How Do I Start A Compost Pile At Home (a step-by-step guide to composting)

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Have you ever been like me and wondered what to do with the heap of kitchen scraps piling up in your trash? After all, it feels like there’s a better use for all this waste. Well, that’s where I was until I stumbled upon composting. Chances are, you’ve heard of it too, but maybe, like me when I first started backyard gardening, you’re not quite sure where to begin and are asking yourself, how do I start a compost pile?

Collect equal parts of nitrogen-rich green materials (like food scraps) and carbon-rich brown materials (such as straw or dried leaves) to start composting. Layer them alternately as you erect your heap, maintain moisture like a damp sponge, and turn the compost pile weekly for faster decomposition in your composting bin.

wooden basket filled with composting food scraps in outside garden

Although there are many ways to create, grow, and cultivate a home garden, composting is one of the simplest. The practice is an eco-friendly way to transform kitchen scraps and yard waste into nutrient-rich soil for outdoor and indoor green spaces. If you’re curious about compost but need to know what it is or how to get started practically at home, this article is for you.

I wrote this guide to help fellow backyard gardeners understand the benefits of composting, how to start a compost pile and choose the best compost for your flourishing vegetable garden. So, keep reading and discover all there is to know about composting.

Humble Highlights

  • Unlock these 4 unusual and unparalleled advantages of composting to create the perfect decomposition heap that breaks down quickly – even if you’re a complete novice!
  •  Discover the role of the critical microorganisms in your backyard compost pile so you can save time creating nutrient-rich compost while Mother Nature works hard on your behalf.
  •  Explore the best types of compost for any size vegetable garden so you can reap the benefits and effectively revolutionize the power of humble compost for ridiculous results!

How To Start A Compost Pile: Step-By-Step

A backyard compost pile is vital for enriching soil, fostering plant growth, reducing waste, and supporting sustainable gardening. It transforms organic materials into nutrient-rich compost, enhancing soil structure, promoting beneficial microbes, and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, ultimately creating a greener and more eco-friendly home garden.

how to start a compost pile

Here’s a step-by-step guide that includes everything you need to know on how to start a compile pile:

Step 1: Choose Your Composting Method

Begin the composting process by selecting your preferred composting method. You can purchase a composting bin or tumbler, create your own, or designate a committed spot on the ground for your compost pile. 1

Bokashi bran, for example, is a clever and innovative ingredient that supports fermentation in your home composting process. This unique process is an increasingly popular method that allows microorganisms to work hard on your behalf. Check out the full article I wrote on how Bokashi bran can accelerate all of your composting efforts at home.

Step 2: Know Your Composting Materials

Understanding your composting materials is essential. There are two main categories:

  1. Browns. These materials are carbon-rich, giving energy to the pile’s microorganisms. These materials commonly include:

2. Greens. These substances are rich in nitrogen, a critical component of chlorophyll. Green materials used in compost include:

Step 3: Build Your Compost Pile

Now, let’s build your compost pile. This method involves layering. Start with a layer of shredded straw or dried leaves as your brown material foundation. On top of that, add a layer of green materials. Alternating brown and green layers as you build your pile while aiming for a heap about four to six inches thick is crucial.

An alternative composting method called Bokashi is quickly catching on among home growers. This process utilizes microbes that help decompose compost quickly in your home garden.

Humble Tip:

To increase your success, consider building the bottom layer of your compost with a bed of branches, sticks, and twigs BEFORE applying the base layer of shredded straw or leaves. These branches and sticks create an open space between the base of your heap and the ground, effectively aiding aeration and moisture control while setting the stage for the right carbon-to-nitrogen balance.

Step 4: Adjust The Material Ratio

Maintain a balanced 3:1 ratio of brown to green materials to kickstart your compost pile. However, be ready to adjust this ratio based on your pile’s temperature and smell. Add more green material if it’s not heating up adequately, or add more brown materials if you notice an unpleasant ammonia-like smell.

Remember, if your ratio becomes unbalanced, so too does your pile. Instead of mature compost (humus), you’ll receive a slimy, smelly mess (indicating too much nitrogen) or a heap that doesn’t decompose at all (too much carbon).

If your pile becomes unbalanced and smelly, you may also notice an abundance of mold throughout your compost, requiring further investigation. And while most mold isn’t necessarily something to worry about, as it is part of decomposition, some mold can be dangerous. Check out my article on understanding compost mold to discern the difference.

benefits of composting

Step 5: Keep The Right Moisture And Layering

Your compost pile requires proper moisture and layering. Water the pile and maintain its moisture, like a damp sponge, to facilitate efficient decomposition. Remember, you don’t want a dry pile, but you don’t want an overly saturated one, either. Both conditions will stall your composting efforts, so it’s best to consistently monitor your heap’s moisture content. 2

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, an accelerator or compost starter is needed to encourage your pile to decompose correctly, primarily if you reside in a dry region. Check out this entire article on whether you need a compost starter to get your pile going strong.

