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How to start a compost pile: A beginner's guide

Composting is the most Earth-friendly way to dispose of your food waste, and it's easy to get started.

Alina Bradford CNET Contributor
Alina Bradford has been writing how-tos, tech articles and more for almost two decades. She currently writes for CNET's Smart Home Section, MTVNews' tech section and for Live Science's reference section. Follow her on Twitter.
Alina Bradford
3 min read
Compost bin in a backyard vegetable garden.
David Freund / Getty Images

Composting is an easy way to lower your carbon footprint and reduce your food waste all while creating rich fertilizer for your garden. What was once a fringe practice is now mainstream, with many trash collection facilities across the US and in the UK now composting food scraps.

No matter if you live in a city or far out in the country, you can make composting part of your recycling routine. Here are some basics to get you started.

Read more: 8 compost bins that will look nice on your countertop 

What is composting?

Composting is basically helping food trash and other organic items to decompose into a substance that can be used to alter the composition of soil so that it's more nutritious for plants. To start the composting process, certain bacteria activators are added to the organic material to create heat. The heat causes the organic material to decompose more quickly than it would out in nature.

What are some items that can be composted?

Basically, if it grows, it can be composted. Here are some examples:

  • Fruit and vegetable peels
  • Melon rinds
  • Partially eaten apples
  • Coffee grounds
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Beans and legumes

Some gardeners even add fish, meat, bones and dairy products to their compost. This is fine, unless you have a problem with rodents or raccoons. These foods create a strong smell that scavengers can't resist.

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See all photos

Outside composting

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

There are two main ways of composting: outside and inside. First, let's take a look at outside composting.

Some gardeners prefer to have a compost pile in their yard. This is exactly what it sounds like. It is a pile layered with grass clippings, food bits, sticks and dead leaves.

The pile is started in a sunny area with a layer of twigs and sticks on the ground to help with air flow. Then, moist organic material (like food scraps or grass clippings) is layered with dry material, such as leaves, twigs and sawdust. That dry material is crucial, because you don't want the compost to be too damp, which will cause foul odors and attract pests.

This type of composting takes some work because the pile will need to be turned (basically mixed up) every week or two using a pitchfork or compost aerator. The benefit is that it's basically free. The only items you need to purchase are a turning tool and some compost activator.


A layer of dry material, like leaves, is important to outdoor composting.

Alina Bradford/CNET

An easier outdoor solution is a compost tumbler, like the Yimby or the Miracle-Gro Large Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler. Both of these consist of rotating barrels that you throw your yard and food waste into and then spin five to six times every two to three days. The spinning mixes the compost to encourage quick and even decomposition.

The same rules about wet and dry material apply; you need to keep the compost well balanced so that it breaks down correctly. When choosing an outdoor system, also be sure to look for a unit that has many aeration holes to release gases caused by the food decomposing. A closed container can explode if too much pressure from gasses builds up.

Indoor composting


High-tech composters, like Whirlpool's Zera, can turn food scraps into compost in a matter of hours.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Indoor composting is almost foolproof with high-tech compost bins, like the Zera or the Food Cycler Platinum. With this type of unit, you just drop in the food scraps and compost activator. The unit uses heat and pressure to turn the scraps into fertilizer, usually within 3 to 24 hours. Some units can produce around 2 pounds of fertilizer for 8 pounds of food waste.

OK, I have decomposed compost, now what?

Once the food items are decomposed, it will look almost like woody dirt. You can sprinkle small amounts in house plants or till large amounts into a garden plot. You can also sprinkle it on your lawn or trees to make them healthier. 

When you've exhausted your finished compost, you can continue the process by adding food scraps and yard waste to your pile or compost bin. A well-cared for compost pile can give you compost for years to come.

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Originally published in 2018.