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How to Compost at Home

Table of Contents

How to Compost at Home

Composting at home is a great way to eliminate wastes from landfills—and to make organic material that helps your plants grow. At-home composting can be done on a large or small scale. You can choose a method of home composting that works best for you.

What is Compost?

Compost is decomposed organic material that improves the soil and helps plants grow. To make compost, start with leaves, branches, grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and water. Bacteria and microorganisms break the organic material down into compost.

How do you compost at home? Composting can be done on a small or large scale, and it can be a quick or slow process, depending on the method that you use. Some popular methods are kitchen composting, large-scale composting and worm composting. Composting Supplies such as Compost Alive!® Compost Activator with Quick-Start™ and Encapsulated Compost Worms can speed up the process, while the Basic Worm Factory Worm Composting System and the Munchie 65-Gallon Compost Bin make starting the composting process easy. Some home owners and gardeners opt to make their own compost bin rather than buying one. The choice is yours.

Different Ways to Compost

Many people are reluctant to start composting or may say they don't know how to compost. Here's some information to get you started. Most gardeners choose hot composting, cold composting or vermicomposting. When selecting a method, consider:

  • How quickly you want to create compost
  • How much space you have
  • How much effort you want to put into composting

Cold composting is a low-effort method where leaves, branches, grass clippings, kitchen scraps and other organic material are dumped onto a pile or into a bin, and nature takes its course. Decomposition happens slowly.

Hot composting is a highly managed method where the decomposition happens quickly, sometimes in just a few months, and at a high heat that kills weeds and seeds. This method involves larger compost piles and turning the pile. It's more labor intensive.

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, uses earthworm digestion and aerobic decomposition to turn kitchen scraps into a rich, organic soil amendment. This is a great option for people with limited space.

What Can You Compost?

Some of the most common materials to compost are:

  • Dead leaves
  • Branches, twigs, wood chips and sawdust
  • Grass clippings
  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags
  • Eggshells and nut shells
  • Shredded newspaper and cardboard
  • Houseplants
  • Hay and straw

Items You Should Not Compost

When people complain about odors coming from their compost piles, it's often because they are composting the wrong items. Here are some things that should not be composted.

Dairy products, meat products, eggs, fats and grease: These can create odor problems and attract rodents and flies.

Diseased or insect-ridden plants: If the composting temperatures aren't high enough, then the diseases and insects might survive.

Pet wastes: Dog and cat feces may contain bacteria, viruses, pathogens and parasites.

Plants and yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides: These might kill composting organisms.

How to Start a Compost Pile

Want to know how to make compost? Start with "green" and "brown" materials. Green materials are wet, nitrogen-rich materials including grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps and coffee grounds. (Many people use the Ceramic Kitchen Compost Crock to collect coffee grounds, vegetable peelings and fruit scraps.) Brown materials are typically dry, carbon-rich materials including dead leaves, shredded newspapers, wood chips and branches. You'll also need water. You can either use a ready-made composting bin or tumbler, or you can build your own compost bin or pile. Here's how to start a compost pile.

Outdoor or Backyard

If you are starting a compost pile outdoors, follow these steps.

  • Choose a location. Most gardeners locate their piles in the corner of the garden where it's easy to add composting materials and water. Make sure the area drains well, as you don't want your compost pile sitting in water.
  • Add brown and green materials. You'll want up to three times more "brown" than green materials. Mix well. Note: If hot composting, make sure you're pile of material is at least three feet tall.
  • Water the pile. It should be damp, like a sponge, but not waterlogged.
  • Monitor and turn the pile. If you are hot composting, check the temperature. The center should be at least 110 degrees F. Stir or turn the pile if the temperature dips below the ideal. If hot composting, turn the pile more frequently.


If composting with a bin indoors, you need green and brown materials. You can use a 5-gallon bucket or plastic storage bin.

  • Make sure your bin as aeration holes.
  • Add a layer of soil, and then add a mixture of brown and green material. Because you don't want too much moisture, avoid food scraps that are really watery, like melon rinds. To speed up decomposition, chop up food scraps.
  • Turn the contents often. If the material seems too moist, add shredded newspapers or dry leaves.

How to Use Compost

Your compost is ready when it's no longer warm to the touch, is a rich dark color, smells like earth and crumbles. It should not have recognizable food content in it.

Compost has many uses. Some of the most common are:

  • Sprinkle compost on top of flower and vegetable beds
  • Mix compost into the soil before planting
  • Use compost as a mulch
  • Mix compost with potting soil
  • Make a compost tea to nourish your plants

Compost adds organic matter to the soil which can improve soil drainage and soil structure. It also feeds the soil, acting like a slow release fertilizer. For many gardeners, compost is one of many materials they use to improve the soil. Many other environmentally friendly soil amendments are available. To further reduce chemicals in the garden, many gardeners are use beneficial insects.

