Composting for Beginners: How to Get Started Now! 

Composting for Beginners: Turn waste into garden gold with this easy guide. Learn practical tips and simple steps for enriching your soil.

composting for beginners

Ready to turn your kitchen scraps into garden gold? Composting is an easy, rewarding way to create healthy soil perfect for everyone, especially beginners just starting their gardening journey. With this guide, you’ll learn to transform everyday waste into valuable soil amendments using practical, beginner-friendly tips. Let’s get started on your composting adventure!

Composting for Beginners: Understanding the Basics

In composting, organic waste aerobically breaks down with the help of oxygen. Microorganisms, insects, and worms actively facilitate this process. You can transform everyday kitchen scraps and garden refuse into humus through composting – a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance that greatly benefits your garden by enriching the soil with essential nutrients. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), composting enriches soil, retains moisture, and suppresses plant diseases and pests. Using compost also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, providing a natural, healthier alternative for gardens. Composting, therefore, is not only a smart choice for gardeners but also an eco-friendly practice contributing to sustainable living.

Key Components of Composting

Brown Materials

These are your carbon-rich items, crucial for the composting process. They include dead leaves, branches, wood chips, straw, shredded paper, and cardboard.

  • Role in Composting: These substances offer the vital carbon required to fuel the microorganisms in your compost heap.
  • Ratio: Aim for a ratio of approximately 3 parts brown materials to 1 part green materials. This balance is key to maintaining an efficient composting process.

Green Materials

These materials are nitrogen-rich and include fruit and vegetable scraps, lawn clippings, coffee grounds, and other plant-based kitchen waste.

  • Role in Composting: Green materials provide the nitrogen necessary for the growth and reproduction of the microorganisms that break down the organic matter.
  • Importance of Balance: Too much nitrogen can cause odors and a slimy compost pile, while too much carbon can slow the composting process.


  • Necessity: Moisture is crucial in the composting process as it helps break down organic matter.
  • Ideal Moisture Level: Your compost should be moist, similar to the dampness of a squeezed-out sponge, but not waterlogged, which can lead to anaerobic conditions and odor problems.


  • Requirement for Decomposition: Oxygen is essential for aerobic decomposition, efficiently breaking down organic matter without unpleasant odors.
  • Aeration: Regularly turning your compost pile, ideally every 1-2 weeks, introduces air into the system. This accelerates the composting process and helps maintain the right balance of moisture and temperature, ensuring a healthy, active compost pile.

Composting Systems: Choosing the Right One

Selecting the right system is key to successful composting, especially for beginners. Each method offers unique benefits, catering to various situations. Whether it’s a spacious backyard or a compact apartment, you’ll find a composting technique that suits your space and needs.

Open Piles

open compost bin

Open piles are the most basic form of composting. You simply pile your composting materials in a designated area of your yard.

  • Benefits: They are cost-effective and require minimal setup. This method is ideal for large quantities of yard waste and is perfect for rural or suburban settings with ample space.
  • Considerations: Open piles may attract wildlife and can be slower to decompose due to exposure to the elements. They require regular turning and monitoring to ensure proper composting.

Bins and Tumblers

compost tumbler

Compost bins and tumblers are enclosed systems that provide a more controlled environment for composting.

  • Benefits: They are great for smaller spaces like urban gardens or patios. Enclosed bins help deter pests and reduce odors, and tumblers make turning the compost easier.
  • Types:
    • Stationary Bins: Typically made of plastic or wood, these bins have open bottoms for direct soil contact. They’re great for continuous composting.
    • Tumblers: These are barrel-shaped bins that rotate on an axis. Tumblers offer the advantage of easy turning, which speeds up the composting process and helps maintain an even mix.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting)

worm composting (vermicomposting bin)

Vermicomposting utilizes specific species of worms to decompose organic matter.

  • Benefits: It’s an excellent method for indoor composting or those with limited outdoor space. Worm composting is efficient, odorless, and produces high-quality compost rich in nutrients.
  • Setup: Typically involves a bin or container filled with bedding material (like shredded newspaper or coconut coir) and kitchen scraps for the worms to feed on. The worms break down the material into compost and worm castings, which are highly nutritious for plants. These castings are an excellent soil amendment, rich in microorganisms and nutrients essential for healthy plant growth. 

Bokashi Bucket

bokashi bucket compost

The Bokashi system is a fermentation process rather than traditional composting. It uses a special inoculant to ferment kitchen waste, including meat and dairy, in a sealed container.

  • Benefits: Ideal for small spaces and indoor use, Bokashi composting is quick, efficient, and odorless. It’s perfect for those who want to compost kitchen waste without attracting pests.
  • Process: Kitchen waste is added to the Bokashi bucket, sprinkled with Bokashi bran, and then sealed. The waste ferments in the bucket, and after a few weeks, it’s buried in the garden or added to a traditional compost pile to complete decomposition.

Composting Approaches: Hot vs. Cold

After choosing your physical composting system, the next step is to decide on your composting approach: hot or cold. Both methods can be applied in various systems like open piles, bins, or tumblers, and your choice depends on how much effort you want to put in and how quickly you need the compost.

Hot Composting

This involves actively managing your compost to achieve higher temperatures that accelerate decomposition.

  • Benefits: Faster compost production, typically in 2-3 months, and the high temperatures kill off weed seeds and pathogens.
  • Requirements: It requires a good balance of green and brown materials, adequate moisture, and regular turning.

