The How-To of Backyard Composting

Composting is a solution for the kitchen, the garden, and the world.

One of the principles in permaculture is “Produce no waste.” As part of my permaculture design certificate program, I completed a thorough household waste audit that included tracking a week of the waste produced in my home. For those of you interested in doing your own audit, simply keep a pad of paper and pen in your kitchen and write down everything that is put in the trash and if you recycle, into your recycle container. Organic waste can be weighed or simply described. The goal is to become aware of how much waste you produce and to find ways to reduce your overall waste as much as possible.

Composting is one of the easiest ways to reduce organic waste and recycle its nutrients back into your garden beds. In the early 1990s, the county I lived in started a Master Composting program. It’s in the interest of communities to encourage backyard composting because it reduces the amount of garbage created each week in an urban environment. I attended the six-hour training and immediately put it into action. I also tried vermicomposting (worms eating organic waste) but decided that a basic backyard composting system like I describe below was the easiest and most productive.

I was also motivated by the reality of our embarrassing waste cycle:

  1. Organic waste is the second highest component of landfills and contributes to the development of methane gas.
  2. Global food waste, including household, commercial and industrial, is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse emissions.
  3. Yard waste and kitchen scraps make up as much as 30% of US household garbage.
  4. Sending food and yard waste to a landfill or even a municipal recycling center uses additional resources like fuel, water, energy, and land.
  5. Less than 6% of US food waste is composted.
  6. Yard waste and kitchen scraps can make up as much as 20% of household garbage.
  7. The average American family throws out $150 worth of purchased food each month.
There is increasing access to public recycling that includes composting. But we still have a long way to go. Photo: Nareeta Martin/Unsplash

I was was somewhat amazed at how complex the simple act of decomposition was: balancing the nitrogen & carbon ratio, the necessity of just the right amount of water, and the importance of air to the process. I was fascinated by the description of the microbial activity: the pathogens, mycorrhizae, protozoa, and critters that were doing most of the work.

Who knew that decomposition was so alive with activity?

Returning to my small vegetable and herb garden, I lashed together several free shipping pallets in an out-of-sight corner of my small suburban yard to form a three-sided square. As I weeded and harvested throughout the growing season, I moved the plant matter into a heap on one side of the compost corner.   

Next up: tackle the daily food waste from the kitchen and break the news to the family.

Re-Training is Necessary

I placed a bucket under the sink and instructed family members that all things related to plants were to now be deposited in the bucket, not the garbage. After a month of answering the nightly after-dinner question “Does this go in the compost bucket?” we developed the knowledge and more importantly, the habit of scraping our vegetable scraps into the bucket. There were occasional teenage sighs, spousal eye-rolling, and comments and concerns about potential smells, disease, and possible critters living under the sink.

For a while, I had three separate buckets for coffee grounds, eggshells, and organic compost. But returned to one wastebasket for everything. Photo: SK

There is potential for a smell developing, but I use a small bathroom wastebasket and I emptied it every couple of days so those concerns never materialized. I cook with a lot of fresh produce and the pile of rotting wet food debris added a significant amount of nitrogen to the pile of carbon (decaying garden waste).

Green and Brown stuff +water+air+time = compost Photo:SK

I thought about my two decades of working in restaurants and catering where food scraps and sometimes entire pans of buffet food were thrown into garbage cans that were later emptied into hidden dumpsters. The landscapers for the hotel properties I worked at took the garden debris to a city dumping area miles away from the hotel. Once you get the composting habit, it’s easy to look around and see just how non-sensical our culture is about recycling the organic waste it produces.

End of season herb garden prunings in the 3 bin system. The abundance of herbs is great for composting – I can only use so much! Photo: SK

Hot & Cold Compost

My goal was to create “hot” compost, one that favored the growth of heat-loving microorganisms and killed most weed seeds and pathogens. A hot compost requires considerable attention and energy: mixing the proper ratio between the brown materials (carbon) and the green materials (nitrogen), keeping the pile moist but not too wet, and regularly turning the pile to introduce oxygen are all necessary components to establishing a compost pile that heats up to 150 degrees. My pile apparently never got hot enough because my first-year effort resulted in a pile of decaying plant matter that eventually sprouted tomato and squash plants, and assorted weeds the following spring. 

