Composting, on the surface, looks like it takes a lot of time and work. You might be wondering—how long does it take to compost a pile fully? The good news: it might not take as long as you think, and, once you’re set up, it’s a surprisingly low-maintenance way to pamper your garden.

Before figuring out your compost pile, it can be helpful to get down to the basics—how do you start a compost pile at home? What makes a successful compost pile overall?

How Does Composting Work?

Composting is a controlled decomposition of biodegradable food waste. Most plant-based, edible kitchen scraps can be used, including coffee grounds and eggshells. As they decompose, they degrade into a rich, all-natural, chemical-free fertilizer that can help your entire garden thrive.

Composters hope to emulate the process that happens in a natural setting as plants, animals, and insects die. Heat, postmortem decay, and other organisms all break them down, resulting in soil that’s full of valuable nutrients. When you see soft, deep, loamy soil, it is dirt rich in humus.

You can’t just throw everything into a pile, though. How do you start a compost pile that really works?

How Do You Start a Compost Pile at Home?

There’s a variety of different types of composting units available to you. For simplicity’s sake, however, we’re going to cover how to create a compost pile using only ordinary household materials.

Find a Place in Your Yard 

You’ll want to give your compost pile access to the natural earth in your yard and all the worms, bugs, and microorganisms already hard at work. Choose somewhere covert and out of the way, a place where you won’t mind the aroma of decomposition.

Lay the Groundwork

After choosing a place, dig a ditch anywhere from 6 to 12 inches deep. Line the hole with dry material like twigs, straw, and other desiccated plants.

Dry composting materials are called “brown,” whereas anything moist and fresh will be considered “green.” Both are important! On top of the first brown layer, you’ll add your first green layer once you have enough compostable material to cover the entire thing.

The combination of heat, moisture, and microorganisms breaks down everything into one homogenous mush. Green material contributes nitrogen to the alchemizing mix, while the dry stuff acts as carbon fodder. Continue to alternate layers until you’ve run out of compost material.

Maintaining Compost Piles

Water your compost heap often enough to keep it moist but not sopping. Another important routine to adhere to will be turning and stirring the pile frequently, which helps the heap distribute itself and “eat” everything thoroughly.

You’ll know when it’s time to turn a compost pile when it starts to get warm on the inside. You can either use a thermometer to check when it’s around 140 degrees F or make a habit of it every week. Between turns, keep the compost pile covered, allowing it to retain the moisture and heat it needs.

Ideally, you should be breaking everything you toss in down into small chunks—avoid adding any whole vegetables and the like.

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How long does it take to compost? With a lot of attention and effort, your fresh new compost will be ready to use in a few months. This time will be significantly shorter during the summer and in warmer, moister climates. Use your eyes and nose and work with the heap accordingly.

You’ll know your compost pile is ready to use when it stops retaining moisture and starts to look more like real dirt—dry, uniform, and tender. 

We recommend adding compost to both outdoor plant beds and potted plants. Simply line the top of the existing dirt with a thick layer. The nutrients will trickle down to the roots every time you water your garden.

A lady composting her fruit scraps

What Can Be Composted Safely?

There’s so much in your kitchen that can be used in your compost pile. Some of the best things to compost include:

  • Fruit and vegetable peels
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Yard clippings, including cut grass and weeds
  • Dry leaves in the autumn
  • Mulch and fine wood chips
  • Sawdust

Basically, composting is the best way to use every ounce of food you buy, reducing food waste and your impact on the environment. Landfill contributions are no joke—why not do your part and reap the rewards? 

What Types of Food Waste Can’t Be Composted?

Most animal-based products should never be added to your compost bin. A few notorious offenders include:

  • Any meat or bones
  • Fat and oil, including things like lard
  • Dairy products, including cheese
  • Any type of prepared meal containing any of the items above
  • Moldy or diseased plant matter
  • Weeds that haven’t gone to seed
  • Charcoal and coal
  • Human feces, although some deem vegetarian animal waste as totally kosher

Any of the above may contaminate your pile, creating a mixture that might harm your garden. Most of these will probably be obvious and intuitive—anything greasy may create a film-like barrier “protecting” some parts of your heap from the organisms trying to consume it. It’s sort of like eating only clean, wholesome food.

The Benefits of Composting for Your Garden

We love composting. It’s clean, green, and saves you a bundle. We’ve called out a couple of major reasons why composting is beneficial. Avid gardeners will find an incredible resource here.

Plants Love It

Composting offers your garden a nutrient-rich treat in abundance. Not everybody is lucky enough to live on extremely fertile land. Composting can help you make up for any deficiencies in your natural soil, including depletion from previous seasons of crops.

You’ll Reduce Food Waste

Americans waste an inordinate amount of food yearly. If you’re firmly on team #ZeroWaste, you’re more than familiar with the guilt of throwing away technically edible stuff. 

Things like the ends of carrots, the dry outside of old onions, and potato skins will all find new life in your compost pile, allowing you to craft each meal without worrying about the scraps left behind.

It’s Economical

Why pay boatloads on name-brand fertilizer? You’ve got everything you need already in your trash can. Instead of tossing it all, keep a separate receptacle for all things compostable.

Regardless of your diet, we’re willing to bet that you’re throwing the equivalent of hundreds of dollars away month-to-month. Spread the love—no cow manure required!

How Do You Compost at Home?

This composting tutorial can be considered an all-around go-to for those living in a rural area or suburbia. Even if you’re short on space, you can still create this valuable plant food source on your terms.

How do you start a compost pile without a huge yard? Composting tools like enclosed composting bins, compost turners and tumblers, and even DIY projects like making a worm bin can all help you utilize everything you’ve got on hand. Try it yourself for a garden that flourishes like never before!