Composting 101: How to Start Your First Compost Pile

If you are new to gardening or lawn care, a word you’ve likely run across is composting.

Truth to be told, backyard composting 101 can have a massive impact to aid gardening and lawn care. It’s not a passing trend that will be forgotten, so if you have the right conditions and preparation, you should start a compost pile for yourself.

Gardeners have known for a while how beneficial using compost as a soil amendment is. Homeowners are slowly becoming aware that compost can be incredibly useful in their lawns as well; it just has to be applied in a special process called topdressing.

Understand what compost is, dos, donts , how to compost, what you can or can not compost, tips for each stage of the process, those never again, and rejoice the fruits that await! 

* Bear in mind that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, food waste is estimated at between 30-40% of the food supply and about 22% of rubbish at municipal landfills. Think how much you can compost into nutrient-rich soil by organic gardening? Learn grow composting 101!

What Is Composting?

To break it down into the most simple explanation: 

Organic composting is a natural process where a pile of yard waste and kitchen scraps is broken down. Mix the right ingredients in the right proportions and bacteria, fungi, and worms produce an organic material that praised as “black gold.” The precious organic matter is then added to the soil to improve its structure, fertility, and water holding capacity.

How Does Composting Happen?

The composting process needs four plus one components to happen:

  1. Carbon (C) 
  2. Nitrogen (N) 
  3. Moisture
  4. Oxygen (O2)
  5. Microorganisms

In the presence of moisture and oxygen, two types of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, bugs, and worms to work in three stages to create compost. How long the entire process takes depends on how involved you are, the size of your pile, and what you put into it. 

The right balance of ingredients allows microorganisms to decompose carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) so plantlife can further extract nutrients and grow to release oxygen (O2) back in the atmosphere. The more nutrient soil is, the more greenery will thrive. 

According to Daily Gardener, some experts believe that anything from a few months to even three years is an acceptable length — but there are many steps you can take to move to the quicker end of the scale and get your lawn and garden in shape faster. 

According to Escape Waste, the fruits of ongoing composting can produce and sustain a wide range of local organizations and activities that sustain green thinking and living.

The 3 Stages of Composting

Stage 1: Initial organic decomposition

In the first stage, mesophilic organisms (which live in moderate temperatures between 68 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit) begin to break down the materials into smaller pieces. This stage takes a couple of days and starts to increase the internal temperature of the pile.

Stage 2: Complex organics break down

When the temperature becomes too warm for mesophiles the second stage starts and thermophilic microorganisms (which thrive between 113F and 252F take over. 

These higher temperatures let thermophiles efficiently break down proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates into finer particles. Stage two usually spans several days to months depending on the conditions within the compost pile. 

Stage 3: Break down 

As thermophilic microorganisms use up the available supply of materials the temperature of the pile starts to lower, allowing the mesophiles to resume control of the process again. During this final step, mesophiles finish breaking down the organic materials allowing it to mature into usable compost.

3 Stages of Composting
Stage 1Stage 2Stage 3
Temperature68 - 113°F113 - 252°F68 - 113°F
Length of Time5-10 daysDays to Several MonthsSeveral Months
Processes OccurringBreakdown of materials into smaller piecesBreakdown of proteins, fats, and complex carbohydratesCooling and maturation

Understanding the Materials in a Compost Pile

For simplicity’s sake, most decomposable materials in compost piles can be classified as either brown or green materials, depending on their makeup.

Materials for composting 101:

  • Brown materials are carbon-rich items that provide energy to the microorganisms in the pile and give compost its light, fluffy body. Typical brown items are more wood-based, or fibrous: dry leaves, branches, stems, sawdust, tree bark, shredded newspaper, corn stalks, wood ash, and pine needles.
  • Green materials are nitrogen-based waste materials. They provide amino acids and proteins needed for the bacteria and fungi to do their job. Manures, food scraps, coffee grounds, green leaves, and grass clippings are excellent nitrogen-rich green materials.

A simple rule of thumb is to make sure the compost pile has approximately 2/3 “brown” materials and 1/3 “green” materials. 

Different Ways to Compost

There are many different ways to make compost in your back yard; the main difference is where you pile your materials or use a composter. The different methods for backyard composting 101 offer flexibility and vary in cost and difficulty.

  1. Piling is a simple, common process. Materials are literally heaped into a pile and turned periodically to aerate. 
  2. Composting bins are either open or enclosed bins that contain everything. Open bins are a partial structure allowing for ventilation and aeration while keeping materials confined. One side is easily accessible to add materials and turn the pile. Enclosed bins completely enclose the process via a lid and eliminate both the sight of a compost pile and the smell.
  3. Tumblers are a unique, efficient type of enclosed compost bin. Cylindrical in nature, a tumbler has hand-hold insets or a handle that allows it to be “turned” or tumbled easily. 

Vermicomposting or worm composting, is a variation of composting that relies heavily on a type of worms called red wigglers to break down the materials. It is often done in a specialized worm bin and focuses mainly on compostable kitchen waste.

Steps to Build a Simple Compost Pile

The simplest way to compost is to create a pile or heap in the yard, tending to it as necessary. Situate it in a dry, shady spot fairly close to a water source if possible.

  1. Clear a space in your yard or garden, exposing bare soil.
  2. Build a base layer of straw or twigs. A few inches helps provide good drainage.
  3. Add layers of materials to be composted one at a time, alternating between brown and green materials.
  4. Incorporate a nitrogen source to start decomposition. Some gardeners add a handful of nitrogen fertilizer to jumpstart the process.
  5. Keep the pile moist. It’s recommended that the materials should feel like a damp sponge, but unable to squeeze water out if you grab a handful.
  6. Turn the compost pile every couple of weeks to allow the center of the pile to “heat up”. Aeration provides oxygen to the microorganisms involved in the composting process and mixes the pile.

What Foods Can be Composted?

  • Fruit or Vegetable leftovers
  • Meat leftovers 
  • Coffee leftovers 
  • Eggshells 
  • Tea
  • Leaves
  • Wood 
  • Shredded paper 
  • Soiled cardboard

What Can’t be Composted:

  • Animal byproducts – dairy, bones, and meat, 
  • Foods rich on fat and oil – mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad dressing or vegetable oils
  • Feces – dog, cat or human
  • Garden waste treated with pesticides
  • Garden waste from sick plants 
  • Weeds will grow instead of decomposing
  • Commercial flowers & plantlife
  • Biodegradable plastics

Do’s and Don’ts of Composting

Keeping the right balance of brown and green materials, as well as the proper amount of water in the pile will influence how quickly the process occurs. To help speed up how quickly items decompose in your compost pile, keep in mind the following “do’s” and “don’ts”.


  • Chop all materials into smaller pieces.
  • Cover the top of the pile if you live in a rainy climate.
  • Add nitrogen fertilizer if your brown ratio is too high.
  • Add pulverized eggshells to increase the calcium in your finished compost.


  • Don’t keep food waste at the top of the pile where it can attract rodents.
  • Don’t put plant roots, diseased plant tissue, or in the pile.

Materials to Avoid in Your Compost Pile:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy products
  • Fats and oils
  • Pet waste or solid waste
  • Raspberry brambles
  • Large sticks or branches
  • Pressure-treated wood
  • Leaves or twigs from black walnut trees

How to Tell When Your Compost is Ready

When all of the waste has been broken down, and the compost is ready to use the temperature of the pile will drop dramatically. The resulting material will look and feel like really dark, rich soil with a deep, earthy smell.

Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant-related. With a master's degree in agriculture and more than a decade of experience gardening and tending to her lawn, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.