The Ultimate Home Composting Guide

February 2, 2023

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

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ultimate guide to home composting

Compost is the single most important supplement you can give your garden and homestead. It’s a simple way to add nutrient-rich hummus to your lawn or garden that nourishes plant growth and reinvigorates depleted soil. As a plus, composting is free, easy to make, and does wonders for the environment.

Whether you’re completely new to homesteading and composting or you’re ready to take it to the next level, this guide has everything you need to know.

What Is Compost?

In the most basic sense, compost is decomposed organic matter. The process of composting involves adding a combination of biodegradable materials together, such as leaves, straw, dry grass clippings, garden waste, and some kitchen scraps.

In the right conditions, decomposers like microorganisms, insects, worms, and fungi break down the raw materials into a nutrient-rich, soil-like material – compost.

Often referred to as “black gold,” compost is a rich, balanced, and natural fertilizer that’s helpful to homesteaders and organic farmers. It may be mixed into soil or applied to the soil surface as mulch.

Why Composting Matters

Composting follows the idea of recycling, reusing, and repurposing by turning waste into something beneficial for your garden or farm. It can take place on any level, whether you’re running a large homestead or you want to compost for your small garden.

According to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30-40% of the food supply in the US goes to waste each year. That translates to roughly 133 billion pounds of food. Though we may be wasteful as a country, exorbitant levels of food waste are happening all over the world.

Some food waste is caused by pest damage, disease, or issues with food production, but about 31% occurs on the retail and consumer end. This may be from retail locations that overestimate inventory or consumers who buy more food than they can reasonably consume.

Composting won’t solve the issue of food waste, but it helps. Everyone can work together to reduce the waste in the first place, but from there, composting is a better choice than throwing it away.

Food waste that’s thrown out ends up in landfills. As the materials rot, they can leach into nearby water resources, polluting them. Rotten food also becomes anaerobic, creating methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere.

As we know, methane gas is a major contributor to climate change. It’s not just food rotting in landfills, but the methane emitted in the production and transportation processes in the food industry. That’s part of the problem, but it’s worse if all that production waste only ends up in a landfill anyway.

Composting diverts this food waste from the landfill. With less rotting food, we’ll have less methane emissions and a reduced risk of pollution. Essentially, composting “upcycles” food waste to turn it into a rich fertilizer that nourishes plants.

Benefits of Composting

The benefits of composting are multifaceted:

More Organic Matter

Compost increases the organic matter in soil and improves its drainage, texture, and fertility. The result is better plant growth and healthier plants.

Better Soil Food Web

Compost reinvigorates the soil food web by providing nutrients, moisture, and a habitat for a range of living things. Soil is, in itself, an ecosystem that can support beneficial bacteria, fungi, insects, and more.

Improved Plant Immunity

By providing nourishment, compost enhances the immune system of your plants and acts as a buffer to filter the soil and reduce toxic substances. Plants grown with compost have a higher resistance to disease or risk presented by pests, drought, or weather extremes.

No Risk of Shock

Composting offers benefits without shocking or burning plants, which is a risk common with synthetic fertilizers. Farmers and homesteaders use organic compost instead of these fertilizers, providing benefits to not only their plants but the environment by reducing chemical pollution.

Ways to Compost

Composting at home is a simple process, especially once you learn the ropes. Many composting methods are suitable for different living situations.

Urban homesteads or small gardens work well with enclosed compost tumblers or worm bins. If you have a larger property, a big compost pile or bin may be more appropriate. You can also adopt hands-on or hands-off methods, depending on the time you want to commit.

Here are the different ways you can compost:

Kitchen Composting

Nearly every composting method starts in the kitchen with food scraps. You don’t want to run out to a compost pile with food scraps every time you have them, however.

You can collect compostable food waste in a kitchen compost bin, then make regular trips to a larger outdoor compost bin or pile a few times a week. You won’t have odors or mold in your kitchen, but it won’t be a full-time job managing your food waste.

