Making Compost – The Basics

Compost can range from passive – allowing the materials to sit and rot on their own – to highly managed. Whenever you intervene in the process, you’re managing the compost. How you compost is determined by your goal. If you’re eager to produce as much compost as possible to use regularly in your garden, you may opt for a more hands-on method of composting. If your goal is to dispose of yard waste, a passive method is your answer.

Passive Composting

Passive composting involves the least amount of time and energy on your part. This is done by collecting organic materials in a freestanding pile. It might take a long time (a year or two), but eventually organic materials in any type of a pile will break down into finished compost. More attractive than a big pile of materials sitting in your yard is a 3-sided enclosure made of fencing, wire, or concrete blocks, which keeps the pile neater and less unsightly. Add grass clippings, leaves, and kitchen scraps (always cover these with 8″ of other material). The pile will shrink quickly as the materials compress and decompose. Wait a year or two before checking the bottom of the bin for finished compost. When it’s ready, shovel the bottom section into a wheelbarrow and add it to your garden beds. Continue to add greens and browns to have a good supply of finished compost at the ready. After the first few years, most simple piles produce a few cubic feet of finished compost yearly.

Managed Composting

Managed composting involves active participation, ranging from turning the pile occasionally to a major commitment of time and energy. If you use all the techniques of managing the pile, you can get finished compost in 3-4 weeks. Choose the techniques that reflect how much you want to intervene in the decomposition process and that will be a function of how fast you want to produce compost.

The speed with which you produce finished compost will be determined by how you collect materials, whether you chop them up, how you mix them together, and so on. Achieving a good balance of carbon and nitrogen is easier if you build the pile all at once. Layering is traditional, but mixing the materials works as well.

Shredded organic materials heat up rapidly, decompose quickly, and produce a uniform compost. The decomposition rate increases with the size of the composting materials. If you want the pile to decay faster, chop up large fibrous materials.

You can add new materials on an ongoing basis to an already established pile. Most single-bin gardeners build an initial pile and add more ingredients on top as they become available.

The temperature of the managed pile is important – it indicates the activity of the decomposition process. The easiest way to track the temperature inside the pile is by feeling it. If it is warm or hot, everything is fine. If it is the same temperature as the outside air, the microbial activity has slowed down and you need to add more nitrogen (green) materials such as grass clippings, kitchen waste, or manure.

Use a compost thermometer to easily see how well your compost is doing. They are inexpensive, and quite convenient to have.

If the pile becomes too dry, the decay process will slow down. Organic waste needs water to decompose. The rule of thumb is to keep the pile as moist as a wrung-out sponge.

If you’re building your pile with very wet materials, mix them with dry materials as you build. If all the material is very dry, soak it with a hose as you build. Whenever you turn the pile, check it for moisture and add water as necessary.

Too much water is just as detrimental as the lack of water. In an overly wet pile, water replaces the air, creating an anaerobic environment, slowing decomposition.

Air circulation is an important element in a compost pile. Most of the organisms that decompose organic matter are aerobic – they need air to survive. There are several ways to keep your pile breathing. Try not to use materials that are easily compacted such as ashes or sawdust, without mixing them with a coarser material 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.

A more labor-intensive way to re-oxygenate the pile is to turn the pile by hand, using a large garden or compost fork. The simplest way is to move the material from the pile and restack it alongside. A multiple-bin system makes this efficient, in that you only handle the material once. Otherwise, you can put the material back into the same pile. The object is to end up with the material that was on the outside of the original pile, resting in the middle of the restacked pile. This procedure aerates the pile and will promote uniform decomposition.

The following information is for the highly managed pile and the optimum finished compost in the shortest amount of time. Decomposition occurs most efficiently when the temperature inside the pile is between 104 degrees F and 131 degrees F. Compost thermometers are available at garden shops and nurseries. It is best not to turn the pile while it is between these temperatures, but rather when the temperature is below 104 degrees F or above 131 degrees F. This keeps the pile operating at its peak. Most disease pathogens die when exposed to 131 degrees for 10-15 minutes, though some weed seeds are killed only when they’re heated to between 140 degrees and 150 degrees. If weed seeds are a problem, let the pile reach 150 degrees during the first heating period, then drop back down to the original temperature range. Maintaining temperatures above 131 degrees can kill the decomposing microbes.

