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Follow These Easy Instructions
To Learn How to Compost

First of all, you must know one thing…learning how to compost is not hard. To prove this to you, we’re going to give you some basic instructions on how to compost.

Before you know it you’ll be producing mountains of this amazing stuff.

The key to making great compost lies in your understanding of the composting process. Think of this “how to” page as your “big picture” view, and the pages that follow as the smaller parts that make up the whole. If you understand the information on this page, the pages that follow will make a lot more sense.

Aside from learning how to compost, have you ever asked yourself the following question: “How does composting work?” If so, you’re about to learn that as well, but first, we must answer this…

What is Compost?

Compost describes the end product of a process involving the break down of various materials (e.g. leaves, manure, food scraps) into a more usable form (e.g. fertilizer for your garden).

This break down occurs because of the biological activity within your compost pile, bin, or tumbler. Biological activity refers to the billions of soil microorganisms (e.g. bacteria and fungi) working together to consume, digest, and excrete each ingredient in your pile. Once this cycle of consume, digest, and excrete occurs about 10 billion times, you’ll be left with beautiful soil to use as you please.

The key to making great compost is…

…keeping all of your soil microorganisms happy after you build a compost pile. This is one of the secrets to composting really well. As long as these little guys (and gals) have water, oxygen, and the right balance of compost ingredients, they’ll be quite content, and will make you great compost. Without enough moisture, you’ll be dry composting – a very sloooow process. With too much moisture, you’ll drown the little guys and create a smelly mess. Without enough oxygen, you’ll be anaerobic composting, which can result in a stinky, less than ideal product (if not done properly). With too much oxygen, your compost pile may never generate enough heat to breakdown.

compost fungi

What is the Ideal Amount of Water?

When first learning how to compost, use this “handy” trick called the hand-squeeze test. After evenly applying water to your compost, grab a handful and squeeze it. If a lot of water drips out of your squeezed hand, you’ve watered too much. You’ll now want to add more dry material (e.g. straw, leaves, sawdust) or ensure extra air gets into your pile through additional turning or increased venting. If you squeeze and open your hand, and the compost crumbles and falls apart, you need to add more. If you squeeze and open your hand, and the compost stays in a clump, and your hand feels damp, congratulate yourself because your pile has the ideal moisture content. For anyone desiring exact numbers – the ideal moisture content within a pile should be maintained between 40% and 60%. Don’t worry about these numbers if you are just learning how to compost.

In small-scale composting, maintaining your compost’s moisture level is accomplished by using your garden hose or watering can. Whereas in large-scale composting, this is most easily accomplished by permanent irrigation systems.

Your Compost Pile Needs Oxygen

One of the most common mistakes that people make, when learning how to compost, is not ensuring enough oxygen is getting into their pile. The most obvious symptom of low oxygen levels (i.e. anaerobic composting) is a stinky compost pile. This odor has been described as a sour smell, or, in worst case scenarios, it may smell like vomit. Once it reaches this point, it is quite unbearable.

To prevent this from happening to you, please ensure the following:

    1. Start with the right ingredients – Oftentimes, it is a good idea to put a few small branches in your pile to help create some pockets for air flow.

    2. Don’t over water – More water means less space for air, and often results in a very compacted pile. Perform the hand-squeeze test discussed above.

    3. Turn your pile regularly – Assuming you are not using the static method of composting (see below), regular turning (e.g. once every 1-2 weeks) of your pile helps to re-introduce air and prevents settling.

    4. Use air tubes – Some people like to cut small lengths of plastic pipe, drill holes into them, and place them at specific intervals (e.g. every cubic foot) throughout their compost pile.

If you are just learning how to compost, please just stick to the first three suggestions.

The Right Balance of Ingredients is Critical

The right balance of compost ingredients means that your pile has the right composting carbon nitrogen ratio (e.g. straw, newspaper, grass clippings, wood ashes, and manure all have a different ratios). This also means that your pile has been inoculated with some sort of compost starter. A compost starter can be anything from a couple shovelfuls of garden soil to a professionally-created compost activator. Some activators work much better than others, so be sure to purchase from a reputable source.

To learn more about balancing the ingredients in your compost pile, bin, or tumbler, please visit our composting ingredients page.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we want to clarify the basic types of composting. To keep things simple, when learning how to compost there are two different methods – static and dynamic.

Static composting refers to a method in which you find a compost recipe, gather all of the ingredients, mix them all together, and then walk away. If you’ve balanced the pile correctly (i.e. used the right ingredients, moisture levels, and oxygen) you should have finished compost within a couple months (assuming surrounding temperatures are warm enough). Needless to say, this won’t happen as fast if it’s winter time and you’re living in Canada.

Dynamic composting (a.k.a. hot composting) refers to a method in which you continuously monitor and turn (i.e. aerate) your pile until it is finished. The advantages of this method, over static composting, are that you’ll produce compost at a faster rate, and it will be more uniformly decomposed; however, you do have to put in more time and effort. Most large-scale composting farms use a dynamic method for the first part of their composting process, and then a more static method to allow their compost to cure/finish. If you would like to learn more about large-scale composting, check out our page on building a compost pile like a professional.

Whether you’re into large-scale or small-scale composting, we guarantee you’ll feel empowered after reading our article on composting at home.

Compost being turned

What to Compost

We’ve seen people compost some of the weirdest things, like old leather dress shoes, winter boots, and sweatshirts. Surprisingly, all of these materials broke down. Now we’re not guaranteeing results if you make a pile of shoes and shirts and walk away. No matter how perfect your moisture levels are, there are just some basic things that need to be included when you’re starting a compost pile.

If you are just learning how to compost, you will benefit from reading the information on our compost ingredients page. However, if you’re looking for ways to use your finished compost, you’ll enjoy our article on homemade potting soil.

Composting Basics Free e-booklet

Five Free e-booklets

Interested in learning more about compost?

What if we told you you’re just one click away from being able to download five free compost e-booklets?

All you have to do is click on the Composting 101 booklet to the right and read our Free Goodies page.

Okay, so now that you know the basics of how to compost, or as we like to call it, the big picture, you’re ready to move on to the more detailed information. Within the next couple pages, we will discuss topics including the benefits of composting and apartment composting. Yes, that’s right, everything you can do to compost outside can also be done inside…well, almost everything.

Oh, and don’t forget…

Composting isn’t only for adults, kids love it too. A great way to spend time outdoors with your kids can be had making a compost pile together. Teaching your kids how to compost can be a wonderful experience, for both you and your children. For more fun and exciting tips, visit our composting for kids section.