Composting for Beginners: a Quick and Easy Guide

Composting · Garden Planning · In the Garden · The Beginner's Garden Podcast

Most home vegetable gardeners want to grow the most natural garden possible, and for many, this natural garden begins with composting.

*disclosure: links in this post may contain affiliate links, which means if you click through and make a purchase, I will receive a commission.

What’s not to love about composting? It’s basically free — you can use ingredients you already have on hand. Start putting your kitchen scraps in a compost crock and you’ve already begun composting!

But most of all, my composting endeavors consistently produce a healthy soil by inputting organic material and trace elements that conventional fertilizers can’t. A healthy soil equals healthy plants, which equals a productive harvest!

harvest

As I said, for most of us, we have all the ingredients we need for good compost. All we need is the know-how.

The problem comes in when we start researching composting methods and information overload paralyzes us into not trying in the first place. Granted, composting can get complicated if you let it. But I’ve found, for a basic backyard gardener, composting is easier than you think — and easier than what you typically read online.

In this episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast, I break down composting (no pun intended) into information the everyday home gardener can understand. Click below to listen or continue reading for the full article.

(If the above player doesn’t load, click here.)

Composting for Beginners

Composting 101

What is Compost?

Before you can start composting, it helps to understand what compost is. In the most basic sense, compost is when once-living materials come together to make a new substance that helps living plants grow.

Unlike fertilizer (even organic fertilizer), compost slowly releases nutrients into the garden, where earthworms and other soil biology make the nutrients available to plants. In the most basic sense, while fertilizer feeds the plant (a very short-term remedy), compost feeds the soil (a long-term solution).

Not only will compost feed your plants over the long-term, it also helps build good soil tilth, which plants need for proper growth. Plants are happiest when the soil has a balance of air and water, and compost helps achieve that balance.

Related Blog Post: Do You Really Need Compost in Your Garden?

composting basics for a beginner

Basic Rules of Composting

Composting isn’t complicated. Keeping a few basic rules in mind, even beginning gardeners can easily start composting.

First, compost needs a mixture of “green” materials and “brown” materials. The greens provide the nitrogen source, and the browns provide the carbon source. When you have greens and browns, both substances will break down into a form that doesn’t look like their original state. And that’s the beauty of compost.

(Note that while most carbon sources are brown and most nitrogen sources are green, there are some exceptions. Manure, for instance, is always considered a green because of its high nitrogen content.)

Most Popular Ingredients in a Home Compost Pile:

  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Dried grass clippings
  • Shredded paper
  • Manure (poultry, livestock)
  • Spent Garden plants
  • Used plant/animal products (crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, hair)
  • Autumn Leaves
  • Fruit & Vegetable scraps
  • Weeds (that haven’t started flowering)
  • Newspaper
  • Bedding from animals (pine shavings, hay)

In addition to the browns and greens, compost piles need moisture and oxygen. You can keep the pile moist by spraying it with a water hose every few days or weeks if it doesn’t rain. You can ensure proper oxygen by turning the pile with a pitchfork every week or two.

easy backyard composting

The Easiest Steps to Making Compost

Personally, I don’t worry too much about the proper green-to-brown ratio. Sure, a “hot” pile is ideal, in which case yes, ratio is important. In a hot compost pile, the temperature rises to the point where it will kill seeds and most pathogens.

But for the beginner, I’ve found this to be a little too overwhelming at first. As Lee Reich, composting expert has said in his book, Weedless Gardening, “Compost Happens.” When you add organic material together, it will eventually break down into compost. Don’t worry about a perfect recipe.

Just keep these principles in mind:

  • If you have too many “greens,” you’ll smell rot or notice mold. It’ll just be gross.
  • If you have too many “browns,” you’ll find your pile isn’t breaking down noticeably at all.

In the first case, add brown materials to your green materials. Shredded paper, pine shavings, or dry grass clippings will quickly correct the imbalance of greens. You won’t need much.

In the case of too many browns, the same antidote applies. You need more nitrogen, so look for ways to incorporate more into the pile. Add more greens such as kitchen scraps or manure if you have it. Stop adding browns for awhile until you can get the balance corrected. Also, if your brown materials are large (like sticks), try to chop them up. Finer particles will break down more quickly.

