Composting for Absolute Beginners

How to build (and tend) your very own pile of green gold.
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At a Glance


  • An absolute beginner can handle this, easy!


  • Free!


  • 30 minutes or so to set up your pile

For all that it’s a pile of future dirt, compost can be intimidating. A quick skim of the internet might leave you feeling like you need a PhD in biology just to have a backyard heap. When I work with people on their compost, the first thing I always tell them to do is breathe. After years of experience concocting every kind of compost under the sun, from open air piles in my neighbor’s yard to the huge trenches that fuel urban farms, I’ve learned that there is no "right" way to compost. Your compost will always be unique to you, your materials, and your surroundings.

When you compost, you’re just speeding up the process that naturally occurs any time organic matter decays. You do that by building the ideal environment for nature’s decomposers—like aerobic bacteria, fungi, and nematodes—to thrive. This doesn’t require a scientific degree, or even a particularly rigid set of rules. You just need to understand some of the basic principles, and then be willing to experiment a little.

The Basics

The basic elements of any compost pile are nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. Nitrogen comes from things like food scraps, coffee grounds, green grass clippings, and animal manure. Carbon comes from woody matter and brown yard waste, like dead leaves, wood chips, or even soil. Air comes from turning the pile, and incorporating sturdy carbon materials throughout the heap that help prevent compaction. Water comes from rain, a hose, or your kitchen sink. Most ingredients to build a compost are widely available in your home or yard, although a fun game to play is to search random household items online to check whether or not you can compost them. Surprises abound: Hair and fingernails are compostable; dryer lint is, too. Depending on how adventurous you are, you can incorporate some of these less-likely materials into your own pile.

Building Your Perfect Pile

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To build your pile, all you need to do is heap everything—carbon, nitrogen, air, water—together, in one place. If you have a yard or any sort of outdoor space, that could be an open air pile or a compost bin. If you live in a small apartment, you can try bokashi composting or the one-bag method. (This is exactly what it sounds like. You get a large, plastic bag and mix all of you compost materials into it.)

Build by alternating layers of carbon with layers of nitrogen and make sure to break things down into their smallest possible parts. Chop your food scraps into tiny bits. Break twigs into pieces. Shred your leaves. Then, wet the pile. An ideal pile is moist, but not sopping wet. Use your best judgment.

When picking which type of pile is for you, consider your end game. If your compost is just a way for you to dispose of food in an environmentally-friendly way, a compost bin can be a tidy solution. Everything stays in one place and can decay at its own pace. If your compost is for gardening, you’ll have more luck with an open-air pile or trench. These are easier to see and interact with, so they’re easier to manage. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a few different options! See which one you like.

How to Take Care of Your Pile

To maintain your compost, you’ll want to add new materials on a regular basis. You’ll also want to mix, stir, and turn everything on occasion.

When it comes to adding new materials, balance is key. You want the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen in order to facilitate efficient decomposition. Add a little nitrogen each time you add carbon, and add a bunch of carbon each time you add nitrogen. For example, if you’re adding a big bowl of food scraps from last night’s dinner (that’s nitrogen!), throw in a few handfuls of dead leaves (carbon!), at the same time or soon after. Personally, I like to dig a small hole in the top of my pile, add the food scraps, and then cover them with leaves or twigs. I also add a little water if the pile is looking dry. To determine if your overall ratio of nitrogen to carbon is right, use the smell test. If your pile is smelly, like rotting garbage or ammonia, you likely have an excess of nitrogen. Add more carbon.

You’ll also want to occasionally turn your compost. This brings all the material on the outer and upper edges of your compost into the center and bottom, which helps ensure that the heap evenly decomposes and also aids with aeration. Most composters will turn their piles every four to five weeks—not a hard rule, but it’s a good place to start.

What to Do With Your Compost

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Your compost is ready when it starts to look like dark, crumbly soil. It might also start to smell pretty good, like fresh earth. Gardeners, this is the time to start using it in your beds. Compost makes a great soil amendment, and introduces tons of nutrients to the ground for your plants to feast on. If you don’t have a garden, you might have to get a little more creative. Donate your compost to a local farm or garden, use it in your house plants, or share it with friends. You could also try posting on Instagram or NextDoor, and meeting some garden-happy neighbors you didn’t know you had.

Any beginning composter should keep an open mind and be willing to try things and learn from them. Nothing will tell you more than your own eyes and nose can, once you learn the language of your particular pile.