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How to Compost at Home: Step by Step Guide for Beginners

Compost with Soil

Composting at home is one of the best ways to utilize any kitchen scraps, newspaper, and other compostable materials you have at home to reduce overall food waste and even help the environment!

One of the loveliest aspects of nature is that everything in it has a use — the nasty, rotting zucchini as well as the lavender sprouting scented blossoms in the backyard.

Home composting can take some of our leftovers, waste, and unwanted extras and turn them into fertile soil to boost the productivity of gardens and landscapes.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to compost at home easily step by step.

What is Compost?

Compost is decomposed organic material that is produced when bacteria in soil break down garbage and biodegradable trash, resulting in a product rich in minerals that is an ideal garden or landscaping amendment.

In fact, it’s nature’s perfect amendment and can be added to the soil any time of year without the fear of burning plants or polluting water.

Benefits of Composting at Home

  • For one, it’s free. You get to use kitchen waste, lawn clippings, leaves, and other vegetation that would otherwise get thrown away. In fact, you might even save money on landfill fees.
  • Potting mixes and soils that are rich in compost produce vigorous plants regardless of whether you’re growing vegetables, growing herbs, or organic rose gardening.
  • Improves garden soil structure, texture, and aeration.
  • Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter provided in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition.
  • Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water
  • No need to add fertilizer — just mix compost into the soil. Compost contains nutrients that plants need for optimum growth, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. And it’s an especially good supplier of micronutrients that are needed in small quantities such as boron, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc.
  • It feels good. When else can you turn trash into treasure? Plus, scraps stay out of the landfill, reducing your footprint.

How Does Composting Work?

You mix yard and kitchen waste in a pile or bin and provide the right conditions to encourage decomposition.

Let bacteria and fungi go to work recycling waste material into fertilizer.

Mix compost into garden soil or use it on the surface as mulch.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. Microbes are hard at work chomping down your throwaways. You supply the organic materials, water, and oxygen. The bacteria that are already there decompose the plant material into compost. As the bacteria break down the materials they release heat, which is concentrated in the center of the pile.  

How to Compost at Home Step by Step

Everyone has a different level of commitment when it comes to composting.

For some, a rot pile in the backyard is good enough. Others want to apply the rigors of science and constant vigilance to ensure the best (and quickest) compost around.

Most of us are somewhere in between. Regardless of your level of experience, Planet Natural offers a wide selection of composting bins, tumblers, and supplies to get you started.

Use the steps below as a guideline for how to compost. The more you follow them, the better your finished product will be.

1. Select a site for your pile or bin

To keep your neighbors happy, consider a discreet location. You’ll also want to locate a spot with good airflow, access to water, and partial shade in the summer (to keep the pile from getting too hot), but good sun in the winter (to keep the pile warm).

2. Choose a bin

You can purchase a composter, or make your own. Rotating bins make turning your treasure easy and keep animals out, but it is easy to make a workable bin on your own (see How to Build a Compost Bin). One simple method is to track down shipping pallets. Use one for the bottom. Pound in metal support poles and add pallets by slipping them over the support poles to make your bin’s walls.

Make your pile about 3x3x3 feet. This size is big enough to create its own heat but small enough to turn. If you are using a commercial composter you won’t need to worry about the size.

Compost bin with leaves and food scraps

3. Add compostable materials

Not everything can go into the compost bin; read on to find out what can and cannot be composted.

compostable materials including egg shells and food scraps

What to Compost

Composting can be done with a wide range of organic materials, such as food scraps, lawn trimmings, and many other things. Here are some things that you can compost:

  • Fruit and vegetable peels and scraps
  • Rotten fruit and veggies
  • Houseplant trimmings
  • Coffee grounds and paper filters
  • Loose tea leaves and tea bags
  • Eggshells
  • Nutshells (excluding walnuts)
  • Paper, cardboard, and shredded newspaper
  • Napkins, paper towels, and unused toilet paper
  • Cotton and wool rags
  • Hair and fur
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Hay and straw
  • Sawdust
  • Wood chips
  • Yard trimmings

