Understanding to make compost is the first step in making a more environmentally friendly garden, and growing stronger, healthier plants. Making your own compost helps build a greener garden in every way.
I’ve lived with some of the smallest gardens imaginable, but have always made space for compost no matter how small, as it improves everything about your soil, and saves huge amounts of money every year.
Read on to learn how to make compost at home and its many benefits.
Things to Know Before Learning How to Compost
In this guide, we’ll be exploring not just how to make compost, but how making compost can improve your plant health, the science of compost, what to add to your compost pile, and how to make a compost bin to get you started on your home composting.
Benefits on Making Your Own Compost
Let’s get the obvious out the way. Making compost saves money. A quarter-ton bag of compost can cost up to $10 from a garden centre or DIY store, and is just a fraction of the amount of compost your garden is capable of producing every year.
What’s more, you’re saving the planet by doing it; whether it’s by cutting out peat in your garden, and taking a stand against destructive peat harvesting, or just cutting down on emissions from trips to buy compost.
For me though, the biggest benefits of making my own compost are on my mental health. Every gardener will tell you that connecting to your plants is good for the soul, but truly understanding the nutrient cycle in your garden gives you a whole new level of understanding.
Turning the compost at the start of spring is a key moment in the garden year. You know it’s time to get back to serious work!
1. Compost Improves Soil Structure
Aside from your own relationship to the garden, making your own compost actually improves the soil structure, and is better for your garden soil than buying compost from other sources.
There is an entire universe of life under the soil in your garden, and feeding it with the nutrients plants have taken out the previous year helps to sustain that life.
As you lay compost over the soil, worms travel to the surface, and mix it back through the soil below. Even the most compacted earth can be revived by annual mulching over a few years without ever having to dig.
As the creatures in your soil dig the compost through into the ground below, they create air channels, loosening the soil, and those channels are filled with great water retaining materials that help all sorts of plants to thrive.
If you’ve ever heard gardeners talk about ‘moisture retentive, well-drained, potting mixes’ homemade compost is exactly that. Essentially, it holds water and slowly releases it, but the rotted plant materials can only hold so much.
That means, really simply, that they release excess moisture deeper into the soil, preventing your plants from rotting and over saturating.
2. Compost Adds Nutrients to Soil
Some plants, and kitchen waste, make incredible additions to a compost pile. The roots of beans actually produce nitrogen and release it back into the soil every year.
If you want to truly improve your nitrogen levels, mixing last year’s bean crop, roots and all into your compost is a brilliant way to do it. But all plant matter and kitchen waste is useful on the compost heap.
It all helps your homemade compost pile rot into one great carbon store, that will feed and fertilize plants
3. Compost Reduces Your Water Use in the Garden
Layering compost over your soil at the start of every gardening year is a great way to reduce water use, which can save you money and help the environment in the process.
Mulching with compost stops soil from drying out, and protects roots from drying out in months where the sun would ordinarily bake the soil.
4. Home Composting Help Reduce Pests and Diseases
Shop bought compost is usually treated, but some pests, weeds and plant diseases – including fungal infections like tomato blight – can break through.
By using your own compost, you are reducing the chances of importing these diseases into your garden. A good mulch can also reduce common pests in the garden by burying the roots they are attracted to.
For smaller homes which don't have the space for big compost bins or tumblers, we suggest looking into getting a compost grinder you can easily put in your kitchen.
How Does Compost Work?
Making your own compost means learning how to compost, and not just what to do, but why you’re doing it. Composting is a completely natural process, and as gardeners we seek to embrace and control our little patch of nature.
Compost happens in nature just as easily as it does in our gardens, but our tendency to want to organize every inch of our space means we put our entire compost pile in one basket.
In nature, leaves drop from trees, get gathered by wind at the base of a tree, bush or bank, and will slowly rot down over winter. Their decomposition is sped up by worms, slugs, woodlice, beetles and millions of other microorganisms attracted by the heat.
