Backyard Composting: A Simple Recipe for Making Great Compost

| Prepare

If you’re here because you’d like to learn more about backyard composting, you’ve come to the right place. I believe the single biggest reason more people don’t compost, or quit too soon, is because they think it’s too complicated. I’m here to tell you, that is simply not true. In fact, it comes down to just three simple but important steps to make great compost.

Of all the things you could put into your soil to help your plants grow, compost is the single best amendment you can add. Compost makes any soil better. It provides organic nutrients to feed your plants naturally. Compost destroys or suppresses diseases living in your soil that can affect your plants. And beyond your garden, compost keeps waste out of our landfills and reduces greenhouse gasses.


best compost recipe


Recipe for Making Great Compost

While the following recipe may seem surprisingly simple, it is the essence of classic backyard composting. Once you know the process, adding your personal touch will help you cook up the perfect compost every time.

Ingredients:Air, Water, Carbon (brown waste) and Nitrogen (green waste)

To Prepare:

  1. Combine generous portions of all ingredients and allow to cook outdoors for several months.  Just starting piling up the ingredients in a convenient place  A corner of your yard is a common option.
  2. Continue to add brown and green ingredients until the pile is approximate 4’ x 4’ x 4’.
  3. Mix often (every week is good) and add water to moisten (about like a damp sponge).

Compost is ready to serve when the ingredients are unrecognizable, the internal temperature is ambient, and the contents smell rich and earthy.  Add to the existing garden soil at about 30% by volume and mix into the top four inches of any garden bed.


finished compost

Finished Compost


The time it takes to make compost from start to finish in a home environment typically is several months. There are many variables that determine how quickly compost breaks down that are beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ve written all about it in my Complete Guide to Home Composting for those details and much more.

More About the Ingredients

When you understand that compost is made up of billions of beneficial microscopic living organisms, it’s easy to see why air and water would be key ingredients to sustaining life, even for the smallest forms.

It’s this oxygen and moisture that allows them, and other organisms in the process, to utilize the other two ingredients  carbon and nitrogen (the greens and browns)  to biodegrade the raw material into finished compost.

Air (Oxygen,really):Microorganisms can’t live without it. It’s that simple. Mix up your ingredients often (at least once a week) to keep it aerated.

Water: When it comes to remembering how wet your compost should be, think in terms of making and keeping it at the moisture level of a damp sponge.

Keeping your composting material aerated and consistently moist is a major factor in making compost faster.

The raw material:Fortunately, you don’t have to know anything about science to figure out how to get a reasonable balance of the carbon (browns) and nitrogen (greens) into the mix. I think in terms of anything that came from the earth originally in some living plant form (no matter what it is today) is biodegradable and can be added into your composting system. And that’s pretty much my guide for considering what I put into my compost.


Compost ingredients

Compost ingredients


Common examples of brown ingredients include dried leaves, small twigs, yard debris, coffee grounds, shredded paper and newspapers, paper towel rolls and brown paper bags.

Common examples of green ingredients include fresh grass clippings, plant trimmings and food scraps such as vegetables and salad greens.

Questionable Characters

A few common things you might be tempted to add to your compost should be avoided. If you want to play it safe, keep these out of your compost:

What Not To Add – FromOutside

  • Weeds going to seed (you don’t want weed seeds surviving only to sprout in your garden compost next spring).
  • Diseased  While it’s possible the diseases won’t over-winter, the safe bet is to leave them out of your compost ingredients.
  • Animal waste (from carnivores)
  • Chemicallytreated plants and grass. While most consumer lawn and garden chemicals break down rather quickly when exposed to the elements, some do not. In fact, they’re very persistent.

What Not To Add From Inside

  • Animal products. This includes meat, bones, grease, and dairy. Reasons to keep these away from your compost include the risk of potential disease pathogens, short term odor, and critter attractant. While all can be composted, that doesn’t mean you should. In home systems, tend towards the conservative side, especially when starting out.

The Complete Guide to Home Composting eBook While this information will truly get you started to backyard composting, it is the tip of the iceberg if you want to learn more. I’ve written an eBook for that very purpose. If you want to learn a lot more, while still keeping it uncomplicated, download my free comprehensive resource: The Complete Guide to Home Composting. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about composting and more.

Links & Resources

Episode 075: Top Questions for Composting at Home: You Asked, Joe Lamp’l Answers

joegardener Video Blog: How to Make a Garden Compost Sifter (and Why You Should)

joegardener Video Blog: How to Make a Compost Bin Using Free Shipping Pallets

The Complete Guide to Home Composting 

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

0 Responses to “Backyard Composting: A Simple Recipe for Making Great Compost”

  • Sue Chapman says:

    How do you pick a good digging fork to use for turning your compost?

