How to Compost for Your Lawn and Garden

adding food waste to an open compost bin

Free, natural, and incredibly rich in nutrients, homemade compost can revive depleted soils and turn poor crops into rich yields. It’s a miracle worker, and knowing how to compost for your lawn and garden is a valuable skill to master. 

Who can make compost? Practically anybody. It doesn’t matter if you own a vast property in the rural areas of Vermont or Montana or use a small container under your sink in a Manhattan studio apartment. If you need a natural fertilizer for your lawn, garden, or potted plants and are willing to try it, you’ll find composting as easy as making coffee. 

In home & garden stores, compost sells for $3 to $10 for a 40-pound bag, but you can make it at home for free from kitchen and garden waste, and we’ll tell you how. When you finish reading, you’ll know what food waste you can use for composting, how to make your own compost, and how to add it to your lawn and garden.

How to hot compost 

woman adding food waste to tumbler compost bin
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With hot composting, aerobic microbes decompose the organic matter. They need oxygen, a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and proper moisture. Compost piles using this method can reach up to 160°F in the center during decomposition, speeding up the composting process and killing pathogens and weed seeds. 


✓ Relatively fast. It can take 3 weeks to 5 months, depending on how you manage the pile.
✓ It kills pathogens and weeds that get in the mix.
✓ Odorless if done right.
✓ Excellent as a continuous source of good-quality compost.
✓ It can be done indoors and outdoors.


✗ You have to turn the pile often to aerate the mix.
✗ It requires constant monitoring of moisture and temperature level.
✗ The pile might need insulation outdoors in locations with hot summers and freezing winters. 

What you can compost and how to mix the ingredients

Technically, you can compost any organic matter from grass, wood, and food scraps to hair, nails, meat, and bones. Some materials are easy to compost, while others can smell bad and attract insects and rodents. You must mix the right proportion of carbon and nitrogen to achieve an efficient composting process. 

The perfect hot compost recipe: 2 to 4 buckets of browns to 1 bucket of greens

A good compost mix has about 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen or, as a lab expert would say, a C:N ratio of 25 – 30:1. This is the perfect mix for aerobic decomposing microbes like bacteria and fungi to thrive. Carbon is their food, and nitrogen is essential for their growth and reproduction. 

Carbon and nitrogen are present in organic matter in different proportions. For example, wood chips have a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of 400:1, while coffee grounds have 20:1. To simplify composting, we split organic waste into two categories:

  • Browns, also called brown materials or brown waste, include carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves, cardboard, wood pieces, etc. They have a low water content, so we consider them the dry ingredients in the mix. 
  • Greens, also called green materials or green waste, include nitrogen-rich materials like grass clippings, fresh plant cuttings, and weeds, but also used coffee grounds and manure. Greens have a higher water content, so we treat them as the wet component. 

To get the desired carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, we combine various greens and browns. It’s complicated to estimate each waste’s carbon and nitrogen content and calculate the amount you should add. So, in practice, we turn to a simple rule of thumb that has proved highly successful for decades: 

To get the right compost mix, add two to four buckets of browns for every bucket of greens.

For example, you fill a 5-gallon bucket with grass clippings, some fresh plant cuttings, and a few paper tea bags and put all those greens in the bin. To balance the C:N ratio, add two to four 5-gallon buckets with dry leaves, shredded paper, cardboard, or wood chips. 

Easy. Now let’s see what you can use in your home composting bin in more detail. 

What to use and what to avoid when you’re hot composting

Here are the most common kitchen scraps and garden waste for hot composting. 

