How to Make Compost in 4 Easy Steps

Pile of homemade compost being raked behind chicken wire fence

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 - 10 hrs
  • Total Time: 8 wks, 4 days - 17 wks, 1 day
  • Skill Level: Kid-friendly
  • Estimated Cost: $25-200

Any gardener can benefit from adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil to help plants thrive. One of the most popular and beneficial substances to add is compost. Compost will help all your plants grow better, whether your garden is indoors or out.

You can purchase compost at any garden supply center, but it is easy (and less expensive) to make your own.

What Is Composting?

Composting is the practice of putting organic materials in a pile or container and allowing them to decompose into a form of soil that plants can use as nutrients.

How to Choose a Compost Bin

When choosing a compost bin, you have to think about how you plan to use the compost and how much you need. There are many styles of compost bins to choose from.

On the small end of the spectrum, kitchen composters are small, streamlined, and odor-free. For larger garden operations, you may want to contain your compost in an outdoor bin. A DIY or store-bought or container to hold the compost and can be made of any material you have access to, such as wooden pallets, cinder blocks, or plastic bins.

Items you can use to make compost

The Spruce / Adriana Sanchez

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Compost bin or container
  • Shovel or pitchfork


  • Green materials: kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, pruning discards from fresh plants, and grass trimmings.
  • Brown materials: fallen leaves, shredded tree branches, cardboard, newspaper, hay or straw, and wood shavings


How to Make Compost

  1. Add Green Material

    Green material is high in nitrogen. It includes kitchen scraps such as coffee grounds, peelings, fruit cores, uneaten leftovers, and eggshells. Any kitchen waste that is not greasy or meat can be composted.

    Grass clippings, leaves, and weeds are also considered green materials, as is manure from barnyard animals (but not cats or dogs).

    "Green" materials to add to a compost pile

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

  2. Add Brown Material

    Brown material is high in carbon. Paper, cornstalks, sawdust, small branches, twigs, and straw all fall into this category.

    The ratio of nitrogen to carbon should ideally be 50/50 in your compost pile so for every bit of brown material you add, be sure to balance it with green material.


    If you add paper, such as newspaper, to your compost pile, shred it first so that oxygen can get at a significant amount of the surface. If you don't take this step, you risk turning moldy and ruining your compost.

    "Brown" materials for a compost pile
  3. Add Water

    Water is the final key ingredient in a thriving compost pile. Without moisture, your pile will take months to do anything and, if dry enough, will not break down at all. If your pile is too wet, on the other hand, it will smell and become slimy as the ratio of harmful bacteria outweighs the good.

    You want the pile to remain damp but not dripping wet. If you do not get enough rainfall to suffice, dump a bucket of water over it once a week to keep things moving.

    You will know that your compost pile is right if it becomes hot in the middle. Maintaining heat is important to sterilize the compost and kill the weed seeds or harmful bacteria that may be there. The heat is your proof that the ratio is working for your compost pile.

    Watering the compost pile

    Jurgute / Getty Images

  4. Turn the Pile Regularly

    Whether using a compost bin or a simple pile, you will need to turn your materials with a shovel or pitchfork. Simply move the outer portion of the pile toward the center, turning each scoop over as you go. Continue shuffling the materials until you have exposed the decomposing materials within the pile.

    A needs to be turned every two to four weeks. If you have a bin with a crank, give it a few turns every week.

    If your pile heats up, is adequately moist, and gets turned regularly, you should have usable compost in one to two months.

    Compost pile being turned with garden shovel behind chicken wire fence

    The Spruce / Meg MacDonald

How to Use Your Compost

Now that you have compost, you need to know what to do with it.

  • Fertilizer: Feed your perennials, bulbs, fruit trees, container plants, or lawn. Top dress or sprinkle some on top of your new or established plantings.
  • Mulch: Apply a 3- to 6-inch layer of compost to the soil surface instead of using mulch, it will prevent water evaporation from the soil, keeping it moist longer, and it will also discourage weed growth.
  • Potting soil: To make an enriched potting soil, use equal parts compost, vermiculite, and topsoil, mix thoroughly.
  • Compost tea: Brew compost tea. By making a liquid emulsion, you get a concentrated fertilizer that quickly reaches your plant's roots.

What Not to Put in Compost

Some materials will create a smelly pile, attracting rats and other vermin, so they should not be used for composting.

Items that should not be used for compost include:

  • Meat and fish
  • Dairy, fats, oils
  • Woods treated with preservatives
  • Diseased, pest-infested plants, or invasive weeds
  • Charcoal ash
  • Dog and cat waste

Any items treated with pesticides or acidic things like charcoal ash can kill the bacteria in your pile. Dog and cat poop may have harmful bacteria or parasites that turn your fertilizer into hazardous waste.

Avoid putting leaves or other plant parts that show signs of disease or fungal spots. These pathogens may survive the heat of the composting process and be transported back into the garden when you eventually use the compost. Unhealthy plant material should be bagged up and taken away.

Additional Compost Care Tips

  • A compost pile can be started any time of the year, although, in winter, decomposition will slow down.
  • If your compost heap starts to smell, it probably contains too much water; allow it to dry out by turning and not adding additional water for a few days.
  • Other odor-causing issues include adding too many greens and not enough browns or having meats or oils in your heap.
Homemade compost added around herbs in garden

The Spruce / Meg MacDonald