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How to Compost: From Waste to Gold in 7 Easy Steps


I love composting!

Not only can you decompose all organic waste around your home, but you can also create a wonderfully rich food for your garden. Compost truly is black gold.

But learning how to compost can be intimidating when you’re just getting started!

So if you want to

  • Learn to master the art of composting
  • Reliably produce perfect compost
  • Reduce your waste
  • Boost the health and vitality of your plants
  • Feed your soil ecosystem

Then you’ll love the following guide.

Once you produce your first batch of sweet-smelling compost, you won’t be able to get enough of it!

Key Takeaways

  • Composting doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s an efficient way to recycle organic waste and supercharge your garden’s health.
  • Start with the Right Bin: Whether you DIY or buy, choosing the right compost bin is crucial. It affects how quickly your compost is ready and how much you can make.
  • Perfect Placement: Find a sweet spot for your bin – somewhere with just the right amount of shade and drainage.
  • Balancing Act: Your compost needs a good mix of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. This balance is key to quick decomposition and nutrient-rich compost.
  • Regularly turning your compost can speed up the process, but if you’re patient, nature will take its course.
  • Harvesting: Once your compost is dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling, it’s ready to use.
  • Garden Gold: Use your compost as top dressing, mulch, or even make compost tea to give your garden a nutrient boost.

What you will need:

  • A compost bin
  • A long-handled, four-prong manure fork helps handle compost
How to compost in 7 easy steps

1. Choosing Your Compost Bin

When you decide to start composting, the first step is to select the perfect compost bin.

Do you need a compost bin? Not necessarily!

Any pile of waste will eventually rot down. But a bin with sides is useful to keep the area tidy and compact. The structure also retains heat and moisture, speeding up your composting process.

There are several types of bins to choose from, depending on your needs and available space.

The cheapest option is to build it yourself. You can easily make a container yourself from old wooden pallets or recycled untreated wood.

How to build a compost bin from pallets
Upcycled pallets make excellent and very simple compost bins. Simply attach four together to make an open-topped box. When the compost is ready, unwire the pallets to get easy access to the finished compost.

Alternatively, buy a ready-made compost bin.

Wooden bin systems are sturdy, efficient, long-lasting and with good insulating properties.

I have had a 2-bin wooden system at the bottom of my garden for many years. Although it will need replacing one day, it is still functional.

Some designs, such as beehive-style bins, can look very attractive in an ornamental kitchen garden.

Plastic storage bins are an affordable and easy-to-use option, especially for beginners or those with limited space. These compact bins work well for small gardens and can be easily tucked away in a corner.

Compost tumblers offer a more efficient composting process, as they’re designed to easily mix and aerate the materials. They’re excellent for larger gardens or those looking to produce compost more quickly.

To produce compost faster, consider a Hotbin. The hotter your heap gets, the faster it will compost. Thanks to its thick expanded polypropylene (EPP) walls, the Hotbin runs at a temperature of 40-60°C (104-140°F), even in winter. It's the size of a wheelie bin, light and easily moveable when empty. It can produce lovely compost in around three months.
Hotbin Composter

In addition to my wooden bin system, I also use a Hotbin composter. I have placed it right outside my kitchen door and use it mainly for composting kitchen and household waste.

If you’re interested in vermicomposting or prefer an indoor solution, consider using a worm bin indoors. These bins utilise worms to break down organic waste and produce a nutrient-rich compost. They can easily fit into a kitchen or garage and require minimal maintenance.

worm composter is another option for those keen on cultivating a colony of worms to help with their composting. These systems are typically larger than indoor worm bins and are suitable for handling more significant amounts of waste.

2. Locating Your Compost Bin

Now that you have made your choice, the next question is where to put the compost bin!

Find a sheltered space in your outdoor area, ideally in partial or full shade. This will protect your compost from extreme temperatures and moisture, allowing the microorganisms to work efficiently.

If your bin of choice has no bottom, place it directly onto the soil in your garden. This will give easy access to any organisms already in the soil such as worms. Choose a level area with good drainage.

Make sure the chosen spot provides well-drained ground, as you want to avoid water stagnating at the base of your compost. Excess water can lead to anaerobic composting, affecting the quality of your compost. If you’re placing your bin on gravel, lay a plastic sheet with holes cut in for drainage to prevent staining.

If you’re using a Hotbin or tumbler bin, you can also place it on a hard surface such as concrete.

