Want to learn how to make compost for your garden? Not only does compost help your plants grow stronger and healthier, but it’s also the perfect way to reduce waste and do your part for the environment.
It’s not complicated to start a composting pile, but turning kitchen waste into a good, rich soil improver is not an overnight process either.
To make compost, start by gathering some materials (leaves, grass clippings, vegetable waste, and even shredded paper: just make sure you don’t use glossy paper), place them in a compost pile (or bin) in a sunny spot, and water them thoroughly. Turn the compost every few weeks to help aerate it and speed up the decomposition process.
Adding compost to your garden can help improve drainage, reduce pests and disease, and even increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.
How To Make Compost For Your Garden
Making compost for your garden is not hard, but learning how to make it the right way is important.
What to put in your garden composter
First, like anything, the quality of what you put into your composting pile affects what you get out.
If you want your compost to be organic, it is essential that you put only organic material in.
Kitchen Scraps are good for composting (you can assign this to your children, so they can participate in gardening with you). However, unless you use only organic ingredients in your meals, your purchased produce will be a problem. Any non-organic material added to the garden composter in the form of kitchen scraps would contaminate your compost. It’s recommended to leave animal products out of the mix.
Leaf mold makes a rich compost that’s usually free from chemicals. One challenge is that it takes a long time to make a substantial amount of this organic mulch.
How to use leaf mold to make fertilizer
A simple leaf mold composter can be made by wrapping chicken wire around four posts, creating a bin in between.
If you collect leaves with a lawnmower, the action of the mower will help to break down the leaves. Store the broken-down leaves in the leaf mold composter until you need them.
But even when the leaves are cut up in this way, it will still take about two years to finish. Nevertheless, after a year, you can use the leaves as mulch.
You could also use leaves as the brown ingredient (more on this later) for hot organic compost.
If you have a lot of trees and want to use composting to dispose of the leaves, this is not your best solution. There would be too many leaves for a hot pile to process.
But if you are lucky enough to have an old broadleaf forest on your land, instead of going to all the bother of making organic matter, you can simply harvest decomposed leaf mold from the forest floor. That’s some of the best leaf mulch you could get.
Assuming you don’t have access to a good forest, let’s get back to making your own compost.
Learn more about composting:
- How to make compost from weeds
- How to compost with worms
- How to compost wood chips fast
- Trench composting
- The best compost for your vegetable garden
What is hot composting?
Vegetable garden composting is the ideal way to convert garden and kitchen waste into nutrient-rich food for the soil. Hot composting is an effective way to quickly decompose these materials.
Hot compost efficiently employs the use of microbes to help break waste material down. You don’t need to add bacteria or microbes to your garden composter: they come free with any materials you use. The action of the microbes speeds up the process.
To compost waste material we need to provide certain conditions. In order to make full use of a bacteria hot composter, your garden bin needs three things:
- waste material to process
How to make hot vegetable garden compost
In a hot vegetable garden compost system, you divide up the material into green and brown waste. When there is enough to fill the composting container, assemble the system ensuring there is air and moisture in the right quantities throughout the mix.
If you are going to make a hot compost bed, you will need more than one area. Since you need to turn the compost over about every 12 weeks, you should ideally use 3 bins for your compost.
Take a look at this page to see how to make a rotating compost drum.
Green material is softer green-leaved plants that rot down quickly. It includes items such as:
- salad leaves
- grass cuttings
- plant clippings
- young plants
- it also includes activators such as the readily available weeds, comfrey, and nettles
The browns consist of tougher plant materials such as:
- brassica stalks (bashed with a hammer)
- hedge clippings
- vegetable peelings
The trouble with creating a hot vegetable compost is that there is usually an imbalance of too many greens to browns, which can make the mix too wet. To counter this, you can add cardboard and shredded paper to the brown items.
How to hot compost
Once you have enough material to fill your chosen container, follow these three steps:
- split all the materials into greens and browns, chopping or shredding any big material and soaking anything that is dry
- mix everything together making sure that the drier, tougher items are mixed evenly with the softer, wet materials
- then fill the compost bin and cover it
It will only take a few days for the middle of the vegetable garden compost to become hot. If the weather is cold, you’ll likely see some steam coming out. This is a sign that there’s microbial activity, breaking down waste material.
In a few weeks, the materials will cool as the microbes get short of oxygen and possibly water. When this happens, empty the bin, remix, and water any dry parts before putting the materials back in the composter.
The hot compost should reheat, although it may not get as hot as the first time.
When it cools once more, you may want to turn it on a second time. This slowing down is inevitable as the decomposing action moves to tougher ingredients. And as it cools, beetles and worms move in to help.
After about 12 weeks or so, you should have a dark and nutritious homemade soil improver.
BUT, if you’d rather take the lazy man’s way to composting, consider cold composting.
