How to make great compost

Anyone can improve their soil by learning how to make great compost. Lately, a friend of mine told me that he thought he’d ruined his soil by adding too much peat moss. The good news is, it doesn’t matter how terrible your soil is, you can easily improve it by adding lots and lots of compost.

how to make great compost

Why should you bother?

The benefits are numerous. Firstly, it helps to open up the soil and keep it aerated; secondly, it boosts the number of microorganisms in your soil which keep the soil alive and thirdly, it helps retain moisture in the soil, but at the same time aiding in drainage.

I strongly encourage everyone to make a compost heap or start a modest compost in a bin. Not only does it improve your soil but it also reduces waste which can be put back into your soil so you can grow more food!  Doesn’t that seem like a great deal!?

The rules of composting

Composting has some simple rules that you need to follow for optimum success.

  1.  You can’t compost everything!!
  2. The faster you want to see results, the bigger and hotter the heap must be.
  3.  It needs to be kept moist and turned regularly.

For most people, they will use the bin method which is smaller and more modest. It is the slower method because it won’t get as hot as a big compost heap. Because it isn’t as hot, there are certain things you shouldn’t put in the heap.

Don’t compost:

  1. glossy colored paper
  2. meat or bones
  3. anything containing fat of any kind, including peanut butter
  4. dairy products
  5. dishwater
  6. cooked food waste
  7. fish scraps
  8. dirty cat litter
  9. sludge or human and pet waste
  10. charcoal briquettes
  11. diseased plants
  12. rhubarb leaves
  13. wood ashes
  14. wood chips
  15. pine cones and needles
  16. lime

Many of the items in the list above can attract animals, are harmful to the tiny microorganisms in your compost heap, or in some way will change the chemical balance of the heap.

Use with care:

Give the items in the following list special treatment by chopping them up finely before adding to your compost heap. They are very slow to decompose because of their density and carbon content.

  1. tough yard waste, like twigs and branches
  2. nut shells
  3. corn cobs and stalks

What to compost:

how to make great compost

Here’s a big list of what you can compost in any type of compost heap.

  1. non-recyclable paper, (shredded)
  2. manure, (not people or pets)
  3. fruit peels and rinds, (chopped)
  4. vegetable peelings and scraps, (chopped)
  5. pumpkins, (chopped)
  6. lint
  7. straw bedding
  8. hair
  9. feathers
  10. leaves
  11. peanut shells, (crushed)
  12. crushed egg shells
  13. tea grounds and leaves
  14. coffee grounds
  15. blood meal
  16. bone meal
  17. grass clippings
  18. garden debris
  19. hay and straw

(The information in the lists above are based on a list made by the University of Illinois Extension.)

How to make great compost in simple terms

Just think of it as a casserole. It’s a layered casserole. These steps are basically the same for hot or cold composting.

  1. Start on the ground.
  2. Add some branches to give some air to the bottom layer.
  3. Put some soil on top of that.
  4. Then add some carbon (twigs, nut shells, or other “brown” and dry materials)
  5. Next add a layer of nitrogen material (anything “green” with a bit of moisture, such as grass clippings, vegetable scraps or fruit peels, manure)
  6. In the middle of the heap you can add some more soil from your yard. This will act as an activator because it’s full of microorganisms. You want them to get right to work. Other suitable activators are comfrey, nettles, old compost, or manure.
  7. Moisten each layer as you make it. Not dripping wet, but very moist.

Hot or cold composting?

hot to make great compost

The difference between hot and cold composting is the size of the heap and the temperature at which it is maintained.  A hot compost heap needs to maintain a temperature of 55-65 C. It should be steaming! Additionally, the carbon:nitrogen ratio (C:N ration) should be around 25-30:1. Which means that you need more carbon than nitrogen. Since nitrogen breaks down very quickly, it helps to break down the carbon as well. A hot compost heap must be turned regularly. The reason for this is to let in oxygen to speed up the process. You can have really fine compost in 18 days if you do it right.

Here’s the 3 step procedure for your hot compost heap:

  1. Build your heap. It needs to be 1.5 m high.
  2. Don’t turn for the first 4 days.
  3. Turn every 2nd day for 14 days.

(For more detailed information on how to make great compost using the hot compost method, go to Deep Green Permaculture. The information here is amazing. I borrowed a little from this site, but put it in an easy to understand format.)

how to make great compost

The cold compost method is much slower and may take between 6-12 months to fully break down.  The compost won’t be as fine as that which is produced using the hot method. I forgot to mention that a real plus of the hot compost method is that your output is the same as your input, so your pile doesn’t shrink, whereas in the cold method your pile may shrink by half. You definitely want maximum output, so if you’ve got the space, go for the hot method.

Using the cold compost method there is no need to turn as often, but it will speed up the process. The method commonly used for this is the three bin method. You turn the lot into the second bin so that what was on the bottom is now on top and then you turn it over again into the third bin to finish. Another method is a barrel method, which you turn using a crank or by rolling it around. These two methods are more practical for town or city dwellers with a yard as it’s tidier than a great big heap.

You can pile a bigger variety of material onto a hot compost and because it is hot, it breaks down quicker and more easily. The heat will kill any pathogens that might be lurking around as well as weed seeds. So, some say it’s acceptable to put diseased plants and weeds into a hot pile.


Ideally the location of your compost heap should be somewhere you pass by regularly so you will actually add things to the heap, and in a semi-shaded area.

Despite some of the gross stuff you put into your compost pile, it should not emit a foul odor and the finished product will smell wonderful!  If it begins to smell during the process, add more carbon, (dried leaves or chopped twigs etc).

Now you can see it’s easy to learn how to make great compost. The beauty of it is that what came from the garden goes back to feed the soil of your garden so you can go on growing great food.

Sure hope this was a help! Any questions or comments, leave them below!

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