Greens (nitrogen-rich materials)Browns (carbon-rich materials)
Fruit and vegetable scrapsDry leaves 
Crushed eggshellsPlant stalks, twigs, and branches
Grass clippings (cut in smaller pieces and spread in thin layers to avoid clumping and matting)
Wood chips (untreated)
Yard trimmingsSawdust and wood ash (sprinkle in thin layers to avoid clumping)
Used coffee groundsBrown paper bags (shredded)
Paper coffee filters (if vermicomposting, don’t add bleached filters, they can be toxic for compost worms)Not-glossy, not-colored paper (shredded)
Biodegradable paper tea bags (except the staples)Cardboard (without waxy layer, glue, or tape; shredded)

Avoid adding these to your compost bin:

  • Meat scraps, bones, fish, cheese, and dairy products. They are smelly, slow to compost, and attract rodents and insects.
  • Pet waste and cat litter can spread parasites like Toxoplasma gondii into your compost.
  • Fats, oils, and greases create a water-resistant barrier around the waste, slowing decomposition.
  • Glossy paper, product stickers, and painted or treated wood have unwanted chemicals.
  • Diseased or pest-infested plants. 
  • Weeds with seeds.
  • Plants or grass that has been exposed to pesticides or herbicides 
  • Cooked food with lots of salt, animal grease, oils, etc.
  • Onion and garlic in large amounts.
  • Citrus peels in large amounts.

The hot composting method in 7 steps

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Hot composting is the most popular because it’s fast and prevents the spreading of plant diseases and nasty weeds across the property with the finished compost. 

Tools and equipment:

  • Wheelbarrow
  • Buckets
  • Shovel
  • Pitchfork
  • Watering can with a rosette or garden hose with a nozzle
  • Compost or soil thermometer
  • Compost bin (standard or tumbler bin, bought or made DIY)

Step 1: Pick a place for your composting system

The best place for an outdoor composting system is typically a shady, unused corner of your yard. Compost dries out too fast if you keep it in direct sunlight. Also, ensure the area has good drainage and is not under a gutter or in a low spot where water tends to pool. 

Pick a place close to the primary source of garden waste (lawn, vegetable garden, etc.) so collecting and adding the materials to your pile is easy. 

Step 2: Set up collecting containers or areas

Put up a container in your kitchen to collect fruit and vegetable scraps. Most homeowners keep such containers under the sink, in a cabinet, or in the fridge. It depends on the space you have at hand. 

Also, pick a place outside where you can gather yard waste. Use it to collect brown materials like branches, twigs, sawdust, wood trash, and dry leaves. This way, any time you add some greens, whether they’re plant cuts, grass clippings, or food scraps, you have enough brown material to balance the mix.

Step 3: Prepare the composting site

Clear the area of debris and put aside organic materials you can use in your compost, like fallen branches, plant material, grass, etc. Decide between a closed composting bin and an open compost pile and install the structure.

Closed composting bins typically have an opened bottom (but not always), a top lid, and compact walls made of wood or plastic. This design helps keep the heat inside and speeds up the decomposition process. You can make a closed compost bin DIY from a plastic container or build one from wood. If you’re not handy with tools, you can buy one online. We have a detailed guide to help you choose the best compost bin.

An open composting pile is a more exposed and loose form of composting. In this case, you use chicken wire fitted with metal stalks or wood pallets screwed or tied together to create a structure that keeps the compost materials in and prevents them from tumbling out. 

Open piles have better airflow, but the compost is more exposed to heat and rain, and you need to watch the moisture level and temperature closely. There are already made structures for open-air composting you can buy, but it’s usually cheaper and quite easy to put one together DIY.

How large should the compost bin or pile be? Experienced gardeners recommend keeping it between 3 feet by 3 feet and 5 feet by 5 feet. At this size, the compost heap is large enough that the center stays hot but small enough to be easily turned.

Step 4: Build the compost pile 

Start with a 4 to 6-inch layer of dry materials like twigs, branches, and wood chips. They’ll help absorb leaching liquids and ensure airflow and oxygen for the composting bacteria. 

Next, layer greens and browns similarly to preparing a lasagna. To balance the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, use two to four buckets of browns for every bucket of greens. In a medium-sized bin, that means 5 to 7 buckets to make a layer of browns, alternating with 2 to 3 buckets to create a layer of greens.

Don’t push the material down to fit in more. Compacted compost slows down the process due to lack of air.

Spread some water on each layer of brown to make the compost uniformly moist. Use a watering can or a garden hose with a nozzle. Don’t soak the compost; just make it a little moist. 

To test it, put on some gloves, take a bit of compost in your hand, and squeeze hard. If a drop is barely forming or a single drop of water is falling (but no more), you’re ok.