Cold Composting

A more passive approach, where you add materials to your compost system and let nature slowly do its work.

  • Benefits: Less labor-intensive than hot composting, it’s a set-it-and-forget-it method.
  • Considerations: It takes longer to produce compost, often 6-12 months or more, and may not reach temperatures high enough to destroy all seeds and pathogens.

Creating Your Compost Pile: A Step-by-Step Guide

compost bin

Setting Up

  • Choose a location that’s dry and shaded, close to a source of water.
  • Start with a layer of coarse brown material (like branches) to improve drainage and aeration.

Building Your Pile

  • Alternate layers of green and brown materials.
  • Maintain a balance, aiming for about 3 parts brown to 1 part green by volume.

Maintenance: Key to Composting Success

  • Water: Keep the compost moist but not drenched.
  • Turn the Pile: Regularly turning your compost pile (every 1-2 weeks) promotes quicker decomposition and prevents odor.
  • Monitor: Keep an eye on your compost’s progress. It’s ready when it’s dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling.

What to Compost (And What Not to)

what to compost list of items

Creating a thriving compost pile involves knowing what materials are beneficial and which could cause problems. A diverse mix of appropriate materials leads to a healthy, active composting process.

Ideal Composting Materials

Kitchen Scraps

  • Fruit and Vegetable Scraps: These are excellent green materials that decompose quickly. Avoid composting fruit peels treated with pesticides unless they’re organic.
  • Coffee Grounds and Filters, Tea Bags: Rich in nitrogen, these materials add valuable nutrients to your compost. Ensure that tea bags are made of compostable material.
  • Eggshells (Crushed): While they decompose slowly, crushed eggshells add calcium to the compost, benefiting plant growth.
  • Pasta and Rice: These can be added to your compost as well. However, be mindful that they should be cooked and free of oils or sauces. Pasta and rice help create a balanced compost mix but can attract pests if not properly managed.

Yard and Garden Waste

  • Yard Trimmings and Grass Clippings: These are excellent sources of green material. However, balance them with brown materials to prevent matting and odors.
  • Leaves, Straw, and Hay: Excellent brown materials, they provide carbon and structure to your compost pile. Leaves should be shredded for faster decomposition.
  • Shredded Newspaper, Cork, Cardboard, and Paper: These are good carbon sources. Ensure they’re not colored or glossy, as some inks and treatments are unsuitable for composting.

Items to Avoid in Your Compost

Animal Products

  • Meat, Fish, Bones, and Dairy Products: These items can attract pests like rodents and flies and cause unpleasant odors. They also have a higher risk of pathogen growth.

Plant Materials

  • Diseased Plants or Weeds with Seeds: These can spread diseases and weeds in your garden when the compost is applied. Some diseases and weed seeds can survive the composting process.

Miscellaneous Items

  • Pet Wastes: Dog and cat wastes may contain pathogens harmful to humans and should not be included in compost used for food gardens.
  • Fats, Oils, and Grease: These materials can create odor problems, attract pests, and disrupt the balance of your compost pile.
  • Chemically-Treated Yard Waste: Treated plants can contain residues of pesticides or herbicides, which might harm the beneficial composting organisms and potentially contaminate your garden.

Troubleshooting Your Compost Pile

  • Odor: Usually caused by too much moisture or too many green materials. Add more browns and turn the pile to introduce air.
  • Pests: Keep your compost covered; avoid adding meat, dairy, and oily foods.
  • Slow Decomposition: Increase green materials, ensure proper moisture, and frequently turn the pile.

Utilizing Your Finished Compost

person holding finished compost

When your compost reaches the state of rich, dark soil and has an earthy scent, it’s ready for use. Apply it in your garden beds, incorporate it into potting soil, or use it as mulch. Your plants will thrive in this nutrient-rich, organic material.

Frequently Asked Questions About Composting for Beginners

Is compost a fertilizer or soil?

Compost serves as an enhancement to soil rather than a substitute for soil or fertilizer. It enriches soil health.

How often do you have to turn compost?

Turn compost every 1-2 weeks for optimal aeration and decomposition.

What happens if you don’t turn compost?

Not turning compost can slow decomposition and lead to odor issues and uneven composting.

Does compost expire?

Compost doesn’t expire but can lose quality over time. Use within 1-2 years.

Can you compost pasta?

Yes, you can compost pasta. For details: Can You Compost Pasta? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Can you compost cork?

Yes, you can compost cork, but it decomposes slowly. For more info: Can You Compost Cork? Here’s What You Need to Know.

Can I put eggshells in my compost?

Yes, crushed eggshells are beneficial in compost for added calcium.

Is it OK to have maggots in my compost?

Maggots aid decomposition but may indicate imbalance. Manage by burying kitchen scraps deeper and turning them regularly.

How long does it take to compost?

Composting typically takes 3-6 months, depending on conditions and materials used.

Are coffee grounds a green or brown in compost?

Coffee grounds are considered green material in compost due to their high nitrogen content.

Conclusion: The Rewards of Composting for Beginners

For beginners, composting is a simple and gratifying activity that significantly improves the health of your garden while supporting a sustainable planet. Armed with the knowledge from this comprehensive guide, you’re all set to embark on your composting adventure, transforming waste into valuable garden treasure

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