There are two ways to compost. Cold composting and hot. Both are way easier than a lot of people make them out to be. Don't be scared or intimidated. I believe you have all the skills needed to allow a bunch of stuff to rot and turn to soil.
So you're looking to make some of your own compost are you? It's totally understandable that you think rotting a bunch of leaves and kitchen scraps is too hard for you. I mean letting stuff sit in a pile until it rots??!! That's must take some Olympic level of training to acquire that level of skill.
No it doesn't.
You are letting a bunch of stuff fall apart. That's it.
But it IS understandable that you think it's out of your realm of skills because according to most blogs and books composting is HARD. It's not hard. Please refer to the earlier sentence about how you just have to let stuff rot.
I've been seriously composting since I got chickens because they poop and they poop a lot. Plus they go through a lot of straw which is basically their cat litter but for chickens.
With all this straw and poop I quickly learned to compost and also quickly learned you do not need to have a huge brain to achieve this skill.
You need, like, part of a frontal lobe and basically no back lobe. That's it. If you have just a corner of a brain you can compost.
For this little step-by-step on how to make compost I'm going to talk about hot composting because it's the fastest way to get compost.
Table of Contents
The Difference Between Hot and Cold Composting
- Hot composting (The Berkley method) is a method where a large pile of organic matter is created and brought to high temperature over and over again. Compost can be achieved in a month or so.
- Cold composting has you adding bits and pieces over time. This type of compost is good and it requires nothing more than dumping your scraps into the bin. But it can take a year or two to completely break down and it doesn't have the level of beneficial microorganisms in it that hot compost does.
I have a full step by step guide later on in this post, but these are always the most popular questions I get about composting so let's address them now shall we?
Best Compost Bins
Which one should you get? Well, you have quite a few options including not having one at all.
A lot of people think they're going to try composting, fail, and then stick their composting bin on the road for someone else to take. That's how I got the square bin that's in my chicken coop.
Most cities provide this same model for their community members either for free or at a much cheaper price than you would pay to buy the same one from Amazon or a home improvement store.
Tumbling compost bins.
Tumbling compost bins are the easiest way to guarantee success. Turning compost is a lot of work so most people just don't do it. This means their compost takes a longggggg time to decompose and turn into soil. Using a tumbling bin means your'e much more likely to turn your compost since all you have to do is tumble the bin.
Tumblers with handles for turning them are the easiest to use and require less strength but larger tumblers that you spin by hand (like the one you see above) hold more compost and will generally produce compost more quickly. I don't have this tumbler, I've never used this tumbler, but I would very much like this tumbler. (or figure out a way to make one myself)
DIY out of pallets
Yet another thing that wood pallets can be used for. Prop them against each other and tie or screw them together to create a big compost bin. Just leave the front of it open for easy turning of the compost or prop the final pallet against it so you can easily pull it away for turning.
My community garden used these compost bins made out of screwed together wood pallets for years to produce perfect, crumbly compost out of all our garden waste and vegetation. Rotted tomatoes, twigs, bolted lettuce and whatever else we had to pull out of our gardens went into them.
We've now moved to a system where each garden has their own compost bins within their plots.
A pile with a tarp draped over it
The truth is you don't need to buy or build anything to have a productive compost pile. It's ugly, but you can just cover your compost with a dark tarp. (dark attracts the sun and makes your compost heat up more easily)
All of the nice clean straw you see here, will become the dark looking compost you see under the tarp within a couple of weeks. IF you hot compost properly.
What you've learned so far.
- Composting is easy, hot composting is using a BIG pile of stuff and you can use a bin or just a big pile.
That doesn't seem like enough information for you to compost. You also need to know how to do it.
How to Compost
You need to follow a few rules in terms of what you put into your compost pile and how big it is. Your compost pile needs to be big. The bigger it is the easier time you'll have getting it to heat up and become actual compost.
Composting is all based on the reactions between Nitrogen (greens), Carbon (browns), heat and moisture.
