“I’m not sure Amelia…but I think they may only be keeping us around to put our crap in that pile!”

One can spend a lot of money on the various products made to help us produce compost – compost tumblers, compost bins , barrels, etc.  But the simple truth remains that you can make compost in almost anything to have your own supply of what is considered “black gold” among gardeners.

Our two bin system – made from recycled pallets

We use a two bin system at Old World Garden we made for free from recycled pallets – one to hold finished compost, the other to contain our latest batch.

There are major books dedicated to the topic of how to create compost, and we could get into all of the nitrogen vs. oxygen vs. moisture content details and arguments – but today’s post is all about keeping it simple.  The important thing is to not get so caught up in it the science that you never get around to starting a pile.

Organic matter makes the difference - especially when it comes to making and adding compost.
Organic matter makes the difference – especially when it comes to making and adding compost.

Compost is eventually going to be made in your pile no matter what you do.  The act of decomposition works on everything at some point – even that old truck slowly rusting in the weeds will put it’s iron back in the soil eventually!

Here are three basic hints for composting that can carry you far in your efforts to make great compost. By following them, it’s made our little two bin system crank out plentiful amounts of the high quality soil additives – helping bump up our garden yields year after year.

Good Compost Is The Key To A Great Garden
Good Compost Is The Key To A Great Garden

1. Chop Up Items You Add To The Pile  The smaller the item going in – the quicker it will decompose.  You don’t have to buy expensive shredders or grinders – a simple run over with the lawnmower can shred leaves or straw before you put it in.  And when you throw in those kitchen scraps – cut them up a few times on the pile with a sharp shovel to slice them up – they will begin to decompose so much quicker with the exposed smaller pieces

2.  Keep your pile moist but not wet.  Too wet, and your pile can get slimy.  Too dry, and it loses the ability to decompose faster.  You should be able to pick up the compost in your soil and feel moisture like that of a damp paper towel or rag.    But don’t fear – it won’t ruin your pile if it gets either way – it will just slow down the process.  If you get a ton of rain and your pile is out in the open, mix in some dry materials (i.e. chopped straw) to help it out.  Maybe even cover it with a tarp to help it not get so wet. On the other hand, if you have a huge dry spell – spray it with a little water when you turn it to get it cooking again.

3.  Keep your pile turned.  If you turn your pile over every couple of days – it really helps add vital oxygen and air flow to the mix – and distributes the moisture more evenly.  All of which result in a compost pile that decomposes quickly.  When you see steam rising when you turn it – you will know your pile is really cooking!

Here are some basic things that are great to include in your pile, and a few to avoid:

Egg shells are great for the compost pile

Great items to compost:

Coffee grounds, peanut shells, banana, orange, grapefruit, potato peels, eggshells, lettuce cores, carrot tops, celery ends, chopped leaves, straw, green grass clippings.

Things we avoid:

Meat and fish products,  cooked foods, cooking oils or oily food remnants, diseased or unhealthy plants,  weeds or invasive plant material, dog or cat feces.

Although meats and oils can be successfully composted in high temperature piles – for the average weekend gardener – these spell trouble.  They bring in unwanted vermin like raccoons, possums, mice, even rats…and they can smell awful.  We really try to do a good job just saving and consuming our leftovers so we are not throwing out much anyway – but for us – we just avoid putting these types of things in.  Weeds and unhealthy plants are a no-no because if your pile isn’t hot enough, it may not kill the resulting seeds that can germinate in your soil.  As for the dog and cat by products – for numerous potential health reasons, it’s best to avoid altogether.  However, chicken, rabbit, cow and horse manures are a great source of nitrogen for your pile and can be used if you have available.

So now that you’re making it – how can you use all of this valuable compost that is commonly called “black gold”?

Compost is the key if you want big, healthy plants!