Step 6: Know What Not To Compost

To prevent odor, rodents, slow decomposition, and pathogen risks, ensure your compost pile doesn’t contain certain materials, including meat, dairy scraps, and pet waste. Stick to plant-based and non-protein items for best results.

how to start a compost pile at home

Step 7: Aeration And Turning

Aerating your compost pile is crucial. If you have a tumbling compost bin, this step is more manageable. Turn the pile regularly, at least once a week, with a shovel or pitchfork to ensure proper aeration. This simple action, along with watering, promotes faster decomposition as you incorporate all ingredients together and promote airflow.

Curious about how long it takes to make compost, from start to finish, and ready to be spread throughout your garden? The answer may surprise you. Check out my article about when you can expect your mature humus to be garden-ready.

Step 8: Monitor Temperature

Invest in a compost thermometer to monitor the temperature of the pile. An effective compost heap should reach temperatures between 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit over time. These temperatures help eliminate weed seeds, kill harmful pathogens, and help preserve the traditional composting practice.

Humble Tip:

Use unique bags or containers that are biodegradable and break down in your compost pile for easier and greener kitchen composting. This simple action means less sorting and fewer kitchen smells. Just be sure they’re labeled “compostable” and follow any county, state, or federal rules for better composting.

Composting doesn’t have to be complicated. Nature does it all the time without a manual. That should tell you something about how easy it can be to start your backyard pile, even if you’ve never attempted to create one in the past. The video below explains some simple steps anyone can do to get an effective composting heap going.

Benefits Of Composting For Your Garden And Environment

Composting isn’t just a trendy buzzword; it’s a powerful tool with far-reaching benefits, particularly for the environment. Below are several primary advantages of composting.

how to set up a compost pile

Enhancing Soil Quality And Providing Nutrients

Compost is often referred to as “black gold” for a reason. It’s a natural fertilizer added to soil and enriches the earth with vital nutrients absorbed by the soil to improve its structure and water-holding capacity. These results mean healthier, more resilient plants, better yields, and reduced erosion.

But remember, just because compost is something your plants adore, it doesn’t mean you need to overdo things. Although you can add mature compost (humus) to your garden at any time, within reason, there are two primary times of the season when it provides your vegetable plants with optimal benefits. Check out my article on how often you should add compost to your garden.

Introducing Beneficial Microorganisms

The microorganisms present in compost, including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and even red worms, play a crucial role in soil health. They create a thriving, balanced ecosystem within the soil, promoting better plant growth and overall vitality. 3

how does composting work

Reducing Methane Emissions

When organic waste like food scraps and yard debris end up in landfills, they decompose anaerobically, where a process or environment lacks oxygen. Anaerobic conditions can affect microbial activity and lead to different decomposition outcomes, such as methane gas production in composting.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Composting diverts these materials away from landfills, significantly reducing methane gas produced by landfills and helping combat global warming.

Conserving Resources

Composting closes nature’s recycling loop by returning organic matter to the soil. This natural process lessens the need for chemical fertilizers, conserving valuable resources like petroleum used in their production. 4

You can even compost all parts of the humble avocado. In fact, I wrote an entire article and guide on how each piece of this delicious fruit can be composted, further eliminating household waste and becoming more environmentally friendly.

How Does Composting Work

Composting is a fascinating natural process powered by microorganisms. These microscopic heroes, including bacteria and fungi, are present in food scraps, leaves, and air. To understand composting, you need to meet these fantastic tiny decomposers.

how to start a compost pile for beginners

Microorganisms have basic needs: food, water, and air. They feed on your kitchen scraps and organic matter, breaking them into smaller components. Like turning a sandwich into crumbs, this transformation creates nutrient-rich compost resembling dark, rich, nutrient-dense soil. 5

A conducive environment, such as a compost pile or bin, supports microorganisms’ growth. Regularly turning the pile ensures proper aeration, allowing microorganisms to work efficiently. Interestingly, composting mirrors nature’s recycling process seen in forests, where fallen leaves and organic matter break down, enriching the soil with the help of microorganisms.

how to start a simple compost pile

Notably, composting diverges from landfills, where the lack of aeration hinders microorganisms. In landfills, food scraps decompose slowly and don’t become valuable compost.

Ultimately, composting closes the organic material’s life cycle, converting food scraps, yard debris, chicken bones, and crab shells into “black gold” that nourishes new plants. You become a composting wizard by providing microorganisms with the right conditions, contributing to a greener and more sustainable future.

Many new home growers need clarification on compost and fertilizer. And while both ultimately lead to improved soil fertility and function, both are used and applied in vastly different ways. Check out this article I wrote about the differences between compost and fertilizer and how to use them.

