016-Composting Guide A to Z: The Quick and Dirty on Everything Compost

| Compost, Podcast

If I were only able to give one piece of gardening advice, it would be to feed the soil (and let the soil feed the plants). The essence of any garden’s success begins and ends with the soil. And the best way to build the health of any soil is with compost – the greatest organic matter under the sun. Do you know how to compost? If not or if you have challenges with your existing compost pile, this podcast is for you.

What is Compost

Compost is biodegraded organic material. A lot of organisms are involved in breaking down the raw material to finished compost, starting with single celled bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. But they’re just part of the soil food web doing the work of decomposing that material. Arthropods, such as springtails and beetles also play a role. And perhaps the most famous soil-dwelling decomposer, earthworms. The finished product of compost creates humus, the best part of compost.

Why Composting is Important

Compost is important for many reasons. To start, it makes any soil better. No matter if you’re starting with heavy clay soil that drains poorly, or sandy soil that drains too quickly, compost can help with either.

In poorly draining soil, the structure of compost opens space between soil particles to improve drainage, air, and nutrient flow.

In sandy soil, the stickiness of humus, compost’s secret weapon, helps bind soil particles together and helps moisture stick around longer than without it.

In all soil, compost provides nutrients, helps mitigate soil contaminants and pathogens, binds heavy metals, improves soil draining and infiltration, reduces soil runoff and erosion, and improves the overall structure and texture of the native soil.

Composting also dramatically reduces the amount of solid waste going to landfills – the single largest manmade source of methane gas, a highly potent form or greenhouse gas.

Suffice it to say, compost is the single best soil amendment you can add to any soil to feed your plants and help the planet.


A nice blend of green and brown waste in a compost bin

A nice blend of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) waste helps compost break down quicker. About two months is all it takes to make finished compost if you keep it turned and moist.


How to Make Compost

People that try to compost often get quickly overwhelmed because they think it’s too complicated. But nothing can be further from the truth.

Making compost may be the easiest part of gardening. There are just four ingredients: carbon (brown waste), nitrogen (green waste), air, and water.

Brown waste from inside our homes includes paper and cardboard products (shredded paper, paper towel rolls, and other paper products.

From outside, the most common carbon inputs for compost include leaves, twigs, and yard debris.

Green waste from inside includes vegetable scraps, fruit, salad scraps, and coffee grounds.

From outside, common inputs include grass clippings, yard debris, and poultry manure.

Keep your compost pile or bin often turned to introduce air and each time you turn it, spray it generously with water to wet the total ingredients to the dampness like a wet sponge.

Continue to add greens and browns and turn and spray with water as you build your compost heap to the ideal size (roughly 4’ x 4’ x 4’) to achieve the critical mass needed for the most the efficient breakdown of raw material to finished compost.


A simple compost pile

For years, my composting method was a simple pile. But with the right balance of greens and browns, air and water, this pile consistently reached 150 degrees.


Composting do’s and don’ts

  • Don’t add meat, dairy or grease. Those inputs can attract unwanted pests.
  • Don’t add weeds going to seed. The seeds can persist through the composting process.
  • Don’t add diseased plants. The diseases can persist through the composting process.
  • Don’t add animal waste from carnivores.
  • Be very careful if using horse manure. It may contain a persistent herbicide that can impact your garden soil for several years. (I call it “killer compost” and it had a direct, adverse impact in my garden. I wrote a lot about it.)

Joe’s Top Tips for Quick Compost

  • The hotter you can get your compost, the quicker it breaks down. You can make compost in about two months with near ideal conditions. Those include a good balance of green and brown waste, consistent moisture, and air to the core of the heap. I refer to this as active composting.
  • In an active composting system, you can approach 150 degrees. Shoot for at least 130 degrees and sustained for several days. That will help kill weed seeds and pathogens.
  • Get a compost thermometer (longer stem length of 20-inches.) Monitor and make adjustments as a powerful tool to become a better composter.
  • Add all the organic material you can find from inside and outside the house.
  • Keep ingredients as small as possible. The smaller the inputs, the faster they break down.
  • Seek additional inputs, such as coffee grounds (good nitrogen source) and vegetable culls from the supermarket produce section. This all helps build the bulk.
  • Find someone who raises chickens, rabbits, and other herbivorous livestock for a great nitrogen rich manure source.
  • Turn your compost heap at least once each week. More is better.
  • Spray water long enough, so moisture will get to the core of the pile. Spray longer than you think, so it’s like a damp sponge throughout.