What Not to Compost and Why

Not every thing from your kitchen or garden needs to go in the compost. In fact, certain things could draw insects, pests, and rodents while others might contain harmful toxins. Here are some things you should avoid composting:

  • Bones or scraps from meat, fish, and poultry: Produces odor, attracts pests, and might also carry pathogens.
  • Dairy products: Produces odor and attracts pests
  • Leaves or twigs from black walnut trees: Releases a compound that’s toxic to plants
  • Walnuts: Releases a compound that’s toxic to plants
  • Coal ash or charcoal: Contains compounds that may harm plants
  • Large pieces of wood: May take a long time to decompose
  • Fat, cooking oil, and grease: Creates odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies
  • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides: May kill microorganisms needed for the composting process
  • Coffee pods: Most contain plastic and don’t break down naturally
  • Baked goods:May attract pests and increase the growth of harmful bacteria
  • Plants that are diseased or infested with insects:Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants
  • Pet waste, such as feces or litter: Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans

4. Monitor four key elements of composting

It’s important to monitor temperature, aeration, moisture, and the carbon to nitrogen ratio for optimum levels.

I) Temperature

The easiest way to test your compost’s temperature is to stick your hand in the center of the pile. If it is hot or warm — good job. If it is the same temperature as the ambient air, the microbes have slowed down — and so has the composting process.

II) Moisture

The microbes hard at work in your compost pile require just the right amount of water. Too much means organic waste won’t decompose, too little and you’ll kill the bacteria. Compost should feel moist, but not soaking wet — like a wrung-out sponge.

Composting works best with 40-60% moisture content. More on monitoring compost moisture here.

III) Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio

For perfect compost, maintain a C:N ratio of 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen, or 25-30:1. If the C:N ratio is too high (not enough nitrogen) decomposition will slow down. If the C:N ratio is too low (not enough carbon) you’ll end up with a smelly pile.

Read our article Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios to learn more about reaching this perfect balance between brown and green compostable materials.

In general, carbon-rich materials (browns) include dried leaves, newspaper, straw, and nitrogen-rich materials (greens) include vegetable scraps, garden waste, and grass clippings.

IV) Aeration

Everyone needs to breathe, even tiny microorganisms, so make sure enough oxygen is getting into your pile by turning your compost often.

If the compost pile is warm to the touch or registers between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit on a thermometer, it is time to give it a turn. Stirring the compost pile speeds up the cooking process and keeps items from becoming matted and generating an odor.

The brown and green layers have served their role at this stage, so it’s safe to completely combine the two components.

Use a compost aerator or pitchfork to mix your pile. If you are using a compost tumbler, you’ve got it easy. Just crank that lever.

If you are using easily compacted materials (such as ashes or sawdust) mix in coarser materials first. People who build large piles often add tree branches or even ventilation tubes vertically into different parts of the pile to be shaken occasionally, to maximize air circulation.

5. Mix and Use

Mixrich, earthy compost into garden soil, or pile it on top of the soil as mulch.

Tips & Techniques for Composting at Home

Here are a few more tips to turn carrot tops (and anything else) into compost more quickly:

  1. Help start a new compost pile with blood meal, cottonseed meal, well-aged manure, or compost starter. They are rich in nitrogen and help “fire-up” the microbes responsible for breaking down organic matter into compost.
  2. Chop or shred materials before putting them in the compost pile or bin. The smaller it is, the faster it will break down.
  3. Use a kitchen compost pail or crock for storing food scraps. It will reduce the number of trips you make to the compost pile.
  4. Plants that have been treated with pesticides and/or herbicides (weeds and lawn clippings) should be avoided.
  5. Add a lot to your pile at once, rather than in small doses to encourage the pile to heat up.
  6. Turn, turn, turn. Turning compost will introduce oxygen and speed up the composting process.
  7. Keep your pile or bin in the sun. Microbes are more active when warm.
  8. Activators can get a slow compost heap sped up.
  9. 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.
  10. Finished compost is usually less than half the volume of the materials you started with, but it’s much denser.
  11. Apply finished compost to your garden about 2-4 weeks before you plant, giving the compost time to integrate and stabilize within the soil.

