Backyard Composting - Beginner's Guide

Backyard Composting - Beginner's Guide

Most homes generate a lot of physical waste every year. Some of this might be trash and paper products along with packaging materials. A lot of it is usually just food waste.

Composting is a chance to avoid throwing all this away and turning it into something usable. Just a little space in your backyard can be a chance to convert waste into fertilizer. You can then use this to grow vibrant plants in your yard and help put free food on the table at a time when groceries are more expensive than ever.

The only thing probably stopping you from doing it is a bit of knowledge. What are the materials you can put in? How do you mix them just right? This beginner's guide to backyard composting is here to answer your questions.

Benefits of Composting

Composting is a bit of work. You should only do it if you deem it worth it. That shouldn't be hard, however, given how many benefits there are to it.

For starters, soil adores compost for making its job easier. There is more nutrition for plants to grow. It often helps out with the pH balance for that matter, too.

Compost also helps out local water supplies. Retaining many times more water than most soil means there is more moisture for plant roots. However, it also helps water drip back into the local water table and replenishes what was lost.

It does more than that. Since compost filters water, it actually contributes to cleaner streams, rivers, and oceans. Your backyard project eventually means cleaner rain falling on you later in life.

The ability of compost to retain water also means that it prevents erosion. If you're doing this in your yard, you want your soil to stay in place. That protects the foundation of your home from shifting and cracking.

It's also a carbon sink. Not only is carbon devoured in the process, but it's also stored in the ground it's applied to later. That helps minimize pollution driving climate change.

Composting in the Backyard

What Is Composting?

Composting is a natural process that recycles organic matter. Examples include food scraps and leaves. They are converted into a valuable fertilizer that has the power to enrich plants and soil.

Anything that actually grows will decompose eventually. The act of composting just speeds this process up. It does that by offering the ideal environment where fungi and bacteria can do their work alongside decomposing organisms, such as nematodes, sowbugs, and worms.

The result is decomposed matter. It usually looks like garden soil that is fertile. That's compost, although farmers might call it "black gold" as it has rich nutrients useful for agriculture, horticulture, and gardening.

Industrial-caliber composting facilities can process organic discards in high volume. A smaller community composting place can also do the work in a more limited fashion. There are also anaerobic digesters that do this.

Materials in a Compost Pile

You can't put anything and everything in a compost pile. You need a specific mix of the right things. However, you can put a lot in there to get rid of waste and turn it into something great for the environment.

Organisms that are going to decompose organic waste have to get four crucial elements if they are going to succeed. Those elements are air, water, carbon, and nitrogen. Any compostable material has carbon, while nitrogen amounts vary.

Successful composting just becomes a matter of utilizing a proper combination of different materials. You want an optimal ratio of carbon to nitrogen while keeping good amounts of water and air. A great compost pile has 25 to 30 times as much carbon as nitrogen.

A pile with an excess of carbon will be too dry. It'll need more time to actually break down. Likewise, too much nitrogen produces a smelly, wet, slimy compost pile.

You don't need to be a scientist to master this though. Just put two to four times as many brown materials in your compost pile as the green materials. If your ratio is off, you can just add the lacking color to get things back into proportion.

Related: 40 Things you can compost

Brown Materials

Brown Materials

Brown materials represent the carbon that you want to be at least double the green nitrogen materials. Carbon is crucial for all forms of known life. Brown plant material is a great source for this.

Carbon is a food source for the decomposers making things happen. They stay alive while breaking down the waste. Common browns include paper, twigs, branches, and dead leaves.

Green Materials

Green Materials

Nitrogen is an essential building block for life. It's crucial for reproduction and growth in animals and plants. Fresh organic material, known as greens, has a higher nitrogen ratio than carbon.

Putting lots of greens into a compost pile means decomposers grow and then reproduce fast. You might want them to speed things up. Put in things like coffee grounds, grass clippings that are fresh, and food scraps.

Water and Oxygen

Decomposers are like other living organisms in their need for water and oxygen. If you want your compost process to work faster, be sure that there's enough of both. If you're not in any rush, then you can let the decomposition take its own pace.

Otherwise, try to layer your materials in small pieces for optimal airflow. Turn your piles routinely, or use a different aeration system. Pieces should be bigger than your finger for air to move around.

In terms of water, a compost pile should be the same wetness as a sponge you've already wring out. Food waste usually brings enough moisture. If not, you can just add regular water.

Stages of Composting

Stages of Composting

Composting is a four-stage process. The mesophilic phase starts things off for a few days before moving into the thermophilic stage. A polymeric stage precedes the concluding curing and maturation stage.

