How to Start a Compost Pile in 4 Easy Steps


Now is the perfect time to start a compost pile. You can do it fancy or simple. And if you know me, you know I always prefer simple. Compost is the most important thing you can use in your garden to improve your land’s fertility (lawn, garden, and landscape), get rid of kitchen and yard waste efficiently, and save time and money. The only science involved is the science of decomposition—when things decompose, they turn into the most potent, valuable fertilizer on the market. Why buy it in the store when you can make it at home for free?

Step One: Figure out where to put it, and if you need to put it in something.
If you are lucky to live on a nice patch of land, you can simply make a compost pile in a back corner somewhere. You don’t really need a container to make compost. However, if you live on a smaller patch of land, you might want to get a container to keep things looking tidy. I have tried lots of containers over the years. My husband’s favorite is probably the compost tumbler, mainly because he can move it close to the kitchen door in the winter. My favorite container is one I had shipped over from England, mostly because it looks beautiful in my veggie garden. We keep our compost containers right in the veggie patch, since that’s where most weeds and veggie leftovers go in, and where the good black gold comes out. If you live in the city, you probably will want a container. All compost containers (except for the compost tumbler) look kind of like trash cans, but without a bottom, so the good microbes from the soil can get in and do their business. If you have an old trash can lying about, you can just cut off the bottom, and voilà! You have a composter.

This is a picture of me taking a picture (with my iphone) of my favorite composter from England.

This is a picture of me taking a picture (with my iPhone) of my favorite composter from England.

Step Two: Start collecting stuff to put on your pile. From outside the house, you can put weeds (but not poison ivy please), leaves, old dying plant material, and garden waste. From inside the house, you can get a fancy compost bucket for your kitchen sink if you like, or you can just use a bucket or old container to collect kitchen waste. Things to avoid putting on the compost pile include anything toxic, meat, bones, processed foods, dairy, and pet poop. But any other kitchen waste from vegetables or fruits, egg shells, coffee or tea grounds and even the shells of things like clams and crab are good, really good. Take this stuff out to your pile daily, otherwise it starts to decompose inside the house instead of outside the house, and might start to smell. Keep your waste container clean between loads, and you will have a clean-smelling, efficient composting operation set up in your household.

Step Three: Wait. Some people, compost connoisseurs, may have all sorts of elaborate rituals and techniques for speeding up the composting process. But it never fails if you just wait. Keep on adding to the top, and in a few months, at the bottom, you will have rich, dark, fertile compost to spread around. (That’s why a lot of composters have little doors at the bottom—no, it’s not for the composting gnomes to get in to do their job!…Or is it?)

Alas, the peonies are now done blooming, but it just goes to show what a little compost can do!

Alas, the peonies are now done blooming, but it just goes to show what a little compost can do!

Step Four: Use it. If you don’t use it, you won’t lose it…it just waits for you. And even if you never use it, you’ve already done great work by keeping waste out of the public waste stream. However, compost loves to be used. You can spread it lightly on your lawn to make it greener. You can put it on your veggie patch to make it grow bigger, healthier, stronger veggies. You can put it on your flower beds to make your flowers more luscious and pest-resistant. You can sprinkle it around your houseplants or container plants. You can package it nicely and give it to friends and neighbors.

Compost is an organic gardener’s most powerful tool for raising healthy, pest-free, and beautiful gardens. Now there is nothing stopping you from getting started!


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31 Responses to How to Start a Compost Pile in 4 Easy Steps

  1. MJ June 14, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    We have various compost piles in different corners of the back yard, but most of them are made with hardware cloth (1/2″ holes), formed into an open ended cylinder. We use wire to tie the cut ends together. When you plop it down, the bottom and top are open for business. When you want to ‘harvest’ the bottom, just tip it over. We throw the top half or so back into the cylinder and start over. Another thing we throw in there (besides kitchen scraps and yard waste) is shredded paper, sans colored ink and plastic windowed envelopes. Thanks for the info on the crab and clam shells. I never knew that!