But once the plants were removed, I discovered that I had dark brown, chunky humus and moved this gardener’s “black gold” into my garden beds. Despite my failed attempt to create a hot compost environment, the process of natural decomposition honored my intention and created the desired output albeit with viable seeds that easily germinated. This process is called cold composting (or continuous composting) and is slower to decay and less effective at killing seeds and pathogens. The key is to NEVER put in diseased plant material from the garden and NEVER put in weed seeds.

Some composters choose to screen their homemade compost but I don’t see any benefit and it’s extra work, so my compost is used as-is: sticks, occasional Doug fir cones, and lumps of dried horse manure are part of the finished product. It will eventually decay. Photo: SK

I now have multiple compost piles on my homestead. Behind my house, I actively manage a three-bin compost system. My weekly kitchen food waste, prunings from my herb garden, and shredded paper from my office are deposited in this system. I water it each week and move it back and forth between the bins. I try to leave one bin open for starting a fresh batch.

One of my favorite quotes about the power of composting comes from a compost educator who eventually started a commercial composting business:

“Composting is an entryway drug to zero waste. As you start composting, you are really starting to pay attention to what you are throwing away and you start to look at what you are buying and what is coming in.”

Randi Cox and Kathy Gutowsky
My three-bin system is behind my house. I found the instructions online and used a variety of leftover materials to construct it. I thought the recycled shower door would be a great cover for it during the winter UNTIL it shattered under the weight of heavy snow and I spent all summer picking out fiberglass shards. Photo: SK

In my large food garden, I build a pile throughout the season using prunings and decaying plants. This pile is then used as a winter mulch on my raised vegetable beds. But I have also started using the “chop and drop” mulch method: As I prune my food crops, I cut the material with my pruners into the same bed, creating an organic mulch that will slowly be incorporated into the soil over the winter months. Outside of the garden, I have a large two bin pallet system that is used to cold compost overflow from the garden. I don’t manage this at all so it often takes a full year or longer to become a pile of decayed compost.

I planted comfrey in various places in my vegetable garden for the sole purpose of “chop and drop” mulch. This is what it looks like after a week of cutting it. Photo: SK

The one disappointment I have about my composting practice is that it simply does not produce enough compost for my garden beds. That means I have to bring organic material onto the homestead; in my case, I am lucky to have access to composted horse manure from my neighbor’s beautiful and spirited horse, Jade. In exchange, I bring her a carrot or apple. Not a fair exchange for sure.

Jade is a major “contributor” to my fertile garden! Photo: SK

How to Build a Compost Pile

1)   Find a dry, shady location in your yard that will host plant debris for a year or two and has access to water. It’s not a picture of beauty; envision dried garden debris topped with slimy vegetable scraps. You don’t need a fancy compost bin but if you really want one, you can build a 3 x 9 three-bin system for about $25o. (You can find the plans online.) Tying together scavenged pallets is an ideal solution: the open slats are perfect for aerating the compost, they will last years and you are recycling industrial waste.

Don’t bother to invest in the plastic composting devices that are all over the internet. They use finite fossil fuels for production and ironically, these devices will never decompose.

Ten-year-old pallet bin outside of my vegetable garden. Used for overflow and hard stalks. I don’t manage it and a year or two later, dig out the compost. Photo; SK

2)   Place a compost bucket under your kitchen sink.  Over the years, I have used an array of containers and find that old repurposed plastic wastebaskets are ideal.  A no-longer-used large soup pot is also a great choice. They are larger than the smaller ceramic compost crock selling for $30, which means you only have to empty it once or twice a week. Regular emptying also prevents odors, eliminating the need for a lid and charcoal filter. Don’t bother with compostable plastic bags that are advertised as compostable – they aren’t unless you maintain a consistently hot compost.

3)   Educate everyone in your household about items that can and cannot go into the compost bucket. This quickly develops into a habit and you will become aware of how deeply ingrained it is when you help with meal prep and clean up at someone’s house who does not compost. In that awkward silence that follows your inquiry about the compost bucket, you will feel a deep sense of anguish as you toss your compostable items into the garbage.

4)   Gather lots of brown stuff (see below) and store it near the compost pile. The rule of thumb: you add 2x as much brown stuff as green stuff. That is as scientific as I get.

