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.

Backyard composting 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 when applied in a special process called topdressing.

We’ll help you understand what compost is with dos and don’ts and tips for each stage of the process. Once we’re done with you, all that’s left will be to wait and harvest the fruits of your labor.

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 of that waste you could prevent by composting!

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 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 requires five components:

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

In the presence of moisture and oxygen, microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, bugs, and worms 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 plant life can further extract nutrients and grow to release oxygen (O2) back into the atmosphere. The more nutrients your soil has, the more greenery will thrive in it. 

According to Daily Gardener, experts say the composting process can take anywhere from a few months to three years. There are many steps you can take to move to the quicker end of the spectrum and get your lawn and garden in shape faster. 

Composting is a key component to living a sustainable lifestyle and can also help turbo-charge your garden.  Here’s how to do it.

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 113 F and 252 F) take over. 

These higher temperatures let thermophiles efficiently break down proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates into finer particles. Stage two can span several days or even 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 them to mature into usable compost.

3 Stages of Composting
Stage 1Stage 2Stage 3
Temperature68 - 113°F113 - 252°F68 - 113°F
MicroorganismsMesophilicThermophilicMesophilic
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

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 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 compost in your backyard. The main difference is where and how you pile your materials. Different methods for backyard composting 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-held insets or a handle that allows it to be “turned” or tumbled easily. 
  4. 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 help 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 – wet enough that you can feel the water, but not so wet you can 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 Materials Can be Composted?

  • Fruit and vegetable peels
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells 
  • Tea
  • Leaves
  • Wood 
  • Shredded paper 
  • Soiled cardboard

What Materials Can’t be Composted?

  • Animal byproducts – dairy, bones, and meat
  • Foods rich in fat and oil (i.e. mayonnaise, peanut butter, salad dressing, or vegetable oils)
  • Feces (animal or human)
  • Garden waste treated with pesticides
  • Garden waste from sick plants 
  • Weeds
  • Plastics (even biodegradable ones)

Do’s and Don’ts of Composting

Keeping the right balance of brown and green materials and 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.”

DO

  • 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

  • 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 pesticide-infected plant matter in the pile.

Materials to Avoid in Your Compost Pile:

  • Meat and bones
  • Dairy products
  • Fats and oils
  • Pet 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 finished product will look and feel like 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.