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:

  1. I learned the correct way to compost from a local composting expert.      
  2. 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.  

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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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.

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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.
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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. 

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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).

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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

 

Egg shells

Oil

 

Plant material

Weeds with seeds   

Fruit and peels

  
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Egg shells
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Banana peels
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Coffee grounds
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Leaves

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

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Green materials
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
Brown materials

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. 

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

Mist the layers with water as you add them to assure that the pile is adequately moist. It should have the consistency of a dried-out sponge.

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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.

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

9. Use the compost

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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.

10. Be patient with yourself as you learn how to compost

The tricky part 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. 

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

Troubleshooting Tips

Symptom 

Problem

Solution

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.

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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