Kitchen compost bins come in stainless steel, ceramic, or other materials, so the choice is up to you. Many people store compost bins under the sink.

Passive Compost

A passive compost pile allows materials to pile up and decompose over time. You may use a free-standing pile in the garden or a compost bin that keeps it all contained.

The reason this type of composting is considered “passive” is because it allows nature to do its thing. Passive piles are easier to get into for beginners or people with minimal time to compost. Once it’s set up, you don’t have to intervene much – just turning the pile on a regular basis is enough.

The compost bins vary significantly as well. Some are simple structures with a wire or wood frame enclosed on three sides with a gate for access. Some people take a more involved approach with a few different compost bins that make it easy to rotate the piles.

Here’s the typical setup for a three-bin system:

  • Fill bin 1 with brown and green waste until full. Once it’s reduced by half, move the top layer into bin 2.
  • Continue with this process until bin 1 is empty and you can begin the process anew.
  • When the contents of bin 2 no longer look like the waste you put in, you move the pile to bin 3.
  • Bin 3 holds the finished compost for use in gardens and mulch.

Compost Tumblers

A compost tumbler is a form of passive composting that’s done on a smaller scale. You can’t fit as much in a tumbler as a large pile, but it still has benefits.

The first is that tumblers are designed to make it super simple to turn the pile. This process introduces air to promote decomposition, reduce odors, and balance moisture. They’re also enclosed, helping to keep the odors at bay and makes it less accessible to wildlife.

Compost tumblers are available in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles. Consider the pros and cons of each and choose the one that’s best for your situation and goals.

Worm Compost

Worm composting, otherwise known as vermicomposting, is a fun way to compost using specialized worms. They’re added to passive compost to help with the process, but it’s best to use a bin instead of an open pile to keep them contained.

Compost worms can eat their body weight in food each day, which accelerates the breakdown of organic matter and gets you finished compost much faster. It also produces vermicast, or worm feces, that contain concentrated, bioavailable nutrients for plants.

Essentially, vermicast is an extended-release fertilizer that can increase soil aeration, water retention, and drainage. Beneficial microbes are introduced as raw material passes through the worm’s body to support the soil food web.

A worm bin is compost and tidy, so it doesn’t need to be kept outdoors. They come in a range of sizes and styles, some with drainage systems or stackable tiers of trays. You can make a homemade worm bin as well.

Hot Compost

When a compost pile has the ideal composition, volume, and moisture, it can heat up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the ideal environment for beneficial microbial activity.

The microorganisms and the size of the pile play a role in the temperature it can reach and accelerates decomposition. Raw materials can be broken down into finished compost in just a few weeks instead of months.

There are a few conditions required for a compost pile to be hot:

  • It must be at last 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Hot piles can be mounded up in passive piles or bins.
  • The pile needs to be balanced between brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) by volume. Layering the two is the best way to achieve the appropriate balance.
  • Natural compost accelerants can be added to build a microbial environment inside the compost.
  • The compost must be moist but not soaked or soggy.

When you build a hot compost pile, it’s important to monitor its temperature with a compost thermometer. Once it reaches and sustains a temperature of 130°F to 160°F for several days, you can turn the pile, shift the microbes around, and get it heating up again.

If a hot compost pile exceeds a temperature of 160°F, you must spread it out to let it cool down a bit. There is a risk of compost catching fire when it gets too hot, though that’s more likely to occur in large commercial compost piles.

A hot compost pile requires more effort and attention than other methods, but it’s a more efficient way of approaching the process if you have a lot of compostable materials with a good balance of brown and green.

Composting in Place

Some materials can be left alone to decompose where they lie, making it a pretty hands-off process. Fallen leaves are a good example of an organic material that will break down naturally and nourish the soil.

You can also spread green or brown material over open soil to let it decompose. This is best when used with dynamic accumulator plants, such as dandelion, fava beans, borage, yarrow, stinging nettle, and miner’s lettuce. These plants take up the nutrients and minerals from the soil and store them in bioavailable forms in the leaves.