101 thoughts on “Making Compost – The Basics”

  1. I have some earth worms in my compost . Is that a good signal . I try yo turn it a few times a week ,and it looks good to me but I may be wrong . Thanks Paul .

    1. @Paul

      Yes, earth worms are a great sign; they will come and go and will enrich the compost as they process it.

      Good work!

    2. Worms dont like temperatures too hot. So if you see them, it means that the pile is not as hot as it should be. Of course if you are waiting for your compost to mature, worms might come in during this time, but if you have started out the pile and still have big chunks of waste, worms are a sign that your pile is sub-optimal.

  2. How long should equine manure age before i add it to my compost pile? I brought some home tonight hot from my horse. thx!

    1. @donna rink, Technically you can add it immediately however I would wait for it to dry out a little to make it easier to handle.

  3. I am moving to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, tropical spot with humidity, and suggestions for maintaning a good compost in this area.

    1. @Ellie, Sorry I we are not directly familiar with that area however I imagine composting there will be similar to other warm areas. I think keeping the basic will do fine, then adjust as you learn what works and what doesn’t. Keep a good mix of brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen), keep it moist as a well rung out sponge, and mix once a week. I try to keep a 3 to 1 mix, 3 parts brown to 1 part green.
      Good luck and have fun with it!

  4. Paul ;
    Earthworms in your compost is great. They add their own fertilizer after chewing through the leaves and greens. Keep the pile loose and well aireated. Not to mention Fish bait when its time to relax.

  5. I am very new a the compost thing, so I will need all the help I can get, like can I put cooked veggies, (corn, peas and/or green beans in ? and some one told me to add organic potting soil and stear manuor in there as well. Please advise A.S.A.P. as I would like to get mygarden going soon and I live in Az. so the weather can be fun to play with. Sorry I am not a good speller but I think you can get my drift. Thankyou. And any other imfo will be helpful.

    1. @paula, Yes, cooked veggies are fine, just no meat, bones or dairy. Egg shells are good, but crush them up before adding them. Adding cow manure is a good source of nitrogen, but since organic potting soil is not cheap I would just add it direct to the garden, it will not hurt the compost though.

  6. We received a compost bin for Christmas and started it shortly thereafter. We live in Southern OH and it is very cold here right now. I have seen minimal decomposition. Is this normal?

    1. @Jenny, Composting in the winter can be slow going but possible. Keep a good mix of browns and greens, mix it every week or two and keep it moist as a well wrung out sponge. Once spring hits it will really start going.

    1. @Glen, Yes, you can add ash from your wood buring fire place. Fire place ash is a good source of carbon.

    2. Ash is also a good source of calcium, potassium and phosphorous. ( which is why I use it. But since it is not “living” and is made of salts and oxides, dont add so much that it will make a significant fraction of your pile. It will absorb heat, and is not a significant source of nutrition for micro-flora. I think of it as adding it for the benefit of the plants at the end.

  7. Can you purchase worms to add to the compost to help speed up the process or is it just best to add some from the garden? Also, we have an enclosed static compost and the flies when you open the lid are unbearable, even if you leave it a few seconds before tipping waste in they are still all over you, what can we do to ease this? Most of our compost is kitchen waste, would adding grass etc help with flies?

    1. @Nicole Eaton, If you are interested in worm composting, known as vermicomposting, you should have a designated bin. A plastic storage bin with holes drilled in it will work, add an second bin (nested) below to catch the liquids. Adding worms to you standard bin will likely kill them depending on how hot your compost bin gets. The flies in your compost bin are likely fruit flies caused by too many greens (nitrogen). I suggest adding dried grass clipping, dried shredded leaves, or shredded newspaper. Carbon should make up the bulk of your compost pile at a ratio of 3 to 1. Make sure the kitchen scraps or greens are mixed in deep within the browns; this will help with the flies. If you don’t think you have a large enough source of browns then vermicomposting is something you should consider.