How Long Does It Take To Make A Compost Heap

The duration of composting depends on how actively you manage the compost pile and the methods you employ. One approach is active or hot composting, where you carefully maintain the brown-green ratio and moisture levels, which can yield usable compost in a few weeks to several months, depending on the size of your pile and with fine compostable materials. However, hot composting requires frequent turning, attention, and effort.

how to make compost step by step with pictures

Another method is passive or cold composting, the hands-off approach that relies on nature’s pace. It is simpler and involves creating a pile of organic materials, including kitchen scraps, which slowly decompose. Although it’s more convenient, it takes a more hands-off approach, yielding a lower quality compost between six months to two years. 6

Whether you choose the hot or cold method, remember that some items decompose faster than others. In fact, I wrote a whole article on how corn cobs and husks can be composted. While the husks may deteriorate in weeks, cobs may take up to a year unless broken down further.

Best Compost For A Vegetable Garden

Consider what the soil and plants need when picking compost for your backyard vegetable garden. Compost helps condition the ground while offering essential nutrients to ensure your plants grow healthy.

what to put in compost bin to start

Here are some of the best types of compost for your vegetable garden:

Aged Manure

Composted manure from cows, horses, or chickens can be a fantastic way to provide your garden with a healthy dose of nitrogen and other essential nutrients. When you incorporate well-aged manure compost into your soil, you’re enriching it with valuable nutrients and enhancing its ability to retain moisture, which your plants will absolutely love. 7

Humble Tip:

Make sure the manure has aged properly, allowing it to fully decompose. Aging manure for at least 6 months reduces excess nutrients like nitrogen and salts, making it safer and more nutrient-rich for plants. 

It’s also important to note that even though aged chicken, horse, and cow manure are acceptable additions to your compost, pet waste is not. Bacteria like Salmonella and E.coli, along with certain parasites and worms, may be present. It’s best to discard pet waste in your trash.

Leaf Mold Compost

When leaves fall in your garden, don’t discard them. Instead, start collecting and allow them to decompose, creating leaf mold, a valuable soil conditioner properly. You can gather leaves from most deciduous trees, but avoid some types, like walnut or eucalyptus leaves, as they hinder plant growth once spread in your garden.

Use a rake, leaf blower, or lawnmower with a bag to collect leaves. Just like anything else in your compost, chopping or shredding leaves helps them break down faster. To make leaf mold, create a container with mesh or use sturdy plastic bags with holes for airflow. Store them in a shaded area for about two years, and you’ll have crumbly leaf mold. Use it to improve garden soil, use as mulch, or incorporate it within potting soil.

how long does it take to make compost

Coffee Ground Compost

Mixing coffee grounds into compost or spreading them in your garden is another simple and effective way to enrich your soil while eliminating common household waste. In compost, spent coffee grounds add nitrogen, helping your pile break down faster and providing nutrients for helpful microorganisms working hard on your behalf.

Coffee grounds also improve compost texture and nutrient levels, making it great for your garden. When used in the garden, they act as a natural weed barrier, control and preserve soil moisture, and help plants grow better over time by slowly releasing valuable nutrients. 8

Fruit Peels

Fruit peels pack a punch with organic goodness and nutrients that work wonders for your soil’s fertility and structure. When you toss them into your compost pile and let them break down naturally, these peels become a valuable nutrient source for your compost, giving your vegetable plants a real boost in health and growth.

how to layer a compost bin


Although starting a compost pile requires several simple steps, it can also be a rewarding journey toward sustainable gardening. Following this composting guide, you’ll learn the key ingredients for a successful compost pile, including a balanced mix of greens and browns, proper aeration, and adequate moisture.

Composting reduces waste and improves your soil health, promoting healthier and more productive gardens. Remember to avoid composting certain materials like diseased plants, meat, or dairy products, and be patient as your compost pile transforms into rich, dark, crumbly compost over time.

Whether you’re a seasoned gardener or a beginner, composting is a simple and eco-friendly practice that benefits your garden and the environment.

We’re curious how you started your backyard compost pile. Drop us a line in the comment section below and tell us how you began your sustainable garden compost!


  1. United States Department Of Agriculture – Composting
  2. Permaculture Research Institute – How To Start Composting
  3. ScienceDirect – Compost To Improve Sustainable Soil Cultivation And Crop Productivity
  4. Frontiers – Compost Quality And Markets Are Pivotal For Sustainability In Circular Food-Nutrient Systems: A Case Study Of Sri Lanka
  5. Cornell University – Compost Microorganisms
  6. University Of Minnesota, Extension – Composting In Home Gardens
  7. ScienceDirect – Integration Of Food Waste Composting And Vegetable Gardens In A University Campus
  8. Oregon State University – Coffee Grounds Perk Up Compost Pile With Nitrogen

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