When is Compost Ready to Use in the Garden

Compost is ready to use when you can no longer identify any of the original ingredients. It will have a rich, earthy smell. When you squeeze finished compost, it should clump but break apart easily when you run your fingers through it.


spreading compost

A little compost goes a long way to improving any soil. I topdress my beds with about a half to an inch of compost twice each year between my growing seasons of spring and fall.


When, How, and Where to Apply Compost

Anytime is a good time to apply compost, but there are better times. Applying compost a few weeks to a month or two before you plant provides important time for beneficial organisms in compost to inoculate existing garden soil. Then, continue to make new deposits of compost once or more per year. Don’t continue to let plants make nutrient withdrawals without making new deposits of compost.

The first time you apply compost to the new soil, lightly work it into a depth of several inches. From then on, topdressing is fine. Don’t till as this will disrupt or destroy the natural soil environment.

Around the plant, topdress or work it into the soil by just a few inches at the most. Overall, strive for 5% compost by weight or 30% by volume. For example, if roots are in the top 6-inches, work in about 2” so that you have about 30% by volume.

Add compost at least around the growing area. If you have excess, spread it out. If you have a limited supply of compost, start by applying it close to where the active roots will be, where it’s most needed. Then work out from there. If you have the luxury of applying it to the entire bed or planting zone, go for it.

With compost, a little goes a long way. You don’t need to apply it excessively unless you have the luxury to do so. Topdressing compost with even a half inch can make a big difference over time if you consistently repeat this process once or twice each year.


a closed bin system behind an open compost pile

Closed bin systems as seen here in the background, offer a good solution to many of the most common objections people give for not composting.


Challenges of Composting

  • Not making composting a part of your routine. Get in the habit of composting, starting inside the house by saving your food scraps. Store them in a stainless bowl or similar with a tight-fitting lid. Once it’s full, take it out to the compost bin.
  • Not locating the compost bin conveniently. Don’t put your bin or heap too far out where you are not likely to utilize it.
  • Concerns about an odor. A properly balanced compost collection won’t create an offensive odor. Only when there’s too much wet nitrogen will you likely notice it. If so, cover up with a carbon source, such as shredded papers, leaves, or straw. That will offset the odor and rebalance the ratio of excess nitrogen. You can also get a closed bin system to seal in odor, keep pests out, or eliminate unsightliness.
  • Concerns of attracting rodents and pests. Keep food out the compost that is attractive to critters (meat, dairy, grease). A closed bin system addresses this too.
  • Compost bins are ugly – If you don’t like the look of an open system, use a closed bin system that contains all the ingredients within a vessel and out of sight.
  • Too hard to turn – A valid complaint but there’s an easy fix. Closed bin systems have handles on them that are very easy to turn the barrel. Even a full, large bin with the help of a geared handle allows the bin to be turned easily.

Composting in the Winter

While composting does happen over winter, it definitely slows down. However, fall is a great time to build up your collection of inputs. In fall, you get the bonus of a bounty of leaves. It’s a great source of compostable material.

Shred leaves with a mulching mower or add whole leaves into a trash bin and insert a string trimmer to shred them up (much like a submersible blender). Use a tomato cage or similar to collect and store shredded leaves. By fall, they should be ready to use as compost or mulch.

Buying Compost

If you need more than you can make, you can buy it. Look for STA Certified Compost*, a designation of the U.S. Composting Council. Certified Compost has passed an extensive vetting process to ensure viability and the exclusion of unacceptable inputs are not included in the compost that you are buying.

While consumers have no reasonable way of knowing where the input sources originate, STA Certified Compost purchased in bulk or bag provides the best system currently available to screen the composting process before you buy.

Related Links & Resources

Thanks to our sponsor for this episode: Milorganite, makers of a non-burning slow-release organic nitrogen source.

