How to Compost for Your Garden?

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: August 2, 2023
  • Time to read: 12 min.

Composting is a powerful and transformative practice that allows gardeners to take everyday organic materials and convert them into a rich, beneficial soil additive known as compost. This earthy, nutrient-dense substance is often described as ‘black gold’ due to its ability to improve soil fertility and boost plant health, making it an invaluable resource for any garden.

The magic of composting lies in its simplicity and sustainability. It involves harnessing the natural process of decomposition to recycle organic waste – such as vegetable peels, coffee grounds, leaves, and grass clippings – and return it to the soil in a beneficial form. Not only does this process feed your garden, but it also reduces the amount of household waste that ends up in landfills, making it an environmentally friendly practice that contributes to a healthier planet.

Composting may seem complicated, especially to beginners, but once you understand the basics, it’s a relatively straightforward process that can be easily integrated into your daily routine. This comprehensive guide will walk you through every aspect of composting for your garden. From understanding the basic principles of composting and choosing the right compost bin to maintaining your compost pile and finally using the finished compost in your garden, this article will provide you with the knowledge and confidence to start composting at home.

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener looking to reduce waste and enhance soil health, or a novice eager to dip your toes into the enriching world of composting, this guide is designed to help you navigate the process with ease. So, let’s get started and unlock the myriad benefits that composting has to offer for your garden, your lifestyle, and the environment.

Understanding the Basics of Composting for Garden

Composting is a remarkable natural process that transforms raw, organic materials into a nutrient-dense, soil-like substance known as compost. This transformation is possible through the action of various decomposers, including bacteria, fungi, and insects, that break down organic matter into its essential components.

The composting process, at its core, relies on four key elements: carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. ‘Green’ materials, such as vegetable peels, fresh grass clippings, coffee grounds, and plant cuttings, provide nitrogen. On the other hand, ‘brown’ materials, such as dried leaves, straws, paper, and wood chips, supply carbon. Together, they create a balanced diet for the decomposers in your compost pile. Water provides the necessary moisture for these organisms to thrive, while air allows for necessary oxygen flow.

There are several different methods of composting to consider, each with unique advantages. Hot composting, for example, involves carefully managing your compost pile to achieve high temperatures that speed up the decomposition process and kill weed seeds and pathogens. Cold composting is a more relaxed method where you add materials as you have them and let nature take its course over a longer period. Vermiculture involves using worms to consume organic waste and produce worm castings, a rich compost and soil conditioner. Lastly, bokashi composting is a Japanese method that involves fermenting organic waste in a sealed bin using a special inoculant.

Understanding these basic principles and methods of composting will help you choose the most appropriate composting technique for your needs. However, remember that successful composting isn’t about strict rules, but rather about learning and adapting along the way. The aim is to create a thriving ecosystem that transforms waste into a beneficial resource for your garden. In the following sections, we will delve into more practical aspects of composting, including choosing the right compost bin, determining what to compost, and how to set up and maintain your compost pile.

Choosing the Right Compost Bin

Deciding on the ideal compost bin for your needs is an essential step in your composting journey. The bin serves as the housing for your compost pile, providing a dedicated space for organic materials to decompose while keeping the process contained and tidy.

The first factor to consider is the location for composting. If you have ample outdoor space, such as a backyard, you might opt for an outdoor compost bin or tumbler. Outdoor compost bins are typically larger and can accommodate more waste, making them a great choice for families or avid gardeners. They can handle a mix of yard waste like grass clippings and leaves, along with kitchen scraps. Compost tumblers, on the other hand, are enclosed and elevated from the ground. These bins are turned manually, which can make the composting process more efficient by ensuring that materials are regularly mixed and aerated.

If you live in an apartment or have limited outdoor space, indoor composting might be a more suitable option. Indoor compost bins are typically smaller and designed to contain any potential odors. They can be conveniently located in the kitchen for easy disposal of food scraps. Worm bins (vermicomposting systems) are also an excellent indoor composting solution. They use worms to process the organic waste, creating nutrient-rich worm castings and liquid fertilizer.

Compost bins are available in a variety of materials. Plastic bins are popular due to their durability and affordability. They’re lightweight, resistant to rot and come in many shapes and sizes. Wooden bins, often made from recycled or untreated timber, are another option. They are aesthetically pleasing and provide good insulation but may rot over time. Metal bins are durable and rodent-resistant but may rust over time.

The size of your compost bin is another important factor to consider. It should be large enough to generate and maintain heat, as composting is a thermophilic process, but not so large that turning the compost becomes a laborious task.

Ultimately, the best compost bin for you depends on your individual needs, including the amount of compostable waste you produce, the space you have available, the amount of physical labor you’re willing or able to do your budget, and personal aesthetic preferences. Once you’ve chosen the right compost bin, you’re ready to begin your composting journey.