  2. Barb June 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm #

    There is a 25′ by 25′ area that used to be garden where we just throw everything we have available. Occasionaly I get boxes of spoiled or frozen produce from a food bank where I volunteer. In the fall, I pick up bags of leaves from the curbs. This is the only time we turn the pile. The leaves get mixed in so they don’t form a rain barrier and get slimy.

    This year, after digging out several wheelbarrows of the good stuff for other garden areas, my son tilled the compost pile. I planted 4 rows of corn and 3 potato hills. This will be the best corn ever!

  3. Adele June 17, 2010 at 5:40 am #

    I assume the crab shells are cooked….. Do these get washed so there is no meat remaining in the shells? I am under the impression you do not want anything cooked in your compost pile….

  4. Ann Takvorian February 10, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    I stopped composting in my garden. My pile was surrounded on three sides by cinder blocks and all was well until it started attracting mice, chipmunks and even rats.

  5. MJ February 10, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    @Ann Takvorian, try hiding the smelly kitchen scraps under some yard waste. We have a small pile of yard waste next to most of our compost bins ready to top off the kitchen scraps. So lots of layers.

  6. Cassandra McFarland February 9, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

    I live in Indianapolis, IN, when would be the best time to start my compost pile to use for summer time? I would love to have beautiful juicy veggies this year!

  7. MJ February 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm #

    @Cassandra, I’m in Florida, so take it for what its worth, but I would say compost piles are a year-round thing and its never too soon or late to make wonderful ‘dirt’. We rarely turn ours, so sometimes its a full 2 years before we have black gold.

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  9. Judy November 6, 2014 at 2:33 am #

    This is a good design, for a bin. I had a statoinary bin but it was too difficult for me to turn the heavy materials. I agree that large capacity is necessary for quick or hot composting. I love my compostumbler. It’s bigger than the other bins and tumblers out there and it’s really easy to turn even for my Dad who’s 69. He’s made 6 batches of compost in his compostumbler since he bought one 6 months ago!

  10. Janel Barthe January 25, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    I have read that onions and citrus in your compost is detrimental to composting…is this only if you add worms to your bin? I add these particular items and the worms are gone???How about adding cooked veggies, pasta, other non-dairy, nonfat, non-meat items?

  11. Josefina Navarro May 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm #

    I pulled weeds from my garden to prepare for planting vegetables. Could I mix those partially dried weeds with the soil where I will plant the seedlings?

  12. mark559 May 27, 2015 at 5:39 pm #

    I bought a Jeter 120 gallon compost bin is there anything I can add to speed up the process I’m going to use it for grass clipping’s at Moy mom’s house I get about 5 to 6 lawn mower bags a week at the beginning of the summer then less after the fast growing season will it be able to keep up?
    I live in pa

  13. Meme May 30, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

    Your peony picture is beautiful. This is one of my favorite flowers, but was told they would not grow in Florida. So glad to see you post this, I am going to try peonies!

  14. Reply to Janel Barth October 24, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

    I have read that onions and citrus in your compost is detrimental to composting…is this only if you add worms to your bin? I add these particular items and the worms are gone???


    Janel, the reason your worms might have been going POOF is because birds sometimes take advantage of the masses of worms and eats them up. Keep the compost in a closed lid that is dark (the worms do not like the sun). DO NOT KEEP COMPOST IN YOUR HOUSE, IT SMELLS AWFUL IF NOT HANDLED. I had to spray 5 cans of air freshener in my house to get rid of it.

  15. Susan September 3, 2016 at 10:28 pm #

    Should the compost comtainer be in or out of the sun? Thank you

  16. MJ September 4, 2016 at 6:59 am #

    Susan, I don’t think the sun matters one way or another

  17. Mike November 8, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

    The sun is a huge factor! That’s why we use mulch check this out :

    The sun kills the microbes, the microbes are why we compost have a look at this one :

    If you want to know just how important these microbes are, have a look at this:

  18. Ash January 4, 2017 at 1:06 am #

    Do you combine all the things (eggshells and things) with soil in the compost bin? Sorry I’m starting to plant stuff and I’ve never composted before ?