Finish the compost pile with a layer of carbon-rich materials, 4 to 8 inches thick. 

Should you cover the compost pile? Definitely yes. Put the lid on (if the bin has one), or place some cardboard pieces or a tarp to cover the pile. This keeps rainwater away and prevents the compost from getting too wet.

Let the compost pile sit for four days, and don’t disturb it. Decomposing bacteria and other useful microorganisms are settling in.

Step 5: Aerate the compost pile 

On the fifth day, turn your pile for the first time. The hot composting process uses oxygen to heat the pile and speed up decomposition. When organic materials get moist and break down, they clump together, and airflow is limited. You must turn the compost periodically to loosen it and get more air in.

How to turn the compost correctly? Take a pitchfork, a garden fork, or a shovel and get all the compost out of the pile. Then put it all back in, ensuring that what you got from the edges gets in the center. This way, you aerate the entire pile, and all the working microbes get oxygen.

How often should you turn the pile? It depends on what method you’re using. 

The traditional method says at least once a week during summer and every three to four weeks when the cold weather comes. It has a turnaround time of 3 to 5 months. 

On the other hand, the Berkeley method (aka rapid composting) says to turn the pile every other day and promises a fully decomposed pile in 18 days. 

Discouraged by all this turning and piling business? Consider using a compost tumbler. It’s a barrel-like bin placed on a structure that allows you to rotate it with a handle. It makes turning and mixing compost a walk in the park. We have a tutorial for a DIY model in our how to make a DIY compost bin guide.  

You can also choose to buy a tumbler bin.  They are popular in online retail stores like Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart

Step 6: Manage the compost pile temperature and moisture

If you build the pile correctly, it should heat up quickly. In 24 to 36 hours, the center of the pile should be 140 to 155°F, the ideal temperature for fast composting. 

Use a compost thermometer to check the temperature. If the pile doesn’t heat up, it’s either too dry or too wet. If too dry, spread some water and turn it. If too wet, add more browns and turn the pile.

Pro tip: Don’t put tap water (which is chlorinated) directly over your compost! It can kill the compost bacteria. Let it sit for 24 hours in a bucket or any large container. Or, use a rain barrel to get some clean, fresh rainwater for this task.

Sometimes the pile can get too hot, especially if covered very well and exposed to the sun. When the temperature exceeds 160°F, a white moldy substance appears on the compost. Composting bacteria die in too much heat, so you’ll need to turn the compost to cool it down if that happens. 

What’s a compost thermometer? A compost thermometer is similar to a soil thermometer. It has a digital or analog screen and a long, thin steel stem that you can insert deep into the pile to check the central temperature. Models differ in stem size from 12 inches long (for small compost piles) to 36 inches (for large heaps). They are available in online retail stores like Amazon and Home Depot.

Step 7: Let the compost mature

After the organic waste has decomposed, the pile starts to cool down. But the compost is not ready yet. You need to let it cure and mature for at least a month once it’s done decomposing. 

During this time:

  • The number of microorganisms in it lowers. They’re very useful but compete with plants for nutrients, and you don’t want too many in your garden beds.
  • The soil pH adjusts to a plant-safe level between 6 and 8.
  • Substances toxic to plants that might be present in fresh compost disappear (i.e. ammonia, organic acids, salts).

How to speed up decomposition in hot composting

There are ways to speed up decomposition in a compost pile if you need the soil amendment sooner. Here are some tips for helping hot compost decompose faster:

  • Cut food scraps and yard trimmings into smaller pieces to help them decompose faster.
  • Turn the pile more often.
  • Insert some sticks or tubes into the compost pile to keep it loose and improve airflow.
  • Add an activator like chicken manure, grass, nettles, compost tea, or finished compost.
  • Insert a hot water bottle in the pile’s center to kick-start decomposition.
  • Add bulky materials into your compost to create air space, like wood pieces, straw, and cardboard.
  • Insulate your bin or compost pile to sustain a higher internal temperature.