The mesophilic stage is also known as the moderate-temperature phase. It's brief, lasting only several days, as the microbes in the compost pile grow from local ambient temperature to more than 100F. Microbes in this stage consume the easiest carbs and proteins in the pile to generate the insulating heat thermophiles need.

The high-temperature or thermophilic stage happens second. Your compost pile will usually heat up to around 155F before cooling back down to the area's ambient temperature as thermophilic bacteria are breaking down non-cellulose carbs and proteins. They'll also hit hemicellulose and lipid components.

More decomposition happens in the form of polymeric reactions. These produce complex ligno-proteins, such as humus and humic acids. This is the final decomposition after the pile has cooled down.

Let more breakdown happen at the end prior to amending soil with compost. It should be "ripened". It might mature within just a few weeks, but it might also take a few months.

Different Ways to Compost

There are many ways to go about composting, but they all need to honor certain basics. Nutrient balance requires the right balance of green versus brown materials, all organic. Particle size is also important, as you want to maximize the available surface area for microorganisms to feed on. Shredding, chipping, and grinding all help with that. They also provide more insulation to keep interior temperatures high.

Moisture content is also important, as there has to be sufficient moisture for microorganisms to actually survive. Water also transports substances inside the pile, making nutrients accessible. Food waste will have some moisture, but other water can be added intentionally or through rainfall.

The flow of oxygen is also important. Turn your pile, or aerate with shredded news clippings and wood ships. Microorganisms have to breathe if they're going to get the interior temperature up high enough.



Piling is the most basic method of composting available. You just pick a spot in your yard and dump your materials on top of the ground. Make sure you turn them over once in a while. It's easy and free, but it's also susceptible to pest invasion or animal disruption.

Composting Bins

Composting Bins

A composting bin is any secure container you use to keep your compost pile while it does its work. You can get models that allow for aeration or not. They do cost money, but they secure your pile from interruption by animals. They also speed up the entire process of composting. You can get models that let you keep adding materials for constant composting, but you can also get units that do one batch at a time.


Composting Tumblers

A tumbler is an enclosed container, but it's not a composting bin. Tumblers are easy to rotate, which helps with the aeration of the composting material inside the container. It's still enclosed, however, so it helps the composting materials reach and maintain the high temperatures necessary to get through the various stages of the composting process. They speed things up, but they're also more expensive than bins. They do keep rodents and other animals out of the pile, however.



This method uses red worms in bins feeding on the materials you want to compost. They break down the materials into high-caliber compost known as castings. A single pound of mature worms, usually around 900, eat 0.5 pounds of organic material daily. Size your constructed or bought bins to suit your food scrap volume, but be ready to wait a few months before you have usable potting soil.

How Fast Will I Have Usable Compost?

You can get compost done in just six weeks to two months if you expedite the process. Otherwise, it might be a year or longer. The difference is how much effort you apply to it.

You'll know the composting process is over when it's dark brown and smells like earthy material. If you can, leave it for another month or so to mature. Don't worry about compost that isn't fine and crumbly since it's still usable; just sieve it first and put the bigger bits into the new compost pile.

To expedite things, make sure your original ratio is right as listed previously. Also, use pieces smaller than your fingers so you can aerate things. Turn the pile over on a regular basis, and add water as necessary.

Using Compost in the Garden

For the fastest results, compost consistently and efficiently for your garden so you have a steady supply. You can know when your compost is ready when the pile is about half its original size and the materials are visually unrecognizable. Screen your compost to get rid of bigger particles.

Store the compost until you actually need it. If your garden is seasonal, you can compost in the offseason to bulk up your applies. Ideal containers are breathable, such as plastic containers with punched air holes or just woven bags.

When you're ready to use your compost, put together a potting mix for container plants. Use three times as much vermiculite or perlite as you do compost since compost retains too much water. If you want to use compost in garden beds, do that in the early fall or spring.

Compost for perennials, shrubs, and trees needs to be mixed with native soil. Do a uniform mixture from your planting hole. This gives roots good transitional growth they can expand from.

Key Takeaways

You don't need scientific equipment or even education to start composting. You just need the right mix of materials and a place to do it. Once you do, you'll keep waste out of landfills and turn it into something healthy and useful for your own gardening.

Doing your own gardening spares the world the transportation pollution involved with industrial foods covering long distances to get to your dinner table. Meanwhile, you'll have fresh foods to enjoy in your own home. They'll be free, too!

If you're not able to compost in your own home or on your property, or you just don't want to, you can still donate your applicable waste to community compost efforts. They happen anywhere from the neighborhood to city levels if you just ask around a little.