As that process progresses, the temperature of the compost pile rises, and worms slowly dig rotting leaves down into the soil. In our gardens, the process is exactly the same, particularly with leaf mold (the easiest compost to make, which we will explore later).
We gather cuttings, grass clippings, kitchen scraps and shredded logs, and layer them up. Everything else is done by the microorganisms already present in our gardens.
How to Start Composting
To start making a compost pile in your own garden, you have a few things to consider. First, how big is your garden? If you’re working with a relatively small space, there are some kinds of compost heap that won’t work, but a simple leaf bin can be perfect.
A few years ago, in our smallest garden (10ftx5ft), we used an old narrow water butt, with a few holes drilled in, and a drainage hatch at the base, to compost dry leaves that gathered in front of the house, in combination with raw vegetable waste from the kitchen.
That was based on the 50/50 compost rule: 50% brown, 50% green. The combination of dry and wet gives the compost pile the moisture it needs to produce the conditions for faster decomposition.
Today we have a bigger garden, and what some might see as a more industrial setup for making compost, but it still uses that same basic 50/50 compost rule to get going.
But before I dive into the different kinds of compost piles, compost bins and compost rotations, we’d better start with the basics: how to make compost at home.
How to Make Compost
So, there are a few different rules to make compost at home, but really as long as you remember to maintain a good mix of green and brown waste, you’ll be fine.
By far the most common source for green waste in the garden is grass cuttings, but you can use hedge trimmings, raw vegetable waste from the kitchen, or anything cut fresh from the garden.
The end of the gardening season, when your tomatoes, courgettes, potatoes or anything else have finished growing, pull the entire plant out of the ground, and chop it up for composting too.
Green is very easy to come by in the garden. Brown waste can be a little more confusing, but essentially, the role of brown waste is to help keep the compost heap from getting too wet.
A wet compost bin will rot, turn mouldy and promote fungal growth and bacteria which is not useful for the garden at all. Adding dry garden waste at the end of each year as the leaves fall from trees is great, but even better is hay.
If you have guinea pigs or rabbits, hay should be in plentiful supply. Every time you clean out their bedding, add it to the compost pile. It’s perfect for compost, and the added rabbit poo won’t hurt either.
Nitrogen rich materials for compost
Rabbit pooh is one of the best things you can add to your compost, with high nitrogen levels due to their inability to fully process food (did you know that the pellets around their cage are actually the second time they have digested their dinner?).
Obviously, we don’t all have rabbits, but don’t fret there are hundreds of other ways to add nitrogen to your compost. Basically, everything green you add will boost the compost nitrogen levels.
Grass, weeds and kitchen scraps are the best. But there are some great brown materials to add here too, including tea leaves and coffee grounds. But why does your compost need nitrogen?
Anyone who grows vegetables will probably have heard of rotation planting. Yes? Well it’s a method of rotating your crops from one bed to another every year, to ensure that nitrogen and minerals are replenished in time for the next crop.
For example: Cabbages, broccoli, potato and chard, require huge amounts of nitrogen to grow happily. Growing any of them in a vegetable bed, the year after growing another one of them, means the plants will not grow to their potential.
Instead, we grow potatoes one year, then beans the next. In the bed where the beans were last year, we then grow potatoes or cabbage. The beans fix nitrogen back into the soil through their roots, so adding compost to the bed, then planting beans, will give a huge boost to nitrogen.
Carbon rich materials for compost
Adding carbon to compost is easy. Use brown materials. Sawdust, hay, dried flowers, fallen leaves and dried grass clippings are the most common garden sources of carbon for making a compost pile.
But, even if you have no sources of dried vegetation outside, there are loads of ways to recycle household waste straight back into the garden.
Some of the brown materials that you can include in your compost are shredded newspaper or cardboard helps moisture levels in the compost, as well as decomposing quickly and adding carbon, but pet hair (or human hair if you’re brave enough to ask for the floor sweepings at your local barber) and egg shells are great too.
