Composting for beginners: Learn the basics for success.

Put as much or as little time into composting as you want. Learn the basics of composting for beginners, and start making a difference today.
May 22, 2023
Everything from a wilted flower bouquet to coffee grounds and fruit peels can be used to create compost. The list of what you can compost is much longer than the list of things you cannot, making composting for beginners fairly easy
Everything from a wilted flower bouquet to coffee grounds and fruit peels can be used to create compost. The list of what you can compost is much longer than the list of things you cannot, making composting for beginners fairly easy. Photo: Getty Images.

Did you know that household trash often contains up to 30% kitchen scraps and other compostable material? That means that for every three bags of household trash you produce, one of those bags could be turned into organic material for your garden and house plants.

Nevertheless, many people do not compost. They fear the unknown, have concerns about odor and are apprehensive about the space and time needed to compost. In fact, composting doesn’t have to be difficult, smelly, or consume a lot of time or space. And there are plenty of benefits, including helping the environment and producing a free product that boosts soil quality for your garden and houseplants.

“Composting is not the specific science that people want it to be,” said Cassey Anderson, Adams County CSU Extension horticulture specialist. “Yes, science is behind it, but you’ll get a feel for what you can add and when. Anyone can succeed, and you can feel it out over time.”

Here is a guide to composting for beginners.

Why compost?

Food waste is the single most common material in a landfill. As it rots in a landfill, it’s producing greenhouse gas emissions that, in one year, are equivalent to 42 coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Want to help reduce food waste even more? Learn how food rescues provide more than free groceries.

That alone is enough reason to start composting, though if you’re uneasy about composting, here is more information and resources to help answer questions about composting.

What is composting?

Composting is the biological process of microorganisms, bacteria and insects breaking down organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps, into a soil-like product called compost. It’s nature’s way of recycling.

A compost pile with red worms at work. As you can see, this bin includes torn-up paper bags, egg shells, coffee grounds, used paper towels and other kitchen scraps. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
A compost pile with red worms at work. As you can see, this bin includes torn-up paper bags, egg shells, coffee grounds, used paper towels and other kitchen scraps. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

What are the benefits of composting?

Composting keeps food scraps and yard and plant trimmings out of landfills, preventing harmful methane emissions. It produces a finished product that helps build healthy soils that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which means less water and fewer chemicals are needed to grow nutritious food.

Composting also can save you money. When you start composting, you’ll notice you produce about a third less “trash.” You can trade in that 96-gallon residential container for a smaller 64-gallon container. You can add compost to your garden and houseplant pots — organic material that could cost anywhere from $5-30 a bag at a garden center.

What do beginner composters need to get started composting?

Ingredients for composting include:

  • Carbon-rich materials include dry leaves, plant stalks, shredded newspaper or paper bags. These “browns” materials provide food for the microorganisms to consume and digest.
  • Nitrogen-rich materials include coffee grounds/filters, grass clippings and food scraps. These “greens” heat the pile to provide the ideal environment for the material to break down.
  • Water provides moisture, but not too much. Your pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge.
  • Air must circulate through the compost pile.

A place for your compost pile or bin

Preferably, your compost pile or bin would be easily accessible year-round and have a nearby water source. It can be placed in the sun or shade.

One type of stackable compost bin that allows worms to migrate through the different levels. Courtesy photo.
One type of stackable compost bin allows your compost worms to migrate through the different levels. Courtesy photo.

You can use fencing, pallets or wood (or a combination) to construct a bin, but make sure it is not along a wooden fence and is in an area that allows for good drainage.

You also could use an enclosed container, like a barrel or trash can. A bin that you can easily get a shovel into is best. If you plan to get help from the red “wiggler” worm, a compost bin made from stackable buckets is an easy option for the worms to migrate from one container to the next.

If you use any enclosed container, you must drill holes so your bin can “breathe.” Without this, your compost bin won’t be as effective and could start to smell.

Anderson said you don’t even half to use a bin. “Just pile it up, and it will break down.”

Containers to collect and store your browns and greens

Browns, such as leaves, can be stored outside in the corner of your yard or a trash bin, so they’re ready when you need to add them to your compost.

Store kitchen greens in a small container. You can buy a container to match your kitchen décor or go simple, a Tupperware or empty coffee container placed under the sink. This container doesn’t need to be large, as it is for transporting the greens to the compost bin as often as you’d like.

Let’s start composting

What can you compost?

“The list of things you can put in your compost bin is a lot longer than what you can’t put in it,” said Karim Gharbi, a horticulture extension agent with CSU Extension in Denver.