  19. Anna March 21, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

    I wouldn’t put weed clippings in my compost! That means you would be spreading weeds through your whole garden.. ! I make a seperate break down pile for weeds and heavy grass clippings 🙂

  20. Jennifer June 14, 2017 at 9:45 am #

    I started a compost pile just a month or so ago, mine is just in a trench I dug in the dirt in the backyard LOL you certainly don’t need anything fancy to start composting! I’ve been amazed that beyond the first night, the critters have mostly left it untouched. Lately I put food scraps in the blender for a few seconds to really break things down before adding it to the pile, hoping that will speed up the process 🙂

  21. mandy January 26, 2018 at 2:37 pm #

    Hello everyone! I just bought my 1st metal trash bin. I’m done with giving away my organic greens/goods to the city.. I want to see what my money can grow. I’m super excited! So, I was reading responses, and I read keeping bottom of bin opened. So should I cut bottom of bin off? And if yes, would bin be okay to just sit on grass? My backyard ground seems to be pretty dried. Lots of leaves on ground, and lots of shade. It’s a rental property.. I appreciate any advice..

  22. PhishyPharmer February 23, 2018 at 6:23 pm #

    Mandy- keeping in mind that it takes a while to really get your scraps and waste to break down, you want to bottom of the bin ‘open’ for a couple reasons. First- that’s where you will end up pulling your fertilizer from when you use it in your garden. Also important to keep in mind, is that compost comes from the aerobic breakdown of materials- aerobic means oxygen and it’s important to allow your compost to ‘breathe’ as it does its’ thing. Another important thing to remember is that you need a good balance of green and brown compost- green can be from your kitchen, but if you don’t have the brown (wood chips, leaves, dried grass clippings…) your compost will get really wet.

  23. Diana February 27, 2018 at 11:07 am #

    I am starting a compost pile but in my house/apartment. What kind of container can I use to start the collection? I have coffee grinds in a plastic coffee container, is this okay to start collecting? Also do I leave the lid on or off to prevent bugs or mold growing? Can I mix vegetable and fruit with the coffee grounds?
    Thank you in advance.

  24. Loi March 18, 2018 at 2:36 pm #

    Where and when the produce dispose by the owner
    I would like to start my own compsoe

  25. Louise March 31, 2018 at 7:50 am #

    Great thanks for the advice, I’ve been thinking bout starting a compost heap, but have been worried about the smell and my neighbours might also not like it if its in the corners close to them.. So thanks for all the wonderful information about the drums and things, now I cant wait to start composting!! Thanks for PhishyPharmer for that advice on green and brown compost, I am very new to gardening as a whole.. Thanks

  26. Maria Dominguez March 14, 2019 at 11:44 pm #

    I love digging in the dirt and cant wait for warmer temps 2 start my compost. my question is do u till up the area you plan for the compost, exposing just dirt and then place the open end of the container on top. Then gradually lift the container to rake the rotten yuck into the soil? i have 1 5gal bucket full and already furmenting.

  27. Michelle April 20, 2019 at 11:44 am #

    So all the molds and maggots from my kitchen pile is good for the compost?

  28. Chris Bleckler May 29, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

    Ms. Maria, you didn’t mention anything about tumbling or turning your compost. Isn’t this an important step in composting? Thanks!

  29. Jenna March 24, 2020 at 6:13 pm #

    Okay. So I am completely new to composting, but love gardening, so I’m intrigued by this post! I do have to ask though. …and I hope this doesn’t sounds stupid… but when do you add dirt? I see everyone adds plant, veggie, fruits scraps, and egg/shellfish shells.. but how much dirt to add to your composter and how often?

  30. John K April 15, 2020 at 7:39 am #

    Some of the best compost I’ve ever gotten just came from piling grass clippings and leaves by the tree line at the back of our property. Periodically, I’d run the tiller through the pile but other than that I just let it sit and dumped more on top.

  31. Jerry Whiting July 15, 2020 at 4:09 am #

    I’ve been composting for years. No better way to make soil in your own backyard (or even apartment balcony. Take your time, start slowly and share what you learn. and

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