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The Best Ways to Make High-Grade Compost at Home
With a video on Composting for Beginners

Compost Bin Getting Filled

Most people think potato peels, lettuce trimmings, coffee grounds, and grass clippings are garbage.  But as a Victorious Gardener, you know those things are valuable.  You can turn these food scraps into gardening gold by making compost at home.  In this article, you’ll learn how to mix the right compost ingredients to start a compost pile or tumbler.  For the scientifically-minded, we even talk about how to use the C:N ratio to determine the organic materials you should mix.

Whether you’re growing carrots or Asian vegetables, this wonder material can turn a so-so garden into a major producer. If you’re going to try no-till gardening, or you’re already a veteran, a good supply of compost is vital for success./toc

Video – Composting for Beginners

What are the Types of Compost?

The compost used in home gardens comes in five main types:

  • Vermicompost.  Earthworms play a major role in making this compost. Friendly bacteria and other organisms also help out.  First, the worms eat the organic matter.  Then their castings (poop) become a rich material that’s nutritious for plants.
  • Farmyard Manure.  This is poop from horses, cows, pigs, or other farm animals.  Many old-time farmers would spread manure in their fields after the harvest.  By the following spring, nature had broken down the manure to be a fertile part of the soil.  Manure is one of the “green” ingredients for the composting methods described below.
  • Green Manure.  This ancient method consists of growing cover crops (legumes) in the field.  After harvest, the plants get plowed under.  The legumes decay and release nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil.  Farmers often use this method when growing corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and sugarcane.
  • Bokashi.  This type of compost also has a five-dollar name:  “Effective MicroOrganism (EMO) Compost.”  It’s ideal for gardeners who have limited space.   A special bin holds kitchen scraps layered with wheat bran.  The bran holds bacteria or yeasts that break down the wastes without oxygen.  This is unique since the other types of compost mentioned here need to decompose with oxygen.  Bokashi compost is acidic and needs neutralizing before using it on plants.
  • Compost.  This is the type explained in this article.  It mixes organic materials like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaves, and others.  There’s a chart below that shows how to mix these materials.  With the proper mixture, bacteria break down all the organic matter into fertile soil.  Keep reading to learn all the details!
 A compost pile in a wooden frame
Putting a compost pile in a wooden box is one common method.

How to Build a Compost Pile

Composting is a faster version of the decomposition that occurs in nature to create fertile soil (humus).  When building a compost heap, you need to balance three things:

  • A mix of organic materials that provide carbon and nitrogen.
  • A steady air supply.
  • Moist conditions.

The bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that do the decomposition process can’t do their excellent work without them.

The materials needed to make compost fall into two groups:

  • Browns.  These are high-carbon materials and are often dry.  They provide food for the organisms.
  • Greens.  These are high-nitrogen materials and are often moist.  Organisms use them to build their cell structures.

Please note that the actual colors of these materials aren’t always green or brown.  It’s only a convenient way to refer to them.

The greens and browns always contain a mix of carbon and nitrogen, known as the “C:N ratio.”  Here’s a chart showing some of the materials and their ratios:

Chart of Common Brown and Green Materials and Their C:N Ratios

Browns (High Carbon)C:N RatioGreens (High Nitrogen)C:N Ratio
Straw80:1Aged pig manure6:1
Dry leaves60:1Aged chicken manure7:1
Pine needles80:1Grass clippings, other green yard waste20:1
Uncoated shredded paper170:1Coffee grounds20:1
Fresh corn stalks60:1Tea bags (see sections below)20:1
Sawdust325:1Fruit waste (see sections below)35:1
Shredded cardboard350:1Kitchen scraps (see sections below)15:1
Peat moss60:1Timothy hay25:1
Alfalfa hay12:1
  Weeds (without seeds)30:1
  Fresh cattle manure15:1
  Fresh sheep manure15:1
  Clover23:1
  Fresh horse manure25:1

Basic chart structure courtesy of Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening.

Can You Compost Tea Bags?