Common hot composting problems and how to solve them

Even seasoned gardeners deal with compost issues from time to time. It’s a living pile of organic matter full of chemical and biological reactions; sometimes, things don’t go as planned. But, composting problems are typically easy and fast to solve. Here are the most common ones and what to do when they happen. 

The compost pile is too wet:

This can happen if you add too many greens, spread too much water on what you think is dry compost, or rainwater gets in. 

To solve the high moisture problem, add some dry materials like cardboard, paper, twigs, dry leaves, hay, etc. Turn the pile to spread the dry content evenly, and let the air evaporate some of the water. 

The compost pile is too dry:

A dry compost pile slows down or stops decomposition. To get it rolling, spread some water and turn the pile. Ensure you get enough water to make it damp but not soaked.

Your compost lets out a nasty smell:

This happens when the content is compacted, and decomposition turns anaerobic. Your best solution is to aerate the pile by turning it. You can insert pipes or sticks to let air in and add bulky dry waste like twigs, cardboard, or wood pieces to loosen the compost structure.  

How to cold compost

open compost bin made of wood slats
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Cold composting uses anaerobic microbes. They don’t need oxygen, so you don’t need to turn the heap or do much compost management. You just form the pile in a suitable place or a bin and let nature do the rest. It still heats up, especially during summer, but the center rarely exceeds 90°F.


✓ Low-maintenance.
✓ It’s easier to make a pile since keeping the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is not so important.


✗ Slow decomposition; takes at least six months to more than a year to produce finished compost.
✗ Pathogens and weed seeds remain in the finished compost.
✗ If not covered well enough, it smells.

What to add and not to add in a cold compost bin

You’re using the same greens and browns that you would for hot composting (see above), except the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio is unimportant. Just make sure you have more browns than greens in the pile.

With cold composting, it is paramount not to add weeds with seedheads or diseased plants since the cold composting process does not affect them, and they will still be there in your finished compost. 

How to make cold compost

Cold compost is the most low-maintenance method, excellent for beginners to familiarize themselves with composting. 

Tools and equipment:

  • Composting bin (optional) 
  • Shovel or rake
  • Tarp or cardboard
  • Watering can or garden hose with a nozzle

Step 1: Pick a location for your cold composting system

Like for hot composting, the pile is best located in the shade, in an area with good drainage and less exposed to flooding. 

A free heap with no supporting structure is typically used in large yards. If you only have a small corner to fit a good amount of waste, look for a compost bin to fit the space or make one DIY. It will keep the materials tight in the space you have available.

You can also put waste in garbage bags and pile it up or dig a trench, put the waste in, and cover it with soil. 

Step 2: Start with a carbon-rich base

Cold composting doesn’t have many rules. One of them says to always start with a brown, carbon-rich layer. It ensures some aeration to start with and food for composting bacteria. 

Step 3: Layer the organic waste

Continue with a layer of greens, then alternate with browns like making a lasagna. 

Step 4: Finish with a carbon-rich layer

It’s a simple symmetry to remember: start with browns, finish with browns. Carbon-rich materials are dry and mostly odorless, working like a protective layer against pests. 

Step 5: Cover the compost

If you’re using a bin, close the lid. With an open pile, use a tarp or some cardboard to prevent rainwater from draining directly into the mix and soaking it. With trench composting, this step is not necessary. Just make sure your trench is covered by a thick layer of soil. 

How to speed up cold composting

To help your cold compost pile decompose faster, follow these tips:

  • Keep the compost adequately moist. When squeezed in your hands, it should feel like a wrung-out sponge. 
  • Cover the pile with a tarp to raise the internal temperature. 
  • Add some more greens or a natural fertilizer rich in nitrogen. 
  • Chop, cut, and shred the waste into smaller pieces that take less time to decompose. 
  • Turn the pile once a month. 

Common cold composting problems and how to solve them

As we said, cold composting is very low-maintenance. Potential problems are pretty few and easy to solve. See the most common issues homeowners have with cold composting and how to solve them below. 

The pile starts to smell

It’s probably too wet. Add some dry materials to absorb the moisture and cover the pile with a thick layer of carbon-rich materials. 

