How to Compost Guide for Beginners

Composting is a garden game changer! It adds essential nutrients to your soil and acts as an incredible fertilizer! Learn how to make your own compost for healthy soil and increased yields!

What is Compost?

Compost is a soil enrichment packed with organic matter that is made from food scraps, yard trimmings, manure, etc. These items break down into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will drastically improve the health and productivity of your garden!

Why Should You Make Compost

There are multiple benefits of composting:

  1. Reduce Waste & Carbon Footprint

Turn your kitchen waste and yard waste into usable compost instead of tossing them in the trash. 

  1. Improve Garden Soil

Compost is needed to add nutrients and microorganisms to soil that is difficult to plant in (like clay soils). It can also improve the health of soils that are easy to garden in. 

Back to Eden Garden with Compost
  1. Eliminate the need for chemical fertilizer

Compost is a wonderful fertilizer so you shouldn’t need to purchase any chemical fertilizers for your garden.

  1. Control erosion

Many soils (especially clay soils) won’t absorb water well so it collects on the surface and runs off causing erosion. Compost is great for water retention. It pulls the water down so it doesn’t have a chance to pool and runoff.

  1. Feed healthy microbes

Compost sequesters carbon dioxide and turns it into food for healthy bacteria and fungi that improve your soil and your plant health.

  1. Can Become an Income source

If you make enough compost, you can sell it to other gardeners. If you have worm castings and compost tea, you can sell that as well!

Compost Bin Designs

1. Pallet Compost Bin

A pallet compost bin is an affordable option for a large outdoor composting area. See how I built mine here.

Pallet Compost Bin

2. Bucket Compost Bin

A compost bin made of a 5 gallon bucket is a great small space composting option. Kids can help with this project, too!

Boy Drilling holes in a 5 gallon bucket for a compost bin

3. Open Air Pile

An open air pile requires no container so it is free, but you can lose some compost to rain and wind.

4. Worm Compost Bin

A vermicompost bin can be made out of two 5 gallon buckets. Make the first bucket with the Bucket Compost Bin design and place it inside another bucket that has no holes in it. This will capture worm castings and the compost tea.

worm compost bin made out of white buckets

How to Make Compost for Your Garden: A Compost Guide for Beginners

Making compost is pretty simple, but there is a science to it. A quality compost pile should have a Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio that is close to 30:1. Let’s talk about what you can use to add carbon and nitrogen to your compost bin AND the items that you should avoid composting altogether.

What Items Can Be Composted

Compostable materials are broken down into two categories: Green Materials and Brown Materials. The green materials add nitrogen and the brown materials add carbon.

Green Materials for Compost

Green materials are typically wet, green, nitrogen-rich material.

The green layers of compost are what work to heat the pile and speed natural decomposition.

Examples of green materials:

Food Scraps

Toss kitchen scraps like leftover bits of fruits, veggies, and herbs into your bin.

Egg Shells

While egg shells may not add a significant amount of nitrogen or carbon, they can be used to increase the pH of acidic soil and to add calcium. Egg shells need to be ground into almost a powder to be effective.

Spent Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds are a good source of nitrogen for your soil. They also introduce more organic matter into your compost. However, there are studies that suggest coffee grounds can harm earthworms so use them sparingly.

There is a debate about whether coffee grounds acidify soil. Some say that the grounds aren’t acidic because the acid mostly goes into your cup of coffee and out of the spent grounds. S

Some say that the grounds are acidic so they will lower your soil’s pH. You can mix in some ground egg shells to balance this out UNLESS  you are adding the coffee grounds directly to acid loving plants.

Tea Bags and Tea Leaves

Tea leaves are known to be high in potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus which are great for your garden soil. Only compost tea bags that are made of natural materials, not plastic tea bags.

Fresh Grass Clippings

Gather your yard clippings the next time you mow and toss them in your pile! Clipped grass adds nutrients and aeration into your compost. Just make sure that you aren’t using grass that has been treated.