Ensure the area is easily accessible with a wheelbarrow to transport your finished compost. Make sure you also have working space in front to tend to your compost.

Avoid spots right next to your patio or seating areas where occasional smells might bother you.

Finally, leave room for expansion. To ensure a continuous supply of compost, you should have at least 2 bins. This way you can fill one and leave it to rot down while you fill the next one.

Once you’ve located the perfect place, you’re well on your way to successful composting!

3. Selecting the Ingredients

Your compost bin needs 4 key ingredients to thrive:

  • carbon-rich materials (browns)
  • nitrogen-rich materials (greens)
  • water
  • air

Your compost pile should have a balance of green and brown ingredients. Let’s dive into what this means and which items fall into each category.

Green Materials

Green materials provide nitrogen to your compost pile. Some examples of green materials you can include are:

  • Food waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Grass clippings and fresh leaves
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves
  • Soft green plants and garden waste

These materials help to speed up the decomposition process and promote a nutritious environment for microorganisms.

Brown Materials

On the other hand, brown materials are carbon-rich and provide structure to your compost. They also aid in balancing moisture levels. Common brown materials encompass:

  • Dry leaves, twigs, and branches
  • Yard waste such as plant trimmings and spent blooms
  • Cardboard, newspaper, and egg cartons
  • Sawdust and wood shavings

Remember, it’s essential to have a good mix of both green and brown materials, ideally in equal amounts. Too much green could lead to a slimy, smelly pile, while excess brown may slow down the process.

Now, let’s talk about some things you should avoid putting in your compost bin.

Firstly, pet waste is a no-go, as it could potentially introduce harmful bacteria to your compost. It’s best to dispose of this waste separately.

Other ingredients you should avoid are:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy products
  • Fats and oils
  • Diseased or poisonous plants
  • Garden waste treated with chemical pesticides
  • Stickers stuck on fruit and veg peels
  • Make sure your tea bags are biodegradable – many contain plastics these days!

One of my worst mistakes? As a new mom, I naively put baby wipes in my compost bin… I am still retrieving some from my compost 7 years later!

4. Filling the Bin

Now, it’s time to start filling your first compost bin!

To start, stand your compost bin directly on the soil, allowing worms and microorganisms to speed up the composting process. 

The bottom layer must ensure good drainage. Start with a layer of coarse brown materials such as twigs and small branches.

Afterwards, you can start building layers of vegetable matter to form the bulk of the compost. Aim for a mix of brown and green materials. Grass mowing, young weeds, soft plant stems and vegetable peelings all rot down very quickly in the first few days. This is useful for starting the composting process but will create a smelly wet mass if used on its own. This is why it is important to add layers of tougher brown materials. These materials decompose more slowly but provide structure and air gaps to the compost.

Water the heap as you fill it up for optimum moisture content. If your heap is too wet, add more browns. If it is too dry, add more greens or water.

How thick should compost layers be?

It’s generally recommended to add vegetable matter in layers with a depth of up to 6 inches.

Some people go up to 8 inches, but in practice, it depends on how much organic waste you have available for composting at a particular time.

But don’t worry if your layers aren’t perfect!

As long as there’s a mix of both greens and browns, and you monitor the compost for signs of problems, you can always adjust the proportions as you go along.

By filling your bin with the right materials and a proper balance of green and brown materials, you’ll be well on your way to creating the perfect compost for your garden. So, grab your gardening gloves and start building your compost pile today!

5. Turning the Heap (optional)

This step is optional, but highly recommended!

To keep your pile aerated and decomposing efficiently, it’s a good idea to turn it regularly.

To turn your heap effectively, grab a trusty garden fork and follow the following steps:

  • If you have an additional compost bin available, get it ready for use. Using your garden fork, transfer the contents of your old compost heap to the new one. Dig deep into the pile to ensure that all materials are mixed evenly.
  • If you only have one bin, dig your garden fork into the heap and turn it onto itself. Try to mix the layers. It’s a little bit like tossing a salad!

As you mix the compost, create air pockets within the compost pile. Doing so helps to maintain a healthy environment for the microbes that break down your materials. These air pockets allow oxygen to flow, speeding up the decomposition process.

Be mindful of the moisture levels in your compost heap. When it’s too wet, pockets between the particles tend to fill with water instead of air. Turning your compost helps drain away excess water and reopen these pockets, ultimately allowing air to enter.

By diligently turning your compost heap and maintaining proper conditions, you’re on your way to creating nutrient-rich compost for your garden!

What if you don’t turn your compost?