What shouldn’t go in your compost bin:

  • Meat, fish and bones
  • Dairy products, like cheese
  • Human or pet waste and cat litter
  • Produce stickers
  • Fats, oil and greases
  • Glossy paper
  • Treated or painted wood
  • Invasive weeds (roots and seeds)
  • Diseased, herbicide-treated or pest-infested plants
  • Dryer lint
  • Compostable bags or food service ware (It says in the name that it is compostable, but these items may take years to break down in a small backyard compost pile.)
  • Cooked food. Small amounts, like scraps from your dinner plate, including cooked veggies or rice, are acceptable but still follow the other rules.

“It’s not that these items compromise the nutrients of your compost but rather that they attract pests, flies and can make your pile smell bad,” Gharbi said.

If you’re participating in a compost program through your local municipality or a local business, there may be additional materials that are not accepted.

Maintaining your compost pile

“You can put as much or as little effort as you want to put into composting,” Anderson said. “It really depends on the goal of the individual.”

Anderson calls herself a “lazy composter” because her goal is primarily environmental — she wants to keep trash out of the landfill. She uses a three-bin system in her backyard that she “passively uses over three years,” one bin at a time until it is full. By the time she reaches the third bin — which takes her a few years — her first bin’s material is ready to scatter throughout her yard to add nutritional value to her soil.

Anderson said her mother composts differently. “She’s retired. She turns her compost pile every week and gets results in a month. I’m OK if I don’t get results for three years.

“If you want to compost more quickly, you manage it more,” she said. “But if your goal is environmental, you can be as lazy as you want.”

That said, here are some composting concepts and advice from Anderson and Gharbi to help you succeed.

Do’s and Don’ts of composting

“Beginning levels of understanding will help you avoid some of the basic problems you encounter when you get started,” Gharbi said.

Understanding the green-to-brown ratio. Anderson does 50/50 greens to browns, but you’ll hear a dozen different ratio suggestions. Think of it this way: the more greens, the quicker your compost will break down, but it will stink more. Greens provide the “heat” that creates the optimal environment for decomposition.

“There is not one pristine recipe, but people will tell you there is,” she said. “If it’s not breaking down quickly, add more greens; if it’s getting too smelly, put more browns in.

“Smelling and feeling (the compost) will help you determine how well it’s breaking down, and then go from there. The biggest mistake I think people make with composting is thinking there is a magic bullet — that they have to get the ratios just right,” Anderson said.

“Turning” or aerating your pile. Turning your composting pile is precisely that: take a shovel and turn the pile over to mix materials and let in oxygen. The more often you do this, the quicker you will get results.

Worms vs. no worms. Using worms, specifically red worms, is called vermicomposting. Worms speed up the process. You can get worms from some garden centers or ask someone already using them for a small tub, as these little guys multiply fast.

Vermiculture is an excellent way to compost indoors or if you don’t have yard space. It is usually done in containers and can be a small system because the worms work fast. There are systems you can buy or set up a stackable bucket system on your back deck, utility space or garage.

Smaller pieces of material break down faster. You can throw the whole apple in the compost, but if you chop it into pieces, it will break down much quicker.

Have a rotating bin system. If you continuously add new material to your compost pile, you’ll never be able to use the finished product because the process starts over every time. It’s best to set up a system where once a bin gets full, you can leave it to do its thing while you put new materials into another bin. Doing this allows the composting process to complete.

Don’t plant using 100% compost. Treat compost like fertilizer – as a healthy additive. If you have a garden bed or pot, add only about a one-inch layer of compost and mix it into the soil. If you use too much compost, your plants will “fry.”

Don’t use compost near something you’ll harvest within 30-60 days. Finished compost should be free of any recognizable material. But, to be safe and keep bacteria (like E.coli) from spreading onto your vegetables that you’ll then consume, it’s best to mix in your compost 30-60 days before harvest or do it after harvest.

Almost finished compost. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.
Almost finished compost. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

Join a composting program

Suppose you don’t want any of the hassles or need the organic material but still want to be environmentally conscious. In that case, consider signing up for a local municipal or private business compost program. You’ll need to check with the program to determine their list of non-compostable materials.

Denver now offering free composting as part of its waste management program. The City and County of Denver, along with other Front Range communities, is working with A1 Organics to offer a compost collection service in addition to its fee-based system for trash collection. There will be no additional fee for composting.

Make sure to read the rules around what is compostable, as the service has requested that browns, like paper and cardboard, still be recycled rather than composted.

Existing Denver compost customers will continue with weekly collection, but beginning in July 2023, weekly compost will be phased in by your “trash district” every couple of months for all new customers, according to The goal is to reduce waste sent to the landfill by 50%.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.