Pests are visiting your compost pile

There’s probably food waste left uncovered that attracts them. Find it and bury it deep in the pile or cover it with a thick layer of dry leaves, shredded cardboard, or paper. If pests are a continuous problem, stop adding especially smelly food waste – meat, bones, dairy, eggs, etc – to your outdoor compost pile. 

How to vermicompost

person holding a worm over a vermicompost bin
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As the name suggests, vermicomposting or worm composting uses worms to decompose organic matter. The most popular compost worms are red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), also known as tiger worms and red worms. Other good options are European nightcrawlers and Indian blue worms.

You feed the worms kitchen scraps. They eat and digest them and excrete worm castings, known as “black gold” or “garden gold.” They’re quite effective, too – two pounds of worms can compost one pound of waste in 24 hours.


✓ Odorless.
✓ Fit for indoor composting.
✓ Great for composting kitchen waste.
✓ You have access to leachate, a powerful liquid fertilizer released during the composting process. 


✗ Requires weekly maintenance. 
✗ Needs a particular type of bin. 
✗ You need special worms; earthworms from your garden soil are not as effective. 
✗ Worms need protection from extreme heat and cold. 

What to add and not to add in your worm bin

Compost worms eat all kinds of organic matter, from fruit and vegetable scraps to leaves, meat, and dairy products. But you should avoid adding in their bin acidic waste like citrus peels, onion, garlic, or vinegar.

How to make worm compost

Vermicomposting is mostly pet care, and your pets are red worms. You need to feed them properly and keep their home clean and safe. 

Tools and equipment:

  • A worm compost bin. You can buy or build it DIY from buckets, garbage cans, plastic storage boxes, etc.
  • Red wigglers. You need about 1,000 worms or 1 pound for a 20-gallon container. 
  • Worm bedding. Pieces of cardboard and shredded paper are the most popular. You can also use peat moss, coco coir, or old compost.
  • Kitchen scraps to feed the worms.

Step 1: Prepare the worm bedding

Add an 8-inch thick layer of worm bedding to the bin and spray some water to give it a damp texture. Don’t wet it too much. It shouldn’t be dripping but moist. Fluff it up and mix it with some potting soil.

Step 2: Introduce the red wigglers to the bin

Put the worms on the bedding, close the lid, and let them settle for a few hours. 

Step 3: Feed the worms

Add some food scraps. Start with smaller amounts and add more gradually. A basic rule to remember is always to add food only when there’s almost nothing left from the last batch. Bury the kitchen waste in the bedding or cover it with cardboard, shredded paper, and other browns.

Step 4: Maintain the worm bin

Keep the worm bin adequately moist, aerated, and clear of insects like ants (come when the bedding is dry) or fruit flies (visit when the food is exposed or the bedding is too moist).

Step 5: Collect and use worm leachate

If your bin offers this option (it has a drainage container), collect the worm leachate and use it as fertilizer. Mix 1 part leachate and 100 parts water to avoid stressing the plants with a concentrated liquid.

Step 6: Harvest the worm compost

Collect the worm castings or compost by alternating the feeding side so one side of the bin is always clear of worms or by moving the worms to another bin.

Keeping rodents and flies away from your compost bin

To keep all types of pests away from your compost bin, avoid adding animal waste, like meat, bones, skin, grease, oil, etc. They decompose slowly and let out smells that attract animals. 

If you want to use animal products in your compost, consider Bokashi composting. It’s a fast fermentation process that converts organic waste into a pre-compost. Bokashi composting uses small bins that can be kept indoors and an activating solution that speeds up the process. Even with meat and bones, the pre-compost is easy to decompose afterward in a classic composting bin or directly in the soil. 

Food scraps and veggie peels can also attract pests if exposed. To keep the compost pile free of insects and rodents, always cover fresh added greens with a thick layer of dry materials (i.e. cardboard, dry leaves).

How to use homemade compost in the lawn and garden

Bokashi compost tea
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Compost has so many uses that you rarely have enough of it, especially with a garden and a lawn in your care. Here are the best ways to benefit from its nutrient-rich content and fantastic texture. 