Get the FREE Resource Guide; The Complete Guide to Home Composting

Killer Compost – my post about what happens with you use composted horse manure containing persistent herbicides

How to make a free compost bin using pallets (Video and how-to instructions)

Confessions of an Obsessed Composter – my composting podcast with Lee Reich (from the man who composts everything)

US Composting Council

Certified Compost

Milorganite: Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joe gardener®

*At the time of this post, I am the spokesperson for the U.S Composting Council. However, the USCC no knowledge of this podcast or notes before posting, nor did they ask me to write this or compensate me for doing so. I use Certified Compost as explained in this post and podcast in the ways described as an additional layer of protection to know the compost I am buying has been vetted.

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.

6 Responses to “016-Composting Guide A to Z: The Quick and Dirty on Everything Compost”

  • Jennifer G says:

    Thank you for this podcast. I’ve had the compost ebook since it came out but I don’t sit down much and it is so much easier to listen on my commute to work than read. My question…for the 8 years I have half-heartedly composted, I have never used coffee grounds from coffee shops because the coffee is not organic. I have been strict about organic only nitrogen sources in my bins. As an organic gardener, you are comfortable with putting non-organic coffee grounds in your compost piles? I have an easy access to coffee grounds on weekdays so it would be a piece of cake to get them. Thank you for your feedback.

    • Joe Lamp'l says:

      Hi Jennifer and thanks for your comment and question here. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. Here’s my take on the inputs for my compost ingredients.

      I am a strict organic gardener when it comes to not using herbicides, pesticides, synthetic chemicals, etc. on my plants and soil. However I am not as able to monitor all the ingredients that go into my compost bin based on the history of its life cycle as you’ve noted. The coffee grounds are a good example.

      So here’s where I’ve landed with this issue. I am willing to have some tolerance in the compost department, knowing that the composting process (when temperatures reach a certain level for a sustained period as my compost does) is an effective way to deactivate, mitigate, destroy, or neutralize much of the kinds of things you and I want to avoid in the first place.

      While I would love to exercise more scrutiny over my compost ingredients, I still add the coffee grounds since I love the quantity they add to bulk up my feedstock with nitrogen. Same with the chicken manure and bedding material from my farm. We don’t feed our chickens an organic diet (nor do we eat our chickens), but I’m sure the feed that we buy at some point includes ingredients that contain inorganic products. I’m just not to the point of having the time or energy to drill down that far in eliminating that source as well from my compost.

      However, I do take into consideration my composting process, knowing the the heat will destroy many / all(?) of the undesirable inputs. Sorry for the long answer Jennifer but your question is a good one and i wanted to try and fully address it here. Hope I did but let me know if you have more questions.

      • Jennifer G says:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. You just helped me move from being a half-assed composter to being all in! Off to get a compost thermometer!

  • chefdlc says:

    Hi Joe,
    I’ve recently found your podcast and am enjoying listening to all the back episodes. I’m really excited because we are buying our first house and it’s the first time I will get to do whatever I want with my yard. While we are still in our rental I have begun composting in a homemade closed bin made of a lidded garbage can with holes drilled in it. I know composting just happens and I don’t get too bogged down with it but the one question I can’t seem to find an answer to is whether I can/should include cooked vegetable scraps. In this podcast I did hear you mention table scraps so unless your dinner consists of salad every night I’m guessing the cooked veggie scraps can be used? My cooked veggies undoubtably have at least a little butter or oil used to cook them too. And what about my boiled peanut shells? Some people online have warned about the salt content.
    Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge.

    • Joe Lamp'l says:

      Congrats on your first house and I’m very impressed you’ve already started your composting! And great questions by the way. Here’s my take. I believe there is room for a little give with all the “rules” around gardening and composting.

      So, with the cooked veggie scraps, don’t sweat a little grease, oil, or butter. Everything in moderation. And one of the biggest reasons not to add that to your compost is with an “open” system because it could attract critters. But in a “closed” system, it’s not nearly the issue. Plus, if it’s just a little as you say, then it will quickly breakdown and get lost in the mix with all the other goodness you have going on in there.
      On the salt I would go with the same logic. In moderation, I just don’t find it to be an issue. As long as it’s a small part of the whole, the biodegrading taking place of everything working together will mitigate the salt quickly — at least that’s my take.

      I’d say allow yourself a little flexibility on these issues as long as it’s a small portion of the total. As long as you keep the ingredients mixed and moist, you’ll be fine.

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