How to Compost

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Many gardeners know about the benefits of composting, but starting a composting pile or bin can seem like a daunting task. Composting, however, isn’t difficult, and once it’s started, it can be a rewarding way to boost your gardening output. Taking a few steps and following a few key rules can make composting incredibly simple.

Looking for a beginner’s composter? Our top recommendation is the dual compartment rotating compost bin

Dual compartment rotating compost bin on Amazon

Benefits of Composting

Composting is one of the best ways to benefit your garden, grow larger, healthier plants, and also do a service for the planet at the same time. Simply put, composting is when waste material is, instead of being thrown away, added to a pile or bin and turned into nutritious, organic fertilizer. Composting means that less waste ends up in landfills, which can help to reduce global warming. It also means that that waste will be going towards something useful.

Composting utilizes aerobic decomposition, which doesn’t produce methane gas, as opposed to anaerobic decomposition, which does.

A woman is brushing kitchen scraps off of a cutting board into a bucket

Great Composting Materials

Composting mainly consists of adding two types of ingredients to your bin or pile. The first ingredient is brown material, which is made up of things like shredded cardboard that has no gloss, dried weeds or plants, wood chips, cotton rags, dead leaves, shredded paper or newspaper, nutshells, and twigs or even branches. The second type of ingredient is called green material. This is made up of things like coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, tea leaves, fresh leaves, and grass clippings. Weeds that are pulled during gardening can also be added. Eventually, all of these items will break down in the composting pile, creating a rich mixture that contains lots of vital nutrients for plants.

Materials that Shouldn’t Be Composted

Although many items can be composted, many cannot. Things that won’t break down, such as glass or plastic, are not a good idea for a composting bin. Animal products, such as dairy, meat scraps, and bones, can cause pests. These can also create bad smells, so it’s best to leave them out of the pile. Although eggs shells that have been crumbled are a good choice, eggs themselves are not. In addition, fats and oils should not be added. Animal waste should also never be added.

It’s also best not to add plants that have diseases or pests, as this can compromise the pile. Similarly, grass clippings or plants that have pesticides or chemicals on them should not be added. Black walnut tree leaves and branches are also a risky choice when it comes to composting. This tree contains a chemical compound that can poison other plants. In a composting heap, the chemical in the leaves will most likely break down after two to three months. However, most composters feel that taking this risk isn’t worthwhile.

Choose the Best Location

The best area for a composting bin is generally outside, in the shade. You will be keeping the composting material moist, but it’s best to choose a dry area so that you can control the moisture level. You can compost indoors as well, but you’ll need to keep a closer eye on the bin in order to avoid odors, and the bin will need to be much smaller.

Many people purchase or build a bin for their composting. This helps the composting pile look neater and keeps any stray smells contained. It also helps to keep animals out of the composting material. You can also choose a bin on a tumbler, which helps to turn composting materials more easily. Other people opt to simply pile the composting materials on the ground in an area that’s out of the way. Either way is a perfectly good choice and depends simply on what you prefer. If you’re not using a bin, though, you may want to surround the composting pile with chicken wire in order to keep animals from the composting material. Raccoons, for example, may come to eat scraps from the pile.

Add Materials

Once you have your area designated and your brown and green materials gathered, you can begin adding those materials to the composting bin. You’ll want to keep the brown materials with the brown materials, and the green with the green. Add one layer of brown, then a layer of green, and so on. You’ll also want to keep your ration to about three parts of brown material for every one part of green material.

The ratio of brown to green material doesn’t need to be perfect, but it will help to encourage the correct type of decomposition. If you notice that your composting pile is becoming very smelly or if it looks more like rotting trash than loam, you most likely need to add more brown material in order to return to the correct balance. If the composting material looks too dry or doesn’t seem to be doing anything, you probably need to add more green material.

Make sure that all of the materials you add are in small pieces. This makes decomposition happen much more quickly.

Compost material

Add Moisture

Keeping a composting pile damp helps to speed up decomposition, so you’ll have good compost much more quickly. However, the pile shouldn’t be too wet, as this can cause the wrong kind of decomposition. If you feel that the composting material is too dry and crumbly, you can lightly mist the pile with a hose or even a watering can. On the other hand, if you get a lot of rain and there’s no lid on your bin, or your pile is out in the open, you may want to consider using a tarp to cover the composting material.

If your composting material does become too damp, it’s nothing to worry about. Simply spread the material on a tarp and let it dry in the sun for a bit. Then add it back to the bin or push it back into its original location.

Turn the Pile

Air is the key ingredient in creating the correct kind of decomposition, which leads to compost and not sludge. In order to add air to the composting material, you can turn it. This can be done in several ways. If you have a tumbler, you can simply turn the handle. If you have a bin or pile, you can use a pitchfork or shovel to move things around.

Larger piles will need to be turned less frequently than small piles or bins. Generally, a small pile will need to be turned every few days, while a larger pile can be turned once a week or so.

When turning your composting material, you may notice that the material is warm or even hot. You may even see some steam escaping. This is a completely normal part of the process. The decomposition creates heat. This heat is actually quite beneficial, as it will kill any weed seeds that may have been introduced into the pile.

Finish and Spread

The composting material is ready when it is a dark, loamy color and there are no visible scraps of waste. When you are almost ready to use your composting material, you may want to stop adding scraps to it, or only add material to one side of the pile. Wait for four to six weeks so that all of the visible scraps of material have disappeared from the mix. At this point, you can add the mix to your garden, spreading it around plants to offer them a wide range of nutrients.


Vermicomposting is when earthworms are added to a composting mix. This helps to break down material much more quickly and also adds many nutrients to the resulting mix. In large outdoor piles, earthworms may show up naturally. In smaller bins, however, earthworms can be added. The bin can be lined with dirt and leaves. The earthworms can then be added. Any bins with earthworms will need ventilation holes as well.

Wrapping it up

Composting is an easy process once you learn how to do it. It will save you money and your garden will love the nutrients that you are providing them. If you want to try it out, I recommend the Dual Compartment Rotating Compost Bin. Follow the simple steps laid out in this article and you will be ready for success. 

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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