How to Start Composting Yard Waste and Garbage

How to start composting yard waste and garbage

What to do with grass clippings, autumn leaves and goat poop

This post was updated 6/2021

My past efforts at composting went something like this: pile wheelbarrow-loads of straw and droppings from the goat shed in a huge pile, and harvest the black soil a few years later.

Like three or four years later.

Sure, it was gorgeous "black gold" by then, but who wants to wait three or four years?

Obviously I wasn't very serious about composting or gardening back then. Now I know better, and I know how to turn autumn leaves, grass clippings, kitchen waste and goat (and chicken) poop into that beautiful finished compost much more quickly.

Compost, when mixed with the native soil in my garden, increases the health and consistency of the soil. Organic material in soil allows plants' roots to spread easily, allows air to penetrate the soil, and allows water to drain.

Strangely enough, while it allows water to drain properly, compost also helps soil retain moisture.

Healthy, enriched soil can fight off pests and diseases, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers.

How to start composting

It's easy! Don't let all the technical details stop you from starting a compost pile!

There are a few rules though:

  • mix "green" and "brown" ingredients - we'll talk about those in a minute
  • break materials into small pieces - sticks and branches will hang around forever
  • keep your compost pile moist but not wet
  • turn the pile often

Without diving too deeply into the science behind composting, you can turn all this waste into great soil simply by mixing carbon and nitrogen together, add some moisture and air, and let microbes do the rest.

Greens and browns

Compost ingredients are classified as "greens" and "browns." Basically, green materials are high in nitrogen, and tend to be "wetter" than the brown materials. The browns are carbon-rich, and are "dry-er" items.

The obvious greens are grass clippings from mowing the lawn, weeds pulled from the garden, and leaves from pruned shrubs and trees.

Compost ingredients

Kitchen waste tends to be wet and is higher in nitrogen. Most of these materials are considered "green" no matter if they are yellow banana peels or red tomato skins.

Browns are often the color brown, such as fallen leaves and cardboard, but newspaper and straw and wood chips are also browns.

This graphic will help you decide which side of the fence some common compost ingredients are on, so to speak.

This isn't a comprehensive list, of course, but it's enough to get you started.

But I DO have a comprehensive list too! Keep reading for more information on that.

Pet hair, feathers, eggshells, coffee grounds, goat/chicken/duck manure, autumn leaves, weeds from the garden, shredded paper, dead plants, more kitchen waste - anything and everything that can be composted has ended up in my pile at some time or other.

Most backyards and homesteads have some basic compost ingredients readily available. You might have a pet rabbit who contributes rabbit poop, or a chicken coop that gets cleaned regularly. Horse apples and goat berries. Manure from any herbivore animals is wonderful.

My largest source of compostable material is in the horse barn, wheelbarrow-loads of aged manure and spoiled hay to add to the compost pile.

You can't use dog, cat or pig manure, or droppings from any omnivore or carnivore. They contain pathogens that most backyard compost piles cannot process. 

And of course, there's the ever-present kitchen waste. Vegetable scraps and peels, banana peels, eggshells and so much more. Keep a small covered bucket in the kitchen to collect your scraps and add them to your compost pile every day or so.

Fallen oak leaves

For brown materials, you might have autumn leaves, or straw bedding from livestock, or wood chips from a Chip Drop service. Ask if your local coffee shop will give you their used coffee grounds.

Ideally you should add about three parts of carbon-rich materials, known as "brown" items, to one part nitrogen-rich materials, the "green" stuff. I haven't been too scientific about it in my backyard; as long as the pile isn't too wet and soggy or too dry, and it's hot in the middle, it's doing ok.

Use small ingredients

The smaller the pieces that you add to your compost pile, the better. Small pieces will break down more quickly, and that's the point of composting.

Branches won't break down very quickly. Twigs will do a better job, but breaking those twigs into inch-long pieces will help them compost faster.