What to Compost and What Not to Compost

Deciding what to compost is critical to a successful composting process. The materials you add to your compost bin become the food for decomposing organisms, and thus significantly influence the quality of your resulting compost.

Let’s start with what you can compost. The main types of compostable materials can be divided into two categories: greens and browns. ‘Greens’ are nitrogen-rich materials and are vital for the growth and reproduction of composting organisms. They include items like fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, fresh grass clippings, green leaves, and plant cuttings. Fresh, wet, and typically green in color, these materials decompose quickly and provide necessary nitrogen.

‘Browns’ are carbon-rich materials, crucial for providing energy to composting organisms and aiding in the formation of the physical structure of compost. They are usually dry and brown or pale in color and decompose more slowly. Browns include items such as dried leaves, straw, paper, cardboard, wood chips, and sawdust.

While it’s good to compost a variety of organic materials to create a balanced compost pile, it’s equally important to know what not to compost. Materials to avoid include meat, bones, and fish scraps, as they can attract pests. Dairy products, fats, and oils are also unsuitable for composting because they can create foul odors and slow down the composting process. Diseased or insect-ridden plants, pet wastes, and weed seeds should also be avoided, as they can introduce pathogens or undesirable elements into your compost and subsequently your garden.

Moreover, synthetic materials such as plastics, metals, and glass should never be composted, as they do not decompose and can introduce harmful substances into the compost. Similarly, treated wood contains chemicals that could be harmful to plants and should not be composted.

Getting the balance right between greens and browns is essential for effective composting. Too many greens can result in a smelly, overly wet compost pile, while too many browns can slow down the composting process. A general guideline is to aim for a ratio of 1 part greens to 3 part browns by volume, but this can be adjusted based on observation and experience.

Understanding what to compost and what not to compost is the key to creating a nutrient-rich compost for your garden. This understanding will also help you to reduce waste and contribute positively to the environment.

Setting Up Your Compost Pile

Establishing your compost pile is a straightforward process, but it does require some planning and preparation. The right setup can make the difference between a thriving compost pile that rapidly transforms waste into compost and a sluggish pile that takes a long time to break down materials.

Before you begin, choose an appropriate location for your compost bin or pile. The area should be easily accessible, ideally in a shaded or partially shaded spot, as composting can occur too quickly in direct sunlight, leading to an overly dry pile. The site should also be well-drained to prevent waterlogging and allow for proper aeration.

Now, let’s break down the setup process into detailed steps:

Step 1: Begin with Browns

Create a base layer in your compost bin using brown materials such as twigs or straws. This layer, about 4-6 inches thick, will help with aeration and drainage.

Step 2: Add a Layer of Greens

Add a layer of green materials on top of the browns. This can include items like fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, or fresh grass clippings.

Step 3: Add a Layer of Browns

On top of the green layer, add a brown layer. You can use dry leaves, shredded paper, or small branches.

Step 4: Add Water

Lightly dampen the compost pile with water. The goal is to achieve the consistency of a wrung-out sponge; it should be moist but not soaking wet.

Step 5: Repeat the Process

Continue to add layers of greens and browns, remembering to add water as needed. Aim for a rough ratio of 1 part greens to 3 part browns.

Step 6: Cover the Compost Pile

If your compost bin does not have a lid, consider covering your compost pile with a tarp or a layer of brown to retain moisture and heat, and to keep pests away.

Step 7: Wait and Turn

Let nature do its work. Over time, the compost pile will heat up as the materials decompose. Turn the compost pile every few weeks with a pitchfork or shovel to help aerate the pile and speed up the composting process.

Setting up your compost pile using these steps will provide an optimal environment for decomposition to take place. This process allows you to transform everyday waste into a rich, fertile compost that will greatly benefit your garden.

Maintaining Your Compost Pile

To maintain your compost pile, turn it in with a pitchfork or shovel every few weeks. This introduces air into the compost pile, aiding decomposition. Check the pile’s moisture level—it should be as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Dry piles need to be watered, while overly wet piles might need more brown material.

Using Your Compost in Your Garden

Once your compost has fully matured, it becomes a powerful ally in nurturing a vibrant, healthy garden. Mature compost typically takes anywhere from two months to a year to produce, depending on various factors like the materials used, composting method, and maintenance. It should be dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling, much like fertile garden soil.

When ready, compost can be utilized in several ways:

1. Soil Amendment:

One of the primary uses of compost is as a soil amendment. By mixing compost into your garden soil, you can improve its structure, fertility, and overall health. Compost aids in loosening clay soils and enhancing their drainage while increasing the water-holding capacity of sandy soils. For a new garden bed, a good starting point is to mix a 2-3 inch layer of compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil.

