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Are you ready to learn how to start composting? Transforming household scraps and yard waste into usable fertilizer is easier than you think. Composting offers a sustainable solution to enhance garden beds, reduce landfill contributions, and save money. However, the art of aerobic decomposition requires some knowledge. By understanding the microbial science behind the process, troubleshooting common issues, and properly maintaining moisture, aeration, and temperatures, your pile will create nutritious food to feed your plants. 

Garbage sorting. Organic food waste from vegetable ready for recycling in compost bin on blue background.
Photo credit: j.chizhe/Shutterstock.

This comprehensive guide breaks down each step to starting and managing a thriving compost system suited for your household and climate. Get ready to reap the benefits of closing the loop right in your backyard.

Anyone who is interested in living more sustainably may want to learn how to make DIY Beeswax Wraps, read about Sustainable Fashion Tips, or learn how to Embrace Your Inner Granola Girl.

Close Up Of Woman Making Compost From Vegetable Leftovers In Kitchen.
Photo credit: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock.

Understanding Composting

Composting is the natural process of recycling organic materials like food scraps, yard waste, and other biodegradable items into a rich soil amendment called compost. At its core, composting relies on aerobic decomposition, where microorganisms like bacteria and fungi break down organic matter in the presence of oxygen. There are a few key things to understand about the science behind composting.

Close Up of Kitchen Counter Compost Bin with Food Scraps and dumping into the backyard composter.
Photo credit: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock.

Aerobic Versus Anaerobic Decomposition

There are two main types of decomposition that can occur during composting:

Aerobic decomposition happens when plenty of oxygen is present. This is the ideal type of decomposition for effective composting. Aerobic bacteria thrive with oxygen availability and will break down materials efficiently. The end result is usable compost with little odor.

Anaerobic decomposition occurs when oxygen becomes limited. Smelly compounds like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas can be released, and the process slows down significantly. Turning and aerating compost piles helps prevent anaerobic conditions.

Removing compost from a composter in garden. Composting and sustainable organic gardening.
Photo credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.

Hot Versus Cold Composting Methods

Another way to categorize composting methods is by temperature:

  • Hot composting accelerates the decomposition process by generating internal temperatures between 110°F and 150°F through proper aeration and higher nitrogen inputs. This heat kills pathogens and weed seeds, resulting in high-quality compost in as little as 4 to 6 weeks. Hot composting requires more effort to maintain optimal conditions.
  • Cold composting is a slower, more passive process with temperatures staying under 100°F. It can take six months to two years to finish cold composting. The lower temperatures don’t destroy weed seeds or pathogens as effectively, but less effort is involved overall.
Compost Bin with Food Scraps and Grass Cuttings.
Photo credit: Anna Hoychuk/Shutterstock.

Types of Backyard Composting Systems

There are many types of composting systems available for backyard use:

  • Compost piles are the most straightforward option. Simply pile up yard waste and food scraps, then stir the pile periodically to aerate. Enclosing piles with chicken wire can help contain the contents.
  • Compost bins are contained units with walls and a lid to keep pests out. They are available in various shapes and materials like plastic or wood. Some bins have built-in turning units to mix contents without needing to unload the whole bin.
  • Tumbling composters are barrel-shaped bins mounted on an axle to be rotated for turning. The rotating design makes mixing compost easy without needing to turn shovels of material manually.

With a foundational understanding of the composting process and methods, you’ll be equipped to start a compost pile tailored to your needs and capabilities. 

The rest of this guide dives deeper into composting best practices and troubleshooting any issues along the journey to black gold!

Compost in composter in garden, putting organic materials, kitchens scraps, yard waste in composter. Composting and sustainable organic gardening.
Photo credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.

Benefits of Composting

Composting offers a range of advantages, from enhancing your garden soil to reducing waste sent to landfills. Once you start reaping the returns of turning kitchen scraps and yard debris into organic fertilizer, the many benefits of composting will become clear.

Girl putting kitchen waste, peel and leftover vegetables scraps into kitchen compostable waste.
Photo credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.

Improves Soil Structure and Fertility

Compost introduces nutrients and beneficial microorganisms back into the soil, the foundation of thriving plants. The organic matter in finished compost improves soil texture, creating a loose and crumbly environment for plant roots to easily spread. The nutrients and microbes give plants steady access to nourishment. Applying compost instead of chemical fertilizers leads to healthier plants that are better able to resist diseases and pests.

Reduces Waste Sent to Landfills

Food scraps and yard waste make up over 25% of the materials sent to landfills, where their slow, anaerobic decay generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Composting this material at home means less garbage trucked to landfills.