5)   The smaller the particles of your materials, the faster they will decompose. Lazy composters like me don’t really engage in time-consuming activities like shredding or cutting leaves and plant matter for the compost pile. I do keep a pruner nearby and cut dried stalks small enough so they will at least fit into the pile.

6)   You can add woody debris like small branches and twigs (cut into smaller pieces) and use them to hold air spaces – places where oxygen can get into the pile. Thick branches can be placed vertically, leaving the top portion uncovered (like a spoon in thick soup). Each time you add to the pile, you can “stir” these vertical branches around to keep some air flowing into the pile. Or you can leave them out and use woody debris to build a hugelkultur bed or small woody piles for wildlife habitats.

7)   Build your pile by mixing rather than mixing a bunch of brown stuff with a smaller amount of green stuff, creating a base of about 3 – 5 feet wide. Continue to add to the pile until it is at least 3 feet tall – the compression from the weight helps to create the necessary heat. If you have finished compost and/or animal manure available add several shovels full to innoculate the decay process. Soak the new pile with water until it is wet like a sponge (this will help to jumpstart the heat buildup). Note that compost piles should not smell bad unless you add things from the “Do Not Add” list.

8)   Don’t use up all of your brown stuff unless you have more available!  Keep some of the brown stuff on the side to mix in with the weekly green stuff you will be bringing from the kitchen. Start looking around for additional sources of free brown stuff that is free of toxic chemicals. Continue to add to the pile throughout the year. Using a pitchfork, turn the pile every now and then, watering each time. The more often you do this, the quicker it decays. 

You will also discover an array of bugs – that’s a good thing.  They are the real workers in the compost factory. I have also been startled by the occasional snake quickly moving out of my way when I turn the pile. But that is rare … and part of nature. A short scream is perfectly acceptable. The Stellar jays do like to go in and pick out some bigger chunks of food but I don’t think they eat them. They like to place the debris on the top boards of the three bins. In suburban areas, raccoons may show up and this often upsets non-composting neighbors. To discourage raccoons, simply place a tarp over the compost.

Who is living in your compost? Image: wikimedia

9)   Six to twelve months later, you will have a much smaller pile of dark brown humus. Compost’s value is in its organic matter and easily accessible nutrients.  Humus (organic matter/compost) contributes to soil structure, aiding in water retention or drainage (depending on the type of soil) but its most important contribution is that it feeds the soil which is very much alive – an entire universe of mostly microscopic beings working together to keep the system working.

10)   You do not have to wait for the entire pile to decompose before you move it to your beds. You can mix the humus into your garden beds and/or use it as mulch.  Reserve some of the compost that is not completely decomposed as a starter for the next pile.

11)  Honor the list of items you should never put in your compost. Some will attract raccoons, rodents, and flies and they can introduce toxic pathogens into your compost. 

12)   Known for their interest in eating anything, dogs should not eat from the compost pile. Some of the bacteria found in the composting process can cause seizures in dogs. Keep your pile covered with straw, an old sheet, or a tarp if your dog insists on visiting the pile.

My sweet Murphy, who has passed on, loved to pretend he was just sniffing around, and then the minute my attention was elsewhere, I would see him trying to dive into the compost bin! Really disgusting! I learned from my vet about the potential for serious poisoning. (Photo: SK)

Composting your garden and kitchen waste does not have to be difficult or laborious. It is the most efficient way to reduce your overall garbage output and provides payback by improving the quality of your garden soil. It is incredibly rewarding to shovel the humus you helped create back into your garden, mimicking the cycle of growth and decay found in nature.


Dry leaves & prunings Vegetable/fruit scraps
Cat & dog manure
Straw & HayFresh garden waste & leavesMeat, fish, or bones (will attract unwanted critters)
Shredded paper & cardboard
100% Cotton, wool clothing
Coffee grounds & filtersDairy products
Black walnuts & shells
Wood (chips, sawdust) EggshellsCharcoal or coal ash
Yard trimmings treated with pesticides & herbicides
Aged animal manure Hair & FurNoxious weeds & diseased plants
Wood ash (limited amount) Grass clippingsWeed seeds – pick plants before they go to seed
Table of compost ingredients

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