This is an excellent question because tea bags have some unique points:

  • The tea inside the bags is always compostable.
  • If the string is cotton, it can go into the pile.  The tag can go in if it’s non-glossy paper.
  • Metal staples can’t go in the pile.  They’re not organic, and you won’t like it if you get stabbed by one while handling the compost!
  • Paper teabags are compostable, but teabags made of nylon or other artificial fabrics must go to the trash.  Any adhesive on a teabag isn’t compostable, either.
  • While we’re on this subject, coffee pods aren’t compostable, but the grounds are.

What Materials Shouldn’t be Composted?

Some organic materials and kitchen scraps should never go into a pile.  Here’s a list:

  • Dairy products, whole eggs, meat, seafood, fat, bones, or cooking oils.  These materials take a long time to break down and soon create foul odors.  Using them will ruin your pile and the smells attract animal pests. Think of these as food waste since they must go to the trash.
  • Browns or greens treated with chemical pesticides or herbicides.  These will affect the composting organisms and your garden crops.
  • Diseased plant material or weeds with seeds.  Compost made with diseased plants can carry diseases to new crops.  The weed seeds can proliferate after spreading the compost.
  • Dog or cat waste.  Animals and humans can get the toxoplasmosis parasite, and their eggs can be in cat feces.  Remarkably, they’re the only species known to excrete toxoplasmosis eggs.  The heat from composting can’t kill these eggs.  Dog waste has the same problem with worm eggs.  Pet waste composters are on the market, but the manufacturers warn not to use the compost on food crops.
  • Treated wood.  This wood acts like plastic if it’s in a compost pile.  It’s impregnated with chemicals to prevent decay, so bacteria can’t affect it.  The chemicals would also harm the bacteria.

Kitchen Compost Bins

EPICA Countertop Compost Bin Kitchen | 1.3 Gallon | Odorless Composting Bin with Carbon Filters | Indoor Compost Bin with Lid | Stainless Steel Kitchen Composter for Food Scraps & Waste Recycling
EPICA Countertop Compost Bin Kitchen | 1.3 Gallon | Odorless Composting Bin with Carbon Filters | Indoor Compost Bin with Lid | Stainless Steel Kitchen Composter for Food Scraps & Waste Recycling
$28.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
Lomi 1 | Kitchen Composter, 3L, World’s First Smart Waste Home Food Upcycler, Turn Waste into Natural Fertilizer with a Single Button, Indoor compost, Electric Kitchen Food Recycler (45 Cycles)
Lomi 1 | Kitchen Composter, 3L, World’s First Smart Waste Home Food Upcycler, Turn Waste into Natural Fertilizer with a Single Button, Indoor compost, Electric Kitchen Food Recycler (45 Cycles)
$379.00
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
OXO Good Grips EASY-CLEAN COMPOST BIN - CHARCOAL - 1.75 GAL/6.62 L, Plastic, 8.3'L x 10.15'W x 12'H
OXO Good Grips EASY-CLEAN COMPOST BIN - CHARCOAL - 1.75 GAL/6.62 L, Plastic, 8.3"L x 10.15"W x 12"H
$30.95
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18

Some Materials Need Careful Composting

  • Cooked vegetables.  The heat from cooking has broken down their cell structures, and they can start rapid decay.  This can cause unpleasant odors from the pile.  Cooked veggies can also contain cooking oils, animal products, sugar, or salt.  These things should never enter a compost pile.  Vegetables cooked without added ingredients are the only option for the pile.  Drain any excess water from the veggies and cut them into small pieces.  Add them to the pile a little at a time since too many at once will cause foul odors.
  • Citrus fruit, pickled vegetables, tomatoes, tomato products, and onions.  These things are too acidic and can kill beneficial bacteria.  Onion skins aren’t a problem.  You can neutralize the acid by adding lime to the pile but don’t do this without testing the pH of the pile.  See our article “Testing Garden Soil and How to Make Improvements.”

How to Mix the Materials

Now we must get into some math (sorry about that!).  A preferred ratio for mixing carbon and nitrogen materials is the “C:N ratio.”

At best, this ratio is 25 to 30 parts of carbon to 1 part of nitrogen (25-30:1).  Finished compost has a ratio of about 10 parts of carbon to 1 part of nitrogen (10:1).

When mixing, the composting process will be slow if there’s a high C N ratio (too much carbon).  The pile will produce too much nitrogen if the CN ratio is too low.  This will release ammonia (causing a horrible smell).