If you leave your compost alone, it’ll break down eventually—it just might take a bit more time!

6. Harvesting the Compost

When your compost pile has transformed into a dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling finished product, it’s time to harvest it.

This process usually takes a few months, depending on factors like temperature, moisture, and the materials used in your homemade compost. Patience is key, as it can take anywhere from three months to a year for your compost to be ready.

In hot composting, completed compost typically settles at the bottom of the pile. That means you’ll need to dig down through the layers until you find the rich, finished product. In other systems, like a tumbler or a stacked bin, you can simply lift or rotate the assembly to access the compost.

Remember, not all of your compost pile may be finished at the same time. If you find some partially decomposed materials, you can simply return them to your compost system for further breaking down.

7. Using Your Compost in the Garden

Spreading compost in the garden in autumn.

You must be excited to use your compost in the garden! 

Compost is versatile and can be used in various ways to benefit your garden:

  • Spread it on your garden beds as a top dressing. There is no need to dig it in, you can let the worms and other microorganisms incorporate it into your soil. I do this every year in autumn.
  • Add a layer of compost as mulch around the base of your plants, trees, or shrubs to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
  • Use it to top up your raised beds, ensuring the soil stays at the optimal level for growing healthy plants.
  • Remember your potted plants as well! Mix mature compost into your usual potting mix to enhance the nutrients.
  • Make compost tea. Simply add a few scoops of compost to a bucket of water and let it steep for a few days. The resulting liquid can be poured onto the soil to give your plants a nutrient boost.

What’s Next?

And there you have it – the alchemy of composting boiled down to seven straightforward steps.

By now, you know that your everyday waste is nothing short of a treasure trove for your garden.

But the magic doesn’t just happen. It starts with you taking action today. Because the sooner you start, the quicker you’ll be nurturing your plants with rich, life-giving compost.

Think of the satisfaction you’ll feel when you see your garden thriving, all from the simple act of recycling your scraps. You’re not just growing plants; you’re growing a healthier planet, right in your backyard.

So, what’s stopping you? Let the transformation begin!

Frequently Asked Questions

What materials can I compost?

You can compost various materials such as garden waste (lawn clippings, annual weeds, hedge trimmings, and faded flowers), plant-based kitchen waste (veg peelings), and paper and cardboard. Mixing greens with higher nitrogen content, like grass clippings and kitchen scraps, and browns with higher carbon content, like dry leaves and twigs, is essential for a healthy compost.

What’s the process to compost in an apartment?

Composting in an apartment is easier than you think! Purchase a small, enclosed composting bin suitable for indoors such as a worm bin (vermicomposting), or a Bokashi system. Add your kitchen scraps and other organic waste material. For a worm bin, the worms break down the waste and produce nutrient-rich compost. With a Bokashi system, you ferment your food waste anaerobically to create compost. Once processed, you can use the final product for your indoor plants or balcony garden!

How can I create a DIY compost bin?

Creating a DIY compost bin is simple and cost-effective. Use a large plastic storage container with a tight-fitting lid, and drill air holes on the lid and the sides for proper ventilation. Start with a layer of brown materials, followed by adding green materials, and make sure to alternate between layers of browns and greens. Don’t forget to mix the contents regularly and maintain the right moisture level, like a damp sponge.

What are the steps for starting a compost pile?

  1. Choose a suitable location in your garden or yard, preferably on a level, well-draining spot.
  2. Start with a layer of coarse materials, like twigs, to help with aeration.
  3. Add a layer of brown materials, like dry leaves, followed by a layer of green materials, like grass clippings and kitchen scraps.
  4. Alternate layers of browns and greens as you continue to add more waste.
  5. Wet the compost pile to maintain appropriate moisture content.
  6. Regularly turn and mix the pile to increase aeration and speed up the decomposition process.

What is the proper composting method for a beginner?

The simplest composting method for a beginner is a “cold” or “passive” composting system. It involves piling up your organic waste materials in layers, starting with browns, then greens, without needing to turn or mix the pile. Although it might take longer to decompose than a hot or active composting system, it is low-maintenance and perfect for beginners.

How can I activate my compost effectively?

To activate your compost effectively, consider adding compost activators such as mature compost, leaf mould, well-rotted manure, or a store-bought compost activator. These additions introduce beneficial microorganisms that help break down the materials and speed up the composting process. Remember to maintain a balanced mix of greens and browns, turn the pile regularly, and keep it consistently moist for effective composting.