Organic matter makes the difference - especially when it comes to making and adding compost.
Compost is the key to great gardens and great plants – the key is finding materials to make it with.

Compost is a necessity if you want to have great soil and healthy, productive plants.  Along with cover crops, compost is one of the two major components that are critical to our garden’s success year after year. However, for many people, finding sources to create that compost can be difficult.  Today’s post is all about finding endless supplies of cheap (meaning free) materials to build any size compost pile you like!

Every single day, in communities all over the world – millions if not billions of pounds of compostable materials are wasted by heading to a landfill.  Although many cities and townships are beginning to have their own composting facilities – most still don’t. And among those that have them – only a small portion of those materials actually make it to the facility.  So, what does that mean for you? It means that with just a little planning and leg work – you can have all the materials you want for free.

Good Compost =  Good Soil = Healthy Plants
Good Compost = Good Soil = Healthy Plants

Whether you compost in 5 gallon buckets, fancy bins, barrels or in a huge pile “out back” – finding the resources to fill your pile should never be a problem.  A quick word of caution when finding materials – make sure the materials you collect are from a safe source.  Wood shavings made from treated lumber, or grass clippings from a chemically treated lawn are not good additions to your compost pile.  Just using a little common sense goes a long way when collecting.

The following list is by no means the end-all to finding free material – but it’s a great start:

1. Breakfast Diners and Cafes

Diners and Breakfast Eateries are prime places to pick up egg shelves, coffee grounds and vegetable peels for composting.
Cafes are prime places to pick up egg shells, coffee grounds and vegetable peels.

Diners and cafes can be the mother-load of free composting materials!  Most restaurants plow through dozens of eggs and potatoes each day, and left-over egg shells and vegetable peels make fantastic additions to your pile.  Once again – it’s all about asking – most places are more than glad to give their scraps away.  A local cafe here goes through over 12 dozen eggs during a single breakfast rush – not to mention pounds of potato peels and coffee grounds. One single pick up of a few five gallon pails of materials can be the beginning of a great compost pile.

2.  The Black Friday Composting Bonanza – Straw, Pumpkins, Gourds & More…

Black Friday – that crazy day after Thanksgiving.  Well, we think it should be called “Black Gold Friday”.  Why?  Because all of those people that decorated for Harvest Fests and Thanksgiving suddenly have no use for those straw bales, pumpkins, gourds and corn stalks.  They can be yours simply for the asking – and a quick way to get great material for your pile.  We scored over 7 bales of free straw and a slew of pumpkins and gourds from friends and family just this past year.

3. Coffee Houses

Coffee grounds are a great add to compost piles
Coffee grounds are a great addition to compost piles

Coffee grounds are a perfect choice for adding to your pile – and small coffee shops are a great place to find them!  In fact, many coffee houses routinely save their grounds for customers.  Some bigger chains even create a list of customers to save grounds for –  insuring that the by-product of all of their brewing doesn’t end up in the local landfill.  Many of those same coffee shops serve breakfast and lunch as well, so they might be a good source for additional materials.  Either way, you can get a great cup of coffee and get free compost materials!

4. Landscapers & Tree Companies

When you see those tree trimming and landscaping trucks in your neighborhood with the big shredders attached – ask them to drop off a load to your house.  You’ll be surprised how many are more than happy to accommodate you with tons of shredded goodness for free – many times saving them a costly fee and a trip to go dump them.  This is where that dose of common sense comes in handy –  it’s a good idea to see what will be in the load.  Shredded leaves and wood chips are a good source – but you might shy away from a tree company shredding up poison ivy vines :).

5. Grocery Stores & Produce Stands

old produce is a great add for compost piles
Expired produce is an easy add to your pile

Small grocery stores and produce stands can be a goldmine for composting materials.  You might have luck with large chain stores as well,  but smaller mom and pop locations are usually easier to deal with on the local level, and more than happy to help.  Simply ask the store manager what is currently done with expired produce – and you might be surprised that they are willing to save it for you.  Those rotten tomatoes, potatoes and fruit may be past their prime as a food source – but they make great additions to any compost pile.

6. Local Horse Stables, Hobby Farms and Farmers

Get to know your local farm community.  Many local hobby farmers and owners of small horse stables are more than glad to give away their manure to gardeners.    And so what if you don’t have a truck –  keep a couple of five gallon buckets handy (with a lid of course 🙂 ), and take some home to your compost pile.  The high nitrogen sources in chicken, cow,  horse and rabbit manure really helps to heat your pile to make quick compost.   For those that worry about the smell or odor – if you blend manure into your compost pile – little or no odor can be detected.

7. Fall Leaves & Clean Up Time

Fall is a great time to collect tons of falling leaves
Fall is the perfect time to collect tons of falling leaves

We talk about this one a lot, but fall is the easiest time to gather free materials for the compost bin!  Just take a short trip around a few wooded neighborhoods, and you can have an endless supply of leaves for your pile.  Most of the time, they are already bagged at the curbside for easy pick-up. We collect as many as we can each fall and store the extra for use throughout the season.  Its a great way for us to have a year-round supply for use in future compost piles or mulching garden plants.

