How to Make Compost at Home and Use It in Your Garden

Turn trash into treasure by making homemade fertilizer

Dina Cheney
Written by Dina Cheney
Updated March 21, 2022
Man using food scraps to make compost
Photo: svetikd / E+ / Getty Images


No experience? No problem.

Time to complete

2 hours



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What you'll need:


  • Shovel or pitchfork


  • Organic material
  • Compost bin (optional)

If you ever feel guilty about tossing out your food waste, there’s an alternative to the dumpster. Enter composting, a free and easy way to dispose of food and do wonders for your garden. Read on to learn how to DIY a nutrient-rich additive that gardeners call “black gold” or “gardener’s gold.” Then add to your soil and watch your landscape thrive.

9 Steps to Make Compost

Preparing your own soil booster couldn’t be easier—it just requires a bit of patience. 

  1. Pick a Spot

    Choose an area close enough to your home for convenience, yet far enough away for aesthetics—compost piles are not known for their looks. Ideally, this spot should get a moderate amount of sunlight; too little could slow down the decomposition process while too much could overheat the piles and kill beneficial bacteria.

    You can begin your pile on bare earth or in an enclosed bin. If you choose the ground, you’ll provide easy access to worms and microorganisms, which will help break down the organic materials. However, if you go for a container, you’ll keep out wildlife, which could disturb your piles. To contain your pile if it’s not enclosed, surround it with chicken wire or wood pallet boards.

  2. Begin With a Brown Layer

    Woman dumping dry leaves in a compost pile
    Photo: CasarsaGuru / E+ / Getty Images

    Start your pile with several inches of yard waste, such as branches, twigs, dead leaves, wood chips, hay, and cornstalk. Also throw in other dry organic materials, like sawdust, coffee filters, shredded cardboard and newspaper, and straw. These materials produce carbon, which helps spur on decomposition.

  3. Add a Green Layer

    Closeup of food scraps being thrown into a compost bin
    Photo: Kilito Chan / Moment / Getty Images

    Now layer on wetter organic waste. Choose food scraps, eggshells, grass clippings, plant trimmings, coffee grounds and tea bags, hair, lint, and barnyard animal manure. Add one-part green material for every three parts brown material, ideally ending up with a pile at least three feet deep. The green materials release nitrogen and protein, which help grow the microorganisms that break down the organic matter.

  4. Chop Up Compost

    To speed up decomposition, you can chop and shred the brown and green matter. Your goal should be small pieces.

  5. Moisten Your Pile

    As with sunlight, moderation is key when it comes to water. Aim to moisten rather than saturate the organic materials. Too much water leads to odor, slime, flies, and harmful bacteria, while too little slows down decomposition. If it doesn’t rain regularly in your area, water with a garden hose until damp.

  6. Turn Your Pile

    Man using a hay fork to mix a compost pile
    Photo: Cavan Images / Cavan / Getty Images

    After a week, turn your pile with a shovel or pitchfork. By rotating outside materials to the inside and vice versa, you’re aerating the compost and exposing all the materials to microorganisms. Then cover with a tarp to lock in moisture and keep out wildlife. During the growing season, turn the compost once a week. 

  7. Wait, Then Test Your Compost

    Wait one to three months during the warm season. If the middle of the pile feels warm or the pile releases steam, your material is probably decomposing into compost.

    Deposit some compost into a plastic bag, press out the air, seal, and leave closed for three days. Open and smell. The compost is ready if the aroma is earthy, rather than sour or ammoniated. 

  8. Use Your Compost

    Teenager dumping compost into a raised garden bed
    Photo: Christopher Hopefitch / DigitalVision / Getty Images

    You can nourish your garden with your homemade fertilizer several ways:

    • At the beginning of each planting season, add the compost to soil in pots and window boxes.

    • In the fall, sprinkle compost on vegetable and flower beds.

    • Around trees, push back the mulch. Add a 2-inch layer of compost under the canopy, avoiding touching the trunks. Then replace the mulch on top.

    • Steep finished compost in water for several days to make compost tea, then strain to prepare a liquid fertilizer. 

  9. Begin the Cycle Again and Again

    Don’t stop with just one compost pile. As you continue to accumulate scraps, begin a second and, later, a third. This way, you’ll have piles at different stages and an ample supply of this soil booster.   

FAQs About Composting

Are there tools to make this process easier or faster?

Yes, you can buy a turner or aerator to add oxygen to the pile and a compost grinder to quickly chop up materials to help them break down faster. Instead of a bin, you can pick up a compost tumbler, which allows you to turn the compost with a crank and gear. If you’d rather not reach into the middle of your compost pile to make sure it’s warm (which means it’s probably decomposing), you can check its temperature with a compost thermometer. 

What should I do if my compost pile is too wet or too dry?

If your pile is too wet, add more brown material and turn it. If it’s too brown and dry, add green materials and a bit of water.

Are there any materials I should not add to my compost pile?

Avoid meat, fish, or bones; yard waste with pesticides; cellophane; coated cardboard; treated wood; large branches; seeded weeds; toxic plants; and human and pet manure. 

Can I compost indoors instead?

Yes. If your area doesn’t allow outdoor composting, you can keep a compost bucket in your kitchen. One type of indoor composter is a vermicomposter, which relies on redworms (or red wigglers). These critters feast on food scraps and release nitrogen. You can also store scraps in a compost bucket plus your freezer until you have enough green materials to add to your compost pile outside. 

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