A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

If you garden, or even if you only have a few struggling or weedy flower beds in a lonely corner of your yard, you should learn how to make your own compost. If you believe you lack a green thumb, I especially encourage you to read on because compost can make a big difference. It’s like making your own organic, safe fertilizer, and it helps to keep waste material out of landfills. Every home produces all the ingredients necessary to make compost, and the process is easier and simpler than you might expect.


What you need:

A place to build a compost pile.

I’ve tried several methods, and I prefer to use a compost tumbler. It’s a specially made plastic barrel on a stand that seals, and it easily turns to mix up the materials inside. Your compost needs to be moved, turned, and mixed periodically to help the decomposition process along. This method has created finished compost for me faster than any other method, and with little effort on my part. Some bins that do not tumble also are available to purchase, but I’ve never tried that style and prefer the bins that tumble.

If you are on a budget, you can build your own bin by drilling holes in a plastic garbage can that has a lid, and then you roll the sealed garbage can around your yard to mix the materials inside. I made one of these bins a few years ago, but I’ve discovered that the contents don’t mix well when I roll the bin around my yard. I tend to use my homemade garbage can composter during the winter months because my tumbler gets water stuck in the crevices and freezes shut so I can’t add material to it. I use the garbage can composter as a holding tank until the temperatures thaw enough that I can transfer its contents to my tumbler.

You also can build a pile directly on the ground in a corner of your yard, fencing it in with wire mesh or a simple untreated wood structure if you want, but it will likely attract animals such as raccoons (even in the city and suburbs) who will view the pile as a food source.

If you don’t want to constantly run out to add to your pile every time you have an apple core or two, you may want to keep a container for compost ingredients on your kitchen counter or hidden in a cabinet, and you can empty that smaller container into your main pile once a day or so. I keep an old cookie jar on my counter. One of my friends keeps a small covered trash can specifically labelled for compost next to her regular kitchen trash can. Do what works for you.

Kitchen Scraps.

These include all unwanted or unused fruits and vegetables such as potato and cucumber and carrot peels, strawberry stems, carrot tops and peels, broccoli and cauliflower stems, trimmed ends of asparagus, apple cores, peach and nectarine and plum pits, cherry seeds and stems, citrus peels, and the veggies your kids didn’t eat during dinner time. Tea bags (remove any staples), coffee grounds, egg shells, and grass clippings are also good. These items are all considered “green” materials, meaning they are fresh and wet and full of nitrogen.

“Brown” materials.

Fruits and veggies make up the bulk of your “green” materials in your compost, but you also need other different ingredients for successful compost. Brown materials are dry and carbon-based, and they include paper products (old receipts, scrap paper, and even lightly used paper towels and Kleenex), cardboard (including egg cartons, toilet paper tubes, and paper towel tubes), dryer lint, coffee filters, scraps of yarn and thread, and dry leaves. I’m a fan of tossing receipts or old papers with financial or other personal information on them into the compost pile; they will decompose, and no one is likely to dig through my compost pile, so I don’t have to worry about shredding these papers to protect against identity theft. At a minimum, you want at least half of your compost to be made of brown materials, with some experts recommending as much as 75% of your compost be composed of brown matter.


You need to add water periodically to keep your pile moist but not sopping. It should feel like a wrung-out sponge.

What not to include in your compost:

Do not put meat, fat, oil, grease, or dairy products in your compost pile. It will get smelly and nasty and be more likely to attract nuisance animals. Don’t put sticks, balls from sweet gum trees, or other large woody items in your pile either because these will take a long time to break down. Also, don’t put pet waste in your pile.

Go Have Fun!

You can start your pile during any time of year, but just know that the decomposition process will happen more slowly if you live where winters are cold. It takes a few weeks to a few months for your materials to break down into finished compost that is ready to be spread in your growing beds. You can speed up the process by turning or mixing your compost more frequently, even daily. Turning is an important part of the process because it adds oxygen to the mix and allows microorganisms to break down material. Some people keep two separate compost piles so that one pile can be finishing while they add new ingredients to the other pile.

When the compost no longer looks like the original ingredients – when everything basically looks like moist mud or dirt – you can spread the finished compost on your garden beds. Work it into the soil if you want or leave it on top and add some mulch. If you’re planting new things, add a hearty scoop of finished compost to the bottom of the hole before setting your plant in it.

Making your own compost is like getting free fertilizer without any unsafe chemicals. Your plants will love it. You also get the benefit of keeping a decent amount of waste out of landfills. What’s not to like about any of that? Good luck!

Do you make your own compost? Let us know in the comments.

About Rachael

Rachael is the creator of Shop From Your Pantry. She is a freelance writer and editor, and you can learn more about her work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com.
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