Most municipalities struggle to keep up with burgeoning waste streams as populations grow, so composting at home takes the pressure off the waste disposal system.

Saves Money on Fertilizers and Soil

Bagged chemical fertilizers and soil blends can get expensive over the gardening seasons. Making your own organic fertilizer slashes these costs considerably. Even starting with low-quality soil, adding compost over time will turn almost any soil into lush, living gardening beds for pennies per pound.

Beyond the tangible garden benefits, composting offers the profound personal satisfaction of closing the loop on the food cycle. What once fed you returns as nourishment for the soil to feed new plants. This cycle reflects the interconnectedness of natural systems – a powerful perspective shift.

A woman holds red wiggler worms in her hands from the compost.
Photo credit: Fevziie/Shutterstock.

Choosing the Right Compost Bin

When starting backyard composting, selecting an appropriate compost bin tailored to your space and needs will set you up for success. 

Consider how much yard waste and food scraps need managing along with your budget and construction capabilities. In any case, any compost bin is better than no bin at all! The benefits of compost will quickly outweigh any initial effort spent setting up your system.

Small outdoor composting bin for recycling kitchen and garden organic waste.
Photo credit: Alzbeta/Shutterstock.

There are several common types of compost bins, each with their own pros and cons to consider.

Simple Wire or Wood Enclosures

For the DIY-minded, building your own open compost enclosure out of chicken wire, scrap wood, or landscape timbers is a low-cost option. These breathable enclosures allow ample airflow but less protection from pests. Regular turning is required to aerate and mix the pile. A basic enclosure works best in a more sheltered location.

Multi-Chamber Bins

Pre-fabricated multi-chamber compost bins provide separate openings to pile new materials while finished compost cures undisturbed. The sections make it easy to manage compost at different stages without needing to mix it all together continually. These bins are moderately priced, but assembly can take some work.


Rotating drum-style tumblers offer a convenient, closed-bin option for small spaces since turning just requires rotating the drum a few times every week. They prevent issues with pests and exposure to the elements. However, their capacity is fairly small, making them best for 1-2 person households or supplementary to pile composting.

Worm Composting Bins

Worm composting uses red wiggler earthworms to break down food waste, producing exceptional fertilizer. Worm bins provide the right environment for the worms and make harvesting finished vermicompost easy. While not a replacement for traditional composting, vermicomposting works year-round, including indoors – perfect for winter or apartment dwellers tight on space.

Bin for composting with leftover from kitchen on blue background. Sustainable and zero waste lifestyle.
Photo credit: j.chizhe/Shutterstock.

Setting Up Your Composting Area

Deciding where to site your compost pile or bin at home involves weighing a few key factors. Selecting the right spot from the start prevents issues down the line as your pile grows.

Sun and Shade Considerations

Compost needs a balance of sun exposure and shade to foster ideal conditions for microbial activity. Too much sun will dry piles out, slowing down decomposition, while excessive shade keeps things too cool and damp. Shoot for roughly 50% sun, and 50% shade – a partially shaded spot near a sunny area is perfect. Tree shade that moves throughout the day works well.

Drainage and Accessibility

Make sure your compost site has good drainage and won’t turn into a soggy mess when it rains. Installing a bed of wood chips, straw, or loose soil allows excess moisture to drain away from the pile. The area should be accessible with a wheelbarrow or cart for delivering materials easily. Nearby access to water for moisture maintenance as needed is ideal.

Visibility and Odors

Compost piles shouldn’t create unpleasant odors if properly maintained, but some smell is inevitable. Consider visibility from your house and neighbors’ sight lines before piling decomposing material in the open. Finding a discreet semi-secluded location avoids complaints over its appearance. Strategically placed visual barriers like trellises bearing fragrant climbers can mask sights and odors.

Prepare your site by marking the area and loosening the top layers of soil with a spading fork. Spread a 4-6 inch base layer of coarse wood chips, straw, or twigs over the spot to promote drainage and airflow up from below. Construct any chosen enclosure around this base according to its specific design needs. Leave a gap for water drainage around the foundation.

Close Up Of Woman Making Compost From Vegetable Leftovers In Kitchen.
Photo credit: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock.

Materials to Compost

When building your compost pile, it helps to understand that ingredients fall into two main categories: greens and browns. Balancing greens and browns creates ideal conditions for aerobic decomposition.

Green Compost Materials

Greens refer to nitrogen-rich materials that provide energy and nutrients to power microbial activity. Good green additions include:

  • Fruits and vegetable scraps – Fresh or slightly spoiled produce works well. Avoid large amounts of citrus.
  • Grass clippings – Use fresh clippings in thin layers to prevent matting.
  • Manures – Herbivore manures like rabbit, chicken, cow, or horse. Apply sparingly.
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags – Thinking of reusing coffee grounds or used tea? This is the way! These stimulate microbial growth.
  • Green plant trimmings – Fresh is best to avoid pathogens.

