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How to Make Compost

Updated on August 2, 2012

Making Compost

This page is about how to make compost, including information about the composting process, materials to compost, composting with leaves, and types of compost tumblers and bins.

It also includes information about how to build your own compost tumblers and bins.

Making your own compost has many benefits. First, you'll save the cost of buying compost for your garden.

Also, it's a great way to recycle leaves, kitchen scraps, and yard waste. You'll help the environment by making good use of these materials, instead of having them hauled away.

And, finally, there's something indefinable about participating in the process of making compost and then using it in your garden to grow vegetables that you eat - or flowers that you enjoy. That "something" has to do with being a part of a natural cycle.

Photo © Jack Schiffer |

The Composting Process

To make compost, you need organic material plus microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) and other small creatures that will break down that material.

The type of organic material needed will be detailed below. We'll focus now on those little microbes that work so hard to make the compost for us.

If you want to get the best compost the most quickly, you'll need to keep the microbes happy. The three elements that make them happy are: the right amount of moisture, enough oxygen, and the right types of food.

Keeping compost pile moist
Keeping compost pile moist

Composting and Moisture

Your compost pile should be damp, but not too wet. It should be about as wet as a moist sponge.

If the rain doesn't provide enough moisture, you'll need to add some water to your compost pile - using a watering can or hose.

If there's too much rain, you'll want to add some organic material to reduce the wetness.

During dry spells, you'll probably want to sprinkle some water on each layer of material you add to the compost pile.

Composting and Oxygen

The organisms that make compost need oxygen in order to survive.

In order to provide this oxygen, you should turn your compost pile or use a compost aerator, which is basically a stick that you push into the pile to open passages for the air to enter.

If you're using a compost tumbler, then you'll just need to turn the tumbler itself.

Turning or aerating should be done at least every 3 to 5 days. Turning the compost pile more often will hasten the decomposing process.

Also, adding some coarser materials - such as wood chips or coarse straw - will allow more air to enter the pile.

Kitchen Scraps
Kitchen Scraps

Materials to Compost

To survive, the microorganisms in your compost bin need both carbon and nitrogen.

Carbon is supplied by "brown" ingredients such as leaves and straw. Nitrogen comes from "green" ingredients such as grass clippings and kitchen waste.

Green ingredients are usually moist and fresh materials. Brown ingredients are apt to be older, dryer materials.

The suggested ratio of browns to greens in your compost bin is 25 to 1 - that is, you want 25 times more browns than greens.

What Not to Compost

Do not compost:

- any type of meat or bones

- diseased plants

- weeds that have gone to seed

- cooking oil or fatty foods

- dairy products

- pet waste

Examples of Carbon-rich Materials (Browns)

  • Leaves

  • Oat or wheat straw

  • Pine needles

  • Sawdust

  • Dry tomato stalks (assuming your tomato plants were disease-free)

  • Dried potato vines (assuming your tomato plants were disease-free)

  • Dried pea and bean vines

Examples of Nitrogen-rich Materials (Greens)

  • Grass clippings

  • Kitchen scraps, such as parings or leftover greens

  • Manure

  • Weeds

  • Hair

  • Banana skins

  • Coffee grounds

  • Tea bags and tea leaves

  • Blood meal

  • Alfalfa meal

TIP: If you live in an area where bears are present, avoid adding apple peels or other fruit to your compost bin or pile. The fruit attracts bears and, while I very much like bears, I don't want them tearing up my compost bin.

Leaves to compost
Leaves to compost

Composting Leaves

Leaves are an easily-obtained source of carbon-rich material for your compost pile or bin.

For composting, it's better to use leaves gathered freshly in the fall than to use leaves that have been on the ground over the winter.

As the leaves get older, they lose their nitrogen content. Also, when leaves are drier, they don't decompose as easily.

If you add leaves to your compost pile as is, they tend to pack down and resist decay. A better solution is to shred your leaves.

This shredding can be done by running your lawn mower over the leaves or by using a leaf shredder.

I use a leaf shredder and it works really well. You end up with finely shredded leaves that decompose much more quickly than whole leaves. And the shredded leaves can also be used as mulch in the garden.

Composting and Heat

If you've got the right ingredients and the right amount of moisture and oxygen in your compost pile or bin, it will begin to heat up.

As it heats up, the decomposition process will speed up. The heat will also kill any harmful pathogens and weed seeds.

It's useful to monitor the temperature in your compost bin with a compost thermometer. When the temperature begins to cool, you'll know it's time to turn or aerate the pile.