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    I think it boils down to whatever works best for you. Over the years I have settled on my very favorite and have been using it for many years. I highly suggest this one. It’s strong, lightweight, durable and shaped perfectly for working with compost. Here’s the link: https://www.unionjackstable

  • Sue Chapman says:

    Thanks. I plan to order this.
    <https:”” sig-email?utm_medium=”email&amp;utm_source=link&amp;utm_campaign=sig-email&amp;utm_content=webmail&amp;utm_term=icon”> Virus-free. <https:”” sig-email?utm_medium=”email&amp;utm_source=link&amp;utm_campaign=sig-email&amp;utm_content=webmail&amp;utm_term=link”> <#DAB4FAD8-2DD7-40BB-A1B8-4E2AA1F9FDF2>

  • Katie Rutledge Silver says:

    Here’s an admittedly bizarre suggestion: Why not provide regular updates on the status of your compost? Better yet, set up a live compost cam. I am always wondering how my compost should be looking, how quickly it should be cooking, etc. Seeing yours in real time would be helpful, and fun!

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    Hi Katie. I’ve toyed with the idea of a garden cam before. I don’t have the logistics worked out yet but hopefully soon. Thanks for the idea.

  • kimeee g says:

    Hi Joe.
    I’ll get right to my question, then after that – a few other comments that will probably make you smile.Q:
    I need nitrogen for my new compost pile. Typically, we mulch the grass clippings as we mow, but last October we bagged them.
    **Since those have been sitting in a pile for 2 months, will they still heat up my compost pile? Has most of the nitrogen dissipated?**Now to the fun stuff:
    You have me COMPLETELY on board with the fall leaf hoarding, so this fall I purchased a 14 bushel bagger for my riding mower. I live on a street of 2 acre, wooded lots, so my neighbors are thrilled to let me collect their leaves. It saves them hours of raking. One neighbor even volunteered his pickup truck for hauling the shredded leaves back to my collection area…I collected 3 truckloads so far.Of course, that’s not enough for a true Leaf Fanatic, so I troll the neighborhood before the yard waste truck arrives…doing this netted me 36 more bags of leaves, and I’m still on the prowl. fun fact: you can squish 13 big, brown, yard waste bags into the back of a standard sized GMC Yukon.Also, since many of my neighbors use a “Mow & Blow” service for their lawn care, I stalk those guys and give them a card that says “leaves wanted” along with my contact info. They are happy to unload their leaf haul nearby, rather than driving it all the way to the recycling center.So. I’ve amassed a GIANT leaf pile and I’m slowly transferring them to my new 5 bin composting palace. (Inspired by Charles Dowding.) With so many leaves, I’m using every bit of green matter I can scrounge…what do you think about the old grass clippings – will they do the trick?Keep up the good work Joe! You & Margaret Roach are my constant gardening companions…I appreciate your podcasts SO very much. :o)

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    Hi Kimeee. YES! This did make me smile, a lot! I can so relate to everything you said here. Scoring those bags of shredded leaves is like a giant Christmas present every time. I laughed that you know you can get 13 bags into your Yukon. I get 20 bags in my Tundra, plus another 8 jammed INSIDE my truck. I know, it’s an obsession but you get where I’m coming from. And I love the card you give the mow and blow guys. What a great idea!
    To your question on the grass clippings. It depends on what state they are in now. If they’ve deteriorated much from their original condition then they have used much of that nitrogen to do that. But I would still add it for sure, but I would also be sure to add those clippings fresh to the bin as soon as you are able.
    Keep up the good work and thanks for the smile!

  • kimeee g says:

    One follow up question (maybe for the next soil scientist you interview)…I now have 36 empty yard waste bags, and I know I can just tear them up and compost them. However, I’ve been flattening & using them as sort of a weed barrier. Is that OK?Believe it or not, I really don’t have enough shredded leaves to mulch all my areas as thickly as I should. Hence, the layer of paper to help smother the weeds.I use the paper bags in 2 different applications.
    #1 On my paths through the woods – I lay down a few layers and top with shredded leaves. (So I’m just covering PART of the root zone of the trees adjacent to the path.)
    #2 I have a row of 6′ tall Arborvitaes planted in a grassy area. I’d like to cover the grass around each tree with paper and mulch with shredded leaves. (So, I’d be covering MOST of the root zone of the Arbs.)I see folks using cardboard under mulch in the garden, but they often add dirt, then plant on top of the cardboard.
    **Does a barrier of thick, brown paper inhibit moisture and oxygen getting to the roots UNDER the paper weed barrier? – Kimeee GPS, I just watched the “American Meadows” episode. It was beautiful! The row of Arborvitaes mentioned above are in a 60′ x 200′ part of my yard that I plan to naturalize. I’ve been researching my options, so I appreciated the TV episode AND podcast #103 with Mike Lizotte. I will definitely be getting my seed from him for this project.

  • kimeee g says:

    PPS – My order from American Meadows is on its way! Midwest Wildflower Mix and Long Lasting Wildflower Seed Collection will go into my new meadow this spring…hope to post photos to the FB group this summer. :o)

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    Hi Kimeee. Any mulch piled too thickly can impede water moving through it to the roots. That’s why I don’t recommend adding more than 2-3″ at a time if you’re trying to protect what’s underneath, or get water to roots.
    However, the bags themselves will break down quickly when wet so that won’t prevent water moving through. I would just pay more attention to the depth of the mulch over the area where roots are and keep the total layer to no more than 3″.
    Also, if the area you are covering is only 24″ wide or so, that’s not likely to be a problem anyway. Water will move through soil horizontally also through the capillary action of the soil aggregates.

  • Joe Lamp'l says:

    I bet it will be beautiful. Please do be sure to post pictures!

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