Avoid diseased plants, invasive weeds with seed heads, and pet waste, which can introduce pathogens. Meat, fish, bones, dairy and oils also shouldn’t go into home compost.

Person who put in a composter some kitchen waste like vegetables, fruits, eggshell, coffee grounds in order to sort and make bio fertilizer.
Photo credit: Reflexpixel/Shutterstock.

Brown Compost Materials

Browns are carbon-rich ingredients that provide bulk and air pockets for aeration:

  • Dry leaves
  • Straw
  • Wood chips
  • Sawdust – Use in thin layers to prevent matting.
  • Shredded paper/cardboard
  • Woody brush and twig prunings

Chip or break down large pieces for faster composting. Good browns resist decomposition, so size matters.

Close-up of a fan rake collecting fallen yellow leaves in a yard.
Photo credit: maxbelchenko/Shutterstock.

Getting the Balance Right

As a general rule, maintain a 1:2 ratio of green to brown materials by volume. Too many greens pack down, slowing oxygen flow, while excess browns leave nitrogen lacking to fully break down.

If you notice odors, add more browns. A damp, non-heating pile needs more greens. Testing different recipes teaches you how to whip up the perfect blend of compost ingredients! When you start composting, there is so much to learn, and getting the right balance is one of the keys to success.

Close Up Of Woman Emptying Food Waste Into Garden Composter At Home.
Photo credit: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock.

The Composting Process

Now that your compost bin is set up and filled with ingredients let nature work its magic! From here, the art of composting involves monitoring conditions and assisting the decomposition process as needed until rich, dark compost is ready for harvest.

Layering the Pile

Start by layering green and brown materials, using 2-3 times more browns than greens. Break up or chop large pieces. Each layer should be 2-4 inches deep. Mix in a bit of finished compost or soil to introduce beneficial microbes. As you add layers, moisten dry materials with water as needed – the moisture level should be damp but not soggy.

Turning and Maintaining

Turning and mixing the compost pile brings necessary oxygen to the microbes and allows heat to spread for faster breakdown. Use a pitchfork or compost-turning tool to lift and mix the pile, moving the outer layers inward. Try turning every two weeks or so. Check moisture levels each time, watering again if needed.

In hot composting, you may need to turn more frequently to prevent overheating. Cold compost piles can be left alone for longer between turnings. Watch for signs of anaerobic conditions like odor – this means it’s time to turn and introduce air again.

Garden fork in a compost bin.
Photo credit: JurateBuiviene/Shutterstock.

Troubleshooting Issues

Composting is a dynamic process with many variables at play. With attention and intuition, you can remedy the most common issues:

  • Slow decomposition: Add more nitrogen-rich greens or give the pile a turning for aeration.
  • Ammonia smell: Too many greens – add some browns like leaves or wood chips.
  • Rotten odor: Lack of oxygen – turn the pile to re-aerate and add coarse browns.
  • Pests: Enclose the pile in wire mesh or bin with a lid.

While composting takes some effort upfront, the process soon becomes second nature. With a properly maintained pile, you’ll start harvesting black gold compost for your garden within a few months!

Person who put in a composter some kitchen waste like vegetables, fruits, eggshell, and coffee grounds.
Photo credit: Reflexpixel/Shutterstock.

Troubleshooting Composting Issues

When first getting started with composting, running into some problems is normal. Don’t let minor hiccups turn you off from composting! With attention and some simple adjustments, you can get your pile back on track.

Bad Odors

Unpleasant rotten or ammonia odors from your compost are typically caused by anaerobic conditions – not enough air. Turning and mixing in bulking agents like wood chips or dry leaves will re-aerate the pile. Avoid over-watering, as excess moisture removes air pockets.

If odors persist, try leaving the lid off your compost bin to increase airflow. Move fresh food scraps to a holding bin until the odor subsides. Then layer the new scraps with coarse browns rather than compacting food waste directly into the pile.

Slow decomposition

A slow, non-heating pile that seems stuck needs more nitrogen-rich greens and moisture. Mix in fresh grass clippings, manure, or coffee grounds to reboot microbial activity. Chop large pieces like corn stalks or avocado pits before adding them.

Insufficient turning that leads to anaerobic conditions can also slow everything down. Give your pile a good mixing to incorporate more air.


Pests like rats, raccoons, or flies can be attracted to compost piles rich in food waste. Enclosing your pile in 1/2 inch wire mesh helps block access. Burying fresh food scraps under 8-12 inches of browns detracts pests sniffing around the bin. Ensure you have proper drainage to avoid standing water pooling at the base.

