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Composting For Beginners The Complete Guide

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compost pile under a tarp

Composting for beginners, The complete guide helps new gardeners who are terrified by the very word compost. But I am here to tell you that composting isn’t hard nor does it have to be complicated. After all, It is a natural process and all you’re really doing is helping to speed up the entire procedure.

Table of Contents

    So what is the definition of compost?

    Compost is defined as a collection of plant material that is left to decay and this provides organic fertilizer to improve the quality of the soil. I would like to add here that plant material also refers to the manures from herbivore animals, such as cows, horses, sheep, poultry, and rabbits. manures from carnivores should not be added to your compost.

    What should I add to my compost?

    • All plant material from the garden
    • Fruit & Vegetable kitchen scraps
    • Cooked pasta and rice
    • Cardboard boxes from packaging (remove plastic tape and windows and shred these products)
    • Newspaper (Shredded)
    • Old stale bread, crackers tortilla chips and crisps
    • Used Coffee Grounds
    • Used tea Bags (Minus the bag itself as this contains plastic and does not break down)
    • Dryer Lint
    • Dog and human hair
    • Horse, Cow, Sheep, Rabbit, Poultry Alpaca and Goat manure
    • Straw
    • Hay
    • Woodchips
    • Worm castings
    • Tree cuttings
    • Wool
    • Bracken
    • Ash from burnt hardwood
    • Sawdust
    • Leaves
    How To Make Compost - Composting Process - Compost Methods

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    vegetable scraps in the compost bin
    Shredded vegetables

    As discussed compost is a collection of waste plant material, you can add the following items to this in order to bring in as much nutrition to make better compost.

    Composting 1
    Composting 1

    As discussed compost is a collection of waste plant material, you can add the following items to this in order to bring in as much nutrition to make better compost.

    collecting worm castings from a worm bin

    What shouldn’t I add to my compost?

    You shouldn’t add the following to home composts, Not because it wouldn’t compost, but for various other reasons such as a health reason or the fact it would attract vermin.

    oranges and orange peel
    orange peel
    coal on a fire
    coal ash
    • Meat (Raw or cooked)
    • Fish
    • Cheese
    • Milk
    • Dog or cat Manures
    • Coffee or Tea Bags (These contain plastic and do not rot)
    • Citrus Peel & Onions ( These make the compost too acidic killing off the bacteria and microbes)
    • Glossy or coated paper or cardboard ( Plastic contained here too)
    • Coal fire ash
    • Sawdust from treated timber
    • Large branches (they will steal the nitrogen while trying to break down)
    • Chemical fertilizers

    How to Compost: Greens & Browns

    Before we even think about starting our compost pile, we need to know how to build it. We could just throw it all in a heap and wait for it to break down, but if you get the wrong amounts of things in your compost it might either take an age to break down. Or it may turn into a slimy stinky mess. 

    cupped hands holding compost

    So how do I know how much of what to put into my compost?

    That is a bit of a larger subject but each component that you add is associated with a color. Either Green Or Brown. essentially greens are products that contain high levels of nitrogen. This is needed to break down the heap. And Browns which typically are a carbon source.

    What’s the ideal green or brown ratio?

    Ideally, you are looking for a mix ratio of about 30:1. But let me explain this before I go any further. You may have heard the volume 30:1 when it comes to browns and greens when making your compost. But, I want to make it crystal clear here so there is no misunderstanding. Too many people who garden throw this figure around and don’t really understand the concept behind it. The ratio of 30:1 is not a volume ratio, it is based on the carbon to nitrogen ratio.

    So simply put, you DO NOT add 30 times more browns to 1 part green, this will never break down and it is the number one reason why new gardeners struggle when making their own compost. This is why I created the composting for beginners guide.

    So how do I know how many parts carbon or nitrogen it contains?

    This is the challenge. Below is a list of some of the most common ingredients used in making compost that will help you. But The terms green and brown, or carbon and nitrogen still don’t cover what any ingredient contains. Furthermore, All products you add will contain both carbon and nitrogen in varying forms. Now you understand this you can make sense of the information below.

    cartoon light bulb

    Carbon To Nitrogen Ratio In Ingredients 

    First, let’s check out the high in carbon products and their ratios.

    High CarbonC/N Ratio
    Leaves 60:1
    Shredded Newspaper175:1
    Hardwood Ash25:1
    Shredded Cardboard350:1
    pile of shredded wood chips
    Tony O'Neill holding chopped leaves in a 1 ton bag
    High NitrogenC/N Ratio
    Food Waste 1:20
    Coffee Grounds1:20
    Garden Waste1:30
    Grass Clippings 1:25
    Vegetable Scraps1:25
    Tony O'Neill with compost ingredients

    What else do we need to make the compost work?