To make compost you just need 2 parts GREEN material and 1 part BROWN.
Add all your ingredients together in your pile or bin and stick a thermometer in it. Once it reaches 130F turn the pile to cool it down and start the process over again. You'll need to do this 2-4 times before it stops heating up.
Once your pile stops heating up it should be genuine compost and you can let it rest for a few weeks to gather up more nutrients before using it.
There's such a thing as a compost thermometer, but I just use a regular meat thermometer for testing the temperature of my soil. A genuine compost thermometer has a really long probe (20") that can fit down into the middle of your compost pile and has reminders of the temperatures you want to be at written on it.
Nitrogen Materials for Composting (Greens)
old plant material
Carbon Materials for Composting (Browns)
If you have the right ratio of greens to browns within a couple of days of making your large compost pile (at least 1 cubic meter) you'll notice it will get hot. You're looking for a temperature of around 130°F.
WARNING: The first time your pile heats up it will smell like a decrepit old rock star who has incontinence issues.
If you have the right amount of heat your pile will be steaming hot, but keep an old thermometer around to check the temperature so you know exactly how hot it is. 130 F - 140 F is ideal for creating a perfect environment for microorganisms which will do all the work of breaking down your organic material.
How to Know If Your Compost is Done.
- The pile will be around 50% of the size it was when you started.
- You won't be able to distinguish any exact materials.
- It will be a uniformly dark brown colour.
- The pile smells earthy, like soil.
- It feels like soil in your hand.
- A radish will germinate in it and the leaves will be nice and green (not yellow.)
General Composting Tips
- Smaller items will compost faster than larger so pruning and clipping larger items will speed everything up.
- Compost needs moisture! Don't forget to add it when the pile looks dry. It should be damp. This helps soften the materials and provides a good environment for the microorganisms.
- Do NOT let your compost pile heat up beyond 130-140. Any hotter and you risk killing the beneficial microbes that are created in hot composting.
- Your pile should be 1 cu meter or 35 cu ft. To calculate cubic ft.:
- width x height x length
- The more diverse the ingredients in your pile, the more diverse the nutrients and microbes it will produce.
Pile stinks - If the smell lasts longer than a couple of days and smells putrid there is too much nitrogen or too much water, add some brown material.
Pile won't heat up - Needs more nitrogen. Add green material, make sure it has enough moisture and turn it to aerate it.
Pile gets too hot - Turn it before it gets over 130 F (55 C)
This pile is made up entirely of straw and chicken poop and a tiny bit of shredded newspaper. There's actually far more "brown material" (the straw) than "green material" (the chicken poop) But, even without the ratios you're supposed to have for composting, this material heats up within a day or two.
After achieving its initial heating up, your pile will quit. It will stop getting as hot as it did the first time. You will get angry and consider throwing it at people.
Do NOT succumb to this temptation. Your pile NOW needs to have more oxygen and possibly water added to it. These two things are needed to get the compost moving and shaking again.
Like a decrepit old rock star after a stadium show, if you give him oxygen and water ... he'll bounce back and be ready for action in no time.
In my research on the Internet I've found that not nearly enough emphasis is given to keeping your pile damp.
Not sopping wet, but definitely damp. So once your pile has cooled down, turn it and mix it. This will move the compost from the outside of the pile to the inside (where it gets hotter). It will also add much needed oxygen to the mixture. Then, if the pile seems dry, water it.
If you happen to have chickens and a loose pile of compost you can let them do the work of turning the pile. Just let them loose on it for a day and it'll be all mixed up and turned ready to start heating up again.
Otherwise, that tumbling compost bin I mentioned earlier makes turning your pile WAY easier. You just turn the handle and the bin tumbles away.
If you maintain this schedule of monitoring the temperature, aerating and keeping the pile damp you can have compost in as little as a month.