Good starter soil for compost
For any new compost pile, remember how important those microscopic lifeforms are to help it get going. You can get good compost by simply piling green and brown up in a corner, but it will make the process a whole lot faster if you dig up a bucket of soil from the garden and sprinkle it in. #
The worms, beetles, slugs and bacteria will quickly multiple in their new home. You can buy starter composts and compost accelerants, but they don't do nearly as much good for your compost as your own soil from the garden will.
Bad materials for composting
So that’s what you can add to compost, but about what you can’t? Well it’s a pretty short list really. There are hot composters you can buy that claim to compost anything, but the reality is that some things should never make it onto your compost.
Fatty foods and cooked foods are an absolute No. They attract vermin, which can cause a headache for any gardener, and while I am usually happy to let a few rats exist in the garden (they’re part of the natural order after all).
When they get into your compost, they leave droppings which adds risks of illness, and will eat every worm in the compost bin, slowing the process down entirely. Stick to raw vegetable scraps and washed egg shells and your compost will be safe.
Other than fatty food, the only other thing to avoid is infected plant waste. Tomatoes or potatoes with blight should be burned, or if a fire is practical or possible in your garden, bag them up and add to general waste (adding them to your garden bin will just create problems for someone else).
Another common issue is carrots with carrot root fly. If your carrots have been invaded by carrot root fly, do not add them to compost. The heat of a good compost heat will actually make the problem worse, and the population will multiply.
If in doubt over infected plants, burn them or add them to the garden bin, and avoid adding them to your compost pile.
Different Types of Compost
There are many, many different kinds of compost, but in most gardens, the two that are most helpful are leaf mold and garden compost. Both can be made in the way, but leaf mold is infinitely easier, and is a great way to add moisture retention to a potting mix.
Lead mold is just composted leaves. No green waste added at all. By adding all the leaves that fall or blow into your garden to a single compost bin and placing it on top of soil somewhere warm in the garden, you will be making your own compost in no time.
How to Make Leaf Mold
Essentially, worms will do all the work, and moisture and humidity drawn up from the soil underneath the composter will speed up the process.
- Gather all fallen leaves in autumn and early winter
- Put them in a secure compost bin (black plastic is ideal, but pallets lined with tarpaulin work just as well)
- Leave it until the next summer
- Use your leave mold to mulch borders, or add to potting mixes
The only thing to be careful of with lead mold is wildlife, as the decomposition in a black compost bin is surprisingly fast, and the heat it gives off is very attractive to small creatures.
Make sure the compost is secure around its base so nothing can hibernate. Otherwise, you’ll get a nasty shock next summer when you check the leaves.
Also read: How to make a worm farm
Garden compost is the most nutrient rich, soil improving compost you can make. It’s mixed nutrients, and balanced Ph make it perfect for almost every garden job.
How to Make Garden Compost
Just add a good mix of green and brown and follow the guide above on what to include. For making compost of leaf mold, you will need to make a compost pile, and the best way to do this is to make a compost bin.
For more on composting, find out what bokashi composting is and how to do it.
How to Make a Compost Bin
Compost bins can be beautiful as well as practical. Anyone with an allotment will be familiar with the variety and creativity gardeners can have when they make a compost pile.
First, get the location right. Compost piles need to be in warm spots, not hidden in the shade behind a shed, so cherish your compost pile.
Second, gather your tools and materials, and plan how big you want your compost bin. I prefer pallets for my compost, it lets air flow in and around, but they can hard to cut because of their extremely tough nails.
So, you’ll need a good grinder and the best miter saw to get the cuts right – remember your bin needs to be secure from rats, and be strong enough to hold the weight of an ever increasing compost pile.
You’ll need 4 pallets, a 5m weed fabric, chicken wire, a miter saw, paint to match your fence or shed, and plenty of galvanised nails.
- Measure the space from your compost bin, then prepare your pallets.
- The pallets need to be kept whole, but where you will cut, remove any large nails that might damage your saw, with a claw hammer, or grinder.
- Cut the pallets to size, with a 45 degree cut along the height of each corner.
- Secure each pallet together into a square, using 80mm galvanised nails through the mitre angle (nail from both sides for added strength).
