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Gardening 101: Make Your Own Compost

Earlier this month, Eren wrote a great article called Starting a Garden With Repurposed Materials, and she included a paragraph about compost.  However, a few readers have requested some more information about this gardener’s gold, so today we will look at the subject more thoroughly.

What is Compost?

A mixture of various decaying organic substances, such as dead leaves, kitchen scraps, or manure, compost is used for fertilizing soil.

What are the benefits of using compost?

According to Composting 101, the benefits of compost are numerous:
It builds good soil structure; enables soil to retain nutrients, water, and air; protects against drought; helps maintain a neutral pH, and protects plants from many diseases commonly found in the garden. It also feeds earthworms and other microbial life in the soil.
All of this adds up to healthier plants!  Whether you’re growing vegetables, fruits, herbs, or flowers, compost will dramatically improve the health of your soil and therefore the health of your plant, too, making it more nutritious (if edible!) and more beautiful.
In addition, home composting will save you money as a gardener, since you won’t have to purchase as many other soil conditioners.  And you will likely cut down on the amount of trash that your home generates.

Photo by Anne Norman

What Goes Into Compost?

Here’s what you can include in your compost:

  1. Kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit peelings, dried eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds. If your fruits or veggies went bad before they were eaten, the compost bin is a perfect place for them.
  2. Household items such as shredded newspapers and dryer lint can go into the compost bin, too.
  3. Lawn clippings, leaves, dead plants, bark, wood chips, straw, and/or hay are important ingredients in your compost.
  4. Manure from grass-eating (herbivore) animals, such as chickens, horses, and cows. (This is not necessary; however, if you can find a farmer or someone with horses that will let you haul away some manure, it will be wonderfully beneficial to your plants!)

Do not put these things into your compost:

• Bones, meat, wood ash, pet waste, fat, or dairy.
• Also, stay away from weeds – they might be ready to seed, in which case they could grow into new weeds.

What Do I Do With All of This Stuff?

• Set up a little bin or canister with a lid under your kitchen sink, or right next to it on the counter. Add your kitchen scraps to this until it is full.  Take a second to chop anything big and/or really firm into smaller chunks, about 2-3 inch diameter, before adding it to your container.

Photo by Steven Depolo

• Set up your main compost pile outside.  There are many options for setting up your compost pile, and what you choose depends on where you live, what kind of space you have, and how much you want to spend.  Here’s a quick run-down of the possibilities:

  1. Make a pile directly on the ground, without a container. This works if you live in an area where don’t have to worry about raccoons or neighbors who might be offended.  It’s free, and it’s easy to turn the pile.
  2. Photo by Joi Ito

  3. Build a compost bin.  You can use old pallets, wood and wire, or wire mesh. This is relatively cheap and easy.  The best size is about 3 x 3 x 3 feet.
  4. Use a trash can and drill holes in the sides and top. This is also pretty cheap and very easy.  It’s a little more difficult to turn the pile this way, though, but it’s possible;  this has been our primary method.
  5. Purchase a composting tumbler. These are pricey but oh, so lovely.  You just put in your composting materials and turn the tumbler from time to time.  Voila: compost.

Add your materials to the compost pile as you accumulate them, and make sure you turn it regularly, so the ingredients will mix together and oxygen will do its work in breaking them down.

Photo by greengardenvienna

Balancing the Contents of Your Compost

It’s important to have a good balance of materials in your compost.  Basically, you have two categories you need to consider:

  1. Greens (Nitrogen)

    • Greens include grass, fruits, veggies, plants, manure, and other kitchen scraps.
  2. Browns (Carbon)

    • Browns include leaves, bark, wood chips, and newspaper.

In general, you want to shoot for one part “green” to three parts “brown.” Brown leaves are usually more abundant in autumn, while green grass clippings are more plentiful in spring and summer.

It may take a little time for you to find the proper balance for your compost pile.  You can ask neighbors to save grass clippings and leaves, and your city may have a facility where large brush is converted into wood chips; get creative about resources!  However, plenty of people are able to make their own compost without needing to go to any of these extra lengths.

In the end, your compost will be ready to use when it is a dark, rich, slightly moist soil-like substance, having no bad odor, but instead smelling like you would imagine the scent of a forest floor.

Give it a try and you will discover that it making your own compost is much easier than it sounds.

Does making your own compost sound do-able? If you make your own already, what tips do you have for the rest of us?

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Stephanie P

    Thanks so much for the info!