How Long Does it Take for Compost to be Ready to Use?

The composting process depends greatly on air temperature. During the summer, a well-balanced pile will break down into a usable form in just a couple of months. But during the winter, you may find it takes all season.

Also, as mentioned above, if your pile has an imbalance of browns, you’ll notice it taking a long time — even years with large brown materials.

How to Make Compost Fast

For a quicker compost pile, here’s what you’ll need:

  • ideal balance of greens and browns (This can get confusing, but this simple article explains it well.)
  • smaller raw materials
  • moisture
  • air (turn the pile every week)
  • temperature (a black tarp can speed up decomposition as long as you keep the pile moist)

DIY Compost Bin Ideas

Because, as we’ve already established, “compost happens,” choose the method most doable for you.

At the most basic, you can make a pile in your yard. I recommend keeping a good amount of brown materials on hand to cover any green additions, in order to keep vermin away.

If you’d like to keep your pile contained, you can also purchase a large plastic bin and drill holes for air and water.

I’ve been using a cylinder made from livestock panel, and it has worked well. I keep two bins — one I add to and the other is left to break down until ready to use.

DIY Compost Bin from Livestock Panel

Easy Composting Bin from Livestock Panel

Another option is a compost tumbler. It’s easier to turn but you have to take more care to water it and not let it get over filled. I used mine for a few years before transitioning completely to the livestock panel bins.

Backyard Composting Tumbler

You can also build a more elaborate system of wood bins. (Here are several ideas, from basic to top-notch.)

As you can see, the options for starting your own compost pile are many. Choose the option that fits your budget and needs, and you can always adjust as you get used to it!

Other Composting Resources I Recommend:

My Pinterest Board on Composting Ideas  (because you can never tire of ideas, right?)

My Favorite Compost Crock (This is a MUST-HAVE for anyone wanting to compost.)

Get my book Flourish: discover how the mystery of compost holds the key to living a fruitful life in Christ free here.

Have you tried composting before? What problems have you encountered? What has worked well before? I’d love to hear in your comments below.

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8 Comments

    1. Thank you! I will check out yours as well! I loved how in your About page you talked about the lack of gardening podcasts. I have had trouble finding any myself. I look forward to listening to yours!

  1. Leaves are gold for compost! But you have to shred them. You can use a leaf shredder or you can run over them with a lawn mower, but leaves are the BEST thing for browns. Also cardboard (plain- not the kind with that plastic shiny surface). Grass clippings are the WORST to use in your compost; I think it adds too much nitrogen.. Grass clippings are perfect for your lawn though! Leave them on the lawn to give back nutrients to the lawn. I learned that from the You Bet Your Garden podcast.
    I’m loving your podcast! It’s great for a beginner like me!!!

    1. Good tips, Ciara! I have never used grass clippings in my compost, but I can see where too much would be, well, too much. I really like the You Bet Your Garden podcast, too! I’m always learning something new.

  2. Carboard? I never knew that. Do you shred that up as best as you can, as well? And do you mean like packing boxes type cardboard that is more “light” and “airy”?

    1. I don’t use cardboard (yes, like packing boxes) within my compost piles, but I’ll use it inside a raised bed before filling with soil and it will compost down. I also use it on pathways in my garden or any place I need extra weed control but want something that will eventually break down. If you did use it in your compost pile it would eventually break down but it would take a long time. If you were to do that, I’d tear it into small pieces.

  3. I’m planning to start composting this year and getting started with my garden at my new house. Would you recommend vermicomposting or hot composting or both? I realize you definitely need both but I’m not sure I have enough material. I definitely don’t have animal manure. I really like the concept of vermicomposting, the urban worm bag is drawing me in and I feel like that requires less material but maybe I’m wrong. I will be getting one of those this year.

    1. I don’t have personal experience with vermicomposting. I know it’s a very good way to compost and a little goes a long way. It might be a great idea since you don’t have a lot of inputs for composting. If that’s the way you’re leaning, you might start out with it and if you find you have more inputs than you need, you can always start a small compost bin and do both. I will say that it seems that vermicomposting would require a bit more research and learning the ropes more than regular composting. Totally worth it if you’re willing to put in that time. For me, regular composting requires little labor or know-how. So just keep that in mind as you make your decision.

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