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Composting for Beginners

Compost is the term used to describe decomposed organic material. Composting gives gardeners, farmers and homeowners an environmentally-friendly way to add nutrients back to the soil while also reducing the amount of waste generated—whether that be kitchen scraps, animal manure or yard clippings.

How Compost Works

Composting speeds up the natural process of plant material turning into organic matter. The compost pile heats up, and the soil organisms present get to work breaking everything down into a fine medium with the texture, consistency, color and smell of a very healthy soil. When done properly, a compost can go from start to finish in as little as three months.

Food, waste, leaves, paper and products in a compost bin.

Adding organic matter to the soil is beneficial for many reasons, including:

  • Supplying plants and soil organisms with nutrients.
  • Decreasing the need for other soil additives, such as fertilizer.
  • Allowing the soil to hold more water.
  • Improving soil aeration, allowing soil organisms freedom to move around and giving plant roots the ability to spread.
  • Preventing the topsoil from eroding away.

A good, finished compost improves soil health over the long term, which, for the home gardener, means a more productive garden. Materials suitable for compost are divided into one of two categories—greens or browns. Green materials provide nitrogen and are considered to be wet materials, such as manure, kitchen scraps or grass clippings. Brown material is a source of carbon and includes the dry materials, such as twigs, dried leaves or paper. A good compost pile can have equal amounts or up to three times as much brown material as green material.

What to Compost

  • Non-glossy paper products (newspaper, cardboard, etc.)
  • Yard waste (brush clippings, sticks, leaves, grass clippings, bark)
  • Plant debris
  • Kitchen scraps (coffee grounds and filters, fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells)
  • Livestock manure

What NOT to Compost

  • Animal fat, bones or meat
  • Grease or oil
  • Dairy products
  • Human or pet waste
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Weed seeds
  • Diseased plant material

What to Compost Cautiously

Windrow mixture of leaves, manure, and hay.Manure, grass clippings, hay or straw that may have been treated with certain herbicides can be composted with caution. Some herbicides, while doing no harm to these plants or animals, can remain in livestock manure, grass clippings or straw, and damage garden plants. Ask the source about potential herbicides used, and contact your local WVU Extension Service agent for clarification on if a treated product would be safe to use in a compost pile.

Building a Compost Pile

For best results, a compost pile should be a minimum of 3 cubic feet in size (3 feet wide by 3 feet long by 3 feet tall), but not larger than 5 cubic feet. This is the optimum size range to allow the pile to heat to the correct temperature to decompose material quickly, maintain heat during colder months and allow for enough air flow.

A compost tumbler with leaves in the bin.While it’s not necessary to have a structure around the pile, unless local ordinances require one, a compost bin can make building and maintaining the pile easier for some. Pallets, cinder blocks, chicken wire or recycled lumber are all popular choices. For households with little waste or those in more urban areas, a closed tumbler offers a way to compost effectively on a smaller scale and keep it undisturbed. Many choose to keep a small bin in the kitchen to collect scraps, then transfer those to the pile on a routine basis. Larger scale composters may choose a windrow system, which allows the flexibility to continuously add materials

No matter what the pile looks like, make sure it is still easily accessible to work. As for location, refrain from placing the pile against a building or near a downspout. The only other considerations are making sure water can reach the pile with ease and its location will allow for easy transfer to the space where the compost will be used.

A wood chip pile for composting.Start preparing to compost by collecting materials. Brown materials, such as twigs and dried leaves, that are abundant during the fall and winter can be stockpiled, then add green material, such as grass clippings, in the spring. 

Once enough material is gathered, build the pile by layering a few inches of sticks or corn stalks on the bottom for air flow. On top, alternate layers of green material with brown material, making sure each layer is at least 2 to 4 inches thick. Or, both greens and browns can be mixed together. Keep in mind that more brown material will be present than green material. For the fastest results, chop or shred the materials into smaller pieces. Routinely add water to the pile so it is moist, but not damp. A few scoops of garden soil also are beneficial to introduce the soil organisms that will break down the material. Continue alternating layers until the pile is at least 3 cubic feet in size.

Compost Maintenance

The pile should be watered regularly to keep it moist. The sides and the tops will be the first to dry out. Within the first couple days, the pile should heat up to at least 140 degrees. While the only item that is really needed to start a pile is plant material – and perhaps a good shovel – a useful tool for beginners to have on hand is a compost thermometer. This can be used to check the internal temperature and ensure the pile is getting hot enough before turning. The compost should stay above 140 degrees for at least three days before turning over. This should occur within the first week, then turn the compost every three to four weeks. A compost pile will need to be turned less frequently in the winter months.

Turning over the pile allows the microorganisms at work to receive oxygen and break down the material faster. Not turning the pile frequently, or at all, will still result in a finished compost, but it will take much longer.

Compost Problems

Contrary to popular belief, a compost pile will have no odor to it and won’t attract any unwanted critters. While there is science behind the process, there is not an exact formula to a perfect compost. Below are the most common problems and how to fix them:

Problem

Potential Cause(s)

Solution

Odor

Not enough oxygen, too much moisture or too much green material

Aerate the pile, add more material to soak up excess moisture, add more brown material

Not heating up

Not enough green material or pile is too dry

Add more green material or water

Pests

Food scraps exposed

Bury food waste in the center of the pile

Using the Compost

It will be clear when the compost is finished, as it will look, feel and smell like healthy soil. The pile will condense as the material degrades. To add the compost to a garden, spread a layer 1 to 2 inches thick and incorporate it into the topsoil. Remember to test your garden soil prior to adding any soil amendments. Contact your local WVU Extension Service office for details on how to test your soil.


Author: Emily Morrow, WVU Extension Service Agent – Jefferson County
Last Reviewed: June 2020