Composting Basics for the Beginner Gardener

Compost with food and yard waste

If you collect your food and yard waste, you can divert it from landfill, save yourself money, and help even the most basic garden by making your own compost.

I am not the most advanced gardener. Both of my parents grew up on farms, and I just wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the garden as a child. I didn’t learn what to do and why, but I still noticed some of what my mother did to keep our garden producing food and flowers. My mother always composted food waste, so I do, too. What to do with it sometimes confuses me, though.

For a beginner gardener, the easy (lazy) way to create compost is just to put food scraps and yard trimmings in a bin and let it all decompose for a year. This is cold compost, and this is what I do. This works well for the busy, young family. As you find that you have more time and interest, you can investigate how to make hot compost, watering and turning the pile to help it decompose more quickly.

For now, we’re taking eco baby steps in composting.

Compost Basics

Even if you are going to mostly ignore your compost for a year, it helps to know that healthy compost needs carbon-rich materials and nitrogen-rich materials. Most of your kitchen and yard waste is green and nitrogen-rich, though it has carbon as well. Your compost needs more carbon than nitrogen, so it is important to add paper, fall leaves, sawdust, and other carbon-rich materials. If you notice that your compost has an ammonia smell, you need more of the brown, carbon-rich materials. If you don’t have enough nitrogen (just a pile of fall leaves), the decomposition process will be very slow. So, don’t ignore it completely. Make sure you add both green and brown waste.


  • Fruit and vegetable waste
  • Hair (!)
  • Grass clippings
  • Egg shells
  • Dryer lint
  • Tea bags
  • Cotton rags (like really old, post-cleaning-rag diapers)
  • Clean paper or cardboard rolls

Do not add:

  • Oil and fat (attracts pests)
  • Dairy and eggs (attracts pests)
  • Meat, bone, or scraps (attracts pests)
  • Diseased plants
  • Weeds or grass gone to seed (unless you really want to spread those seeds throughout your garden)
  • Chemically treated weed, sawdust, or plants

Now, just wait for a year.

Then, After a Year

If you did this last year and wonder what to do next, go turn that pile over and see what’s on the bottom. If it looks and smells like rich, brown dirt, you have succeeded. Compost encourages beneficial micro-organisms that break down organic matter. When you do it right, you have humus filled with nutrients and able to help soil retain moisture.

Spread it around.

  • Spread compost on your lawn to replenish nutrients naturally.
  • Turn into your plant beds to condition the soil.
  • Use as a protective mulch around trees.
  • Add to soil for house plants.

Composting just adds a little bit of human activity to a natural cycle. You divert waste from landfill, an environment where it would eventually but only slowly decompose. You save money, since you won’t need to buy commercial fertilizers. You keep your garden growing well with moist, nutrient-rich soil.

Image © Rainer |

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