Cow, Rabbit, and Chicken Manure

Manure from herbivores is an excellent addition to garden compost. Keep in mind the chicken manure is “hot” meaning it has a very high amount of nitrogen that can burn the plant roots. This manure should not be added to the garden until it has completed the compost cycle.

Brown Materials for Compost

Brown materials are dry, typically brown, carbon rich items that help to balance out the C : N ratio of your compost. The brown layers provide air flow in the compost pile and they serve as a food source to organisms vital to decomposition.

Examples of Brown Materials:

Paper products 

Paper products like paper towels, non-glossy newspaper, brown paper bags, etc can be added to compost as a source of carbon. This is a great way to increase moisture retention, add bulk, and provide worm bedding.

Woody materials 

Twigs, bark, sawdust, and wood chips are high carbon organic materials that can improve soil structure. Wood added to compost can also improve the airflow and drainage of the pile.

Dry Leaves

Leaves are a great nutrient source for your garden. They are high carbon and low nitrogen additions that can improve the soil. However, if the leaves mat up in your pile this can decrease air flow and water retention so be sure to shred the leaves before composting. 

Hay and Straw

These items add carbon and bulk to the compost pile. They also decompose quickly.

Dryer Lint

Dryer lint isn’t nutrient dense, but it adds a great source of carbon and natural fibers.

Natural Fabric 

This is a great way to reduce textile waste. Compost any natural fabric such as cotton, silk, wool etc. Just don’t use synthetics because they won’t decompose properly.

Pela Phone Cases

Yep! There is a compostable phone case! For the past year I have ONLY been using Pela for my phone cases. Pela cases are made of of flaxstraw and they are entirely compostable! They also have compostable AirPod cases, phone grips, apple watch bands, and more.

Compostable Pela Phone Case in compost bin

Cardboard

Cardboard is a great compost addition for carbon and bulk for air flow. Just avoid glossy cardboard, remove packing tape, and tear it into small pieces before adding it in. 

What should you avoid composting?

Onions, Garlic, & Citrus

Onions and citrus fruit can make your compost too acidic. If you do compost these items, toss some eggshells in to even the pH out a bit.

Meat + Dairy Products

Meat and dairy can give your compost pile foul odors that will attract more bugs and animals that you don’t want. They could also potentially add disease to your garden and they take longer to break down.

Fats + Oils

Fats and oils can attract animals to your pile and they can slow down the composting process.

Weeds and Weed Seeds

If you compost weeds that have gone to seed and then place that compost on your garden, you could be invading your garden with unwanted weeds.

Horse Manure

Seeds don’t fully decompose in horse manure so weed seeds can sprout in your garden.

Diseased Plants

Adding diseased plants into compost intended for your garden is just asking for trouble. They can pass their plant diseases on to your new plants via the compost and you do NOT want that.

Carnivore/Omnivore Waste

Waste from meat eaters can transfer parasites and bacteria into your compost that you don’t want on your veggies. Think E. Coli, tapeworms, etc. This waste is fine to use for flower beds, but not if the compost is going to be used on a food crop. On the other hand, herbivore waste (rabbits, horses…) is excellent for the veggie garden.

Charcoal

Charcoal typically includes additives that can harm your plants.

Plastic Lined Paper Products

At one point I started buying paper milk cartons because I wanted to compost them. What I didn’t realize is that the cartons are lined with plastic and that makes them incompatible with composting 🙁

Add Worms to Your Compost Bin

Worms can improve your compost significantly! They eat through the items to speed up the decomposition process and they add extra nutrients through their waste (worm castings). 

You can also sell worm castings and the compost “tea” that is produced by the worms.

Worms can be added to any regular compost bin style OR you can make a worm bin (I’ll have a tutorial on this soon).

My favorite worms to add are the red wigglers from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.

Worms from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm

Download the Compost Guide Cheat Sheet

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