In a hurry? Here’s the ultimate one page guide to composting.

A compost Bin

Don’t be intimidated by composting! Composting is easy to do, and this guide is full of tips on how to get the best results.

If you don’t have time to read this whole site right now, no problem!

Just remember that all organic material breaks down. Even if you just toss your yard debris into a hole in the ground, it will eventually turn into compost. There are ways to get faster results, but it’s not the end of the world if you make step in the wrong direction along the way. For instance, if your compost is too dry, you can put some water on it and set things back on the right course. It’s like driving a car. If you are going in the wrong direction, turn the wheel and get back on the right road.

How quickly compost breaks down depends on four things – moisture, oxygen content, temperature, and a good mix of ingredients. The perfect compost pile is damp without being wet, like a squeezed out sponge. It should also be well aerated, with plenty of the oxygen that aerobic bacteria need. And it should have a mix of different types of materials. If you have just one thing, like grass clippings alone, or leaves alone, then it takes a really long time to break down. But if you have several materials and mix them all together, then they break down much more quickly.

To achieve optimal conditions, here are the things you should focus on:

1) Drainage.
2) Air flow.
3) Insulation.
4) Good Mix of Various Ingredients.

Good compost bins allow liquids to drain easily. Stagnant water can suffocate helpful bacteria, and allowing water to sit practically invites pests such as mosquitoes or raccoons. Many compost bins also offer some cover. A lid that keeps rain and snow out of the compost pile will protect the compost from excess liquid. Even if there’s a drain at the bottom of the bin (such as a spigot or mesh screen), it’s a good idea to avoid putting too much water in in the first place. Water that trickles through the compost can wash away useful nutrients and will also suck away heat. However, if you keep the lid on your compost bin all the time, you’ll want to check and make sure that you’re getting ENOUGH water, because materials don’t break down very well if they are too dry either. The general rule of thumb is that materials in your composter or compost pile should be as moist as a damp, wrung out sponge.

If you live in an arid area, you’ll want to keep an eye on your bin in the summer months to make sure that it stays damp enough when it sits in the direct sun. If it gets too dry, add water with the hose or uncover the pile or bin when it rains. If it seems too damp, leave the lid off in the sun and let some of the moisture out.

Many compost bins are designed to maximize air flow and circulation. This is because oxygen keeps away the stinky anaerobic microbes that can otherwise create odors. Keeping your compost well mixed and aerated prevents those anaerobic bacteria from getting established. Oxygen is fuel for the aerobic microbes that break down trash into finished compost – give them plenty of oxygen and they’ll work quickly. There are tumbling compost bins that help aerate their contents, or you may want to use a compost turning tool like a pitchfork or a specialized compost turning tool.

Temperature is another key to the breakdown of compost. Helpful microbes work best at elevated temperatures, so it’s important to keep their workplace warm. The fastest decomposition occurs between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, but some breakdown will occur as long as the compost is kept above freezing. Microbes generate their own heat as they work, so keeping the compost bin warm is all about proper insulation. Compost is self insulating – if you pile compost on top of compost, the middle of your compost stack will be the warmest. Position your compost so that the wind doesn’t blow on it and so that it sits in full sunlight. One way to get extra heat is to choose a compost bin with dark colored walls that warm up in the sun. Or if you are using a pile, put a black tarp over it. In hotter areas of the country, you might need to pick a shady spot instead.

The ingredients of your compost are also important. Microbes that break down compost do well on a mix of different food sources. They need plenty of cellulose-rich, carbon material along with nitrogen rich kitchen scraps. The ideal mix is 75% “brown” material and 25% “green” scraps by volume. Or if you are doing it by weight, it’s about a 50 / 50 mix of nitrogen rich and carbon rich materials. That means for every pound of kitchen scraps, it’s good to have a pound of leaves, for example.

“Brown” material includes dried grass, leaves, and shredded newspaper. These types of material take longer to break down than “green” vegetable peels and fruit rinds. If your compost is too wet, add more brown material. If you don’t have a lot of green material, you may need to add water to the compost.

Green and brown doesn’t refer to the actual color of the stuff you are putting in the composter — it’s just shorthand for saying nitrogen rich or carbon rich.

You can see our chart of nitrogen rich and carbon rich materials here on this page.

One last tip – have fun! Don’t take things too seriously and keep trying new techniques.

Need a little more information than this, but don’t want to be overwhelmed?

Check out my short and simple 41 page book on!

How To Compost: Everything You Need To Know To Start Composting, And Nothing You Don’t!

Photo found on courtesy of Rantz

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92 thoughts on “In a hurry? Here’s the ultimate one page guide to composting.”

  1. I have composted a big trailer full of leaves and grass through the winter,turned it once a week and the pile wont heat up anymore but still has small amounts of pine needles and leaf clumps that are question is can i add this to my garden and till it in,and add urea fertilizer when i till it in for my spring garden.The soil sample that i took said i needed a lot of fertilizer but was high in phosphorus and potassium.

    1. @Jim, Unless you live in a warm winter climate most people who compost in the winter experience their compost slows dramatically. Add some nitrogen, give it a good mix and with spring here it should begin to break down much quicker. Yes, you could till it into your garden but I would wait until it’s fairly well broken down. If you still see whole pieces of original material it needs to break down more.