    So as you can see from the composting from beginners tables, simply adding 30 times more browns to compost over a green would mean it would never break down. So use the above tables to help you. If adding weeds it’s pretty much set. If adding wood chips and grass clippings you would need around twice as many wood chips in volume as you would grass clippings. I trust this will help you understand the process of building your compost pile.

    We figured out what ingredients we are going to add to our compost pile. We know how to get the correct ratios too, but there are two other things we need to add in order for the whole thing to work. If you look at this as a recipe then there are 4 parts. We have the greens and browns, or carbon and nitrogen. The other two things we need are Air and Water. These are very important for the health of the microbes and bacteria that will colonize our compost and break it down.

    Why is it important to add water to compost?

    Water is one of the most important elements of any compost. Without water the microbes and soil life cannot breed, they need a warm moist environment in order to multiply. Getting the moisture levels right can really speed up the process to dry and the microbes slow down. Too wet and the microbes slow down. Here are some things to look out for which will tell you if it’s too wet or too dry.

    water your plants with compost tea

    Too Wet

    If your compost is too wet the microbes will slow down eventually they will die and your compost will cease to continue to break down and turn into a smelly mess. This is one of the biggest factors when you have smelly compost.

    Too Dry

    • Composting slows drastically.
    • It gets dusty rather than looking moist
    • You may get a colony of ants to move in

    Just like you microbes need water in which to survive and if the heap is too dry, like being too wet the microbes start to die. Aim for moist compost when squeezed only a couple of drops can be seen.

    tractor turning compost piles

    Why does compost need air?

    As we discussed at the top of this composting for beginners guide. Composting is plant material decaying by the use of microbes, and the microbes need food water, and air to live, As they consume the food they put out a Bi-product of heat, the air allows the microbes to continue to consume food and multiply. It is important to turn your compost for quicker results as this introduces air to the pile.

    What compost bin is best?

    This is dependant on your preferences and budget. You could mound just a load of compost on the ground and cover it over with a tarp. Many people do this with great effect. However, if you have a garden, then you may not want an unsightly mound in the garden, That is where compost bins or compost bays come into their own.

    DIY Compost Bins

    You can build a compost bay as I have done here from pallets, They make large bays and this is important. The larger the pile the more heat it creates and the quicker the pile breaks down. Simply place 3 pallets together and tie a fourth to the front to make a compost bin. It is that simple. This will hold about 3 cubic feet of compost. 

    How to Make THE MOST EFFECTIVE Compost Bin from Pallets?

    It is easy to build your own compost bins from pallets. They are Free or very inexpensive to buy. The last years and are sturdy.

    compost bin built from pallets

    Store-Bought Compost Bins

    tumbler compost bin
    Tumbler compost bin
    large green plastic compost bin
    compost bin
    black plastic double compost bin
    Plastic compost bin

    A much easier way is to buy a store-bought compost bin. They come in various shapes and sizes. From a basic warlock style bin to a beehive-looking compost bin, or even a roller style bin, they all have their uses in the garden. The latter is much easier to turn for people who have mobility issues and can not physically turn a compost pile but wish to compost. 

    Whatever you decide to make your compost in, just remember the golden rules above and you will have fantastic compost to fertilizer your garden with.

    How long does compost take to make?

    This depends on a number of factors. Firstly the things you put in the compost and how big you build the pile but here are a couple of tips to get fast compost for your garden.

    • Build your compost pile high
    • Shred your ingredients as small as possible
    • Get the right nitrogen / carbon (Green /Brown) ratio
    • Ensure you have the correct amount of moisture
    • Invest in a compost thermostat to let you know when it cools down
    • Turn the compost every time it cools down
    • Check moisture every 10 days and add more if required

    What to do with my finished compost?

    First of all, let me congratulate you on making your first batch of compost. Although it looks complicated it really isn’t once you understand the fundamentals. Now what to do with it? There are so many things you can do with compost and these are some ideas below:-

    Turn Leaves into Nutrient-Rich Compost
    • Use compost as a mulch
    • Use your compost as part of a potting soil mix
    • Use your compost to grow potatoes in containers (Like Me)
    • Use your compost to fertilise trees and shrubs
    • Use your compost on your flower beds.
    • Enrich your soil and build its structure and water retention by adding compost
    • Improve the soil web food life of your soil by adding billions of microbes to your garden
    • Make compost tea to fertilize your plants Click here to read that blog on how to make compost tea.

    You’re nearly at the end of this composting for beginners, the complete guide blog. Now all you need to do is to make your compost again. You already know exactly what to do. I hope that this blog has cleared up any issues or challenges you face when making compost at home. If you got value from this blog, consider sharing below, or subscribing to the blog for future gardening information I post. You can find the subscribe button in the right-hand sidebar on this page.

    I would like to wish you all the best in your compost-making and gardening year. If you have any questions or need help then just drop them in the comments section below and I will get back to you.

    Our YouTube channel has hundreds of videos to help you. Check it out here

    My New Book COMPOSTING MASTERCLASS is now available.