Did you know that the average person generates about 1.5 tons of solid waste a year?! You can turn much of this solid waste into black gold that you can use in your garden AND you can do this whether you live in an apartment or house. One added bonus is that you will also have less trash to discard. 

There is no single thing that makes a successful garden, but at the top of the list is good earth. You can help make the best earth there is by creating your own compost which is a nutrient-rich organic material. 

The key to maintaining your compost pile is ease of maintenance. There are two methods discussed below. Choose whichever method you will stick with. Also, find an easy way for yourself to collect your food scraps in your kitchen before you deposit them into your compost pile outside.

Believe me, it makes all the difference. Something as simple as an old coffee grounds jar works just as well as a fancy bin that you can buy at the store. 

Good luck and I can’t wait to hear about all your composting successes! 

The Basics

Ok – Let’s start. Composting is made up of a combination of carbon-based material and nitrogen-based material. When you say carbon, think brown. When you think nitrogen, think green.

These materials are going to be mixed together with air and water, break down, and eventually turn into your black gold. Here are examples of materials you can add to your compost:

Brown Materials

  • crushed egg shells
  • wood shavings (untreated)
  • fallen leaves (best if shredded)
  • black and white newspaper
  • paper towels
  • shredded paper
  • tree branches
  • pine needles
  • shredded cardboard
  • saw dust (untreated)
  • straw
NOTE: Tree branches, wood shavings, and pine needles are slow to break down and are acidic. Use sparingly.

Green Materials

  • fruits and vegetables
  • coffee grinds and filters
  • fresh plant and grass trimmings
  • weeds (without seeds)
  • aged manure (herbivores only)
  • tea bags
  •  human/animal hair
  •  green leaves

Avoid adding the following materials:

  • Diseased plants
  • Meat, fish scraps and bones (you won’t like what these attract to your compost)
  • Oils
  • Dairy products
  • Chemically treated plants and weeds
  • Weeds going to seed
  • Black walnuts tree leaves or limbs
  • Coal or charcoal ashes
  • Pressure-treated wood
  • Pet waste

Types of Composting

Now, let’s get started. There are two types of composting that you should consider: cold and hot

Cold Composting

Cold Composting Pile

Cold composting is by far easier than hot composting. With cold composting, you make a pile in your yard with your compost materials and let them sit until the compost is ready. Just make sure you have both browns and greens mixed into the pile.

If it gets stinky, add some browns to cut down on the smell. After it gets to around around 3 feet high, start a new pile and give that one time to decompose. It sure is easier, but the downside is that it takes about a year for the materials to properly decompose.

Side note — if you have a dog, make sure to block their access to the pile or place it somewhere they cannot reach. Your pooch can get sick if they eat moldy scraps from the heap.

You can also use a bin in your yard. The bin can either be bought commercially, or you can make one yourself. Remember to use BPA-free plastic or stainless steel if you make the bin yourself. Having a handle on the container is also very helpful for when you are ready to transport to the garden. 

Below is an example a commercial bin.

Commercial Compost Tumbler. This particular product is an EJWOX Commercial Tumbler.

Hot Composting

If you want faster results, try hot composting. This can produce compost between 1 to 3 months in perfect weather and 4 to 6 months in less ideal (eg, colder) weather.

You can compost in either a bin or have a compost pile in your yard. If you choose to make a compost pile, start your pile on bare ground in a dry and shady spot. You will need a 3 to 4 square foot area. 


The Process

Hot composting requires active turning and adding water to the pile. Also, adding in a few microorganisms such as worms help aerate the soil and breakdown the organic material, quicker. If you have the means, this is a great addition to your pile.

After you have collected enough carbon and nitrogen material to make a compost pile, start your pile with a layer of twigs or straw. Build your compost material in layers alternating carbon and nitrogen materials in a 3:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

The smaller the size of the material, the faster it will break down.  When you have finished your compost pile, it should be at least 3 feet deep and 4 feet in diameter. 

Some people build permanent structures to house their compost. One method is to use untreated pallet boards. The bins come out to a wonderful size of 4ft high and 4ft wide.

Another option that is easier to move while also providing structure is using a roll of 3ft high chicken wire.  Attach the wire securely at both ends when the diameter of the circle is roughly 4 ft wide and fill the make-shift bin with your compost. Both provide great airflow and drainage to your piles.


pallet compost bins

Important, quick guidelines to follow when hot composting:

  •  If the pile is too wet, add more brown material.
  •  If it looks really brown and dry, add more green material. When in doubt, add green material. 
  • Sprinkle the pile regularly with water but do not drench it. It should always be damp like a wet sponge. 
  • Avoid packing it too tightly. 
  • Cover the pile with anything that you have available to help regulate temperature and water flow — a tarp or old rug will work. 
  •  Monitor the temperature of the pile with a compost thermometer. The thermometer should be placed in the center of the pile. For quickest decomposition, it should read between 130 to 150o F (54 to 66o Celsius). If you don’t have a thermometer, stick your hand into the middle of your compost pile. It should be almost too hot to keep your hand in the compost pile. NOTE: Keeping the pile above 140o F for several consecutive days helps kill weed seeds.

The key to making your pile produce heat is to turn your compost pile at least once a week with whatever you have handy such as a garden fork or shovel.  Be sure to break any big material like branches to keep the air flowing in your compost pile.

Add new materials by mixing them into the pile rather than adding them in layers. If your compost pile struggles to reach full temperature, you may need to add more greens, water, or simply turn the pile more often.

And finally…

When your compost no longer gives off heat and becomes dry and crumbly and has no resemblance to your original material, it is ready to be used! It should look like dark, brown soil.


Now that you have compost, what do you do with it? The short answer to this is to use it in all of your garden beds, with your flowers, etc.  Compost does not replace soil, but it helps nurture your plants.  

Add a 1 to 2 inch layer of compost to your soil before you plant in a bed.  Lightly work it into the soil. Continue to add new compost to the bed once or twice a year and your garden will stay happy and healthy

Article written by: Kathy Carr

Raising and canning vegetables has always been her way of life.  She would like to pass on this knowledge so that you too will feel the reward of growing and harvesting your own food!

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