    However, I live in a condo and only have a balcony…no backyard. Could you give some advice on composting for apartment/condo dwellers?

  2. Katie

    Stephanie, methods three and four would work for you on a balcony. Method 2 might work, too. You can just build your bin a little smaller so it fits on your balcony. The best choice might be #4 – you can buy all sizes of composting tumblers and a little one would work nicely.

    There is also worm composting indoors, which I know almost nothing about, but I bet some other readers do… readers? Can anyone share?

  3. Jeanne

    I started my compost bin last year. It’s so easy to maintain, and definitely cuts down on the amount of waste we generate!

    I recommend checking with your city/county waste department. Many municipalities offer free or subsidized compost bins to residents, and even offer classes or other educational resources to help you get started. I got a huge discount on my compost bin through the county.
    .-= Jeanne’s last blog: Vegan Raspberry Applesauce Muffins =-.

  4. Kara

    Good timing, Katie! I was planning on making my first compost bin this Sunday. 🙂
    And to answer your question, yes this does sound easy to do.

  5. Aimee

    Thanks for this Katie! I’m pointing my hubby in the direction of this post, as I’d like some bins in the new backyard soon. The snow is gone, so there is no time like the present.
    Very timely post, many thanks.
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: Balanced Meals for Kids: Not Until You Eat Your Vegetables =-.

  6. Kayla

    I am so happy you posted about this! I have had much curiosity about composting but never knew where to begin. You answered all my questions! Thank you! Thank you!

  7. Megan@SortaCrunchy

    So, if I built one like the one in the top picture, would I be able to just turn the entire bin over in order to do the turning?

    • Katie ~ Simple Organic

      Megan, I think that would be true…you would just want to make sure it’s sturdy enough to withstand that. A lot of people use shovels or spades to turn their piles but I think it is easier if you can just turn the container.

  8. Catie

    This was by FAR one of the easiest explanations on composting I’ve read! I picked up a book at the library a while ago and was totally exhausted after just reading it!!! I may actually try to do this whole composting thing after all! (I don’t have much of a green thumb, but I am going to try to start a garden this year.)

    I do have one question: If you don’t put your compost in a container, are there other animals that will come around to bother the compost? Our yard is totally fenced in, but I worry about varments! 🙂 (we also have a HUGE MOLE problem and don’t want to give them any reasons to stick around! I know they eat grubs, but still!) THANKS!!!
    .-= Catie’s last blog: Reading For The Weekend =-.

    • Eren

      Catie, I noticed Katie wasn’t able to get back to your question, so I thought I would chime in…I have my compost in a container in our back yard. Our yard is fenced in, but we have cats, racoons, rabbits, rats and mice around. We sometimes leave the lid off, but have never had any varmits in the compost. Well, I take that back…a mouse built a little den in the compost over the winter. I guess she thought it was a nice warm spot to be. But that is it!

  9. Bridgette

    You mentioned dryer lint, but we also include vacuum contents!

  10. Mylih

    we’re about to move to Manila and I’m looking for tips/ideas about urban composting… anyone been there, done that?

  11. Sandra Lee

    I am trying to turn a brown thumb green with fantastic raised beds I’ve inherited. But, I barely know where to start! I really appreciate being able to read the basics explained so clearly like this.
    .-= Sandra Lee’s last blog: Beating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome =-.

  12. Eren

    How did I miss this…great, great source of info.

  13. Jenn

    I have a question about how you maintain it through the winter? I live in Minnesota near the Canadian/South Dakota borders. We get LOTS of snow and sub zero temps during the winter. I would think the compost would freeze during our winter so would this be a spring/summer project or can I maintain an outdoor compost bin during the winter?

    Thanks for the simple explanation! It’s really helpful.
    .-= Jenn’s last blog: Frugal Front Porch is now Carbon Neutral =-.

  14. Beth Coetzee

    It’s important to note you don’t want to put anything that’s been cooked into your compost (a common misconception is that you can). If veg is cooked, it’s dead – it’s the breaking down of live matter that actually creates compost, so if it’s “dead” before you put it in, it won’t break down…it’ll rot.

    I have a patio tumbler and love it. Easy to turn and it’s on wheels so I can bring it to my beds to add it easily. Mine was about $100 and I asked for it for my birthday:)
    .-= Beth Coetzee’s last blog: Tending the Gardens =-.

