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How to Start Composting (Part 1)

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Interested in reducing waste but not sure how to start composting? I’ve got you covered!

Compost isn’t the most attractive name. For the sake of writing, I wish it was called something like Black Gold or really any other name that emphasized how awesome composting really is. And despite entire books devoted to it, learning how to start composting isn’t difficult.

how to start composting

Getting Started Composting

However, learning how to start composting isn’t always a perfect process. If you’ve read my other post, then you know I took a two-month composting hiatus because I’d turned into a fruit fly assassin. I’m sure the fruit fly war in my house was partially self-induced and partly weather related.

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So I’m back in the saddle and filling my countertop pail with gusto! The picture above is actually my compost pail. I never in my life would have imagined that I’d be taking a picture of its contents, but life is strange… 

Why You Should Compost

Maybe you’re reading this and your interest in learning how to start composting is less than zero. Well, I challenge you to simply pay attention for ONE DAY to how many fruit and vegetable items you put into your trash can. Include coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags, and newspaper into your observations since these are compostable items.

I know in the two months I didn’t compost, I was throwing away tons of compostable materials. So, if you’re wondering if you would even have enough “stuff” to compost, then do a simple one-day observation.  Consider what you’d be keeping from going into a plastic bag and into a landfill where it would take years and years to actually break down.

So instead of sending those materials into a landfill, walk them out into your backyard. Let nature take those scraps and turn them into rich food for your garden and plants. Even if you don’t garden, learning how to start composting will cut down on the waste you produce and let your gardening friend or neighbor use it when they have need.

how to start composting

You may reap some fruit or veggie rewards for helping them out.  And though composting can get a bad rap as being a stinky pile sitting in your yard, if done well, compost piles don’t stink. True story. They are small factories working in your backyard, and you’ll be amazed at how kitchen and yard waste breaks down into beautiful rich compost for your yard and garden.                                                                                                                                        

How to start a compost pile

1.) Get a container. My Granny would cut the top off of a milk jug, leaving the handle so it was easier to carry. You can buy a compost pail, but it’s not absolutely necessary. A lid is optional, but I personally don’t like to see the compost sitting there on the counter, so I go for a lid. Here’s a simple pail that includes a charcoal filter, which helps to block out any odors in the pail.

2.) Designate a spot in the backyard for your compost. If you’re just starting out, pick a spot that’s out of the way that gets some sun (not necessarily full sun). There are several ways to begin your pile:

  • Buy a composter– You can find them at your local hardware store, and they come in a variety of shapes and styles. We’ve used several, but I find I like the style that rotates; this makes turning the pile a no-brainer. Here’s one on Amazon: Yimby Tumbler Composter, Color Black or grab this economical, quick set up compost bin
  • Build a composter– This can be as simple or as fancy as you want it to be. Living Green and Frugally has a great post about building the ultimate composter with three sections for various stages of compost. Check that out here.  Or if you want to keep things simple, you can get some simple wire fencing and make a large tube (no top or bottom obviously); secure it with zip ties, and put it where you want your compost pile to be. Boom. Instant composter. The important thing to remember is that your compost pile needs air and moisture, so fencing does a good job of keeping your pile in one place, but also allowing the pile to breathe.
  • Direct compost– One of my readers, Karen from To Work With My Hands, suggested direct composting, which means she digs a hole in her garden or bed and directly puts her compostable materials in it. So simple! I’ve seen some folks who do this in a trench form. They dig a small trench in an area of their yard and once it’s full of compostable materials, they cover it, and it gets to work. (I don’t think the trench would work for us since we have two dogs who will eat anything, and I mean ANYTHING.) Direct Compost

3.) Turn it… turn it good. Compost doesn’t like to sit still. Your compost needs to be turned (every week or so) to get some air flowing and encourage the break down of all that goodness. If you don’t turn it for a while, no big deal, just turn when you remember to. By turning, I mean to literally turn if you have a composter on a stand, or to use a shovel to take what’s in the bottom and move it to the top. Mix it up! There are also compost aerators, which turn and let air into the compost, which is necessary for proper break down.

4.) Keep it moist. You never want you compost to be dry, so if you go a while without any rain, then just spray some water on it enough to moisten. This helps the composting process.

5.) Use it! Come spring, or whenever you decide to plant something, get to the bottom of your pile and scoop out the black gold. Or, if you’re using a 3-bin system, use the fully composted materials in the third bin. You’ll know it’s ready when you can’t see the kitchen scraps, leaves, etc. They’ve broken down enough at this point to be unrecognizable. If you can, put the compost in your beds a week or so before planting. If you’re like me and simply never remember to do this, then use it the day of… I haven’t had any problems doing this.

how to start composting infographic

How long does it take to compost?

