The satisfaction you feel as you turn yard and kitchen waste into organic fertilizer that nourishes the soil, as well as your vegetables, plants, and flowers, is the reward for putting in the effort to learn how to compost.
However, the thought of learning how to compost can be intimidating. The first time I started composting, I was great at growing flies – but not compost. I did not know how to compost, and felt like composting wasn’t for me. It was too hard, too stinky, and there were too many bugs. Can you relate to any of those feelings?
Fast forward a couple of years. I decided to enroll in Master Gardener classes where two crucial things occurred:
- I learned the correct way to compost from a local composting expert.
- Volunteering at the demonstration garden gave me hands-on experience learning how to compost.
With this newfound knowledge and experience, I was ready to try again. I applied what I learned and put that knowledge to work, and guess what? I was successful and had fresh compost for my garden. Since that time, I’ve added hundreds of pounds of homemade fertilizer to my garden beds.
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. See my disclosure policy for more information.
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps
There are as many methods of composting as there are gardeners, but this is the method that works for me using the type of compost bin offered through my city for $5 each. This method can also be adapted to other types of bins.
1. Choose a location to compost
Here are a few necessities for the location:
- Plenty of room – the bins I use are 3 feet wide and 2 ½ feet tall. Plan on room for at least 2 bins. Ideally, there is 3 to 4 feet clearance in front of the bins.
- Access to water – wetting down the compost with a hose helps speed up the process, especially in dry climates like the low desert of Arizona.
- Shade – prevents compost from drying out as quickly and it’s easier for you to work in.
- Wheelbarrow access – room to maneuver in and out is helpful.
2. Obtain compost bins
The bins need to be around 3 feet wide and 2 to 3 feet deep (smaller bins won’t heat up as well), have lids, holes drilled in the sides for airflow, and bottomless. For the method I use, you need more than one bin. For smaller yards, 2 bins work fine. Larger yards could use 3, 4, or more bins.
Call your local city to see if they offer bins. This type of bin may also be found online on places like OfferUp and Craigslist. If you live in the City of Mesa (AZ), call 480-644-2221 to request a bin.
3. Gather the correct tools for composting
The right tools make composting much easier. I use the following tools: (click on the name to see the ones I use on Amazon).
- Compost Thermometer – Monitoring the temperature helps you understand what is happening inside the bins. I’ve had this one since 2015, and it works great.
- Scoop-type shovel
- Wheelbarrow – I love this Gorilla Cart. We added no-flat wheels, and it works great.
- Steel Pails – I use them often in my garden, and they are especially helpful at scooping out compost by the bucketful to add to the garden.
- Hose with a spray wand
- Soil sifter to remove any large pieces from the completed compost.
4. Learn what and what not to compost
|Do Compost:||Don’t Compost:||Compost with Care:|
|Leaves||Meat / bones||Bermuda grass clippings|
|Grass clippings||Dairy||Citrus peels (take a long time to break down)|
|Coffee grounds||Animal waste||Ashes (adds alkalinity)|
|Vegetable scraps||Diseased plants|
|Plant material||Weeds with seeds|
|Fruit and peels|
5. Understand the difference between green and brown materials
|Green Materials||Brown Materials|
|Nitrogen-rich, wet, colorful||Carbon-rich, dry|
|Grass clippings||Dry brown leaves|
|Coffee and tea grounds||Egg shells|
|Green garden trimmings||Hay and straw|
|Fruit scraps, peels||Shredded paper|
|Vegetable scraps, peels||Dryer lint|
6. Fill the bins
Place alternating layers of green and brown material. Aim for 3 parts brown material for every 1 part of green material. When using food waste, make sure it is buried under a layer of browns to avoid problems with flies.
Mist the layers with water as you add them to assure that the pile is adequately moist. It should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
7. Observe the compost
As decomposition starts, the pile begins to heat up. This is where the thermometer comes in handy. As long as your compost is nice and hot (110℉ – 160℉), you don’t need to do much. Once it cools (below 100℉), go to the next step.
See troubleshooting tips (below) if you aren’t sure what is happening inside the bins.