In the early spring – a few weeks prior to planting, we will work a 2 to 3” top dressing of compost into our raised bed rows.  Then, at planting time – we will put a cup in the average tomato planting hole, mixing it in with the soil from the hole.  We use it one more time to top dress and mulch our garden plants, doing this once the plants have begun to take hold (at the 2 to 4 week stage).   A good shovel full or two around the plant’s base will give great weed control and moisture retention.  In addition, the compost slowly releases nutrients to the plants when it rains or we water.

I do need to point out here that this is finished compost we are applying – not the hot stuff from a cooking pile.  If your compost is still warm and cooking – you DO NOT want to put it near your plants or it can burn them and kill them.

The biggest step in composting is simply to take one and try it!  Even if you make mistakes, remember – everything turns to compost eventually 🙂 !

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Happy Gardening!  Jim and Mary

Rear view of recycled compost bin – 2 bins – one for finished compost – one for new
Recycled Compost 2 Bin System – Made from old pallets with a recycled brick floor
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26 thoughts on “Composting 101 – Tips To Make Easy Compost

  • April 20, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    i am looking into the compositing since I will have a good size garden when I have reclaimed it (40×40). to say the least I know I will get lazy if I have to turn over the compost every couple days. I have seen the 55 gallon drum composters and wonder if you think that they will get enough air flow in them because I would like to jumbo that with some old large metal tanks (250 to 500 gallon).

    • April 24, 2015 at 9:14 am

      question on what can go into your mulch pile. I just cleaned out my daughters cupboard of old canned goods I made and she didn’t eat, applesauce, salsa and some dill pickles. Are these considered “cooked” products and shouldn’t be added to the mulch pile? I would think the applesauce is alright, only has cinnamon added, but the salsa and pickles have the vinegar or lemon juice. Thank you for reply. I am making your compost bin and my new garden is your 10 x 15 straw raised row. We have only rocks and roots in our area so really am excited for the garden. Cindy Rose

  • June 2, 2014 at 3:13 pm

    At what point do you quit adding to the in progress pile? Seems like you’d have to stop at some point so that it can finish decomposing. do you then just start another one in the other side of your bin?

  • May 28, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Hello and thank you for your help on gardening. In regards to composting,how close or far away from the garden should the receptacle be? SO GLAD YOU MENTION NO WEEDS! We have had disagreement and confusion about that.

  • January 1, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    This is just wonderful. Everything I needed to know. Thank you. Keep me posted!

  • November 20, 2013 at 7:56 am

    I’m completely new at this- Do you use compost only for a food/veggie garden, or for flowers, too? Do you all suggest I start with seeds, or plants that have been started already? I have several nurseries near me, so this would be easy to find.

    • November 20, 2013 at 9:11 am

      You can use compost in both – it really helps feed all plants. And you can start either – for someone starting out – sometimes it is easier to start with plants and then work up to seed starting – but either is fine.

  • November 20, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Quick Question:Do you all keep your compost pile(s) outdoors? Is that a must? I envision our back patio/yard looking very inviting to mice, rats, etc. How do you avoid that ?

  • November 19, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    How do you know if your compost is finished?

    • November 19, 2013 at 8:48 pm

      Anne – If it is a hot compost pile – its finished as soon as it is cool to the touch. If it is a slower composting pile – when the materials have broken down and the compost is cool to the touch.

  • October 30, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Can I use an old trash can to start the compost bin as long as I keep the lid off and put slits in the sides of the trash can for air circulation?

    • October 31, 2013 at 7:55 pm

      Absolutely – and you can even keep the lid on to keep out animals as long as you have a few holes poked in it.

      • November 20, 2013 at 7:51 am

        Yhat would help me with my question, thanks!

  • March 4, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Composting is magical. Compost feeds the veggie garden, which feeds the rabbits, which feed the compost pile…

    Do you just put your eggshells straight in or do you wash or prepare them in any way? I keep hearing different things.