  2. I found some old notes that say that adding
    too much lime to a compost pile may cause some nitrogen to vaporize. My soil chemistry is fuzzy. Can you explain the chemical process? I need to share info on composting with my students and want to get it right. I’ve also read at numerous websites that it’s not necessary to add ANY lime and in fact that additions of lime can mess up the chemistry of the pile.

    1. @Clydette

      I’m no chemistry expert, but here’s what I think the issue is. Lime affects the pH of the compost, which is really a separate thing. It may or may not screw up how fast the materials turn into compost. Finished compost is typically pH neutral, so you can add it to just about any type of soil and it won’t hurt anything. When you start adding materials that change the pH of the soil itself, you’re dealing with a whole different situation that’s more complex.

      So pH is the main reason why you shouldn’t add lime.

      It’s similar to the issue where some people just automatically add lime to their lawns without ever testing or knowing anything about their current lawn pH, because they read it was “something you’re supposed to do.” Which is also similar to the issue of people who fertilizer their lawns multiple times per year, without really measuring or caring if the lawn actually needs any fertilization.

  3. I do not have much space to have a compost pile or a large bin. My question is can I use a 35 gallon garbage can?

    1. @Carla, Yes, you can use a trash can as a compost bin. Drill some holes in the bottom for drainage and some holes on the side for air.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for all the tips and advice. I’m trying to grow quite a few crops and flowers for the first time and am really trying to take it seriously by doing my homework. Your site has really helped and I’m sure will be used many more times. Feel free to contact me with anything you think may help a beginner.

  5. Not sure if I am correctly getting into the Q and A, but here goes. Just fired up my rotating 55 gallon drum, got numerous air holes drilled in it, and whilst it was originally baby blue it is now spray painted black. Put in a few lbs of leaves, clippings etc and a small amount of food scraps and some citrus bits. Live in North San Diego county, lots of sun, great climate so look forward to “composting” and was uncertain to how often to add new “material” to the bin; presume once it is at some reasonable volume, i.e. half full to just let the bugs do their work. Hope this get to you ok,

    1. @Bob, There are two main ways to compost. First is batch composting, where you fill the compost bin full of browns and greens and keep it aerated and moist and wait for it to break down. After it’s finished you empty and start again. The other method involves adding as you go (weeks or even months) until it’s full. When the compost bin is full you stop and wait for it to finish. Both methods typically involve getting a second compost bin in order to put your material while the compost is finishing. You will find in time maybe even two bins are not enough. I have seven bins in my back yard.

  6. can the Mud Pots made on the potters wheel and used to store drinking water in Rural India be used as multi stage composter by placing them one on top of the other after adequately modifying them like making holes at the bottom? That way space can be saved due to a minimum foot-print. These pots are easily available and cheap and their walls are porous especially if they are not baked and ventilation and drainge of excess water is possible.

    Is it possible to compost by digging hole in the ground and then using a large dish type pot with small flowers as a lid to avoid it as an eyesore?

    1. @Jyoti, I see no reason why those type of pots will not work. Make sure they are well vented and drained and anything added should break down over time. Yes, you can dig a hole and put in a composter but without ventilation it will take much longer for the contents to break down. .

  7. We had started a compost pile. The bottom is plywood but sides are made of lattice and have it in a shady part. We are putting the greens and browns. Will this work, are should we have done it differently.

    1. @Leah, Yes that will work however you will find after a year or two the plywood bottom will being to rot. I suggest using dirt as the bottom of your compost bin or bricks.

  8. I am just starting a compost bin and I want to know is do I wait for the whole pile to breakdown and then use the compost or do I go to the bottom of the pile and take out what has already broken down? I am a beginner at this so any useful tips will be appreciated.

  9. I have 2 compost bins on my yard. One is a digester for kitchen waste. It is a 60 gallon barrel with holes drilled in the sides and bottom. It is buried so 10″ are sticking out of the ground and I have 2 rows of firepit bricks around the top. The lid is an old disc blade which allows air flow and bugs to access the contents and keeps 4 legged pests out. I shovel the bin out 1x per year in the fall before tilling the garden and after the spring tilling you can’t recognize any of the contents.

    I also have an earth machine for yard and lawn waste only. I add to it throughout the summer. Grass clippings and newspapers mostly. I will spread out the contents in the fall the same time I empty the other bin and by spring the garden is a great place to plant.

    I don’t think it hurts anything to add uncomposted material to soil. After the garden is removed I also empty lawn clippings directly to the garden until the fall tilling. No issues.

    My only hope is they the bin that I put grass clippings into is big enough to hold a summers worth of yard waste. I know it won’t completely turn to compost but I hope it will reduce in volume fast enough that 1 bin will be enough for the summer. I get 2-3 bags of clippings per cut and multch cut every second cutting.

    1. I think it really depends on when you want to use the compost. If you are spreading it out on the garden in the fall like I do then the only reason to stir it would be to help it compost faster and that’s only necessary if your bin isn’t big enough. If you want compost 1/2 way through summer then you will have to work a little harder at it. The way I do mine I cannot recognize any of the inputs after the preplanting rototilling.

      If you till it into the garden before fall it helps a few ways:

      1. It helps break it up.
      2. It makes it more accessible to worms which help the process.
      3. It is buried in the dirt so mice won’t make themselves at home in your garden over winter.

      Doing that and tilling it in the spring before you plant will give you beautiful soil.

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