2. Mulch:

Compost can also act as an excellent mulch. Applying a 2-3 inch layer of compost around plants can help conserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, and moderate soil temperatures, all while gradually releasing nutrients into the soil.

3. Potting Mix:

You can use compost to create your potting mix for container gardening. A simple potting mix can be made by combining equal parts compost, garden soil, and a drainage-enhancing material such as sand or perlite. This mixture provides a rich, well-draining medium for potted plants.

4. Lawn Top Dressing:

Compost can be used to improve lawn health. By spreading a thin layer of compost over your lawn, you can help improve soil structure, promote healthier grass, and reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers.

5. Compost Tea:

This is a liquid fertilizer made by steeping mature compost in water. Compost tea is an excellent way to provide a quick nutrient boost to plants.

While using compost, remember that it is very rich, and a little goes a long way. Too much compost can overwhelm plants and inhibit growth. Also, ensure that your compost is fully matured before using it in your garden. Unfinished compost can compete with plants for nitrogen and may contain harmful pathogens or weed seeds.

Incorporating compost into your garden practices enhances soil health, supports plant growth, and contributes to a more sustainable garden by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. A successful composting practice enables you to nurture your garden while minimizing waste and nurturing the earth.

Composting in Different Seasons

Composting isn’t limited to a particular season—it can happen all year round, though the process slows in colder months. In winter, insulate your compost pile with straw or a compost cover. During summer, ensure it’s not drying out; if so, add water to maintain moisture.

Advanced Composting Techniques

As you become more comfortable with the basic process of composting, you may want to explore advanced techniques to optimize your composting process and output. Here are several advanced methods to consider:

Hot Composting

Hot composting involves carefully managing your compost pile to achieve high internal temperatures (between 130-160°F), which can speed up the decomposition process and kill off weed seeds and pathogens. This method requires a careful balance of green and brown materials, regular turning, and monitoring of moisture and temperature levels. The result is high-quality compost in a relatively short period (as quick as 18 days), but it does require more effort and attention.


Vermicomposting, or worm composting, involves using special types of worms (red wigglers are the most common) to consume organic waste and produce worm castings and worm compost tea, both of which are excellent soil amendments. Vermicomposting can be done indoors or outdoors and is a great way to compost kitchen scraps quickly. It also provides a valuable learning opportunity for children.

Bokashi Composting

Bokashi is a Japanese composting method that involves fermenting organic waste in a sealed bin using a special inoculant (a mix of beneficial microbes). The process is anaerobic (it occurs without air), and the resulting compost, or bokashi, can be mixed directly into garden soil. Bokashi composting is odorless, easy, and quick (usually two weeks to a month), making it an excellent option for indoor composting.

Trench Composting

In trench composting, organic waste is buried directly in the garden. It’s a straightforward technique: simply dig a trench in your garden, fill it with kitchen scraps and other compostable materials, and then cover it back up with soil. Over time, the waste will decompose and enrich the soil. This technique requires little maintenance, but it does take several months for the waste to fully decompose.

Compost Tea Brewing

Compost tea is a nutrient-rich liquid made by steeping compost in water. Advanced composters often take this a step further by aerating the tea with a pump to encourage the growth of beneficial microbes. The resulting aerated compost tea can be sprayed directly onto plants as a foliar feed or used as a soil drench.

Adopting advanced composting techniques can help you maximize your compost output, expedite the composting process, and adapt your composting practice to various settings and circumstances. Regardless of the methods you choose, remember that successful composting is more an art than a science. It involves observation, experimentation, and a willingness to learn from nature’s incredible capacity for transformation and renewal.


Composting is a remarkable and natural process that transforms kitchen scraps and yard waste into a valuable resource for your garden. It offers numerous benefits not only for your plants but also for the environment. By composting, you can enhance the fertility and structure of your garden soil, reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, conserve water, and contribute to waste reduction.

Starting a compost pile may seem like a daunting task initially, but as we’ve discussed, it’s a relatively simple process that requires a minimal amount of work and attention. From understanding the basic principles of composting, choosing the right compost bin, knowing what to compost and what not to, setting up and maintaining your compost pile, to finally using the compost in your garden, every step contributes to creating a nutrient-rich supplement for your plants.

For those willing to take their composting to the next level, advanced techniques like hot composting, vermicomposting, bokashi composting, trench composting, and compost tea brewing offer opportunities for faster composting processes, varied composting environments, and different types of compost products.

Ultimately, successful composting relies on understanding and working with natural processes to create a beneficial cycle of life, decay, and renewal. As you dive into composting, you’ll likely find that it’s about more than just creating a useful product for your garden. It’s about nurturing the earth, conserving resources, and engaging in a meaningful and rewarding relationship with the natural world. Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a novice green thumb, composting can enrich your gardening experience and help you grow a healthy, vibrant, and sustainable garden.

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