23 essential composting tips for beginners

If you’re new to composting, you may be wondering where to start. Composting can seem like a complicated process, but it’s actually a rather simple and more importantly easy to understand process.

Or maybe you’ve been composting for a while but could use some tips to help make the process easier and more efficient?

Whatever your level of experience, this article is for you!

Compost bin or compost pile?

The simple answer is that it does not really matter. But both methods will produce high quality finished compost. What matters is that you do get started.

Composting is a great way to reduce landfill waste and at the same time create nutrient-rich soil for your garden.

Keep reading for must-know advice on everything from choosing the right compost bin to troubleshooting common problems. Happy composting!

1. Get organised with your composting material

Collect compost materials in a designated place. This will make it easier to have all the materials you need when you are ready to start composting.

Collect brown materials and green materials in separate containers. And do make sure to keep organic materials that can attract animals in sealed containers.

2. Smaller pieces for efficient composting process

Slice, grind, tear, shred or cut before adding materials to the compost.

Chopping materials into small pieces increases the available surface area and speeds up the composting process. Even fallen leaves and pine needles should be shredded to help improve soil structure.

For you, this translates into a more efficient process that will give you the finished compost faster.

3. Brown waste is everywhere

The term brown is used to describe organic matter rich in carbon. And brown materials can be found everywhere.

Your garden will give you dead leaves, pine needles, branches, and twigs. Add hay, cardboard, and newspaper to the list and you can see how you will have more than enough for your needs.

Add 3 parts of brown to your compost for every one part of green material.

Pine needles are pH neutral by the time they are broken down and incorporated into your soil. Read more about the process here. 

4. Adding greens helps microorganisms grow and multiply

Greens are nitrogen-rich materials that will create heat in your compost and help microorganisms grow strong and multiply. The greens basically provide the nitrogen that microorganisms need for their metabolism.

Examples of greens are vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, grass clippings and kitchen scraps with the exception of dairy products and meat products.

Stick to 1 part green for every 3 parts brown when you first start your compost.

5. You want moist and light- not wet and compact

Moisten material as you add it to your compost. However, do not over wet the material as this may promote mold growth and defeat the purpose of aerobically composting.

If your compost is too wet there will be no air circulation and the compost heap will tor from the inside.

You could also be facing unpleasant smells and problems with flies and insects.

6. Stir when adding organic materials

Compost regularly and always stir your materials when they have been added.

Your compost should be stirred once a week or as needed. This will make sure the microorganisms are eating and producing heat evenly throughout your pile.

7. Turn your composting materials

Turn the content of your composting bin or heap to promote a healthy internal structure.

Turning is important to introduce oxygen into the composting organic material and supply carbon to the nitrogen-rich materials to help with the decomposition process.

8. Location, location, location

Keep your compost in a shady spot to help keep your compost from drying out.

Also, avoid a spot exposed to wind as this too will have a drying effect. You want a location where the compost will be able to self-regulate the level of moisture even if you may have to add a few drops of water every now and then.

9. Keep track of temperature in hot composts

Do not compost plants with diseases
Why risk composting or recycling plants with diseases? Here leaf miners on tomato plant

Hot composts are more efficient and the finished compost is ready for use much faster. But they are also more labor intensive and you need to keep an eye on the temperature.

Use a compost thermometer to ensure your compost is heating up. Hot composts should be about 1 meter x 1 meter x 1 meter (3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet) and the ideal temperature for microorganisms to give you fast decomposing is about 71 degrees Celsius (160 F).

If the temperature of your pile is too low you need to aerate your compost and add more greens (nitrogen-rich materials).

10. Think ventilation if you build a frame

If you build a wooden compost bins, drill holes in the sides to allow for airflow. Or place the planks wood to allow for a 3 – 6 cm (1 – 2 inches) of space between planks. You can cover the inside with chicken wire to keep browns, greens and other materials in place.

Proper air circulation help heat up your compost faster and prevent the contents from getting too wet.

11. Build or buy your compost bin

Using a homemade or store-bought compost bin is fine as long as you turn the content of your compost container regularly. If you do not want to turn the pile, consider using a worm composter instead of an open air pile or bin.

