Making your own compost at home is a great way to reduce waste and put nutrients back into your soil.
You can do it regardless of the size of your living space.
If you have a large yard, go ahead and make a nice compost pile. If you’re in an apartment, just use a small bucket and you won’t need to buy bags of potting soil anymore!
What is Compost?
Composting is the natural process of organic matter decomposing into a fertile “humus” that has many of the nutrients your plants and vegetables need to thrive.
Microorganisms and little critters like earthworms break down larger scraps and waste into a rich addition to your garden, often called “black gold.”
There is lots of confusion with the terms associated with what’s underground, like dirt, compost, humus, soil, topsoil, etc.
The basic difference is that plain soil contains a combination of organic materials (like compost) and inorganic materials (like sand & minerals).
How to Build a Compost Pile
The basic elements to make compost are:
Food scraps, plant trimmings, grass clippings
Leaves, wood chips, tree branches, straw
The fastest method requires a 3 ft x 3 ft x 3 ft pile along with the right combination of the materials above to generate enough heat to decompose your pile in a few weeks. It can reach temperatures of around 150 °F in the middle of the pile, killing weed seeds!
4 Common Composting Mistakes
Below are four common beginner mistakes.
❌ Not adding enough brown material to balance green material
This is especially true during the summer when you’re cutting your lawn every 10-14 days and there are no leaves. Make sure you save some during the fall.
Alternatively, if you don’t have any brown materials on hand (like me), you can buy a bag of compressed pine pellets. Make sure they have no additives. I found these at Tractor Supply which is used as equine bedding!
❌ Not adding enough water so your pile is moist
A good way to test this is by taking a handful of your compost pile and squeezing it. You should see a few drops of water but don’t want a stream because it’s soaked.
❌ Not incorporating enough air
A few odd shaped materials can help to leave necessary air pockets in your pile. However, once the middle of your pile has gone through decomposition, you need to refresh it by turning.
It’s a good practice to turn your compost pile every 1-2 weeks, or even more frequent if it’s convenient for you. It’s a good workout and will help the process move along faster.
❌ Not chopping up material before adding to pile
The speed of decomposition is directly related to the surface area of the materials exposed to the pile. If you throw in a large piece of wood, it’s going to take much longer than adding sawdust.
The surface area also affects the greens-to-browns ratio. You don’t need nearly as much sawdust since it’s highly processed compared to adding twigs.
The same goes for green materials where grass clippings provide lots of surface area vs. tossing in a whole plant that’s been cut from the stem. I like to use a large pair of hedge shears on my vegetable plant trimmings in a bucket or wheelbarrow before combining them with my compost pile.
Always tweak these four variables to find what works best for you.
But don’t worry too much, a smaller pile will eventually turn into compost. It just may take longer.
Compost Stage 1
Here’s my simple home composting system.
The first stage is nothing more than a couple of countertop containers to toss food scraps into as I cook.
Occasionally the coffee grounds get moldy if they’re sitting at the bottom of a container. Other than this, it has never added a bad smell to the kitchen as long as I’m moving them along to step #2 within a few days.
Compost Stage 2
The second stage is a larger container that I keep in the fridge during winter when my outdoor pile is nearly frozen solid.
You can replace this with a small bucket out your back door when the weather warms up.
I’ll incorporate this food waste into my pile every 1-2 weeks.
Compost Stages 3 & 4
In my yard, I have two rotating piles where I dump new waste materials (third stage) and allow my compost to age and break down until it’s ready to use (fourth stage).
Each year, I top off my vegetable garden beds, use this compost as potting soil, or fill holes in my lawn to level the surface.
That’s it. Easy enough, right?
Start composting your organic waste at home instead of tossing it into the trash can and cluttering the landfill!