8. Neighbors & Friends

Yes, neighbors.  You know the people that live beside and down the street from you?  The ones you have never met but wave to every day.  They are a great source of composting materials – and this is a great way to get to know them!  They eat eggs, they have morning coffee, and they have potato peels and grass clippings.  Now if they compost already – you may be out of luck.  But you would be surprised how many of them just might save and supply you with more scraps than you can handle.  What can it hurt to ask?  You might make some new great neighborhood friends!

So there you have it – 8 great tips to finding free compost materials. The list of ways to find free materials could go on and on, and with just a little work on your part, you can have an endless supply of materials to build your pile.  Your garden will thank you and reward you with great plants and produce!  If you want to know more about composting, you can follow the link here to our post on : Composting 101.

–  Jim and Mary

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24 thoughts on “8 Great Tips For Finding FREE Compost Materials

  • February 11, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Horse manure is plentiful where we live however I’m wondering about all the worming medicine and other such as anitibiotics they use ?

    • February 11, 2016 at 10:38 am

      I understand your concern on that – and it is a concern for so many. If you can find an organic operation it is the best option.

      • February 11, 2016 at 11:51 am

        I have a degree in Equine Science and unfortunately there aren’t any “organic” horse farms. However there must be a time period that the manure is composted that maybe inactivates all the oral medicines given to animals in general.

        • February 11, 2016 at 12:00 pm

          Good point Tami, I guess my point was to stick to sources that do not use antibiotics. In the case of our chickens, they are free range and we do not use antibiotics. If folks can find sources such as that, it would be the best scenario
          Thank you so much for the help on the question.

  • April 12, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Is getting leaves from an area where the lawn is sprayed with chemicals an issue? I am interested in an organic vegetable garden. Where does one draw the line? Thanks.

  • April 10, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Just got my first batch of chicken manure from my friend down the road! Will be on the lookout for more opportunities from Facebook friends and coffee houses! Thanks for the tips!

    • April 10, 2014 at 7:11 pm

      That’s great! It will do wonders for your garden and flowerbeds!

  • March 29, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Hello Jim and Mary:
    I am wondering about composting coffee grounds – – I get them from the break room at work – is it okay to throw the coffee filters in the compost pile along with the grounds? Or do they take too long to break down or contain bleach or chemicals that I do not want in an organic vegetable garden? I would appreciate your thoughts on this. By the way – I love your blog. What you have done with your farm in a short amount of time is very inspiring! Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing!
    ~Mary Ann J.

  • October 24, 2013 at 9:25 am

    My local fishmonger is more than happy to hold fish guts for me for a short time. Last year her fish heads went under my tomato plants and they were fabulous! Terrific article!

  • April 1, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I have large pine trees, can I use the pine needles for composting. Thank you

    • April 1, 2013 at 9:58 am

      Although they can be composted – pine needles can take some time in breaking down, and tend to make the finished compost acidic. I tend to shy away from ever using them in our piles. However, if you have any acid loving plants – such as azaleas, etc -they can make for a great mulch around the plans.


      • April 1, 2013 at 11:16 am

        Thank you

  • February 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Jimmy and Mary – I’m going to call the sanitation department tomorrow and see if they can get one of their trucks to dump a load of garbage in our driveway so I can get a BIG start on my compost pile! Carly

  • February 26, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    This is great! We’re planning on expanding our compost project this year but need more compost than we could produce ourselves. Great resource!

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:39 pm

      Glad you found it useful! It is amazing how much quickly you can build a pile with found materials!

  • February 26, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Great info! Some things I never thought of. Thanks!

  • February 26, 2013 at 11:21 am

    This is a great list! I have a question, actually (and it might be a stupid one): I know that hay is compostable. My question is, does it matter how old the hay is? We just moved to our property, which includes a big barn that is full of degraded hay bales. It’s *everywhere.* The previous owners estimate that it might have been there for fifty, sixty years or more. I’ve pulled a little put here and there, and it’s just *full* of dirt (dust accumulated over the years, I guess). It sits there and takes up a tremendous amount of space. We’re going to use some of it to line the walkways of our new raised bed garden, but that’s really just a drop in the bucket. There’s a lot. Is this still decent compost material? Should we knock the dust out first, or does it matter?

    Heck, and while I’m at it, aside from composting, what else can this be used for? There’s a *lot.* =)

    Thanks so much!

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:10 pm

      Hi Kriscinda –

      Normally hay scares me because it is so full of seeds that just turn into weeds in the garden – but with how old it is – I think you are more than fine. And it will make great compost – dust and all. If you can get a good pile of that along with some “green material” like vegetable scraps, eggs shells, etc.” and perhaps some chicken or horse manure – it would break down pretty quick. I would definitely use it in the walkways too! If you do not use cover crops in the fall – it would also make a good dry mulch over the entire garden to help prevent erosion. Hope that helps! Jim

  • February 26, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Reblogged this on The Garden at 8505 and commented:
    I like to compost. It’s natural, it’s beneficial, and it’s easy; easy for me anyways. This is a great post on how to source some common materials for building up your compost volume

    • February 26, 2013 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks Ed for the re-blog – and your right – its such a natural and easy way to replenish the soil.

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