How to Make Compost the Easy Way – Composting 101

by | May 29, 2021 | Grow, Soil, Vegetable Gardening

Composting can seem like a mystery. Some people throw everything in a pile and let it break down, and, on the other spectrum, some folks get very technical with ratios, temperature and timing. In this post, I am going to show you a simple system for composting that makes it easy and doable, yet dependable so you are not waiting until “one day” when it is all finished!

Composting doesn’t have to be intimidating, or take a lot of time, and can be done with minimal effort. With a few basic steps, you can make enough compost for all your gardening needs right in your own backyard.

Hands lifting a finished bunch of compost.

When it comes to composting, you can get really technical (especially when getting into thermal-composting, which ends up killing off weed seeds and breaks down herbicides and pesticides). But to get started making compost at home you only need a little clear direction and a few basic supplies.

Watch the video, and read the steps below, and you’ll be well on your way to making your own homemade quality compost!

What is Composting?

If you have been with us as we were garden planning for serious food production, choosing no-till gardening and the lasagna gardening methodbuilding raised garden beds, learning how to keep weeds out of the garden, or preparing the garden for winter, you know how serious we are about the importance of building healthy soil, and compost is the key. 

Composting is a simple process of taking carbon based materials and mixing them with nitrogen based materials in the right ratios, and adding water and oxygen, which all encourages the microbial critters to break it all down into a nutrient-dense product that will build soil and enrich your garden and veggies.

A large pile of steaming compost.

What are the Benefits of Composting?

Composting adds organic matter to your soil, which is lacking in most soils you are going to encounter, and which break down and get used up regularly in a vegetable garden.

Adding compost also adds to your soil’s ability to store water and oxygen, essential to all of the biological life that lives in your soil. That microscopic life breaks down nutrients and minerals, making them available to your plants.

Without organic matter, water, oxygen, minerals and the soil critters (that’s what’s in compost) your plants will be weak, nutrient deficient and more susceptible to disease… and so will you if you are living off of that garden!

A wire bin filled with layers of green and brown materials for compost.

Materials needed

  • Frame – You’ll need a structure to contain your compost unless you go with a free-standing pile, which also works just fine:
    • Wire Fencing – I chose wire fencing as opposed to pallets because the wire allows for better airflow. Any material that falls out of the openings can easily be raked up and added back to the pile.
    • Pallets – Pallets are also a good choice, but require a bit more effort.
    • Free Standing – While fencing or pallets help contain your compost pile and keep the large critters out, if you don’t have these you can just make a free-standing pile as well.
  • Carbon Materials – Examples of carbon materials (“browns”) are wood chips, leaves, sawdust, cardboard, straw, and other “woody” organic materials. If you find that you don’t have quite enough brown material to get started, you can check with cabinet shops for sawdust and wood shavings, get and shred cardboard from the box stores, or ask neighbors for leaves from their yard.
  • Nitrogen Materials – Examples of nitrogen materials (“greens”) are animal manure (and urine), kitchen waste, lawn clippings, or anything that has been harvested in its live or green state.
  • A Little Finished Compost – You can purchase finished compost from your local nursery, or from a fellow gardener who also has a compost pile.
  • Water – A hose with a sprayer is nice.
  • Compost Thermometer – A compost thermometer is probably the most necessary piece of equipment you will need to gauge the temperature so you know when it’s time to turn the compost.
  • Shovel – for scooping materials into your bucket.
  • Pitch Fork – great for turning your compost and breaking up any large clumps.
  • 5-Gallon Bucket – (optional, but nice to have, too!)
A shovel adding compost materials to a five gallon bucket.

Building Your Compost Pile

If you choose fencing or pallets to secure your pile, you will need to assemble them to be at least 3’ in diameter (3’ square for pallets), and 3’ tall. This minimum volume is really best to allow the heat and activity to get going.

Anything smaller than this will result in weak activity, and can take much longer to cultivate success.

By volume, you are going to need about 2 parts of brown materials for every 1 part of greens. Measurement does not have to be perfect, just strive to get as close as possible.

To help accurately measure, I like to use a 5 gallon bucket, so for every two buckets of “brown” material, I use one bucket of “green” material. You could also do it by the shovel full. 2 scoops browns and 1 scoop green.

Before you begin, break up the brown and green materials as small as possible. This will increase the surface area, and activate the pile faster, ultimately resulting in a quicker more evenly finished compost.

Step By Step Direction

A man layering compost materials and wood chips in a wire bin.
A wire bin with compost materials being layered.
  1. Begin with a brown layer. If your brown layer is dry, and it usually will be, add some water. You don’t want to add so much water that it is pooling up or running off the pile, just enough to make it moist.
  2. Sprinkle finished compost over the brown layer. This will increase the microbial activity, and get the composting started faster. 
  3. Add a green layer, and as you add each layer, remember to spread it out evenly so that you maximize as much surface area as possible. 
  4. Repeat with layering and watering until your pile is at least 3′ high.
  5. After your compost pile is full, reach in, grab a fist full and squeeze. If you can barely get a drop or two of water out, you did great! If not, add more water slowly, letting it soak in. Stop when water begins to drain out the sides or bottom.
  6. Place the thermometer in the center of the pile inserted from the side. Within 3-5 days, you should see the temperature begin to rise. When it has reached 100-120  degrees, it’s time to turn your compost. 
A man watering a large wire compost bin filled with layers for compost.

And that’s it! It’s really simple to get started. Now you can let the “little guys” start to multiply and do their magic!

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a post on how to know when (and how) to turn your compost pile for best success, but you can also check out this post on how to build a compost sifter that will come in handy later on.

Two people using a BCS tractor to spread soil over a garden row.
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