    1. @Sheri, Yes you can, but why would you? Should you, no, it will likely stink! If you do, keep it to a minimum, maybe no more than 6 to 8 ounces.

  8. I have many dandilions and other weeds in my grass. Will these weeds cause any problems when I add my grass clippings to my compost? Also when I weed in the spring is it bad to add them to my compost? I also have pine branches that I was going to put to the curb, should I put them in the compost?

    1. trisha, The dandelion flower will not hurt but the white headed seed or seed florets is probably a bad idea to add. If your compost gets above 140 degrees it will likely kill them but no need to take the chance on such an invasive plant as the dandelion. As for the pine branches I would nix those as well. While they will break down they will take much longer than any other item regularly found in your compost.

    1. @Jaye, Yes, you can add dog hair to your compost pile, but keep in mind it may take a while to break down.

  9. My husband has a compost started with raw vegetable leftovers and dirt with yard clippings in a large bucket outside. We are in Houston, Texas with lots of humidity, all of a sudden his pile is inundated with maggots. any suggestions, please. Thank you.

    1. @Strobe, You need a mix of both browns and greens (carbons and nitrogen) at this point it sounds like you just have greens or at least a majority of greens. Try mixing the kitchen waste deep within the browns. Also, you need to make sure it’s well aerated (mixed) with plenty of air holes in the container, both sides and bottom. Try to do a mix of 2/3 browns to 1/3 greens.

  10. I discovered ants in my compost container. How bad is that and how does one go about getting rid of them?

    1. @Green Man, Unless they’re fire ants I would not worry too much. Ants will actually help aerate your pile. To get rid of them, keep it well aerated, like mixing it every day for a few weeks, you will likely see that they find another home.

  11. My daughter is in her first season of composting. It’s been going really well until about four days ago when she saw hundreds of maggots – both tiny ones and very large fat ones – at the top of the bin. She usually freezes her kitchen scraps before adding them but noticed that some of her scraps added last week were quite moldy. Does she need to shovel off the top bunch of layers to remove them before resuming what had been a great compost bin?

    1. Michelli, The maggots will not hurt anything, but yes you can shovel them off and dispose of them. Make sure she is not adding and breads and bury the kitchen scraps deep within the pile. Keep mixing it regularly and keep it moist.

  12. Hi Steve. Our office is thinking of starting a composting bin. In an effort to cut down on trash, I want to know if we can compost food soiled paper products such as paper plates, paper towels, napkins and take out containers (the paper ones).

    1. @Leah, Yes, you can however these types of items may have a film or coating that may slow the decomposition process. Shredding it will help but may not be too practical. Also, you will need greens (nitrogen) to balance the bin. Having all carbon (browns/paper) will take a much great amount of time. Keep it moist and make sure it’s aerated. Good Luck!

  13. I just bought a compost bin from Sams Club and know only what I have read above. What ingredients should I start my compost bin with….and how much?

    1. @Vicki Kane, Start with browns and green, a majority or 2/3 should be browns. Here is a list of browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen).
      Remember, no meat or dairy with the exception of egg shells. If you have coffee grounds you can throw in the filter as well. Coffee grounds is a great source of nitrogen.

    1. @Sue Thacker, Yes, you can use them before composting them, however I would add them to the compost then use the compost around the plants.

  14. I don’t have a lot of brown material available to me so I’ve mostly been using shredded newspaper and matchsticks, but I was recently able to acquire some free compost that is still hot and cooking. Can I use that compost as a source of brown or carbon material to mix in with my veggie scraps?

  15. I want to start composting in my school and this website helped me get more data and info. Thank you website. I really hope my idea works in my school.
    – Alexandra

    1. @Alexandra, Vermicomposting may be one option to suggest as well. Since the worms have an active roll it makes composting a little more interesting. Good Luck!