A sheet of newspaper will eventually rot, but using a paper shredder first or even tearing it into strips will decrease the time it takes to get finished compost.

Cut that watermelon rind into small pieces. Run over autumn leaves with your lawnmower before adding them to the compost pile.

Smaller is better.

Compost in yellow wheelbarrow

Layer your ingredients

A huge mound of freshly-mown grass clippings will turn into a stinky slimy mess in no time. And a pile of straw won't break down very quickly.

The trick is to combine the two in thin layers, about an inch or two thick. 

Start with a layer of wood chips, then a layer of grass clippings. More wood chips, more grass clippings. Cover the top with a layer of straw.

Using a carbon or "brown" layer on top will help keep your compost from smelling and attracting gnats and flies.

Add moisture - wet but not soggy

Keep your compost pile about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Too much moisture will make your pile stink and attract flies.

What if your compost does get too wet? Mix in some more browns to help soak up the extra moisture. Cardboard pieces, dry leaves, sawdust and so on are marvelous additions for this purpose.

A dry pile won't heat up and "work," so you do need to add some moisture. If you live in a rainy area, you might not ever have to add moisture. 

During the hot, dry summer, you might need to water your compost pile every time you water the garden. Simply stick the end of your hose into the compost and add water!

Grass clippings in wheelbarrow

Turn your compost

This is the secret to fast compost.

Turning a compost pile mixes the ingredients. Use a shovel or pitchfork to move the middle of the pile to the outside, and the materials on the outside to the middle. 

Personally, I move my compost pile from its current location and form a new pile right next to it. This insures that the bottom of the pile becomes the top, and the dry, identifiable particles on the edges are moved to the middle where they'll decompose faster.

Turning your compost allows oxygen to reach the fungi and microorganisms that are working in your compost. Aeration is necessary to keep the process of composting working.

How often should you turn your compost?

The more frequently you turn the pile, the quicker you'll have finished compost, or "humus."

Do you need a compost bin or tumbler

Some neighborhoods and homeowner associations require that compost be contained in a bin or a tumbler. This keeps it tidy and under control.

You can build a compost bin with three pallets formed into a U shape and fastened with wire in the corners, or use a circle of wire fencing to form a round, upright container.

However, it isn't necessary to contain a compost pile unless you wish to. Mine is on the bare ground in my garden. I've found it easier to turn when it isn't inside a container.

How large should a compost bin or pile be

In order to "work" correctly, a compost pile should be approximately 3 feet in all directions. A smaller pile may not heat up properly.

If you have more material than this, use two compost bins or form two piles. Later, when the compost materials have begun to decompose and shrink in size, you can combine it all into one pile.

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How to turn kitchen and garden waste into compost.

A crazy-long list of compost materials

As I mentioned, I do have a comprehensive list of things you can add to your compost pile. It also includes a list of what you shouldn't compost.

You'll find this 12-page, crazy-long, printable list of compost materials in my Etsy shop. Or if you want even more information on composting, check out my book The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting, which includes the crazy-long list.

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting, an ebook written for people without a science degree.

Are you ready to learn more about composting and get started on a program of your own? Find out how in my new ebook The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting.

I'll show you in plain, simple terms how to start your compost pile, demystify that "magic ratio" of greens to browns that everyone talks about, help you troubleshoot your compost pile if needed, and give you a crazy-long list of what you can and what you shouldn't compost.

You'll find more information here.

The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting - how to compost in plain and simple terms.

This post has been shared at some of my favorite blog hops.


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  1. I'll admit, we are lazy composters. We just throw everything into a pile and when it eventually composts we'll use it. Posts like this would be perfect for the Waste Less Wednesday Blog Hop.

    1. Thank you, Katy. I'll go check it out!

  2. If I were you, I'd still be feeding my veg scraps to the chickens. Either way you get scraps processed down into nutrients for your garden (compost or manure as the case may be) but with the chickens you also get eggs. Also I have more trouble finding "browns" for my compost than "greens" so I'd rather share my greens with the chooks so I don't overload the compost with them.