Compost Bin
Compost Bin

Compost Tumblers and Bins

You can make compost in a pile, with no structure around it. But many people like to use some sort of container - for example a compost tumbler or bin.

Compost tumblers are round drum-shaped containers that are designed to be turned on a periodic basis in order to speed up the process of making compost.

Composting bins come in various shapes and sizes, from a simple wire structure to more elaborate wooden enclosures.

Building a Compost Bin

If you choose not to purchase a compost tumbler or bin, you can build your own compost bin.

The resources below include directions for building many types of bins - from wire mesh bins to New Zealand boxes to garbage can bins.

Making a Compost Bin

This video describes how to make a simple compost bin from chicken wire.

Making a Compost Tumbler

Describes how to build a compost tumbler from a used pickle barrel (or other food-grade barrel).

Image Credits

Intro: © Jack Schiffer |

Composting and Moisture: © Jackie Egginton |

Materials to Compost: © Piotr Kozikowski |

Composting Leaves: © Vitaly Titov |

Building a Compost Bin: © Franz Pfluegl | Big Stock Photo

These photos are being used under a royalty free license. The original copyright belongs to the photographers and/or agencies listed above.

Please share your thoughts on making compost or on this article.

Thanks for stopping by!

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    • profile image

      marsha32 5 years ago

      I am having a terrible time 2 years in a row now getting my compost pile to compost. I see some helpful tips here that I must try.

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 5 years ago from Connecticut

      I agree with Andy: your pages are always so informative with great photos. Another well crafted and informative lens!

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      @DiscoverWithAndy: Thanks for your kind words! Yes, it's hard to find an appropriate composter when you live in a condo. You'll likely get more compost from a tumbler than from worm bins (unless you have a *lot* of them).

    • DiscoverWithAndy profile image

      DiscoverWithAndy 5 years ago

      Flicker, I always seem to love your lenses. Another great job with this one. We're hoping to start composting soon, but we still have some unanswered questions. Also, we're still undecided if vermicomposting or a tumbler would work best for a condo with a shared basement. Ugh, sometimes life would just be easier in the country (or at least with a house...) Thanks again!

    • Pam Irie profile image

      Pam Irie 5 years ago from Land of Aloha

      It's been a long while since we had our composting pile. It may be time to start again. Lots of good information simplified on this page; excellent!

    • arcarmi profile image

      arcarmi 5 years ago

      Nice Job! Check out my lens on composting:

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      hey, very good lens here.

    • peggygallyot profile image

      peggygallyot 5 years ago

      nade my compost in a small container

    • kindoak profile image

      kindoak 5 years ago

      I like the example video of using the chicken wire to make the standing compost bin. Pretty cool since you can see what is going on all the time!

    • profile image

      jmatts1 5 years ago

      Thanks for the info, interesting topic.

    • profile image

      Jolent 5 years ago

      Thanks so much for the info. I did not know that freshly fallen leaves had more carbon and were better to use then leaves sitting over the winter.

    • amazonnottadog profile image

      amazonnottadog 6 years ago

      Good lens. "There is a lot of dirt to be found when you are close to the ground".

    • KReneeC profile image

      KReneeC 6 years ago

      Great job! Very helpful lens!

    • justDawn1 profile image

      justDawn1 6 years ago

      Fabulous job! :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Great lens (as others you also wrote)!

      I also like the "earthy" touch of your lenses :-)

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 6 years ago

      Love your Lenses, they're very Earthy :)

    • profile image

      Funny_Beekeeper 6 years ago

      We make compost at home so I'm quite familiar with the process. But one thing that attracted me in your lens was that small list of Carbon and Nitrogen rich materials - I didn't know about some of them.

      Thank you for this information, I think your lens deserves a big Squidlike from me ;)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      great site, good ideas,...

    • CNelson01 profile image

      Chuck Nelson 6 years ago from California

      Good information here.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Every one who makes compost is a hero in my book. Compost builds soil fertility and we are going to need a lot of it in the next fifty years if our grandchildren are to have any quality of life at all. I thank you for this lens. Well done!

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 6 years ago from Albany New York

      My daughter and grandkids compost. I guess it's about time I learn. I like the list you gave of what NOT to compost. Very well done lens.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 6 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Forgot to tell you that I linked this article to my article about Compost Tumbler Bins. :)

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 6 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Wonderful article! I love learning about all the different compost bins one can make. Really like the garbage can bin idea! :)

    • bjslapidary profile image

      bjslapidary 6 years ago

      Great info here. Thanks for sharing.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 6 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Excellent information, very useful. Thank you!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 6 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      some useful information here. nicely done.

