How to Start Your Own Compost

"As well as helping your plants flourish, composting is a great way to reduce your kitchen waste and use up all those weeds and other garden materials."


A lovely compost bin.[Photograph: London Permaculture]

Summer is the perfect time to start a new garden, or make your current garden even more awesome. No matter what your level of gardening expertise, you can start your own compost to enrich your soil and help your plants grow to their greatest potential. Even Bill Yosses, the White House executive pastry chef, is tossing fruit scraps from the White House kitchen into a "biocycler," a three-part composting system that's part of Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden project.

Composting is the process of combining kitchen scraps, dry material from your yard, and other organic matter (including soil) into a big pile—and then letting it sit, stirring occasionally. The compost pile becomes very hot internally as microorganisms work to decompose the organic matter. After a time span of four weeks to a few months, the compost has turned into a uniform, soil-like compound. This is called humus, and it can do wonders for your plants.

As the organic matter is breaking down, minerals and nutrients are being concentrated into a super-soil that you can add to your garden beds. You can even grow plants directly in your compost pile, but often the compost is put to best use when spread around for maximum plant exposure. As well as helping your plants flourish, composting is a great way to reduce your kitchen waste and use up all those weeds and other garden materials.

Now that we have the basics down, let's build a compost pile.

What Kind of Container

While you can just heap your compost in the backyard, most people will build the pile in some sort of container to keep things orderly and more aesthetically pleasing. If you use a container, pick one that's at least 3x3x3. It's best if there are holes or slats on the top and sides to aerate the pile. Make sure you can reach over the top of your container, to stir the compost and access the mature compost at the bottom.

What Goes Inside?

So, what do you put in your compost pile? The basic components of any compost, however, are "brown" and "green" materials. Brown materials include things like dead leaves, twigs, and branches. Green material includes vegetables scraps, live plants like weeds, and fruit peels. There are differing opinions on what order you should add the ingredients to your compost recipe. But at the most basic level, you can throw down a bunch of brown material, add a little water to keep things moist, and then start adding soil and green materials.

What Does NOT Go Inside?

There are certain things that you should not add to your compost pile. For instance, diseased plants are a no-no. It's generally a good idea to limit the amount of animal fat or grease you're adding. Dairy is a bad idea—it can rot and give off an odor, or attract rodents.

And if you do add paper, try not to add paper that's been printed on with non-soy-based ink. Basically, apart from dairy, if you wouldn't want to put something in your mouth, don't put it in your compost.

How to Speed Up the Process

Your composting process can be accelerated by stirring the compost to ensure even decomposition. If you keep a regular eye on your pile, you can have mature compost in as few as four weeks. Take a more hands-off approach, and it may take a few weeks longer. But either way, your plants will be happy when the process is complete!

For more information on how to compost, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have good starting guides!