Spreading compost material made from most kitchen scraps isn’t ideal, however. Some scraps will attract rodents, wildlife, and insects like flies to your garden.

Compostable Materials

Though many materials are suitable for composting, you can’t just toss anything in there. You have to know what’s safe to compost and what type of material it is to keep your compost pile healthy and beneficial.

Brown vs. Green Materials

Brown compost materials are dry materials like dried leaves, wood chips, or paper that’s a good source of carbon. Greens, on the other hand, are good sources of nitrogen and may include not only food waste from green plants but other rotting food like apple cores, banana peels, and used coffee grounds. And yes, animal waste.

It can be confusing since not every nitrogen source is green in color, such as coffee grounds. Some greens may turn brown, such as grass clippings that started out as a green plant and dried out to become a brown material.

But overall, all compostable materials fit into either the brown or green category.

Compostable Materials

One of the best aspects of composting is that most materials are suitable. Over time, you will learn what materials work best for your composting system, but here’s a good starter list:


  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Nuts and nutshells
  • Leftover bread products
  • Wet yard trimmings and grass clippings
  • Pumpkins
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Leaves and houseplants
  • Feathers
  • Coffee grounds
  • Hair and fur
  • Brown
  • Dry grass clippings without weeds
  • Dry leaves
  • Peat moss
  • Wood chips (fine)
  • Hay and straw
  • Corn stalks
  • Dry pine needles
  • Sawdust
  • Dryer and vacuum lint
  • Paper products like napkins and paper towels
  • Cardboard
  • Wood ash (in small amounts)

Compostable Materials to Use in Moderation

There are some materials that you should use in limited quantities, including:


Citrus or other acidic foods are best in small quantities. If possible, use the rinds instead of the whole fruit or juices. The high level of acidity can kill the bacteria or keep it from proliferating in your compost, and it should NEVER be used in a worm bin.


Weeds and plants that self-seed shouldn’t be used in a compost pile unless they haven’t flowered or seeded yet.

Coffee Filters

Coffee filters and tea bags often contain synthetic fibers that won’t break down in your compost pile. Unless you use 100% biodegradable fibers, avoid using these in your compost.

Animal Waste

Animal waste can be used in compost, but you must be cautious. Certain animal manure is more difficult to use in compost successfully, including chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen and may be too strong for your compost. If you have too much nitrogen, it can burn your plants. It’s important to research which animal waste is acceptable and how you can ensure that it doesn’t harm your composting process.

Materials That Should Never Be Composted

These materials are never suitable for composting for many reasons, whether it’s because they attract pests, they transmit disease or toxins, or they’re malodorous.

  • Meat, fish, egg, or poultry scraps
  • Dairy products
  • Treated or painted wood or sawdust
  • Fat, grease, or oils
  • Metal or plastic
  • Barbeque coal ash
  • Diseased plants or pests
  • Human feces
  • Cat or dog feces
  • Processed foods
  • Deceased animals

Tips for Successful Composting

Composting is an easy process, but you can make your beginner effort more successful with these tips.

Balance Nitrogen and Carbon Carefully

By now, you probably have a good idea of the green and brown materials for composting. One of the common beginner mistakes is including the right materials with the wrong ratio. You can’t just throw a bunch of scraps and dead plants together and expect it to become healthy finished compost.

Overall, compost piles perform better with a greater ratio of carbon to nitrogen. The ideal compost pile has a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (C:N) of 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. This is difficult to measure, but having about two-thirds browns and about one-third greens.

If you have too much green material, your compost will reach anaerobic conditions. Beneficial bacteria and microorganisms thrive in aerobic conditions, so you may have odors and pests attracted to your compost.

Bury Your Food Waste

Your compost should have layers of brown and green materials for success. Many beginner composters fail to bury the food waste or nitrogen materials, which allows it to attract wildlife, inhibits decomposition, and causes odors.