  16. Hi, we have hundreds of what I would call slaters (grey small with lots of legs, but they dont roll up when touched) in our compost, we only put in kitchen scraps and garden rubbish in the compost, is there anything we can do to get rid of these guys ?????

    1. @Selina, Slaters are also known as woodlice, sowbugs or pill bugs, and they are not harmful, and actually they are beneficial insects. There are different varities so I would just leave them alone. Keep your compost well aerated (mixed) and this will typically run off any insects that don’t belong.

  17. I have a question about the new compost program being started in the city of Portland, OR. We are being instructed to put our food wastes, including “pizza boxes”, into our yard debris for recycling by the city.
    My concern is that food packaging from a wide variety of sources will be included in this mix. If it is not appropriate to, for instance, burn
    packaging with colored ink, coatings, etc, in a wood stove, at a higher temperature than that achieved in a compost process, how does composting render that material suitable to be used on home or commercial gardens?

  18. I am looking into starting a compost bin at my work, and this website is a helpful start! If we are adding to it possibly multiple times every week, do we need to stir everything each time? Or just the top material? I just wonder if adding new material to a bin that already contains ready-to-use compost will change the consistency and make it unusable.

    Also, do you have any suggestions on bins to collect waste throughout the office that won’t create too much of an odor if not collected immediately? If I am the only one actively adding to the main bin it may be difficult for me to empty the “transfer” bins often enough. Thanks so much for your help!

    1. @Erica, You do not need to mix the compost each time you add new material, maybe every three days or once a week. As for collecting the material and controlling the odor, unless you can get trash cans with lids your best bet it enlisting more help to keep the bins emptied as often as possible. Good Luck!

  19. I’m doing a research project on hoop houses being created for an organization, and this site was so informative on compost that now I want to start one myself! And the comments/replies were just as helpful as well. Thanks for creating this site! 🙂

  20. I started a compost bin in October and now it’s Jan. in Pennsylvania. I turn the compost weekly, anything else I should be doing ? Will it be ready in April even though there is a considerable lack of heat over this time period ?

    1. @angie, A compost thermometer would be helpful, you need to be sure your compost is getting hot before turning it. Also, make sure it stays moist; if your compost is not as a moist as a well wrung out sponge add some water. Also, make sure you have a good mix of carbon material and nitrogen, with a majority of it being nitrogen, a 3 to 1 mix is good, but does not need to be exact.

    1. @Dean, It’s possible your compost will attract rats if you already have some in the area. It really depends on what type of bin you have to know if it will be a problem. If you have a sealed composter with small air holes it will likely not be a problem, but large holes may. Make sure you bury your food scraps deep within the content and that will help.

  21. We have lots of fruit flies in our compost. Is this normal? Is there a way to get rid of them? When we open the lid they come out by the 100’s!!!

    1. @Becky, Make sure you bury kitchen scraps, especially fruit scraps deep within your compost pile or compost bin. This will help reduce them. They’re a nuisance but don’t hurt anything, if you rotate or mix it regularly it will help.

  22. Hi
    I’m starting composting in a recently built bin. I live in Mid-Indiana. Do I need to wait til the temp. in the compost pile reaches 105F before I start turning it?

    1. @William Lee Sr., Assuming your compost pile has a good mix of browns and greens and is moist, wait two to three weeks then check your compost temperature. If it has not reached 100 degrees give or take 5, give it a good mix and add some nitrogen, if you have coffee grounds those work well. Most coffee shops give them out for free. Then mix it weekly unless it does not get above 90 degrees, and if less add more nitrogen.

  23. I am looking to start composting for my house of college boys and we live in Washington state and it is very moist so there is not a lot of leaves or dried anything. I was thinking about all of the cardboard and egg containers that we recycle, because I don’t know what else I would use for the main base of my carbon. Does the ink in these affect the compost because they aren’t organic?

    1. @Kevin, The ink is very insignificant considering it will just go in a landfill if you do not compost them, I say compost them! If possible shred them.

