The Basics of Composting

Tamara Siemering
8 Min Read

If you’re new to gardening, you’ll be doing yourself a great service by learning the basics of composting and beginning the essential practice of cultivating a compost bin. Compost itself is simply decomposing organic matter, including fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, leaves, and other elements within a controlled environment to produce nutrient-rich soil over time. Composting allows you to create your own soil packed with microorganisms that will help your plants thrive. These microorganisms include bacteria, fungi, worms, and other insects that, in many cases, will form a symbiotic relationship with the plants they surround, allowing the plants to absorb more nutrients and moisture from the soil.

The benefits of composting are wide-reaching even past the production of nutrient-dense soil that helps your plants grow more quickly and fruitfully. In addition to this, composting reduces personal waste that goes into your trash can each week, and saves that waste from needing to be transported to a landfill where it will rot and produce high levels of methane. Making your own compost also allows you to cut back on water usage in your garden as compost soil is much more efficient at retaining moisture and requires less watering. Finally, by making and utilizing your own compost, you eliminate the need to use fertilizers which can have harmful side effects on the ecosystem of your garden.

The first step in the basics of composting is obtaining a compost bin, which you can either buy or fashion yourself at home. Within the compost bin marketplace, you’ll be able to choose a size and material that works best for your yard or home. Along the homemade route, lots of tutorials exist online for building your own out of wood pallets or heavy-duty mesh wire. If you choose to set up an indoor compost bin, you’ll want to avoid sealing it completely to prevent foul odors indoors, and rather cover it with a piece of fabric or breathable top of some kind. Many indoor composts also come as packages that include worms to aid in the decomposition of soil.

one of the basics of composting is a compost bin

Whether you’re setting up your compost bin inside or outside you’ll want to find a dry, shady spot to allow for the perfect level of moisture within your bin. It’s also a good idea, with an outdoor bin, to start composting in the summer for the speediest composting process.

There are four basic elements to creating a successful compost bin: water, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon. The two main categories of material you want to include in your compost bins are called “browns” and “greens.” Browns refers to yard debris including dead leaves, branches, twigs, and wood chips as well as paper or compostable napkins, plates, and newspapers. Greens refers to fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds and filters, eggshells, and manure. The browns category provides the necessary carbon, while the greens pile supplies nitrogen to the organisms causing decomposition in the compost. When adding your browns and greens, you’ll want to prep them by chopping them into smaller chunks or breaking up sticks into smaller pieces for example. Waste to never use in your compost pile includes meat products, dairy products, pet waste, or manure.

basics of composting

The appropriate ratio of browns (carbon) to greens (nitrogen) is 3 to 1, in order to achieve the best compost. You’ll want to start your pile with a solid base of browns five or more inches thick and feed a layer of greens no more than four inches thick on top of that, ideally in the center, not reaching the corners of the bin like the browns. You’ll then want to completely cover the greens with another layer of browns, and simply repeat the process up to the top of the bin.

The other two elements to involve in a compost bin are water and oxygen. You’ll want to periodically water your compost bin to allow the microorganisms within the compost to properly absorb and breakdown all the organic matter. A good rule is to water immediately after adding new materials to your compost bin. After adding water your compost should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. To test this simply grab a handful of compost and give it a squeeze. At the ideal moisture, it should only release a few drops of water but feel damp to the touch.

In addition, you’ll need to occasionally use a pitchfork or shovel to turn or mix your compost, once it has begun decomposing. This will allow for your compost pile to breathe a bit and more evenly break down. By turning your compost pile regularly and reoxygenating it, you’ll be able to speed up the overall decomposition process to two to five months rather than a year if left unturned.


It is common for compost piles to heat up quite a bit at the peak of decomposition, reaching temperatures as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit. If you notice your compost bin is quite hot and steaming even, take it as a sign that you’re composting correctly and decomposition is occurring rapidly within your bin.

If your compost pile develops a foul odor, it’s an indication that it’s not receiving enough nitrogen or enough air. This can be remedied by adding more browns to the pile and giving the pile a turn. If your pile won’t heat up it’s an indication that it’s lacking in nitrogen as well and you’ll want to mix in more greens.

Anywhere from two months to a year later, your compost will be ready to use and should be a crumbly texture and dark brown or black in color. At this stage, it should not heat up at all, even when being turned. You’ll want to add your fresh compost soil to your garden several weeks before you plan to plant to allow the compost soil to acclimate with the existing soil. When adding in compost soil, add two to four inches to around six to eight inches of existing soil and mix them together. In a few weeks’ time, you’ll be ready to plant and nurture your most fruitful garden yet!


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