In addition to the long wait that comes with traditional compost making, there seems to be a complex – almost mystical – array of formulas, steps, tools and techniques to the process.

Compost pile

This compost pile is less than a week from being part of a large vegetable garden.

Photo Credit: Joe Seals

But composting doesn’t have to be so time-consuming, difficult or confusing. It truly is a simple method and, with a few tips, results in excellent compost in short order.

  1. Gather the right materials. (Almost anything organic works.)

    You should have some “brown” dry material, like fallen leaves, dead flowers, straw, sawdust, shredded paper (especially newspaper), shredded cardboard or paper towels. This provides the “bulk” to a good compost.

    Gather some “green” wet material as well, like grass clippings, fresh leaves and nonflowering weeds, barnyard animal manure, chopped leafy prunings, pine needles, coffee grounds, teabags (staples removed!) and crushed eggshells. These provide readily-available food to the microorganisms that do the decomposing work. This green material will later be added to your dry mix.

    The proportions of “brown to green” are not critical, as long as you have more “brown” than “green.”

    You’ll also need a shovelful of finished homemade compost or some good garden soil to add to your new compost later, once your dry and wet ingredients are mixed together. This will served as your inoculant. Think of it as a sourdough starter. It contains the microorganisms that break down the organic material.

  2. Chop your materials.

    Before you can mix your dry material with the wet, you need to be sure your materials are properly chopped. Ideally, your pieces should be no larger than ¾ to 2 inches. Chop the “brownest” materials the smallest. The more you chop, the faster the decomposition process goes.

    Shredder-chippers and even lawn mowers are good tools for this purpose.

  3. Mix and build a pile.

    Combine your dry/brown material with your wet/green material and add the shovelful of good soil. You’re now ready to build your compost pile. This can be built anywhere except up against a structure, like a house or fence. Keep it at least 2 feet away from any such structures.

    For the sake of most efficient decomposition, the optimal size for a compost pile is 3 feet by 3 feet in area and up to 3 feet high. (Some gardeners can make a 4- to 5-foot pile and produce good compost, but it takes much more attention.) You can also stack your materials in windrows (long snakelike piles). Or, if you have lots of material, make multiple piles.

    If your pile is at least the 3-foot size, a compost bin isn’t really necessary, and you can leave the pile right on the ground. But bins do have their advantages: They’re useful for keeping the pile (and surrounding area) looking neat; retaining heat and moisture; protecting the pile from wind, harsh weather and animals; and making it easy to turn the compost – the most important step.

  4. Turn the pile and keep it moist.

    Turning your compost pile means stirring it up, and twice a week is ideal. This key step really decreases composting time because it allows all the material to be exposed to the hot center and increases aeration.

    Use a garden or spading fork (a small shovel works, too) to turn the compost, moving the material in the center of the pile to the outside and working the stuff on the outside to the center.

    Check the moisture of your compost with each turning, adding a little water, if necessary. Your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge – no more. A too-dry pile doesn’t decompose, and a too-wet pile becomes anaerobic, which means bad microorganisms take over and do little else but make the pile stink.

Under ideal conditions, your compost will be ready within two months – often as little as two to four weeks. You’ll know it’s finished and ready for use when you can’t tell what the particles used to be and when it smells wonderfully earthy.

Well-made compost makes fantastic mulch, a great amendment for vegetable beds and a nice potting soil ingredient. What’s more, it’s easy to make and great for your plants!