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We have a compost pile we have been adding to for the past year. We haven't been diligent about turning it and now several things have sprouted in it and are growing. (possibly a potato plant? Possibly some squash?) What should we do now?
Hi Kristen. That's a regular compost pile you have. Not a hot compost pile. So it's normal for it to sprout the odd thing. Just turn your pile, add some new material and continue to let it do its thing. If you want you can pull out whatever is sprouting and try to plant it, or you can leave it in the pile to eventually decompose. ~ karen!
How did I know you were referencing Keith Richards? Spooky.
Once upon a time I had a compost tumbler and once it had enough material in it to make compost it was very hard to turn the handle. When I got divorced I left it for the ex-husband bwahahahahaha
And a question. I put diatomaceous earth in with pelleted horse bedding for the coop litter. A few years back I had a terrible infestation of mites and once I started doing that I haven't had a single problem. So this is my question. When I clean out the coop I take the litter to a giant pile (my compost bin is completely separate) and there is not a single thing - not a weed, NOTHING growing out of it. I dig down, not a single bug. I haven't used it in the gardens for fear it would kill worms and other beneficials. Do you have any thoughts on what I could use it for? Would I be able to use it as mulch on top next to the vegetables? Or would it wash down and kill anything good in the soil?
Re Hot Composting: And then, there's the dirty way - direct. It turns to soil even faster than the hot method.
Hi Celeste- can you explain what you mean by ‘direct’ or what this entails?
Yes. My kitchen waste goes directly into soil near plants already growing in the garden. Dig a trench and deposit it, then cover with soil and mix it in. That's all there is to it. Within 10 to 12 days the organisms have turned that into soil and nutrients. There is no waiting for brown and green stuff to get hot and need turning. My bowl in the kitchen fills about every other day and keeps me direct depositing. Hope you try it.
It definitely works and fast.
Here is another site that may be interesting to you gardeners:
Thanks for your reply Celeste- I had a feeling you were referring to digging it right into the garden! I follow a guy on YouTube who I like and he does the same thing. He’s channel is:
We’d Sufficient Me. He’s out of Australia.
Thanks and going to dig it right in:)
Can you continually add to your heap? I do a big clean out of our coop weekly and wonder if I should start a new pile with the poop/straw or just keep adding?
Hi Alanna. Hot composting, is a method of composting everything at once quickly, so generally, no, you don't keep adding to it. It's a one and done thing. You let the pile hot compost and if you have new material it goes into another pile. However, it depends on how big your coop is and how much you have to add every week. If you have loads of it, then you could technically be hot composting a new pile every week. If you want to add to your original pile continuously, then you're just regular composting but you can accelerate it by paying attention to when it gets hot (again it depends on how much matter is in it) and turning it when you see it's starting to heat up. Once it starts to heat up, you definitely don't want to add new material. Does that make any sense? ~ karen!
Makes sense! Thank you...I have 4 hens so having enough material for 35 cubic feet may be a challenge...I will try my best!
I love your blog and IG! I just recently found you --- so brand new lol but this is my problem. I just started a compost bin and I have a small container under my sink where I add kitchen scraps every day. Every three days I empty that container into my compost bin outside. It never heats up. I turn it and add shredded each time I add the kitchen scraps. I see now that I need to just add everything at once then check the temp every couple of days. hmm... I'm guessing I'll need to start a bigger pile for just my kitchen scraps and wait until I do a new compost pile to add them to?!? Thanks for what you do!!
Hi Dustin! Yes, if you create a pile that you're constantly adding to then it will take longer for it to decompose but it will work! If you're not in a huge hurry and you're working with a smaller amount of material for compost then the easiest way to do it is the way you're doing it! Add kitchen scraps and brown elements like paper. Without huge amounts of compost material I'd probably just keep doing what you're doing. :) ~ karen!
I just dug out more than a wheelbarrow of rotted leaves and mud from a small water garden neglected for a few years? Any use for the rotted material of my labor or is it beyond being of beneficial use?
