Make Your Own Compost

Brian Barth
Compost Layers

Composting mimics and accelerates the natural process of decomposition for the purpose of enriching your garden soil. It also diverts food scraps and other organic waste from the landfill and is a great way to reduce, recycle, and reuse.

Essential Materials

Only a few basic tools and components are needed to make perfect compost.

Compost Bin

black compost bin

Compost piles can be made out in the open, but there are a lot of good reasons to put it in a bin.

  • Helps keep the moisture level within the optimal range
  • Excludes critters
  • Contains any unpleasant smells
  • Looks nicer than a pile

Most garden centers stock a few different types of bins and many municipalities actually give them away or sell them at a reduced rate.

Compost Ingredients

green compost material

It's not enough to just throw organic waste in a compost bin. There are two broad types of organic waste used in composting and they must work in concert with each other.

  • Nitrogen-rich materials, which are referred to as 'greens' in composting lingo, include any organic material that is fresh and moist: food scraps, fresh grass clippings and trimmings from the garden, etc.
  • Carbon-rich materials, referred to as 'browns', which amount to any type of organic matter that has been dead for a while and is dried out: fallen leaves, straw, even newspaper counts as brown.

These are needed in roughly equal quantities on a weekly basis, which is a given with food scraps, but you may need to plan ahead to make sure you have the browns on hand.

Helpful Tools

trash recycling compost
  • A well-sealed container for collecting food scraps in the kitchen. These are available wherever trash cans are sold, or you can improvise your own.
  • A tight-fitting container lid is helpful for containing smells, though you'll probably want to take out the bin two or three times each week, so size it accordingly.
  • Tools for collecting and storing the browns like a rake, wheelbarrow, and large brown bags, may be needed.
  • A pitchfork is an essential tool for turning and aerating the compost if your bin doesn't include a tumbling mechanism.

Step-By-Step Composting

Once you've gathered the necessary materials, follow these steps to make your own compost:

compost layer
  1. Choose a location. A compost bin can be assembled on any flat bit of ground, but most people choose to put it somewhere obscured from view. On the other hand, it's convenient if it's not too far from the kitchen and has space to store the browns next to it. Sun or shade is fine, but if it's in the shade, it will likely be necessary to add water occasionally.
  2. Assemble the bin by following the instructions that came with the product.
  3. Place a two to three inch layer of browns at the bottom of the bin.
  4. Start adding greens. Every time you dump a load of food waste or green yard waste, add an equal layer of browns.
  5. Monitor the moisture levels on a weekly basis. Probe the pile with a pitchfork or other tool and see if it seems soggy or dry. If it's dry, sprinkle it lightly with water and check again a couple days later; if it's soggy, increase the amount of browns that you use to soak up the excess moisture. The goal is a compost pile that's somewhere in the middle of soggy and dry.
  6. Turn the pile. Fluff up the pile with a pitchfork on a weekly basis. It is critical to provide oxygen throughout the pile and most bins have a front access door for this purpose.

Harvest and Use

perfect compost

It can take anywhere from two to 12 months for the compost ingredients to break down. Once the majority of the pile resembles rich, crumbly earth, it is ready to use in the garden. Use the pitchfork to remove the most recently added materials that are not yet decomposed and put these aside for starting the next pile. Remove the remaining contents from the bin and mix into garden beds wherever you wan to improve the soil fertility and enhance its water- and nutrient-holding abilities.

What Not to Compost

Not everything can or should be tossed into your compost, however.

  • Avoid composting animal products and other oily/greasy things like salad dressing.
  • Certain things like citrus peels and avocado pits take much longer to decompose than most other types of kitchen waste, so if you don't want to see these in your finished product, it's best to exclude them.
  • Woody debris like sticks and wood chips should be avoided - even though it is organic waste, it takes a long time to decompose compared to straw, grass clippings, and dried leaves.
  • It's best to avoid throwing noxious weeds in the compost pile if they contain seedheads, since the seed may end up sprouting in the beds where you use the compost.

Composting Tips

Follow these helpful pointers:

compost tumbler
Tumbler bin
  • Winter composting - Things don't decompose when they're frozen, but it doesn't mean you can't keep adding layers to the pile; in spring, they will thaw and begin to decompose.
  • Avoiding smells - Keeping meats and oils out of the compost is important to prevent odors. Also, make sure the compost is not excessively moist because anaerobic conditions will result, giving off the smell that gives compost a bad name.
  • Tumbler bins - The best bins are those that include a mechanism to turn the compost; the aeration and mixing accelerates the process of decomposition and avoids the difficult chore of turning the pile with a pitchfork. Just give it a few cranks each time you add compost.
  • Indoor composting - If you live in an apartment or prefer to have your compost bin indoors for any other reason, a worm bin is the way to go - they are self-contained and have little to no detectable odor.

Gardener's Gold

Compost is the secret to a healthy abundant garden. Every type of plant, from roses to rutabagas, thrives in soil enriched with compost, making it an essential part of the gardening lifestyle.

Make Your Own Compost