Troubleshooting Your Compost

Does your compost stink? Is it dry and brittle? Is nothing happening? Are maggots freaking you out? Check out this troubleshooting guide to find out what’s wrong.

With the right equipment, turning garbage into garden gold is a cinch! At Planet Natural we supply everything you need: bins, tumblers and activators to get your pile cooking, plus compost turners to aerate your heap. Now, let’s rot!

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10 Responses to “How to Compost at Home: Step by Step Guide for Beginners”

  1. Alys Milner on March 2nd, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    Fantastic article. I’ve read many on composting (this is my first year giving it a go), but none so thorough. Thank you!

  2. Nancy on March 11th, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    I started composting last year and will be using my compost this year. I was putting my compost on the ground until I noticed the moles were taking all of it off and messing up my back yard. I put out moth balls to stop the moles but they would just tunnel around the balls. So I have started putting my compost in a half 55 gallon barrel that was full of last years left over potting soil (what I planted my tomatoes in). I am mixing the old potting soil with the compost. I have to plant my garden in pots due to I do not have anything to break the land up. My question is can I use my compost in my pots/buckets to grow flowers and veggis this upcoming year? I go once a week and take a shovel and move the stuff around in the barrel, but I can’t see any progress in decomposing.

    • edgar on January 14th, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

      I have been composting more than 45 years ( I am 39 ) and have tried many ‘techniques’ and containers. I try to keep things as low cost as I can.

      From what you have described, not seeing and feeling it in person, I am assuming the 55 gal drum does not have drainage. But, even if it does, a non-working compost pile is probably too wet or too dry. If the 55 gal drum is covered and not watered ( by the person ) it will be dry. If it gets rained in, with no drainage it will just fill up with water. Even with drainage, the organic material will become saturated and slow the rain just running through it, and it will become too soggy to decompose properly.

      If by chance, the moisture is just right, then it must need a ‘compost starter’. That means the micro-organisms that break down the organic matter is not there, or not in sufficient quantity. Garden soil can provide a starter, or ‘good manure’, or a commercially bought starter could be used.

      If you have a neighbor with a compost pile, ask for a quart or gallon of some of his compost that is in the center of the pile, about a month old.

  3. Rod Konrad on November 21st, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    Can you compost rice hulls?

  4. Artice Upchurch on April 18th, 2018 at 5:20 pm #

    Composting is certainly a labor of love and is well worth the effort, if done correctly. Our plants will thank us for it.
    Great read! Thank you so much for this. 🙂

  5. abha goswami on June 16th, 2018 at 11:52 pm #

    Hi all,
    I do it by layering. First sprinkle one bucket of loose soil in a barrel. Then pile up all peels, grass clippings, kitchen leftovers for 10 days then sprinkle a little loose soil & 2 mugs of water … turn upside down. Repeat for 3 months/ until the barrel fills up — always cover it. After 3 months you will see the waste materials have been turned to BLACK-GOLD! I use manure while preparing the soil… the vegetables tastes GREAT !

  6. jeff on April 16th, 2019 at 3:34 pm #

    How does one compost for 45 years if your only 39?

    • cj on May 9th, 2019 at 4:00 pm #

      Haha I had the same question..

  7. Patrick Caruso on October 11th, 2019 at 9:33 am #

    Looking to find another scepter Garden Gourmet composter do you know where I can purchase one?

  8. Sprinkler Repair on January 22nd, 2020 at 8:05 pm #

    I love that you mentioned egg shells! I have been composting them forever after reading about them years ago. The funny thing is that not very many people are aware of their benefits and every time I mention them to someone they say, “oh you can’t compost egg shells”. SMH!