    • zillermil profile image

      zillermil 6 years ago

      Thanks for this. I keep thinking I need to buy a composter but I'm kind of overwhelmed by it. You've helped put me on that track again.

    • MissionBoundCre profile image

      MissionBoundCre 6 years ago

      Very informative

    • BusinessSarah profile image

      BusinessSarah 6 years ago

      This is such a great lens -- I REALLY want to start a compost pile, but I'm currently a renter and it just isn't possible where I live. Someday, when I own my own house, I will revisit this lens and review all of your valuable tips and suggestions.

      Thanks for a great resource!

    • grflgrfl profile image

      grflgrfl 6 years ago

      I can see that you enjoy your life off the grid. Thanks for sharing.

    • TrevorLedford profile image

      TrevorLedford 6 years ago

      I've been wanting to build a compost. This is just what I need. Thanx.

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 6 years ago from Maryland

      Great resource...thank you!

    • profile image

      Andy-Po 6 years ago

      Very useful information. Thanks.

    • oxfordian profile image

      oxfordian 6 years ago

      I'm very big on composting and always interested in different "recipes." You give a really clear, easy to understand and comprehensive explanation of the process here. Very well done!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 6 years ago

      That is one of my goals, to get a composter - maybe a tumbler.

    • Ben Reed profile image

      Ben Reed 6 years ago from Redcar

      Such useful information, so well explained.

    • SayGuddaycom profile image

      SayGuddaycom 6 years ago

      Excellent! Clearly explained.

    • ronberry lm profile image

      ronberry lm 6 years ago

      Hi flicker - Great job on the lens. I've been composting now for about 4 years. Successfully for the past 2. I was having trouble keeping the temp up. I wanted to see steam rising from my pile! After much trial and error, I'm getting better at it. Your lens will be a big help to people like me. Thanks for taking the time to walk through the process.

    • mistyblue75605 lm profile image

      mistyblue75605 lm 6 years ago

      Makes the best free dirt around for your garden! :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Making good compost can be difficult, and this Lens helps a lot!

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 6 years ago from USA

      Enjoyed this. The list of examples is very good. It will help to make really good compost. I learned from a friend not to put our walnut tree clippings in the compost because it will ruin it. I'll need to mark this for my files. Thanks.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very nice and informative lens!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 6 years ago

      We don't have a compost bin, but there are a couple of places in our garden where we throw the green stuff. Then we bring in truckloads of mulch from one of the local parks and cover things up. I'm also into "lasagna gardening" using layers of cardboard under the mulch. Thanks so much for describing the green vs brown composting items. This has been very helpful.

    • JanieceTobey profile image

      JanieceTobey 6 years ago

      On a field trip to a recycling center (with my son), we were told it was fine to put empty cereal boxes in the compost bin too. I asked about the ink on the boxes and told it was non-toxic. Paper towels and paper napkins are fine too.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 6 years ago

      @kathysart: Yes, I remember that book! I believe the title was "The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book". That's a good one to add to my gardening book collection. Thanks for the reminder.

    • kathysart profile image

      kathysart 6 years ago

      Great lens. I read a book years ago by Ruth Stout, an elderly woman who had some great tricks for gardening. You would like it I think. Composting is a must and you have reminded me of that.. thanks! Thumbs up and angel blessed.

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 6 years ago from Colorado

      This was very helpful. I am currently getting some permaculture processes started and the first thing I need to do is build up some healthy soil for my garden. Composting will be a key part of this stage. Appreciated the tips and resources. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I always add my sawdust from when I am cutting firewood with my chainsaw, it composts very well

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 6 years ago from Vermont

      I also add shredded paper to my compost pile.

    • Lee Hansen profile image

      Lee Hansen 6 years ago from Vermont

      I also add shredded paper to my compost pile.

    • wolfie10 profile image

      wolfie10 6 years ago

      i have tried so many times to make compost, but i always fail. i have a 20acre farmlet with plenty of greens and weeds to compost.i should have another go.

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 6 years ago from Iowa

      We do compost though on a rather major scale. I have a horse and so we had a large mound that we turn with the tractor. Excellent for the garden and the fields.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 6 years ago

      Good detailed information to help people get started with composting.

    • hysongdesigns profile image

      hysongdesigns 6 years ago

      I've been composting forever, but this is some good info for people new to the process. I am still amazed at the numbers of people that throw away their tree leaves like they are garbage, so many people still do not understand that they are a source of free fertilizer for their gardens. And then they go buy 'Rose Food" or whatever at the garden center...