Most compost if kept moist and turned will break down in anywhere from 3 to 12 months. You’ll know that compost is ready when you can no longer see recognizable food and leaves, in your pile. Instead, you’ll have rich, useable compost for your yard and garden. There may still be some larger pieces, but you can always scoop these out and add them back to the pile.

So consider the size of scraps and yard waste you’re adding to your compost pile. Chopped leaves and fruit/veggie scraps will break down much more quickly than larger yard waste and tougher scraps like corn cobs.

Also, Compost piles and bins in warm climates will naturally break down more quickly than those in cooler climates.

Learning how to start composting is a great step towards reducing waste and creating an amazing gardening amendment in your own yard. I’d love to know if you’ve given composting a try and how it’s worked out so far! Have a great week!

Now, what you compost and how much kitchen scraps (greens) you include versus leaf mulch (browns) is important. This can also be the difference between a stinky, rotting pile in your backyard and a fully broken down pile of black gold. Check out Part 2: What to Compost

How to Use Compost

To use the compost you’ve created, place it as a “dressing” around established plants and trees. This will feed your plants, and they will love it. Beware of mounding the compost into a “compost volcano.” A few inches of compost is sufficient.

Don’t use your compost as potting soil. It’s not balanced enough on its own. Instead, use your compost as a part of a potting soil mix. Check out my easy DIY Potting Soil recipe to know how to make your own at home and save money!  Not to mention, you’ll know exactly what is in the potting soil you make at home.

Other Ways to Keep Your Yard and Garden Healthy

Much like creating our own compost, protecting our backyard ecosystem is important to us. Pest control is also an area where we like to keep natural, and this means cutting out the use of harmful pesticides that may kill pests.

These harsh chemicals do kill pests, but they also affect pollinators, good insects, and our entire backyard ecosystem. There are natural ways to control pests in your backyard using simple methods and natural pest control helps such as neem oil and diatomaceous earth.

Check out my new book Natural Pest Control for the Home Garden to see what it’s all about! And know that composting and natural pest control are amazing ways to keep your yard thriving and your plants flourishing!

Natural Pest Control for the Home Garden includes:

  • Specific Pests with pictures during each stage of life
  • Plant Damage images with causes
  • Natural Pest Repellent options based on the type of pest
  • Prevention techniques such as healthy soil and interplanting
  • Companion Plants for pest control
  • The sense of satisfaction when you get the upper hand on garden pests!

Want some free tips on natural gardening? Check out my video below!

Natural Gardening Helps

Want to keep your gardening organic and natural? Check out these various tips and helps on how to avoid pesticides in the garden and also how to compost to make use of kitchen and yard waste.


Wednesday 24th of October 2018

Hello! I have tried composting twice and I keep messing it up. I make sure I have enough browns, that is moist but not wet (we live in AZ so it dries out quick), not in full sun, it is rotated. Both times it attracted a lot roaches. I am worried to start again because I live near a mountain now. I don’t want to attract critters like door mice; but I love being green, composting makes me feel good!


Wednesday 24th of October 2018

Hi Autumn! What you're experiencing isn't uncommon. What better place for critters to hang out than in a compost pile! For your new mountain location, I suggest using a closed compost system, like a tumbler. This will certainly keep any pests out, and they're easy to turn and maintain. I've even seen instruction online for how to make your own if you happen to have a drum or large barrel. I hope this helps!


Saturday 1st of September 2018

Courtney, I have a pair of rotating compost bins which I love... no lifting, no mess. However, I have a question regarding how to know when the process is 'finished'. My current bin is pretty full of veggie scraps and leaves/grass that I've been accumulating for more than a year. It is in partial shade and I keep it moist and turn it every few days. While I can see very few actual food scraps (so I know it's breaking down), there are a LOT of lumps in the bin. Should I let it dry out completely and then sieve it or or just use it as is? How long should I wait after the last addition to use the final product? A year?? Less? I just started using the second bin this week........ Thoughts and suggestions appreciated.


Sunday 2nd of September 2018

Hi Shari! Such great questions. If you have a lot of lumps, are they recognizable as food still? If not, I'd say you're pretty safe to use it. As far as an amount of time to wait after the last addition, it's different for every climate and composter, but if you're diligent about turning and watering on occasion, it should take less than a year. We usually fill one tumbler completely, and then let it sit for 3 months or so (being turned and watered) while we fill up the second composter. We then check the first tumbler to see if it needs more time.

If most of our compost looks pretty well broken down, but I still see a few lumps, I go ahead and use it. We haven't seen any ill effects. We did have some volunteer cantaloupe that grew from seeds in the compost, but that was a win! I hope this helps!

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