Better Living

The Complete Guide to Composting

BY Todd Heft TIMEFebruary 17, 2022 PRINT

When you start composting, it’s remarkable to see how much less trash you generate every week. For instance, in my house, with 2 adults full time and 2 kid on weekends, we went from 4 bags a week to 2, and sometimes 1 (we’re prodigious recyclers, too). Multiply that by the number of households in the United States and indeed the world, and that is a startling amount of landfill space up for grabs 0r would be, if every household was composting and recycling. In fact, according to the infographic below (courtesy of, each household in the U.S. creates on average 650 pounds of waste which could easily be funneled into the compost pile.

We gardeners know that compost is black gold. It nourishes our soils and plants with micro nutrients unavailable in commercial fertilizers, and the bacteria and fungi feed the soil food web. We save tons of money on bagged compost ($1 or more per cubic foot) and if we have enough homemade, need little, if any, organic fertilizer.

But urban dwellers without gardens are composting, too. Programs in cities like San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Boulder, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Salt Lake City, Santa Cruz, and New York City are diverting literally mountains of organic waste from landfills via curbside collection. The compost made from that organic waste is distributed at municipal sites for residents, and used to fertilize trees and plants in public parks and community gardens.

So what goes into your first compost pile? It’s simple: stop dumping food scraps and coffee grounds into the trash anything you eat can be composted (Some guides recommend that you don’t compost meat scraps and bones. This is not because they’re bad to compost they are great, in fact but because they have a tendency to attract unwanted visitors like raccoons and neighborhood dogs to your compost pile). Add carbon materials like black and white newspaper, twigs, dead leaves, plant clippings, pet hair, and grass clippings to your food scraps and before you know it, you have black gold…

Make a Homemade Compost Bin From a Trash Can

There are hundreds of compost bins for sale online and in stores, but they all share the same two problems: size and price. For those of us with large gardens, most retail compost bins are either too small or too expensive.

Being the frugal gardener that I am, I sought a better way – after all, compost will break down in any number of containers. The stirring mechanisms in retail versions are a great idea, easy to use and speed the breakdown, but are they worth the price?

The zero-cost solution if you have the room, is to make a cold compost pile: throw your table scraps and yard waste in a big pile at the edge of your yard and let it break down. If you don’t want to attract more critters than necessary, don’t add food scraps, just yard waste. This is called cold composting. To get the pile to heat up a little more, surround it with bales of hay which will break down and add additional organic material to your pile. You can also trench compost – dig a trench in a fallow garden bed and add table scraps and yard waste directly into the soil.

The next best solution is to make an inexpensive DIY compost bin from a plastic garbage can (dustbin), available at any hardware store.

What you need to build a homemade compost bin

  • Large black plastic trash can
  • ½” drill bit with a power drill
  • Two bungee cords
  • Bricks or wood blocks

Air circulation is critical to composting, so the trash can/compost bin needs holes – without them, the odor will be unbearable and the compost won’t break down correctly. With a 1/2″ drill bit, create 6 evenly spaced holes around the top of the can and 6 evenly spaced holes in the bottom for drainage. The holes in the lid allow rainwater in and air to flow through the pile. Oxygen encourages aerobic bacteria to go to work on your compost, which will keep it odor-free and speed the breakdown.

You’ll also need two bungee cords: one to hold the can’s lid on securely and one to tie the bin to a stationary object (like a porch railing) so it won’t blow away in a storm. Chasing a compost bin across your neighbor’s lawn in a thunderstorm while the can is spilling its ingredients is not a good look for you (not that it happened to me…).

Finally, raise your bin off the ground by placing it on a few bricks (or something similar) so that air can get under your compost and so that it can properly drain through the holes you drilled. If you like, you can place a receptacle under your bin to catch the fluid that drains out. Note that this fluid is not a proper “compost tea” and should not be added directly to your garden.

Congratulations. You now have a DIY compost bin from a simple plastic trash can.

Give your compost a weekly stir

When you want to stir your compost, take the can off the bricks, keep the lid intact with the bungee cords, and give it a few rolls on the lawn. Stir it once a week to get oxygen into the mix to avoid a buildup of bacteria that may make the compost smell foul. An unpleasant odor indicates that either your carbon to nitrogen ratio (brown material to green material) is out of whack, or it’s too wet. Let the pile air out for a day or two and if it’s still smelly, then you have too much green stuff (nitrogen). Add more brown material like shredded dry leaves, shredded cardboard, shredded black and white newspaper chopped, dried corn stalks, or chopped, dried sunflower stalks. Stir the compost after adding the new material and the smell should go away in a day or two.

Todd Heft is a lifelong gardener and the publisher of Big Blog of Gardening. He lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA with his wife who cooks amazing things with the organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs he grows. When he isn’t writing or reading about organic gardening, he’s gardening.


Todd Heft
Todd Heft is a lifelong gardener and the publisher of Big Blog of Gardening. He lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA with his wife who cooks amazing things with the organic fruits, vegetables, and herbs he grows. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His book, Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide To Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden is available on Amazon.
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