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How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

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.  


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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.

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).


4. Learn what and what not to compost​

Do Compost: Don’t Compost:Compost with Care: 
LeavesMeat / bonesBermuda grass clippings 
Grass clippingsDairyCitrus peels (take a long time to break down)
Coffee groundsAnimal wasteAshes (adds alkalinity)
Vegetable scrapsDiseased plants 
Egg shellsOil 
Plant materialWeeds with seeds   
Fruit and peels  

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5. Understand the difference between green and brown materials

What can I compost?
What can I compost?
Green Materials Brown Materials 
Nitrogen-rich, wet, colorfulCarbon-rich, dry 
Grass clippingsDry brown leaves
Coffee and tea groundsEgg shells
Green garden trimmingsHay and straw
Fruit scraps, peelsShredded paper
Vegetable scraps, peelsDryer lint

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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.

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


9. Use the compost​

Spring Gardening in Arizona

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. 

How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success

Troubleshooting Tips

Symptom ProblemSolution
Many flies Green items or food exposed to air Cover pile with brown materials.
Wet compost – not heating upAdd more brown material Transfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials. Do not wet down between layers. 
Dry compost – not heating upMaterials may be too large, needs more greenTransfer to a new bin and layer in more green materials. Wet down between layers. Cut down larger items if necessary.
Bad odor like rotten eggsMaterials too wet, not enough oxygen, or too compactedTransfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials.
Bad odor like ammoniaNot enough brown materialsTransfer to a new bin and layer in more brown materials.
Compost heats up and then cools downCompost needs turnedTransfer to a new bin, moistening layers as you go. 
Warm only in the middleCompost pile too smallAim for the compost pile to be 3 feet wide and 2 ½ to 3 feet deep.
Matted layers of leaves or grassMaterial won’t break down, will become slimyAvoid thick layers – break up layers with pitchfork and remix the pile adding in brown materials.
How to Compost: 10 Simple Steps for Composting Success


If you enjoyed this post about how to compost, please share it:



Dana

Monday 12th of February 2024

Do grass clippings become "browns" if they're allowed to dry out before they're added to compost? And are leaves "greens" if they're freshly pruned?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 13th of February 2024

Right.

Karen Shiroda

Wednesday 22nd of November 2023

I have been following your gardening advice and find it very helpful. I am struggling with a couple of things like how much to water the raised bed 4x4 using the grid. I just upped it to m-w-f at 15 minutes. Also, I have a turning style composter. It’s not heating up. Need to add browns? The composter is somewhat small. Need to fill her up? Thanks, Karen

Angela Judd

Friday 24th of November 2023

How much you water depends on many factors. Right now I'm watering once every 5 days for about 10-12 minutes, depending on the bed and the water pressure. During the summer I water every other day. As it continues to cool down I will water about once a week. For the composting, I don't have a lot of experience with tumbler composters. If it's not heating up, I'd look at these troubleshooting tips. I'm guessing you need more mass to get things going. Some people do have success with them, so keep trying.

Sherry

Tuesday 19th of September 2023

Good morning! I have noticed that you show 2 different compost containers that are in your beds. The first one is a plastic bucket with a lid and holes and the 2nd one is a metal mesh basket. Which do you prefer and what do you cover the metal mesh with (lid)? Thank you so much for all the wonderful information. We moved from Oregon 3 years ago and there has been a HUGH learning curve to gardening in the desert. You make it not so overwhelming! THANKS

Sherry

Wednesday 20th of September 2023

@Angela Judd, Thank you so much!

Angela Judd

Tuesday 19th of September 2023

I first started using the buckets for in bed worm composting. As I implemented it more I realized I liked the mesh baskets better. I don't use a lid - I use a thick layer of wood chips instead.

Audrey

Tuesday 22nd of August 2023

Another question... for the shredded paper, if it's office type paper with lots of ink printed on it, is that harmful and not ideal?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 22nd of August 2023

White paper is normally fine. I'd stay away from glossy type paper, advertisements, etc.

Audrey

Tuesday 22nd of August 2023

Do eggshells need to rinsed and the membrane removed? And how do you store the greens till you have enough to make a layer?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 22nd of August 2023

I don't rinse the eggshells. If you don't have enough greens, consider adding vermicomposting bins to your beds. They are an excellent way to use small amounts of greens: https://growinginthegarden.com/vermicomposting-made-easy-in-bed-worm-composting/