Composting for beginners: Guide to get started

Composting is a great way to improve your garden while being eco-friendly! And composting is a lot less work than most people imagine. Our composting for beginners article is written to inform and demystify composting at home.

Not only does composting reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills, it also provides valuable nutrients for your plants. 

If you are looking for a way to improve your garden, composting might be the answer. 

In this post, we’ll explain how to compost at home and share some tips on making the most of your compost. 

What is composting?

Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter into a nutrient rich healthy soil amendment or compost. Adding compost to your garden soil can help improve the quality of the soil and increase yield. You can create your own compost pile in your backyard, or get a composter to make the job easier. 

When you compost at home you are mimicking the natural process happening 24 hours a day where soil microbes, animals and bacterial activity decompose organic matter such as organic plant and animal remains.

Composting is one of the most important things you can do for your garden, and it’s easy to do in your own backyard. Simply put, you are improving soil health, reducing waste, and helping to keep nutrients cycling back into the earth. So what are you waiting for? Start composting today!

Not convinced? Great reasons to compost at home

Dry laves make a great addition to any compost
Dry leaves ready to get shredded for composting

Composting is good for the environment and takes waste and turns it into a usable end product, garden compost. And it is a really great feeling to introduce aspects of sustainability and recycling into home gardening.

Compost can be made for free to substitute other soil amendments you would otherwise buy to improve the quality of your soil. Compost offers many benefits and can reduce your need to buy peat moss, fertilizers and other soil structure improving substrates like vermiculite and perlite.

Composting saves you money on transports and at the same time reduces the amount of garden and yard waste that would otherwise end up at recycling centres or even worse in landfills.

And if this is not enough, composting is really convenient. With a compost you always have a place for grass clippings, fallen leaves, pine needles and other garden refuse. And all of a sudden kitchen waste like vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and eggshells serve a purpose other than just filing up your rubbish bin.

You have everything to win and nothing to lose.

The composting process explained

Composting is a natural process and you will find everything you need in your home and garden. Composting needs 4 main ingredients to work.

  1. Brown material to produce carbon
  2. Green material to produce nitrogen
  3. Water to keep process of breaking down materials going
  4. Oxygen to speed up the process and reduce the risk of bad smell

Different methods of composting

There are several different types of home composting. Here we will briefly look at the 4 most common methods.

We will then give you step by step instructions on how you can start a compost at home using our preferred method.

Truth to be told the different methods are basically one and the same method using the same 4 main ingredients. The differences speak more to the where and how than any actual differences in the method itself.

Method 1: Hot compost

A hot compost is more labor intensive compared to a cool compost. You will need to have all the green and brown materials at hand and construct your whole compost from start. 

This will allow the composting to get started and generate the heat that is associated with this method of composting.

Two of the main advantages with a hot compost is that the process is by far the quickest wat to get finished compost and the heat generated will also kill weeds or diseases that may be present in your organic materials.

Method 2: Cool compost

A cool compost is basically the same as a hot compost with one major difference, you add the green and brown materials to your compost pile as the waste is generated

The process is a lot less labor intensive but will also take a lot longer to produce the finished compost product. 

Method 3: Compost bin

Our plastic compost bin
Plastic compost bin

Unless you are planning on making your own compost bin you will need to spend money buying one. Compost bins will work for both hot and cool composting. Hot composting will however require a bigger compost bin to generate the needed heat. 

The main advantage with compost bins is that they are easy to use if you have limited space and, generally speaking, they are made to look nice. 

On the downside, you will most likely spend money buying a compost bin and it can be difficult to turn and aerate the compost when using a compost bin.

Method 4: Compost tumbler

Compost tumblers are clean and make it really easy to aerate your compost as you add more materials. Open the hatch, load your browns and greens, water if needed, close the hatch and then crank the handle to aerate. 

Compost tumblers can however be expensive especially if you want a size that will produce any meaningful amount of compost.

Starting a compost pile at home

Grass clipping help with nitrogen in compost or use as mulch
Grass clippings go in compost or are used as mulch for horseradish

We have two composts made from chicken wire placed next to each other. They are both cool compost piles but the process below works equally well for a hot compost pile, bin or tumbler compost. 

Make sure you have enough brown and green material at hand when you start if you are planning to build a hot compost.

We have chosen cool composts over a composting bin as it is cheaper and allows us to add composting materials as they are generated in our garden. 

Materials and equipment needed for making compost.

1. Chicken wire (optional): We use chicken wire to contain our composts and the area it occupies. You can however build your compost directly on the ground without enclosure.

2. Brown material: Theses are your dry materials and sources for carbon. Examples include garden waste (straw, hay, dried leaves, corn stalks, shrub and bush trimmings, pine needles and wood chips) but also everyday items such as newspaper and untreated cardboard.

3. Green material: These are you wet materials including kitchen scraps and food waste from fruit and vegetables but also grass clippings and manure from herbivores (not meat eating animals). For us coffee grounds and vegetable peelings help us make up the balance when other materials are not available.

4. Water: Keep moist but not wet and protect with covering in periods with a lot of rain.

5. Pitch fork: A pitch fork is the ideal tool to turn, mix and aerate your pile.

6 steps to making a compost pile

Step 1. Choose the location of your compost

When it comes to composting, location is really important. You need a good location for your compost to produce good results. 

Place your compost in a dry and shady part of your garden. Ideally choose a location that also has easy access to water and that is easy to get to with for example a wheelbarrow.

Step 2. Build base and add brown and green materials

Your compost should be sat directly on the ground. Contact with the ground soil will give earthworms and other beneficial organisms access to your compost which will help with the breakdown of your organic materials to compost.

Start by building a base of twigs and branches to create a looser structure at the base of the compost. This will help create a good airflow from the bottom of your compost heap.

Next start adding brown materials like dry leaves, newspaper, shrub trimmings and cardboard as well as green materials like fruit and vegetable scraps or grass clippings. It is important to get the proportions correct and I usually start with 3 parts brown material to 1 part green material. But do not obsess about it.

I add the brown and green material in layers and then I mix using a pitch fork. After all, it is the mixing that starts the process. 

Do we layer the brown and green materials? Yes, but only to make sure we get the proportions correct. And after adding the two types of materials layered in alternating layers we then immediately mix the compost. 

Step 3. Water your compost

Your compost is a living, breathing entity that needs water to thrive. Just like your herbs, vegetables and plants, the soil microbes in your compost need water to function and help break down organic materials into usable compost.

But it is important to keep the compost moist but not wet. A wet compost pile will not produce good results as the composting process slows down. Use your pitchfork to look inside your compost pile before adding water.

Step 4: Use a pitch fork to turn over you compost once a week

I have heard everything from once a month to never. We try to turn over our compost piles once a week but do not obsess about it.

During winter when temperatures are freezing we cover the compost pile with cardboard and leave it alone to overwinter.

Step 5. Manage water level and protect from rain if needed

With a cool compost it can take up to a year to have finished compost. A hot compost will produce ready to use compost much quicker with some methods boasting results in less than a month.  

Frequently asked questions

Composting for beginners guide to get you started mining "black gold"
Compost or “Black gold” ready to be added to our raised garden beds
Helpful resources:

University of California

Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants and garden vegetables. For the past two years he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.