Make compost tea 

The liquid form, compost tea, is a supercharged fertilizer with multiple nutrients and beneficial bacteria and nematodes. It helps plants grow faster, better, and more resilient to disease and pests, and you can use it for:

  • Foliar applications.
  • Fertilizing a no-till garden. 
  • Amending soil areas mulched with straw, hay, or other materials where you can’t spread solid compost as often as you’d like.

To make compost tea follow this recipe:

  • Fill half a bucket with compost from a matured compost pile. 
  • Fill the other half with water. Use dechlorinated water (rainwater, pond water, or tap water set for 24 hours).
  • Stir with a stick every 8 hours or install a fish tank aerator.
  • Put the lid on in between.
  • Let sit for 48 hours in total.

Use a fine strainer to get a clear liquid for a foliar application. If you spread it on the soil, this step is not so important.

Spread as a mulch layer on plant beds

Homemade compost is excellent for mulching annual and perennial plants. Spread a layer of compost 3 to 6 inches thick around the plants, reaching out about 12 inches around to cover the root area. 

Used as mulch, compost comes with multiple benefits and is a tremendous help for soil and plants:

  • It releases essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals.
  • It prevents erosion.
  • It moderates soil temperature.
  • It reduces crust at the soil surface, helping with water absorption and airflow.

Use compost as topdressing on your lawn

You can spread some compost on your lawn, as topdressing, at any point during the year as long as the soil is not frozen. But you’ll get the best results if you do it after lawn aeration and before overseeding the lawn. 

It works like a natural fertilizer and helps seeds settle in the soil, germinate, and grow their roots deeper.

A good way to use compost on your lawn is to aim for a layer of ¼ to ½ inches thick. Take the compost with a wheelbarrow near the lawn and use a shovel to make a few compost piles across the lawn. Spread it with a rake and water it in.

Amend the garden soil before planting a new crop

Rich in organic matter, nutrients, and beneficial organisms like bacteria and nematodes, compost is a great natural soil amendment. 

How do you use it? Apply a layer of finished compost over your garden beds 2 to 4 inches thick. Use a rake to ensure it’s uniformly spread, then use a tiller to mix it into the 6 to 9 inches of soil. Rake the soil again to level it and prepare for planting.

Make homemade potting soil

Even indoor plants can benefit from compost! You can make your own potting soil with a little garden soil and a little compost. The garden soil only needs compost to improve its texture and fertility, and then it’s ready to grow some fantastic plants. Mix 70% to 80% garden dirt with 20% to 30% compost to get the best soil for your indoor or outdoor potted plants. 

FAQ about how to make compost

How to compost your grass clippings?

Cut grass clippings short either by mowing often enough or by using a mulching mower. Smaller pieces are easier to decompose. Also, smaller grass clippings are less likely to clump in a mat and block airflow. 

To avoid this, ensure you’re spreading the grass clippings in a thin layer. Don’t add grass that has been exposed to herbicides or pesticides or from a lawn with flowering or seeding weeds in a cold compost pile.

How to compost sawdust?

Sawdust can clump up when moist, so don’t add it in large amounts. Spread thin layers over other types of organic materials like grass clippings, plant cuttings, hay, shredded paper, etc.

Can I add weeds to the compost?

If you’re using the hot composting method, you can add weeds. When the pile reaches 140 to 160°F, weed seeds are destroyed. Do not add weeds to a cold compost pile. 

Do I need a bin for composting?

If you’re composting outdoors, you don’t need a bin (although it’s very helpful). You can just pile up the waste and make some sort of structure that prevents it from tumbling down. If you compost inside, you need a bin to keep eventual smells under control and speed up decomposition. 

Call a professional

Composting for your lawn and garden is a smart way to make the land richer and the plants healthier and more productive. It’s an easy process, but sometimes you can get stuck. If you need help keeping your lawn and garden looking their best, reach out to a local lawn care and landscaping pro through Lawn Love today. It’s as easy as a few clicks!

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Sinziana Spiridon

Sinziana Spiridon is an outdoorsy blog writer with a green thumb and a passion for organic gardening. When not writing about weeds, pests, soil, and growing plants, she's tending to her veggie garden and the lovely turf strip in her front yard.