  15. Chef Vanda

    Great post! Every week, I buy lots of organic fruits and vegetables, wash them carefully and then I prepare them for cooking. I pull off the ugly leaves, I remove the flesh from the rind, I cut off the ends, I remove the outer layers, etc. I use only the most tender and tastiest parts of the vegetables for my clients.

    This leaves a large pile of organic kitchen scraps that is perfect for composting, I’ve been saying I need to compost, for a long time. This year, I’ve joined a CSA with Sang Lee Farms and I expect to get large quantities of fruits and vegetables that will create piles of kitchen scraps for composting. Well this year, I’ve taken another step to be greener by purchasing a composter and setting it up behind my shed.
    Thanks for making it look so easy.
    Chef Vanda
    The Organic Personal Chef
    .-= Chef Vanda’s last blog: Make The Most Out Of Your Kitchen Trash =-.

  16. Intentionally Katie

    Do I need to start the compost empty or with a little soil? I have a bin, but figured it couldn’t start with egg shells and coffee grounds. Or can it…?

    BTW, we bought our compost bin for $5 from the City of Phoenix transfer station. They take old garbage cans, cut them down to size and drill holes and re-sell them. I was shocked that I got it so cheap with no work on my part!!! 🙂

    • Katie

      It should be fine to start empty, that’s what we’ve always done! That’s awesome about the City compost bin – very progressive! 🙂

  17. Growing Vegetables

    Very good compost guide. I sometimes bury my compost when I only have small quantities, to help reduce the odor. I need to invest in a compost tumbler.

  18. Whitney @ DIY Gardener Blog

    Great post, I really enjoyed reading this one and have shared it with my friends. I must say that the post was very well written, well informed, and overall a great read, thanks.

  19. GreenerGreener

    Great info on composting. I agree with you that compost tumblers are great. My favorite is the Tumbleweed. It works a lot like the homemade blue one you show in the pictures.

  20. chipped bark delivered

    Thanks for the idea that you are given.This will be my reference in making our own compost.

  21. chipped bark

    I have made my own compost. I put some earthworms to it so that it will be easily decayed. What do you think, is it effective?

  22. pt

    Will I have to wait for a while – i.e. not add any more browns or greens if I want to use my compost in the garden? How long will what I’m adding now (to my tumbler) take to break down and be added to my garden soil? thanks-loving this focus.

  23. Hogan30Patsy

    I had a dream to make my own firm, nevertheless I didn’t have enough amount of money to do it. Thank goodness my mate suggested to take the loan. Hence I used the sba loan and made real my desire.

  24. brenda

    i have heard that a product called rat something whitch you add to your compost bin could you enlighten me please.i am new to the internet don’t know my website .

  25. how to compost

    Great information. I will try this and make my first compost at home.

  26. Pam

    Thank you for the info! I inherited a beautiful garden and even a started compost bin with my new home, but being a newbie I already threw a bunch of weeds in there, some of which I’m pretty sure had seeds. I didn’t think about the fact that they could still sprout after the composting process! Is my current batch ruined? Is there something I can do? Thanks!

  27. Jennifer

    Feeling pretty lame, but somehow this doesn’t work for me.

    We drilled holes in a big plastic trash can and filled it up, alternating between kitchen scraps and leaves/yard waste. It never smelled yucky, and I expect that the warm Florida weather helped create some great soil at the bottom of the bin.

    But how do you know when it’s “done” and ready to use? How do you get it out of the bin without messing with the yucky layers on top? If you stir it up, doesn’t that interfere with the process?

    I’ve seen systems with 3 bins. They look more difficult to set up, but are they easier to use?

    When I say “we”, I mean my 10-yr-old son and myself. Right now, our kitchen scraps are mostly veggies I bought and we didn’t prepare before they went bad. Eventually, we hope to be eating yummy good foods from our garden and composting more plant scraps and fewer foods gone bad, but we will never have high volume.

    Thanks for your help!

  28. Lynn

    Hi .. I just started to make my own compost last month. When i turned my compost yesterday, i notice it grew sprout (look sort of like beansprout). Is it supposed to grew sprout like that? Did I do something wrong?
    Please advise. Thanks!!

  29. Natasha

    Hello, Katie. Really nice post about recycling!
    I’m living in Vancouver, Canada and I recently moved out of my old house and I had a huge concern about how to put all that trash away. To my luck, I found this trash removal in Vancouver, these guys really helped me to get rid of the big chunk of that trash. Thanks for your advises, I’ll definitely use them in the future!

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