When you dump your kitchen compost into the big pile, dig a hole to bury the food waste and cover it back up. If you have a tumbler, this is easier. If you add a lot of green material at once, make sure you add some browns to balance it out.

If you have enough materials to build a big pile all at once, start with a layer of brown materials with a thin layer of green materials on top, then add a layer of browns, then more greens, and so on.

Get the Right Moisture Level

Compost requires a nice balance of moisture – it can be neither too dry nor too soggy. Aim for dampness. A wet compost pile will get stinky and attract pests, but an overly dry pile will decompose too slowly.

If you’re in an area that doesn’t receive a lot of rain, you may need to water your compost piles on your own to keep the right moisture balance. In a worm bin or tumbler, however, the wet greens may be enough to keep the compost damp.

Choose the Right Season

With indoor composting, it doesn’t really matter when you start composting. But with outdoor composting, the season makes a big difference. Fall is a good time of year to begin, since you have an abundance of dried leaves to get your compost started.

Harvest Quickly

Once the raw materials have broken down and your compost is finished, it’s ready for use. The process to harvest varies depending on the system you use, but you can use a compost screen to sift finished compost from the pile and use it on your garden or land.

How to Use Finished Compost

There are numerous ways to use finished compost. You can add it to your garden soil at the beginning of the gardening season to nourish your plants.

If you use potted soil, add some compost into the soil before planting your plants to give them extra nutrients. You could also cover the garden with finished compost, so when you water your plants, the nutrients will flow into them.

Finally, there’s compost tea. That’s made by steeping compost in water and introducing air through a bubbler or air pump to create a biologically active brew full of nutrients and microbes. You can then water your plants with it for nourishment.

Get Ready for Composting!

Composting is an excellent way to reduce your waste and create nutrient-rich soil for your homestead or garden. With this guide, you’re ready to start your own compost pile and prepare for a bountiful harvest next year.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where Is the Best Place to Put a Compost Pile?

Your outdoor compost pile should be in a sheltered spot that doesn’t get direct sunlight. It’s best to avoid nearby trees and shrubs that can grow roots into the pile. You should also consider how convenient the pile is to access, especially in inclement weather like heavy rain or snow.

Can I Compost in Winter?

Compost can be done in a variety of environments and weather conditions. Researchers even composted successfully on the South Pole! You can retain heat better in winter by covering the pile and insulating the container or including more green materials (just for these conditions). Don’t forget to continue adding to the compost. Even if it freezes, the materials will decompose once the compost thaws.

Why Does My Compost Smell?

Compost doesn’t have an odor, but a little earthy scent that’s not too pungent or offensive is common. A well-constructed compost pile shouldn’t produce unpleasant or strong odors, however. If yours does, it could be from too much green, which smells like ammonia, or too little air, which smells like rotten eggs. Aerate the pile and add more brown materials.

Do I Need Gloves for Composting?

Most compost materials don’t harbor anything harmful to humans, so you don’t need gloves. When the compost is finished, you can handle it just like garden soil. The exception is some animal manures, which can carry some harmful bacteria.

Does My Compost Pile Need Limestone or Fertilizer?

A properly built compost pile can be created out of leaves, grass clippings, and food scraps, so you don’t need to treat it in any way. Lime can be useful if you need to balance acidic materials like pine needles, but it’s not necessary. It’s better to maintain a good balance of brown and green materials that come close to a neutral pH level.

How Can I Compost with Too Many Nitrogen-Rich Materials?

If you have a lot of greens to add to your compost pile, you can dig them into the soil or store some in a sealed container until your compost pile is ready for them. If you’re in a pinch, you can dry out greens in the sun for a bit to dry them and decrease the nitrogen content.

How Can I Compost with Too Many Carbon Materials?

The fall can be a difficult time to balance your compost appropriately. You’ll have a lot of dead leaves, but you may not have all the greens you need to keep an ideal ratio. If you have space, bag some of the leaves and store them until they’re ready for use. The benefit is that these browns are harder to find in the winter, spring, and summer, so you have a stockpile for when the time comes. 

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