You don’t have to obsess too much about the C:N ratio since you can adjust your mixture by observation.  If decomposition is slow, add more green waste; if you’re getting a bad smell, add more browns.

How to Figure Out the Carbon Nitrogen (CN) Ratio

We’ll show you two ways to figure out compost ratios. If you like math, you can use the manual method we describe in our pdf document. You can download a free copy by clicking this button:

Click Here to Download

An easier way is to use our online Compost Ratio Calculator. Click on the link, and it’ll take you right to the page.

Here’s a Shortcut for Mixing the Materials

A good shortcut is for every container of browns, mix it with two containers of greens.  This is a ballpark mixture you can start with based on the ratios in the chart above.  The container size doesn’t matter; mix all your materials using the same one.

If your brown material is only wood waste (sawdust, woodchips, bark) or cardboard, you’ll need 5 or 6 containers of green waste for every container of brown.  Using only wood waste or cardboard for your browns isn’t recommended.

Now that the pile has a good mix, add some regular topsoil (equal to about 10% of the pile size).  This is because the topsoil already has the beneficial organisms we need to start the process. There are also starter mixes available online or at gardening stores.

Some Handy Items to Help With Composting

Compost Soil Thermometer by Greenco, Stainless Steel, Celsius and Fahrenheit Temperature Dial, 20 inch Stem
Compost Soil Thermometer by Greenco, Stainless Steel, Celsius and Fahrenheit Temperature Dial, 20 inch Stem
$22.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
Jobe's Organics Fast Acting Granular Fertilizer Compost Starter, Easy Plant Care Compost Accelerator, 4 lbs Bag
Jobe's Organics Fast Acting Granular Fertilizer Compost Starter, Easy Plant Care Compost Accelerator, 4 lbs Bag
$13.39
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
VNIMTI Garden Fork,4-Tine Spading Fork,Compost Fork,Steel Digging Fork,45Inch,Steel Y-Grip,Wooden Handel
VNIMTI Garden Fork,4-Tine Spading Fork,Compost Fork,Steel Digging Fork,45Inch,Steel Y-Grip,Wooden Handel
$35.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18

Composting Methods

There are two methods for composting:

1.  Cold composting

You use this method when you don’t turn the compost heap.  Aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition occurs when the pile is first formed.  Anaerobic (without oxygen) decomposition starts after the initial aerobic activity decreases.

This method takes the most time since it moves slower and at cooler temperatures.  It can take six months to a year to finish one pile.

The anaerobic activity causes the formation of methane and hydrogen sulfide gases.  These gases will cause unpleasant odors from your pile.  If this becomes a problem, you can turn your pile to restart some aerobic decomposition.

2.  Hot composting

This is when you turn your pile often to keep it aerated.  Turning maintains a high temperature inside the pile to cause faster decomposition.  When decomposition is active, the temperature inside the pile will be from 120o to 160o F.

Once decomposition slows down, the temperature will be about 104o F.  It takes 3 to 4 days for this to happen, which is the ideal time to turn the pile.  A handy compost thermometer will take the guesswork out of this.

Turning once a week or every two weeks causes slower decomposition (like cold composting).  The pile will finish in about three weeks when you turn the material every 3 or 4 days.

If the pile’s internal temperature exceeds 160o F, the pile is too hot.  The organisms will stop active decomposition, and the pile will be inert.  This happens when the weather is hot, or the pile is in direct sunlight.

Please note that any pile or bin open to the ground could attract rodents, raccoons, or pets.

Keep the Pile Moist

The correct moisture level is essential to keep the decomposition going well.  Your material should feel like a wrung-out sponge – moist but not soaking wet.  If it’s too dry, moisten it with a hose fitted with a spray head.

If the pile is too wet mix in some more browns to help absorb the excess water.

A compost pile getting filled.
Adding kitchen scraps to the compost bin

How to Start a Compost Bin

Once you have the materials, you could start the pile on the ground.  But most gardeners like to have the pile in a container or bin.  You can use any durable material to make a bin.

It can be as simple as a ring of chicken wire, four posts with a chicken wire fence attached, or even four pallets.  You want an enclosure 3 feet wide X 3 feet long X 3 feet high (or 4 X 4 X 4 when using pallets).