Woman throwing vegetable cuttings in a compost bucket in kitchen.
Photo credit: Halfpoint/Shutterstock.

Using Your Compost

After months of nurturing your compost pile, the day will finally arrive to harvest that sweet, crumbly “black gold” for use in your garden. Applying compost improves all types of garden beds and plants dramatically by releasing nutrients slowly over seasons.

Amending Garden Soil

To prepare new garden beds, mix 2-4 inches of compost into the top 6-12 inches of native soil. For existing beds, apply a 1-2 inch layer yearly before planting or mulching around established plants. The organic matter in compost aerates clay soils and retains moisture in sandy soils, modifying and enriching texture.

Compost Tea

Water-soluble nutrients in compost can be extracted into a mineral-rich tea for watering plants. Place a few shovelfuls of compost into a burlap sack and soak in a bucket of non-chlorinated water for a few days. The resulting “tea” provides your garden with a nourishing drink! Compost tea is great for your veggie garden!

Top-dressing Lawns

A thin layer of compost over lawns infuses nutrients, enhances soil biology, and improves drought resistance. Apply early spring or fall at 1/4-1/2 inch deep. Let compost bits filter down through the grass over time. Water after spreading to avoid burning grass blades with concentrated nutrients.

Potting Mix

About 30% compost blended into a potting mix offers superior water retention and aeration for container plants compared to 100% potting soil. The plant roots access steadier nutrition fulfilled by microbial activity in the compost. Your indoor plants and outdoor plants will love getting some of your compost added to their container.

A woman holding a large planter with succulent plants.

Composting Myths Debunked

When learning a new skill like composting, misinformation can muddy the waters. Let’s clear up some common myths holding you back from being able to start composting at home!

Myth: Compost Piles Smell Bad

Fact: Well-maintained compost should have little to no unpleasant odor. Anaerobic conditions create bad smells, meaning there is not enough air circulating. Turn piles regularly and add coarse browns to promote airflow. Food scraps covered by layers of browns also prevent smells.

Myth: Composting Attracts Pests

Fact: Rodents and insects can sniff out exposed food waste. But a properly managed enclosed pile deters pests. Bury additions deeply or use a rodent-proof compost bin. Eliminate standing water. Divert meat, oils, and pet waste (even if you fed your dog pumpkin or something healthy) are not suitable for backyard compost. Turning the pile to generate heat also helps destroy fly larvae.

Myth: Composting Takes Too Much Work

Fact: Hot composting does demand more effort but cold, passive composting works with little maintenance. Toss materials in as they are generated, give an occasional turning, and let nature slowly create crumbly compost over 6+ months. Vermicomposting uses worms to break down scraps with no turning required at all!

Myth: Compost Can Only be Used in Gardens

Fact: While compost works wonders to fertilize soil, it has many other applications too. Use compost to boost potting mixes, make nutrient tea for container plants, top dress lawns, seed starter mixes, and more! Getting creative with your finished compost is half the fun.

The proof is in the compost – once you grasp the basic science and troubleshooting techniques, you see how composting simply guides natural processes. Our new understanding demystifies the path to creating green gardens with your own sustainable soil fertility.

Bokashi composter used in the kitchen. draining bakashi liquid and filling scraps.
Photo credit: Hans Chr. Danielsen/Shutterstock.

Backyard Composting: Transforming Kitchen Waste into Garden Gold

After journeying through the ins and outs of home composting, it’s clear this practice offers profound benefits extending from your own backyard to the global environment. By recycling organic waste into nutritious food for plants, composting completes the circle from leftovers back to nourishment.

Nothing stops us from reaping better soil, less landfill waste, and money saved on fertilizers. With a well-situated and cared-for pile, anyone can master black gold alchemy in their garden.

Whether passively letting nature take its course or accelerating hot heaps, compost happens if we guide it. It takes some effort upfront to establish healthy conditions. But rich rewards await in the finished fertility we have forged.

Soon your plants will thrive on homemade compost’s slow-release nutrition while the global carbon cycle thanks you.

It’s time to start composting and living more sustainably!

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Bella Bucchiotti

Bella Bucchiotti is a Canadian-based syndicated food, travel, and lifestyle writer, photographer, and creator at xoxoBella. She founded xoxoBella in 2015, where she shares her love for food, dogs, sustainability, fitness, crafts, outdoor adventures, travel, and philanthropy to encourage others to run the extra mile, try new recipes, visit unfamiliar places, and stand for a cause. Bella creates stress-free and family-friendly recipes for weeknight dinners and festive feasts.


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