      1. @ Kevin, I live in Washington state as well (Edmonds area). Unless you have a LOT of cardboard I would use needles. I use pine needles as my source of carbon. They dont have to be completely dried out. But only use fallen needles, dont go off scraping trees 🙂 Keeping a 2:1 ratio of carbon is optimal. Good Luck

  24. i posted a question earlier & later found the answer. now,my new compost consists of all of my dirt from my hanging baskets(which i recycle year after year)kitchen scrapes,some newspaper & now lint.i have 2 new spin bins & am really excited to see what they produce. but,i dont see on here anywhere that it says you can put dirt in your compost? isnt that why were composting? potting soil is very expensive & thats why i decided to start composting,plus its fun!

    1. @meg, Yes, you can put potting soil in the compost bin but very little, your composter is really designed for kitchen scraps, leaves and grass trimmings, not dirt. Yes, newspaper and lint are good to add to your compost bin, as well as cardboard and ash from your fire place. Adding to much can overload and will make it difficult to turn.

  25. I’m starting my first ever garden in the spring and heard about sheet composting. Do you have any information on this? I’m specifically interested in how to store day to day green items (i.e. freezer? garage?). I searched your site and couldn’t find anything, but I very easily could have missed something! Your site is very informative and is hands down the best site I have seen for composting info.

  26. Do rats in the compost make it unusable? Shall I open the bin and dig in the black mess resulting from the presence of rats or what shall I do with it?

    1. @Nova, No, would not call it unusable, it should be fine. And no, I would not dig in it there is likely rat crap it there. Just finish the batch and add it to your lawn, shrubs or garden.

  27. This is my first time trying to compost. I live only a few blocks from The gulf of Mexico and I have noticed that my pile is accumulating palmetto bugs ( or giant roaches). Do you have any advice for getting rid of these hiddeous bugs, and how will it affect my compost use?

    1. @nicole, Is you compost in a pile, a bin, or tumbler style composter? If a pile or compost bin you can try sprinkling some diatomaceous earth around the pile or bin. If a tumbler style compost bin try turning it frequently, it will likely cause them to find another home.

    1. @STEVIE LANDON, Yes you can compost nut shells, however they will take much longer than average to break down. If possible try to break them up as much as possible.

  28. I noticed that a fat little field mouse visits my compost bin at night and now I’m afraid to use my finished compost in the vegetable garden. Is it safe to use? Also, do you know of a website showing how to make a screen to sift the finished compost? I didn’t see any info on this.

    1. @Rhonda, Yes, your little fat mouse shouldn’t cause any problems to keep you from using the finished compost, but keep in mind, that little fat mouse is going to soon turn into numerous fat little mice. I suggest a live animal trap and releasing him out in a field or park. As for a screen, no I don’t have a site, but they are simple enough to make. Buy some mesh screen the size of holes you want, and staple it to a wooden frame. You can use 2 x 2 inch studs, cut them to size and screw them together like a picture frame. You should be able to get all the supplies at a local feed and hardware store.

      1. Rhonda, my husband made me a nifty compost sifter out of hardware cloth (holes about a third of an inch) and used pvc pipe (1 inch) for the frame with handles on both sides also fashioned from the pipe and fittings. It works great, is easy to handle and is about 1’x2′ by 1′ deep.

  29. I have leaves from around my pool filter that have gotten a good coating of diatomaceous earth . Will adding them to my compost pile have any negative effect?

    1. @Dominic, It should be fine to use the leaves from your pool that have diatomaceous earth. The diatomaceous earth will likely kill the larger insects but not harm the microscopic sized organisms that break down the compost.

  30. I have four pallets and want to staple chicken wire around them. Can I use that as a compost bin? It will give lots of ventilation. I am am going to used brown grass, green grass and leaves as well as kitchen scraps and stir it once a week. Will that work? Thanks. Reply

    1. @claudette, Yes pallets with chicken wire make great composters. You may want to consider covering the top with a tarp to help keep the heat in. Keep the front open and just slide a pallet back and forth giving yourself an area to get in there to mix it.

