason growing this plant right in your garden can be a great idea.

It’s super easy to grow, and once the leaves are big enough you can use them for a covering for your compost or to make a beautiful compost tea (the leaves can irritate the skin so wear gloves when you’re picking them).

When your compost is ready, you should be able to see the difference between the dark, earthy, sweet soil it has become and the depleted soil from your garden. You’ll learn to love this beautiful humus, teeming with life and potential, and treasure it for the rich earth it has become. Whether you choose to use your compost to build the soil in your garden, fertilize new or existing pants, top dress your lawn, make a compost tea, lay it around trees and shrubs, on house plants or to create your own potting mix, I’m sure you’ll have a hard time ever throwing an apple peel or fall leaves in the garbage again!

Image: Grant Cochrane /

Composting For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Surefire Tips for Speedy Compost

A great thing about composting is that it can take as much or as little time as you want or need it to. If your time is limited and you want to speed up the process to get compost fast, follow these tips:

  • Increase the surface area of your ingredients. Before adding it to your compost, chop, shred, crack, whack, and smack organic matter into small pieces. (It’s a good stress reliever!) Your effort increases total surface area and creates open wounds in the materials, allowing soil organisms easy access to begin consuming and breaking them down.

  • Take the damp sponge test. Starting a compost pile with too-dry ingredients or allowing ingredients to dry out without remoistening is a direct route to slow decomposition. Fast-acting compost piles contain about 40 to 60 percent water. Squeeze handfuls of compost from various sections of the pile to check its moisture level. Everything should feel like a wrung-out sponge. Turn and rewet materials as needed to maintain this level of moisture.

  • Air it out. Soil organisms require oxygen just as you do. When air supplies are depleted, the organisms die without reproducing in sufficient numbers to keep decomposition zipping along. Keep the little critters in your compost pile well-supplied with oxygen by turning the pile completely every week or two (or three).

    If your time is limited, stick a compost fork or aerating tool into the pile to stir things up. This action doesn’t generate as much oxygen throughout the pile as a total turnover, but it does an acceptable job and only takes a minute or two.

Learn how to compost and get tips on how to start using scraps from your table and garden to create nutrient-rich soil. Composting is an environmentally-friendly way to reuse scraps as you do your part to reduce waste in landfills.

The best part comes when your compost bin begins producing black gold for your plants. Your garden will love the nutrients from the compost when you add it to the soil.

1. Start with the right composter

For a low-maintenance solution, try a compost bin that tumbles. Just add things like banana, apple, orange and other fruit peels, vegetable scraps, egg shells and other kitchen scraps and non-diseased garden debris to your composter. Then, turn the bin every few days. A compost bin rain barrel (pictured above) let’s you collect and reuse rainwater in your garden while composting.

If you’re in a smaller space, try the compost sack. It’s quick, easy and portable.

2. Let earthworms work their magic

Let earthworms and their castings do the work for you. When you add earthworms to your compost pile it helps speed-up the process of breaking down the organic material in your compost bin.

3. Try compost starter

When you use compost starter, such as Compost Wizard Compost Booster, you’ll improve nutrient absorption and help break down simple organic materials faster in your compost bin.

4. Make lasagna

Layer garden and kitchen waste in your compost bin just like lasagna. Keep a balance of about 75 percent garden waste, including leaves and non-diseased plants, to 25 percent kitchen scraps. For faster compost breakdown, use a compost turner or turn the mixture with a garden fork a few times a week.

5. Keep a pail

Make things easy by keeping an indoor compost pail in the kitchen. When you’re prepping your meals, you can quickly scoop potato and onion skins, carrot peels, strawberry caps, egg shells and more right into the pail. Every few days, just empty it out into the compost bin.

Find out more about making the most of your composter and how to compost in winter.

See our other lists for more gardening ideas:

  • Make It Rain with 5 of Our Favorite Watering Cans
  • 10-Minute Ideas to Get the Most Out of Your Annuals
  • 4 Easy-Growing Edibles for Your Patio or Balcony Garden
  • 5 Ways to Stake Your Tomatoes

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