Project Guide

How to Compost

Difficulty: BeginnerTime: Over 1 Day Print

Gardeners often call compost “black gold”. Compost is broken down organic matter that adds nutrients to soil and helps it retain moisture. Composting is an essential part of organic gardening and an environmentally friendly way to reduce waste in landfills. Read on to learn how to make compost using table scraps and yard waste. Find out about hot composting, types of composters and what not to compost.


  • Composters
  • Garden Forks
  • Shovel


  • Soil Amendments

1. What is Composting?

Composting is recycling plant and food waste into nutrient-rich garden soil. According to the EPA, up to 30% of garbage is actually food scraps and yard waste. When you make compost at home, you are actually reducing your carbon blueprint and reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfills. You’ll need four basic elements to make your own compost: the right organic material, water, oxygen and microorganisms that break down waste.

2. Keep a Pail

A compost pail sitting on a kitchen counter.

Collecting kitchen waste consistently is key to a good composting plan. Make things easy by keeping an indoor compost pail in the kitchen. You can also use a covered bowl, tray or good plastic tub. Empty it daily into your compost pile or bin. Here’s are kitchen scraps that are good for composting:

  • Fruit or vegetable peels
  • Potato skins, onion skins, corn husks
  • Coffee grounds, coffee filters, tea and used tea bags
  • Eggshells, nut shells, old pet food

Tip: Don’t try to compost meat, bones, fat or dairy products. They attract animals and take much longer to breakdown into usable soil. Never use diseased plants or pet waste.

3. Types of Composting

There are several types of composting methods you can try at home. You can buy a compost starter or make your own using straw or grass clippings. Three of the most common types of composting include pile composting, vermicomposting or container composting.

  • A compost pile is the most popular with homeowners. It doesn’t require a large amount of organic material or experience. Just remember to turn the pile frequently.
  • Vermicomposting uses worms to decompose the organic materials. This can happen naturally if you’re composting directly onto the ground or you can purchase worms if you’re using a compost container.
  • Container composting uses bins, sacks or tumber bins. Tumbler bins can be turned manually or may require electricity.

4. Compost Location and Size

Choose an isolated place for your composting pile or container. Pick a spot that won’t be disturbed much and you can get to easily. A back corner of a yard or the side of a garage may work. Partial shade is best. Keep in mind that composting is a process. Allow a larger enough location for several containers or piles. Once a composting project starts to break down, you’ll need room to start the process again with new organic materials.

Generally, if your compost bins or containers have a tightfitting lid, you shouldn’t have any issues with animals or unpleasant odors. Remove anything that can block the air slits in the container. Airflow is vital for good composting.

If you’re pile composting on the ground, make sure the spot is level and drains well. Compost should be moist but not soaking wet.  When making a pile, make sure it’s roughly three to five feet wide and no more than three feet high.

5. Hot Composting vs. Cold Composting

person sliding chopped vegetables off a cutting board into a compost pile

You can make your own compost using the “hot” method or the “cold” method. Breaking down organic matter is the work of fungi and microorganisms such as aerobic bacteria. This bacteria produces heat as it eats. The more heat that is produced, the faster the process. Using the hot composting method, you can reduce a fair amount of waste into compost in about a month.

When using the hot composting methos,  you’ll  need enough the right size pile or enough waste container to generate and maintain a temperature between 110 and 160 degrees. This temperature range rapidly decomposes, plus can kill weed seeds or plant diseases. The sweet spot for hot composting is around 140 degrees.

If you’re not in a hurry to use your compost, consider cold or passive composting. Cold composting rarely gets above 90 degrees. You don’t need any particular size pile or amount waste materials and you’ll get compost in about six months to a year.

6. Start with the Right Composter

You can make a compost pile on the ground, in a raised garden bed or in a composter. Composters come in different designs, materials and sizes. Here are some popular compost containers:

  • Tumbling compost bins are a low-maintenance solution. Put in common kitchen scraps like peels and eggshells and garden debris such as grass clippings. Turn the bin every few days. Or opt for a compost tumbler with an internal rotating bar that mixes the material.
  • A combination compost bin and rain barrel will solve two gardening needs. Collect and reuse rainwater in while composting organic matter.
  • A composting sack is an ideal small space solution. It’s quick, easy and portable.
  • A recycled plastic or wood compost bin has an open top that makes it easier to turn the pile with a pitchfork or shovel. Some have slits for air flow or locking lids to keep wildlife out.

7. Use Layers

The amount of green and brown material you have will yield roughly about half that amount of compost. For example, two pounds of organic material will produce about a pound of compost. How much you’ll need to compost will depend on your needs.

The best compost pile or container has the right mix of two components: nitrogen or green materials and carbon or brown materials. It’s recommended that you use a ratio of roughly 3 to 4 parts green material to 1 part brown. Green materials include kitchen waste, houseplants, grass and yard trimmings. Brown materials include shredded newspaper, paper, cardboard, dried leaves, untreated sawdust and wood chips. Layer the green and brown materials alternatively in the bin or pile. Start with a 75% green layer topped with a 25% percent brown layer. Lightly spray each layer with water.

Tip: A bad rotting odor can result from overwatering or over-compacting the compost. Make sure to turn your compost often and keep it moist but not wet.

8. Let Earthworms Work Their Magic

A pound of worms can consume almost a pound of green or brown organic waste a day. Earthworms will occur naturally in ground piles and do well when you add them to containers. Or you can use a worm bin. Called vermicomposting, using earthworms in your compost results in the added bonus of their castings. Vermicomposting can especially speed up the cold composting process since worms work best at 60 to 75 degrees. If you’re encouraging worm activity, your compost shouldn’t get hotter than that. Make sure to cut everything into small pieces. Grind any eggshells before adding them to the composter. Avoid adding orange or lemon peels.

9. Composting Facts

Food scraps being added directly to garden soil.

  • Creating compost for your garden or landscape beds improves the soil and fuels healthy growth.
  • Compost improves drainage and helps stop erosion.
  • Compost aerates the soil which is especially beneficial for clay or heavy soil.
  • Organic compost naturally feeds plant roots slowly for best results.
  • Making your own compost reduces your carbon footprint and reduces the need for landfills.

Knowing how to make your own compost is an ideal way to grow healthier plants. Nutrient-rich, compost is made from a mix of green organic waste such as vegetable peelings, grass clippings, and brown waste such as wood chips or cardboard. There are several methods for making compost including using earthworms. You can use a compost container or make a pile right on the ground. If you’d like to compost but don’t have the yard or the space, some cities offer drop off options for community composting. Ready to order your compost bin or tools? The Home Depot delivers online orders where and when you need them.