  31. I have been composting for a couple of years now and haven’t really produced a batch of compost. I am combining vegetable/fruit kitchen waste with shredded white paper (household bills, etc) at approximately 4:1 ratio. I see slugs and worms and feel heat coming from the pile, but it’s a very slow process and sometimes it look watery and smells “off”. What am I doing wrong?

    1. @Nicole, It sounds like you need more browns (carbon). Look for some leaves, newspaper, etc and if possible shred it before adding it to your unfinished compost. Make sure you don’t over water; it should be as moist as a well rung out sponge. Composting does take time so be patient, on average it should take 3 to 4 months for it to completely break down.

  32. I have one 3X3X3 plastic compost bin, now about half full of ready to use compost. There are little doors at the bottom where I could take compost out, but if I keep adding more greens and browns to the top, won’t I risk mixing it in with the finished compost when I turn it? Should I empty it and either use or store the finished compost, and then start a new pile? Or is it best to just get another compost bin?

    1. @Bob

      I have a bin like that, and I just keep adding to the top, and keep pulling out from the bottom with a trowel. It works pretty well. If I happen to get a little bit of material that doesn’t look finished when I pull out a scoop, I just flip that part back into the top. Two compost bins is a perfectly acceptable solution too, but not necessary, in my opinion.

    1. @jen burkett, Yes, charcoal ash from your grill are a great source of carbon and will do well in your compost bin.

  33. I keep rats to feed pet snakes. I use pine shavings for their bedding. Would it be good or bad to put the used bedding in the compost pile for the dry ingredients. I know you can use manure but the rats feed on dry dog food so I don’t know if their droppings are appropriate. Would be a great way to get rid of the used bedding.

      1. Thank you Steve. One more question. Can you put left over bread in a compost pile? We never finish a loaf of bread and sometimes never even open a loaf before it get stale.

  34. I just wanted to say thank yall for all the comments!! this is the BEST sight I have been able to find valuble information about composting, I have learned so much just from reading the comments and replies and have been able to finally know where to start for our compost pile! The only question I have is how/ where can I find an inexpensive composting bin or something to put the compost pile in? right now we are just using a large bucket and from what Ive read Im afraid thats not the best idea for the compost. Thank you!

  35. I have a couple wheelbarrow loads of dirt from a project and my husband wants me to add it to the compost bin (three compartment, made of railroad ties and metal roofing). He’s already added some dirt. How much, if any, is too much?

  36. I have my compost ready too use. but I found there are too many climing living creatures in it. They are white and fat body – some big size like my little finger. And so many many babies from the big fat guy, I dare not to use on my garden. Please someone can help me to deal with them.

  37. Now I knew the big fat climbing creatures might be maggots (from reading comments above). I have never seen them that big before.
    Will they eat my vegetables or hurt my flower plant if I use the compost in my garden? Please help! Thanks

    1. @Marian, There are both beneficial and non beneficial bugs in your compost so not seeing the actual bug I can’t tell you if it will be a problem in your garden or not. Most likely it will not be a problem.

  38. Hi, I had my compost in a plastic bin and the animals (probably squirrels or moles) chewed a hole and I more compost on outside of the bin than the inside. I switched to a metal waste barrell with a tight cover. The compast is breaking down well but I don’t have any type of air ventilation. Should I drill holes in the cover? Also, my daughter dumped a bunch of clam shells after dinner one night but they are not crushed up. Can I just leave them? They are way down in the compost by now. THank you!

    1. @Michelle, Yes, you need air for it to break down properly. Get a drill and drill holes in the sides, bottom and top. The shells will break down in 1 to 10 yrs unless crushed.

  39. hi i am pretty new to gardening & my plastic compost bin is full of beatles & lice i use a mix of kitchen leftovers & grass, are these bugs harmful if i just leave them in compost when i add to my garden bed, mike in brisbane.

    1. @mike, Yes you will likely spread the lice and beetles when you use your finished compost in your garden, I suggest trying cedar oil. Its natural fragrance should drive the lice away and possible the beetles. If you use a sieve (screen) on your finished compost before you add it to your compost you might be able to pull some or most of those beetles out.

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