  • March 2, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Is there a reason to siting your compost bin on bricks? Does it make for quicker composting than starting it directly on the earth?
    My piles are in plastic composters but they always seem to take forever to make anything and I have to say I don’t think they generate much heat.
    I’m going to make a 3 bay system this year but I would have automatically sited it on earth until I saw yours on brick.


  • February 18, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    How much chicken poop and how much coffee do I add. My grounds from everyday? I have a lot of poop!

    • February 19, 2013 at 6:15 am

      You can add your grounds everyday and as much chicken manure as you have as well. They are great for the compost pile! If you have a source for grass clippings or shredded leaves – they go great with the grounds and manure!

  • December 10, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    I really need to get this started this winter. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • March 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    I am definitely a newbie here and am wanting to compost. So how will I know when it is done and ready to be used and how long does that usually take?

    Thank you so much for posting these tips to help me get started! Great site!

    • March 8, 2012 at 10:05 pm

      In order to use your compost, it should no longer be ‘cooking’. By this I mean, the compost should be the temperature of the surrounding air. If it is warmer than the air, then it needs more time to decompose. Well-decomposed compost is a rich, dark brown color, with a light and crumbly texture resembling a potting soil mixture. The finished compost has little odor. It might have a sweet and earthy scent like good soil, but it never smells rotten or unpleasant. The how long question is much harder to answer. It really depends on the materials you have in your compost, the size of the particles in your compost, how often you turn it, and what time of year it is. A typical gardener’s compost (ie the backyard gardener) will typically take approximately 3-6 months. Hope this helps!
      Mary and Jim

  • March 5, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Nice post. Excellent tips on composting. I like what you say that compost is eventually going to be made in the pile no matter what. Composting is not that hard, but it does take patience. Good tips to help speed along the process.

  • March 5, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I love composting! Really, it’s like you are a kid again, rummaging around in the mud. We even used an old garbage can and drilled holes in it for our first compost bin. Now we have two compost piles -one for food, and a second one for potted plants and soil that may have chemicals in it.
    Fantastic article!

  • March 4, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I love the idea of the urban waste management project! We are lucky with the chickens because they give us enough “hot stuff” to get the pile going. Another great place to find spare wood for building a compost bin is at new house job sites – they usually have enough piles of leftover lumber scraps to build a couple of bins – and they will usually gladly give it to you for free. If not, they usually have to dispose of it in their construction dumpsters or burn it on site – so its a win-win for everybody.

  • March 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    Great post – very encouraging for composting “newbies.” I just started composting a couple of years ago and I’m totally addicted. I’m trying to organize an “urban waste management” project for businesses in my neighborhood…to start on a small scale, I’m hoping to be able to work something out with local juice bars, coffee shops and grocery stores where I can come by and pick up pulp, coffee grinds, and “past its prime” produce. In spite of doing a lot of cooking and juicing at home, my husband and I just don’t generate enough “green” stuff for the pile and it takes a LONG time to fill it.

    I absolutely love your compost bins. Pallets are harder to come by here in the city than I thought. Or at least places don’t seem to want to part with them. My wire bins must be replaced as they eventually get all bent over by the occasional raccoon (I’m guessing) and the occasional feral cat who enjoys a warm nap spot – ha.

    I just turned my compost pile (haven’t turned it in about 8 months- a “slow” pile) and the bottom (now top) half of it was scrumptious black gold. I saw lots of redworms in the rest of it, so that’s a good sign! Once I get a better bin system built where I don’t have to reach over the top and down into the bin to shovel it out / turn it, I’ll aim to turn it once per week.

  • March 2, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    I absolutely love your sense of humor with the chicken talk in the photo at the top of your blog post….I have a friend who I actually fill a bucket for from the chicken coop but I have to reserve some back for our compost pile which is so similar to yours….ours is made from pallets too……our 2 “farms” are very like-minded but I love that you explain the ins and outs of composting as I think a lot of people make beginning composting mistakes. Years ago I know I did and then we would have these huge discussions about what was “compostable…”? 😉

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