Let your imagination run. You could even buy pre-built bins.  If you have a bin that’s very heavy or anchored to the ground, you’ll need a way to open the bin.  This is necessary to turn the organic matter with a pitchfork or shovel.

Many bins are open at the bottom so they can lift off the pile and set down next to it.  Then, turn the pile by shoveling or forking it back into the bin.

Compost Bins

Greenes Fence Cedar Wood Composter, 48' L x 48' W x 31' H / 309.17 gallons - Made in USA with North American Cedar
Greenes Fence Cedar Wood Composter, 48" L x 48" W x 31" H / 309.17 gallons - Made in USA with North American Cedar
$193.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
F2C Garden Compost Bin from BPA Free Material -80 Gallon(300 L) Large Compost Bin Aerating Outdoor Compost Box Easy Assembling, Lightweight, Fast Creation of Fertile Soil, Black
F2C Garden Compost Bin from BPA Free Material -80 Gallon(300 L) Large Compost Bin Aerating Outdoor Compost Box Easy Assembling, Lightweight, Fast Creation of Fertile Soil, Black
$44.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18
Garden Wire Compost Bin 36x36x30 inches, Green, Garden Bed Fencing
Garden Wire Compost Bin 36x36x30 inches, Green, Garden Bed Fencing
$62.99
Buy on Amazon
2024-07-18

How to Start a Compost Tumbler

One of the advantages of growing your food is the workout it provides.  To avoid some of that workout, use a tumbler (also called a rotating bin) to turn the pile.

They’re the easiest and fastest way to compost at home since they cut the heavy lifting and allow you to turn the pile with ease.

Starting a tumbler at home uses the methods we discussed for making a compost pile.  One big difference is that rotating bins make it so easy to turn the compost.

You’ll only have to shovel when filling the bin or moving the pile after you dump it.  Many models are set up so you can put a wheelbarrow or bucket under the drum and dump the compost into it.

Besides easy handling, the tumbler is sealed so the organic matter stays warm to speed up the process.  The sealed tumbler also keeps the materials away from rodents, raccoons, and pets.

How to Use the Tumbler

Spin the tumbler 3 or 4 times, about twice a week, to keep the decomposition moving.  When using a tumbler, the compost can finish in 3 weeks.

Things that affect this time are the outside temperature and the C:N balance.  Wet weather with cold temperatures will increase the time it takes to finish.

A tumbler shouldn’t sit in direct sunlight because the heat might warp the plastic.  To prevent this, keep the tumbler in a shady area.

It’s good for the tumbler and also good for us when we’re working with it. If you’re ready to try a tumbler, see our article on  “The Best Rotating Compost Bins.”

Raw compost on the left and finished compost on the right. after using the cn ratio.
Raw compost materials on the left and finished compost on the right

When is Compost Ready to Use?

Once your pile has a nice brown color, consists of small particles, and no longer gets warm in the center, it must cure for a couple of weeks.

The bacteria that work during the hot phase of decomposition are thermophilic.  That means they’re “lovers of heat,” and their preferred range is 122o – 140o F (50o – 60o C).

These bacteria will die off when the pile temperature drops below 100o F.  At that point, the mesophilic bacteria take over (along with fungi).  Mesophilic means “lovers of the middle,” and their favored heat range is 77o – 104o F (25o – 40o C).

They’ll continue decomposition until the temperature drops below 70o F.  This phase is essential for breaking down cellulose and lignin.  Cellulose is a component of all plant cell walls (in various amounts), and lignin is the component that makes stems rigid.

When the pile is curing on the ground, it attracts earthworms and beetles.  These helpful creatures will improve it even more.  During this time, turn the pile every few days. To use the finished product, spread it on your garden soil if your plants are already growing.

You can mix it with the soil to prepare your garden for planting.  You can also mix it with potting soil if you’re doing container gardening.  A good mix is two parts potting soil to one part compost.

Final Thoughts

Composting is a critical process.  It keeps about 75% of your organic waste out of landfills and turns it into a material to improve your crops.  So, it turns waste material into something useful and saves money on fertilizer.  It sounds like a “win-win.”

Last update on 2024-07-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

This product presentation was made with AAWP plugin.

Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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