Expert Advice

It's easy to make your own super-premium plant food!

Q: I love your show, and your devotion to compost. Could you help us with some "Composting 101"? What should we include? Vegetable scraps, teabags, coffee grounds? And we never stir; should we? Also, I love mulching with fall leaves. Do you have a good suggestion for shredding them?

    ---Lorraine in Healdsburg, Northern California

We recently moved to this area and planted a garden this spring. We used Miracle-Gro once a week and ended up with lots of tomatoes and cucumbers, but also lots of bugs and weeds; and many of our plants didn't produce anything. I know we need to compost, but how do we begin? We have magnolia and oak leaves and lots of kitchen scraps. Do we put them in a wire bin, or just pile them on top of each other in a certain place?

    ----Toni in Woodville (East) Texas

Back in Michigan, I learned that mixing coffee grounds into the leaves in our basement window wells created an excellent and reliable source of fishing worms. Now we live in NJ, and I have been taking coffee grounds from the office to apply to my tomato garden. I figure increasing worm activity and soil acidity is not a bad thing. Do you agree?

    ---Gary in Browns Mills, NJ

A: Well, thanks you three; and all the others who've emailed recently to ask for simple, basic composting advice. And yes, that includes Coffee Ground Gary in New Joisey, who is indeed wrong to be dousing his tamatas with old grounds alone. By themselves, those grounds are simply a high-nitrogen fertilizer that will make plants grow big, but will not help them grow more fruits and flowers. Just the opposite in fact; too much nitrogen and you get big plants with few flowers.

By mixing those coffee grounds with decomposing leaves when you were back in Michigan, you were making high quality compost—which the worms colonized when it was finished. If you wish to maximize your earthworm action, simply shred up and store lots of leaves this fall and then mulch your tomatoes with those shredded leaves next Spring; earthworms LOVE to live under a shredded leaf mulch.

Those leaves are also what's missing in Lorraine's compost equation. As I explain in the brand new, just-published "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (Sterling publishers; available wherever books are sold; makes a great gift!), leaves are the most important part of a compost pile. In fact, leaves are the part of the pile that becomes the finished compost. Kitchen scraps, spent garden plants and such are simply food for the organisms that will turn those mineral and nutrient rich leaves into garden gold!

If all you do is shred up big batches of leaves and nothing but leaves and let them sit until the Spring they will become high-quality compost all on their own. That's right—without anything being added or mixed in. In warmer climes, most of that leaf pile will become compost by Spring. In moderate to cooler climes, the top will still be shredded leaves, but there should be a generous layer of rich black compost on the bottom, all ready to feed your plants and prevent disease. No muss, no fuss.

My favorite way to shred is with a leaf 'blower/vac' on its reverse setting. The built-in shredder in such a machine will reduce the volume by at least a factor of ten, allowing you to store lots of leaves for future mulching and compost making. Remember: These precious ingredients only 'fall' once a year but you'll need a big stockpile for season-long mulching and compost mixing. (And yes, those leaves must be shredded; whole leaves make a terrible mulch, and resist composting.)

But, of course, many people begin composting because they want to recycle their kitchen waste. Unlike shredded leaves, however, if you just pile up kitchen garbage, you'll end up with a pile of kitchen garbage. You need at least four parts well-shredded leaves to each part green waste to get good compost. If you are not willing to shred up lots of leaves, take the advice I offer in the brand new, just-published "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (Sterling publishers; available wherever books are sold; makes a great gift!), and use a worm bin instead. Those worms will gladly devour your scraps and give you high quality compost in return.

If you are willing to mix that waste in with your shredded leaves, however, you'll be able to make much larger amounts (And make good use of all those leaves!) Containing the raw ingredients in a wooden slatted bin with lots of airflow, a commercially made composter or big wire cage will move things along much more quickly. I use my tomato cages for this; they make great compost containers and will conveniently be empty by the time my tamatas are ready to be caged next Spring.

Any non-meat kitchen waste—yes, including eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags—can be used to make up the green portion of your pile; just remember to make sure there's four parts shredded leaves to each part green waste. The more you chop things up, the faster it will move along; same with mixing and turning. But as long as the vast majority of the pile is well-shredded leaves, it will become compost. And when you feed your plants that rich black compost instead of a nasty chemical fertilizer like Miracle-Gro, you'll have fewer pests, more productive plants and better tasting food.

As I explain in my brand new, just-published "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (Sterling publishers; available wherever books are sold; makes a great gift!), those are just the basics. To learn everything you could possibly want to know about the subject, pick up a copy of my brand new, just-published "Mike McGrath's Book of Compost" (Sterling publishers; available wherever books are sold).

Did I mention it makes a great gift?

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