8. Rotate the compost through your bins
Cooled-down compost that isn’t broken down completely needs to have air and water added back into it to heat it back up.
Use the pitchfork and shovel to move the green and brown materials from the cooled bin into an empty bin, re-moistening as you go. Break up any clumps of grass or leaves. No empty bin? Use the pitchfork to turn the material inside the bin, wetting it as you work.
Once all material is rotated through, watch the pile – it should begin to heat back up (110℉ – 160℉) within a day or so. When the temperatures drop back down again (below 100℉), repeat this step. Once the compost has an earthy odor and is dark brown and crumbly, the process is complete.
This step is why having more than one bin is so important. Ideally, the compost rotates through the bins and then is complete. After moving the material out of a bin, refill it with new green and brown materials to begin the process again. Keep moving the materials through the bins, leaving one bin open to rotate the compost into.
9. Use the compost
Success! A full bin of completed compost is gold for your garden. Use the shovel, pails, and wheelbarrow to scoop the completed compost and add it to your garden beds.
If desired, use a soil sifter like this one from Amazon to remove any large pieces from your completed compost. Toss the large pieces back into the compost pile to finish breaking down.
10. Be patient with yourself as you learn how to compost
The tricky part of learning how to compost is that at any given time, you will be doing several of these steps with different bins.
Be patient with yourself and pay attention to what is going on in each bin. Learn from your mistakes and build on your successes.
|Many flies||Green items or food exposed to air||Cover pile with brown materials.|
|Wet compost – not heating up||Add more brown material||Transfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials. Do not wet down between layers.|
|Dry compost – not heating up||Materials may be too large, needs more green||Transfer to a new bin and layer in more green materials. Wet down between layers. Cut down larger items if necessary.|
|Bad odor like rotten eggs||Materials too wet, not enough oxygen, or too compacted||Transfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials.|
|Bad odor like ammonia||Not enough brown materials||Transfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials.|
|Compost heats up and then cools down||Compost needs turned||Transfer to a new bin, moistening layers as you go.|
|Warm only in the middle||Compost pile too small||Aim for the compost pile to be 3 feet wide and 2 ½ to 3 feet deep.|
|Matted layers of leaves or grass||Material won’t break down, will become slimy||Avoid thick layers – break up layers with pitchfork and remix the pile adding in brown materials.|
Thursday 16th of February 2023
I bit confused. I'm a single gardener with small quantities of greens & browns available. Do I keep layering until the bin is full, then start transferring? It could take awhile to fill the bins.
Tuesday 21st of February 2023
Yes, it can take a while if you don't have large inputs. If you have small amounts of greens and browns, then in-bed vermicomposting might be a better option for you. https://growinginthegarden.com/vermicomposting-made-easy-in-bed-worm-composting/
Friday 1st of July 2022
Thank you!!! I am in Mesa too, got one of those black bins, and now I realize left too much green stuff on top. It was a mess, stinking to high heaven, and full of maggots. My husband called it "Hannah's fly farm". Now, you've shown me the way. Thankyou!!!
Thursday 9th of March 2023
@Angela Judd, I have a tree that I think is Senna. Are those leaves safe to compost? I assume oleander leaves are not, since they are poison. Is that correct? Thanks!
Sunday 3rd of July 2022
Wonderful, best of luck to you!
Wednesday 30th of March 2022
How do you prevent bees from setting up a hive in the compost bin? It happens to me twice.
Thursday 31st of March 2022
Hi. I asked Zach from Arizona Worm Farm to help me with this one. This is his response: "Bees love compost. The only way to stop them from setting up in a residential bin is to bee proof it. Cover any bee size or larger opening with fine mesh so the compost can breath but the bees can’t get in. I find in open bins and wedges like our long ones, we don’t get bees. Those residential turner composters seem to attract them more. And they are hard to use to make good compost." Hope that helps.
Friday 7th of January 2022
Used your method with gods success until I started composting old potting soil (I’m solely a container gardener). This completely cooled off my compost. How can I balance this to keep my pile going?
Tuesday 11th of January 2022
I would add more greens to offset all the brown material from the potting soil.
Wednesday 24th of February 2021
Very precious oooooh