12. Protect kitchen waste in compost bin from animals

If you are using an open air compost bin or heap, make sure to fence in your compost pile to keep out animals that may want to steal your composting materials.

13. Be patient and let the magic happen

Grass clippings for compost or mulch
Fresh grass cuttings as mulch or green matter for your compost

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for your compost to be ready with soil amendments to improve your garden soil, so be patient!

Hot composts bins are more efficient and it is possible to transform food waste, corn stalks and banana peels to soil for your garden beds in weeks. But do not stress the process.

Cold composts take longer but also double as a place to keep garden waste like grass clippings, old plants and other refuse from your garden. It can take over a year for a cold compost pile to produce compost for use in your garden.

14 Line compost bins for easier turning

If using a compost bin, line it with a thin layer of straw or hay to absorb moisture and make turning easier.

15. Think air circulation when building the foundation

Twigs and smaller branches for compost foundation
Collecting twigs and branches

Build the foundation of your compost pile using twigs and coarser branches to allow for good air circulation.

I collect twigs and smaller branches throughout the growing season to be used when I start my new composts.

Do not cut or break the pieces too finely as you want them to be large enough to create a solid yet airy base structure for your compost to rest on.

Where we live the stronger winds after the summer season always provide plenty to harvest.

16. Weeds, thistles and egg shells are great for hot composts

Weeds, thistles and eggshells should be placed in the middle of your hot compost where the temperature is highest.

With cold composts it is better to let the plants dry out completely before being thrown into the compost.

Egg shells should be boiled to kill any pathogens and then finely crushed before being added to a cold compost.

17. Be a friend and add a scope of soil

Add a scoop of soil from time to time – it boosts bacterial activity and helps all other beneficial organisms keep the compost moist, aerated and healthy.

18. Water if compost goes dry

Water if compost becomes dry, most common in spring and in high summer. In a dry environment there will be no or very slow decomposition.

But on the other hand, if the compost is too wet the materials will rot as there will be no air circulation.

You want a moist and humid environment for quick and efficient composting.

19. Think beyond garden and food waste

Composting basics tells us to add garden waste as well as fruit and vegetable scraps to our compost bins.

But there are many other things you can put in your compost bin. Also add coffee grounds, tea bags, used paper towels, cardboard, sawdust, old brown paper bags and napkins to your bins and piles.

20. Think deep when adding food scraps

To prevent flies and other undesirable animals and insects, bury food scraps deep into your compostable materials.

Also, if kept outdoors, store them in a closed container before putting them in your compost.

21. Not enough brown material?

If you do not have enough leaves or other brown materials in your area, consider using green materials instead of brown to speed up the microorganism activity inside the compost.

You can also use dried grass clippings as a nitrogen-rich material for a quick decomposing compost pile.

22. Problem with flies?

If you have flies covering your compost, it is too wet and needs to be aerated. Stir and cover with soil, hay or other dry brown materials to bring compost back to balance.

23. Problem with smell?

If your compost bin smells like rotten eggs it is too wet and needs to be aerated. Stir and cover with soil, hay or other dry brown material to bring compost back to balance.

Oxygenation of your compost is an important part for the decomposition process . Turning your compost pile regularly (or using a bin with a turning mechanism) will help add oxygen to the mix.

You can also try drilling some holes into the sides of your compost bins to help increase airflow (if made of wood) .

And do not pack your compost too tightly, which can also cause anaerobic fermentation (no oxygen) to occur.

Summary and conclusion

Composting is a great way to make good use of garden waste and recycle your food scraps. And we hope you found these tips helpful whether you are a beginner or just looking for ways to improve the efficiency of an existing compost.

If you are new to composting, you will find a step-by-step beginner’s guide on how to get started with your own compost in the article Composting for beginners: Guide to get started.

If you have any tips for fellow readers, we would love to hear them! And do let us know if there is anything else about composting that you want to learn more about as well – we’re always happy to answer your questions.

Helpful resources:

University of California

Washington State University

Mattias Magnusson: Hello, I'm Mattias, a passionate and experienced gardening enthusiast. I am the creator of MattMagnusson.com, your guide to year-round herb and veggie growing. Let's simplify green living, no matter your space or location.