Using the cold composting method
The cold composting method is probably the easiest way of making compost. It is usually done throughout the entire year, adding waste materials as and when they become available.
Compost bins are the most common way of making compost and are usually associated with the cold method of composting kitchen and garden waste. You can make your own, or buy one.
A composter can come in many different shapes and sizes: from homemade bins to plastic conical-shaped containers, to tumblers and worm beds. And they all have their different uses in the garden.
A standard compost bin that uses a cold system also uses bacteria to help the debris decompose. But because we introduce new waste willy-nilly (or without a specific plan), we can’t make full use of the bacteria as we can with hot composting. That’s because this method stifles oxygen or starves moisture from the system, which slows the process.
On the other hand, cold garden compost is easier to make than hot composter. If you are looking for a faster progression without a lot of trouble, try a tumbler or rotator and add a worm bedding (wormery) because it can take care of more difficult kitchen waste.
The most common way to cold compost uses a conical-shaped compost bin that is usually available in most municipalities.
A cold system does not have to be confined to plastic bins. Any container with an open bottom for drainage can be used.
Let’s talk about how to make a compost bin at home. It’s pretty simple, really. There is nothing better than four upright pallets nailed together to form a box with an open bottom and top and an old bit of carpet as a lid.
How To Make A Compost Bin
In larger gardens you may want to use three bins, using the cold composting process for these bins. If you’ve got lots of debris and kitchen scraps, you can move from one bin to another to help speed the process. As the material decomposes, you combine the bins.
The small amount of composted material that results in the third bin is actually the contents of two full bins of raw material, so you can see that the breakdown is quite dramatic.
Avoid putting tap root weeds, rhizomes, and tuber root-type plants into a cold composter as they will start to grow. Even a raw potato from the kitchen will start to grow in the spring.
Purchase a rotating composter
It is sometimes said that the fastest way to make compost is the use of a tumbling or rotating compost maker.
EJWOX Garden Compost Bin Tumbler, 43 Gallon Capacity with 2 Chambers Dual Rotating Composting TumblerMiracle Gro Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler – Outdoor Bin with Easy-Turn System, 2 Sliding Doors, Sturdy Steel Frame, BPA-Free
Some manufacturers will state that when using the right mix of material, at the right moisture and the right temperature, it takes about three weeks to make compost.
To test this claim, Which Magazine tried a number of tumbling composters, comparing them against a hot composting bin. The testers turned the tumblers three times a week and mixed the bin with a garden fork once a week. It took ten weeks to create compost in the hot compost bin, and on average a month longer in the tumblers.
Although the test is valid, realistically, how many people would manually turn their compost bin every week? Without turning the compost weekly, hot compost would normally take six months.
To create compost, you need heat, oxygen, and moisture. Because the tumbler keeps all of these things in balance, as long as you have the right mix of decaying materials, it would be difficult to get it wrong.
These bins also do a few other things:
- keep odors down
- lock your waste away from rodents
- more importantly, they allow you to mix the contents regularly
So rotating composters are definitely worth investigating.
What to add to your cold composter
To make compost using a cold composter you would add to your bin a good mix (about equal amounts) of green and brown material. Include:
- vegetable scraps (and other food scraps)
- banana peels
- onion skins
- a limited amount of grass clippings and other yard trimmings
- paper egg cartons
- paper filters
- tea leaves (and paper tea bags)
- coffee grounds
- annual weeds (make sure to pick the weeds before they go to seed, as weed seeds may start growing in your compost)
- pet rabbit bedding such as hay and droppings
- shredded wood (wood shavings)
- and even old wool
Add this material as it becomes available and leave it in until everything has decomposed and looks like dark soil. This should take about a year to complete.
What NOT to put in your compost bin
- meat products
- dairy products
- fats & oils
- pet waste
- invasive weeds with seeds
- diseased plants
- chemical fertilizers
Where to buy cold compost bins
If you fill a bin, after about six months, you could use the front access panel to get to the bottom of the finished compost (sometimes called black gold), while still adding composting materials to the top.
Alternatively, you could fill the bin and just leave it for about a year. By then it should resemble potting soil that could be added to your vegetable garden.
Another option would be to fill the bin with vegetable material and once full, slide the bin off the compost, cover it with a plastic sheet, and relocate the bin so you can add more waste.
If your municipality doesn’t offer a compost bin, or you prefer a different kind, remember that compost bins come in all shapes and sizes.
Buy your cold composting bin from Amazon – there are lots to choose from! You’re bound to find one that you like.
Or make your own.
Knowing how to make excellent compost that has all the key ingredients is imperative for any serious gardener who wants healthy growth in their garden. It’s not hard, but it takes some learning to figure out what works best for you.
Adriana Copaceanu is a passionate nature lover living in the country on her dream property where she grows vegetables, lavender, and wildflowers that she shares with the wildlife they attract. When she's not in the garden, she loves spending time with her chickens and planning her next nature project.