    1. Thank you, Alex. That sounds like a good way to get more "browns".

  3. I just harvested the last of my finished compost, but I have plenty more to get going! My biggest problem is keeping it wet enough.

    1. Hi Kathryn! I check mine every time I water the garden so I can wet it down if it's needed. (Usually I need to!)

  4. I'm lazy at tending my compost pile, but recently started applying myself to it and I am already seeing good results. We have meat rabbits which are great contributors for adding soil nutrients (rabbit manure can be applied directly to beds as top dressing without burning the plants). I would love to build up our composting efforts even more, and will work on balancing those browns and greens!

    1. Michelle, rabbits are such an asset to a homestead!

  5. I have found keeping my pile covered with a dark tarp or black plastic gets it going and done faster. I damp (not sog) it down, pile it up, cover it and wait 2 weeks. Then I move the outer to the inside, damping if needed as I go, cover and wait another 14 days. By then, it's about done, and the heat has killed any weed seed off. I don't add new to a composting pile...I have one pile done, one pile working and one pile waiting...
    This is how Charles Dowding suggests setting it up and I have never had more success in the garden.

    1. I just got a dark blue tarp for this purpose. I'm thrilled to hear that you get finished compost that fast!

  6. I live in an apartment and can't compost outside, but I do have a vermicomposting system and I love it! I love the worms, I have peaking in there and seeing all that gold and knowing I don't have to waste quite as much food. Composting is so fun! Thanks for your sharing your tips and experience!

    1. Kayla, I love that you are vermicomposting in an apartment! Good for you for doing what you can where you are!

  7. We always called it the mulch pile growing up. I have one, but I neglect it! We will be putting up a shed next to it in the next year or so. I will have to put a pitch fork in there for easy access. This is great info, especially the browns and greens chart. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Jamie, that neglected pile is just waiting for you to get serious and show it some love. :-) That pitchfork in the to-be-built shed will be handy, for sure.

  8. These are great tips for composting. I have never had a compost pile before but it is something that I really want to try. Maybe next year I'll give it a try!! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Brittany, don't let it scare you. It sounds all technical but it's really a lot easier than it sounds. Go for it!

  9. Hubby takes care of our compost heaps--I just add kitchen scraps when available. I do know that he doesn't turn it very often, but it ends up growing great veggies and flowers! Good luck with yours. I do hope you find enough!!

    1. Betty, as long as it works, I think he's doing it right!

  10. We use direct composting, as we don't really have room to do more. It sounds like your efforts are paying off. I have read that some folks collect leaves from neighbors who rake in the fall. I'm sure they are happy to be rid of them and it benefits the composting for the gardeners.
    Thank you for sharing your outdoor post on this week's Maple Hill Hop!

    1. Direct composting is a great method too, Daisy. I'm looking forward to the leaves falling from my trees this autumn; you know where they're going!

  11. Very useful post, thanks for sharing with Hearth and soul blog hop, pinning.

  12. Anonymous3:48 PM

    I composted for the first time last year and spread it on my new 'flower' garden this summer. My garden turned into a mystery veggie garden, with plants popping up from the compost. I have 5 tomato plants that are bearing tomatoes, and one mystery white squash-type plant, and another huge plant that is taking over my garden with large prickly leaves and large yellow blossoms. A friend said it is a pumpkin plant! The pumpkins are just starting to grow from it, but it is loaded with blossoms! What a fun surprise my garden turned out to be! Cindy Gill, Garnet Valley, PA

    1. How fun, Cindy! Your compost pile wasn't hot enough to kill the seeds, but I would have been ok with it too as long it wasn't a hot mess of weed seeds.

  13. I need to do this! Do you add compost to your garden after the season too? Or do you just save it for when you have plants growing it? Thanks for linking up to the Country Fair Blog Party!

    1. Yes, Val, I will top off my raised beds in the fall too, then the beds will be ready for planting in spring.


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