- When you have a full square of pallets, with neat corners (the difference between a beautiful bin and a hack job), secure chicken wire across all sides to keep rats out.
- Once the chicken wire is in place, secure garden weed fabric around the edge to stop moisture evaporation.
- Paint the timber to match your fence or shed, and you’re done.
For a more thorough compost process, build three alongside each other. Put new materials in the first bin each year, and turn the entire contents into the second bin the next year.
In the third year, turn it into the final bin, and your compost will be perfect. That way you always have a supply of fresh compost, without having to turn your compost to get to the good stuff at the bottom.
For gardeners looking for a quick fix, here is our review on the best tried and tested compost bins on the market to give you a head start in the process.
How to Maintain a Compost Pile
Knowing how to compost isn’t just about how to start composting, it’s about how to maintain a compost pile too. Compost needs some basic things to work quickly and efficiently.
We’ll briefly look at each element necessary for a healthy and well-maintained bin, so you know exactly how to make compost at home.
How much air does a compost heap need?
Compost needs aeration for one reason and one reason alone; the microbes that live in your compost will starve of oxygen if they don’t breathe.
If they can’t breathe in the centre of a compost pile, you’ll end up with composted edges, but soggy, un composted waste in the centre. Inserting a hollow pipe into the centre of the pile will help air flow more than anything.
You can turn the compost regularly, which will work, but also slows down decomposition as every time you turn a compost pile, the microbes are disturbed.
How much moisture does a compost bin need?
If your compost is too wet, it won’t work. If your compost is too dry, it won’t work. Keeping compost well balanced is the best way to keep balanced moisture.
If a compost pile is too dry, it will feel cold because the microbial activity is limited when there isn’t enough green material to break down.
If a compost pile is too wet, there won’t be enough aeration, so it will become wet and smelly, with no microbes able to do their work in the oxygen starved pile.
Keep a good mix of green and brown waste and this should be all you need to do here.
Tracking your compost pile’s temperature
A healthy compost pile should be around 135-160F. Lower and it isn’t working, higher and it can kill the bacteria. Making sure your compost is in a good spot in the garden where it won’t bake, but still has a few hours or light every day is perfect.
Is it better to layer or mix a compost pile?
There are two conflicting ways of composting, but I am firmly in the layering camp. Not only is it easier for the gardener, but it is a closer representation of how plant materials decompose in nature.
Layering compost means adding coarse dry material like shredded branches, twigs, hay or wood chips to the base of a compost pile. The next layer should be fine cuttings like grass, fresh leaves or kitchen scraps.
The third layer should be brown materials again, and just repeat this process, occasionally adding in some used soil from the garden (this can be as little as the soil attached to weed roots, or as much as a full layer).
By layering green, then brown, air circulation within the pile is maximised, and there is space to movement within the compost pile.
When to turn your compost pile?
Turn your compost pile in late spring, when wildlife has stopped hibernating, and when you’re ready to start planting vegetables out into the garden.
If you are practicing a three-bin compost system, this is a great way to stay regular, and also provides plentiful fresh compost each year without having to turn it too often.
When is compost ready?
When compost has reached a consistent and crumbly brown texture, you’ve got your perfect garden compost. By this point, the decomposition will have finished, and it should have cooled down slightly too.
Compost that is still radiating heat is not ready, and should be left to improve for longer. If there are any signs of green left in the pile, it needs longer.
Have you noticed tiny maggots in your compost? Read our guide on whether maggots are good or bad, and if you choose to, how to kill and prevent maggots from your compost.
Wrapping Up Our How to Make Compost Guide
Making compost is a magical process, and should be cherished by gardeners. Not only does it help your garden to thrive, it reduces your environmental impact on the planet in all sorts of ways.
Learning how to compost reduces water use, improves soil, helps to store carbon in the soil, maintains a healthy ecosystem in your garden, and saves you money.
I hope you feel more confident knowing how to make a compost pile, or even just the basics of how to make compost, but more importantly, join the club of gardeners who know how important making compost is as part of connecting to your garden.