Hi Margaret. If it's old leaves that have decomposed over the years, it's ready to go. It's leaf mould which is VERY valuable as a compost all on its own. :) If you can still see that it's leaves then it isn't leaf mould but rather partially decomposed leaves which can still definitely be added to a compost pile. If you don't have a compost pile you can mix them into any soil as they are. ~ karen!
oh, you are definitely hilarious :).
We have 10 horses, 8 sheep, 4 chickens, and 2 ducks on our farm. = lots of poop. The compost pile is about 10 x 40x 20 FEET from the winter/spring at this point. I turn it with a skidsteer, and even that takes much time. BUT, great compost.
Thanks for a wonderful read and great instructions!
Hi Therese. You're welcome! And lucky you with all that material. ~ karen!
I'm really interested in building a greenhouse and using the hot compost method to warm it during the winter - do you think that might be feasible? With both chickens and goats, there's plenty of used straw and materials.
Hi Nicole. It is feasible, and a lot of people do it, but I'm not sure about the mechanics of it. If you Google though there are a lot of examples of how people make it work. :) ~ karen!
I enjoyed this post and I have been doing mine composting all wrong. Will fix that now. I read all your post to my 88 year old mother and my wife and we all love your humor. I have already learned so much from you and I thank you for all of it. If it wasn't for the HOA I would get chickens. It would be so much easier but then I have two Basenji who would chase them around the yard. Still I enjoyed the chicken post too. Keep up the good work. Gary
Thanks Gary! Say hi to your mom and wife for me! ~ karen
Just to let you know, I’m just started reading your blog, my daughter told me , look at this mom! Loving all your writings and your info, cemented the idea of growing tomatoes and cukes up string!! Wish me luck. Now I’ve got a few hints to make better compost, need some organic chicken poop! Have a glorious day! Sunny and warm here in Winnipeg but ( not complaining) we can use more rain!
Good luck with the string training Della! ~ karen
We have two city compost bins at our condo--works great except we get a lot of little flies on the top of our material. Is this normal? if not, what should we be doing? Thanks Claudette
Hi Claudette. Yes, that's fairly normal for city compost bins since they're normally filled with food. Shouldn't be anything to worry about. ~ karen!
I know this was a long time ago, and you probably already have a tumbling compost bin, but I thought this was a really good version - https://www.familyhandyman.com/project/diy-compost-tumbler/ We are probably going to build one.
I really appreciate this info. I just wanted to add another way to compost food scraps, if there's a problem with rats in your area (like there is in mine!). I can compost my leaves and grass just fine in a compost bin, but not food. So for my food scraps I have garbage bins dug into my garden bed about 2/3rds down into the soil. The bins have holes drilled in them which allows wild earth worms in. Whenever you have food scraps, you just open the lid and toss them in. It never smells bad. It works amazing. The worms come and go as they want, so no care necessary. I have three bins going - one that is full of scraps letting the worms work, one that I'm filling with scraps, and one that I am taking out the worm compost as I need it. Here's a link to a site with more info. https://www.finegardening.com/article/diy-food-scrap-digester-composter It truly is a remarkably cool way to safely compost food.
That sounds genius! ~ karen
This is an outstanding blog post. Indeed, this post contains lots of logical and useful information which will be benefited for many visitors. Thanks and keep it up... Waiting to read your next one...
I would advise against dryer lint if you have anything except natural fiber fabrics (most cotton has some % poly now). Microplastics from any poly fabrics are detrimental and are found to be small enough to get picked up by plants and people - cellular and blood-brain barrier level. All the more reason to support natural fiber fabrics, and a put a sock or stocking over your lint exhaust.
Can you add earthworms to a tumbling composter?
Yes! ~ karen
You are so funny! I do get mad when my compost will not heat up. I think I never gave it enough water. We live in a very dry location.
Give it another shot Britany! I believe you have a non madenning compost pile in your future. ~ karen!