How To Start Composting

The US Composting Council is leading the way to a trash-free-future. The Council believes compost manufacturing and compost utilization are central to creating healthy soils, clean air and water, a stable climate, and a sustainable society.

Compost is nature’s gold, and if you have a little space in your garden, I highly recommend starting your own compost pile. It’s easy to do, using materials you likely have on hand, and when properly used, enriches your soil and encourages soil microbes to do their thing. And from other Kellogg articles, you’ve probably already learned that healthy soil means healthy plants, less disease, and fewer pest problems. Composting is also a great way to help reduce methane emissions produced from our landfills and increase soil sustainability. Healthy soil equals strong healthy plants, waterways, and communities.

Woman making compost from leftover kitchen scraps.

Now, everyone’s got their own way of composting, but I like to follow Mother Nature’s example. It takes a little longer, but it works for me. If you’ve ever hiked through a forest, you’ve experienced Mother Nature’s compost — leaves that fall from the trees and plants that die at the beginning of winter. They create layers that, over time, rot and turn into a rich compost that keeps everything thriving. Here’s a simple 4-step process for creating a compost pile to keep your garden growing strong and healthy.

1. Choose a corner of your garden that gets a bit of shade. I like to have my compost pile close enough to my garden so that I don’t have to trek too far to access it.

2. Alternate layers of brown matter and green matter (link–Compost Pile Ingredients), ending with brown matter and a bit of soil.

3. Water the pile until it’s saturated from the very top to the very bottom. Take your time to make sure it’s really soaked, because the water will want to run off the sides.

4. Leave it alone until it rots.

This is a longer process than what is called “hot” composting where you turn the pile frequently, letting air in to speed the process up. If you’re in more of a hurry, you’ll want to use that process (discussed in more detail below), but otherwise, this one is the closest to duplicating nature. When I compost this way, I make sure that I water the pile weekly during the summer when it’s hot and dry outside. If the pile remains too dry, it won’t break down.

If you have limited space, seek out bagged compost from a trusted local soil company. However you get your compost, the important thing is that your garden gets a regular dose of it. It’s this continual feeding of the soil that makes your plants grow, flower, and produce.

Wooden Compost bin in the garden

Compost According to Your Lifestyle

Think about how you live, how you plan to use the compost and how much you think you’ll need (large garden, small garden, just containers?). Consider how much or how little time you have for composting. If the aesthetics matter to you, think about where you want to locate your compost (out of sight?) and how you want it to look (big pile, or neat bin?) which will also depend on how much space you have.

Once you’ve pondered the lifestyle considerations, it’s time to explore your options.

How to Compost in the City

Join Resh Gala, an urban organic gardener in New Jersey – Zone 6b, while teaches us how she composts for her urban garden. Whether your garden is big or small, make the most of your space with these tips and watch the full How to Compost in the City video on the Kellogg Garden Youtube Channel.

Cold Composting (Slow)

Basically, if you’re looking for speed cold composting isn’t for you. In cold composting, you make a pile and let it decompose on its own with little effort. You continuously add to the pile, but don’t need to turn the compost. The time it takes is determined by nature, but the smaller the particles, the faster it will decompose. Cold composting methods: 

  • Trench or Pit
  • Closed Bin
  • Pile (allow it to degrade on its own) 
Worm vermiculture compost with rotting food scraps for gardening hobby, making natural fertilizer for plants (Worm vermiculture compost with rotting food scraps for gardening hobby, making natural fertilizer for plants.

Hot Composting (Fast)

Hot composting requires more effort, but makes compost faster and requires less space. In this method, you add all the “ingredients” at one time. This method is faster but requires you to monitor the soil temperature (130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), moisture level (should feel like a damp sponge), and regularly turn the compost. The carbon to nitrogen ratio is most important in this composting method. Aim to make a compost that is one-third green (nitrogen-rich food scraps and coffee grounds) and two-thirds brown materials (carbon rich leaves, bark, paper, and sawdust) as the brown materials provide bulk which accelerates oxygen penetration and nourishes the micro organisms.

Hot composting methods:

  • Piles (turn and monitor compost)
  • Open Bins (turn and monitor compost)
  • Tumbler (if you can turn it)


This method is similar to hot composting but the decomposition is facilitated by worm digestion. Vermicomposting is well suited for indoor composting because it requires little space.

Whatever method suits your lifestyle best, you’ll be creating a nutrient rich soil amendment while at the same time making a positive contribution to the planet.

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