3 Steps to Making the Best Compost

By Joseph Truini


As the calendar ushers in another winter, you’re probably not spending a lot of time thinking about gardening and landscaping. And while the weather might not be conducive to planting, it’s the ideal time of year to prepare for spring by creating compost. Of all the many steps that go into creating a successful garden, none is as critically important as establishing and maintaining healthy, nutrient-rich soil. And there’s no better way to do that than by amending the soil with compost.


For the uninitiated, compost is a mixture of decomposing plant and food waste, and recycled organic material, such as newspaper and cardboard, that’s used to fertilize and improve the health and fertility of soil. Compost is rich in plant nutrients and beneficial organisms, making it the perfect amendment to add to flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, lawns, potted plants, raised beds, and freshly planted trees and shrubs.


Need another reason to compost? Consider this: Food scraps and yard debris comprise more than 30 percent of what the average household throws away each year. If composted instead, this waste would be kept out of landfills where it takes up valuable space and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. So, composting is beneficial not only to your garden, but also to the environment. 


Now, making compost isn’t particularly difficult or time consuming, but there are few simple rules to follow to produce the most fertile compost. Here’s the procedure broken down into three basic steps:


1. What to Compost

Composting typically begins in the kitchen where food scraps and trimmings left over from preparing meals are saved in a small bucket with a lid. Most homeowners keep the compost bucket on the countertop, but you can also buy composting bins that fit inside cabinets or mount to the back of cabinet doors. And while there are a wide variety of scraps that can be composted, you can’t use everything. Here’s a list of kitchen scraps that make great compost:

  • Fruits, including cores and peels
  • Vegetables 
  • Fresh herbs
  • Cooked rice
  • Cooked pasta
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea leaves (not the teabags)
  • Crushed eggshells
  • Stale crackers, cereal and bread
  • Pizza crusts
  • Oatmeal
  • Peanut shells


Other suitable compostable materials include:

  • Plain brown paper bags
  • Used paper napkins and paper towels
  • Manure from chickens, cows, horses or rabbits
  • Grass clippings
  • Houseplants
  • Dead flowers, hay and straw
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Plain brown cardboard
  • Clothes dryer lint
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Hair and fur
  • Cotton and wool rags
  • Sawdust and shavings from untreated wood. (Never compost or burn pressure-treated lumber.)
  • Dry tree leaves, especially those that are low in lignin, and high is calcium and nitrogen, such as ash, poplar, willow, maple, fruit tree leaves.


2. What Not to Compost

Knowing what not to compost is just as important as knowing what you can compost. The best compost is a blend of bio-degradable ingredients that are beneficial—not harmful—to enriching plant soil. Here’s a list of items that you should never compost:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Bones
  • Cooking grease, fat, lard or oil
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Dairy products, including milk, butter, sour cream or yogurt
  • Dog or cat feces, including soiled kitty litter
  • Twigs or branches 
  • Sawdust from pressure-treated lumber 
  • Diseased and insect-infested plants and flowers 
  • Black walnut tree leaves; they release a chemical called, juglone, that’s toxic to many plants


3. Mix it and Wait

Once you’ve collected enough material to compose, move it outdoors and pile it into either a composting corral, which you can easily make yourself, or a store-bought composting bin.


To help the compose break down quickly into useable organic material, alternate layers of green matter (kitchen scraps and grass clippings) with brown matter (dead leaves and shredded cardboard).


Spray the compost pile with water every few days to keep it damp, but not soaking wet. And mix it thoroughly every week or two, depending on the size of the pile; smaller piles don’t have to be mixed as often. As you mix the compost, move the decaying matter at the bottom of the pile to the top, so that everything gets a chance to break down over time.


The best time to mix compost is when the center of the pile feels warm to the touch, or when it’s between 130°F and 150°F. (You can buy a point-and-shoot digital infrared thermometer for about $20.) Within a few months, all that matter will be transformed into rich, organic compost or what gardening enthusiasts call, black gold.


Now when spring arrives, you can use the fully decomposed compost to enrich the soil for all your plantings, ensuring bountiful vegetable harvests, colorful blooms, lush lawns, and happy, healthy trees and shrubs.