How to compost: make your own in five easy steps

Learn how to compost with this easy step-by-step guide. Reduce waste, help the environment, save money and grow healthy plants as you go

how to compost: tray of compost and plant pots ready for planting
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Want to know how to compost? Perhaps you’re trying to cut down on the amount of household waste you throw away. Or maybe you're keen to come up with your own homemade peat-free alternative to bought potting compost for your plants and do your bit to protect fragile peatland habitats and the wildlife they support. Or perhaps you’d simply like to save money on soil improvers, mulches and fertilisers by giving your garden an all-natural boost. 

Whatever your reasons, composting is easy, fun and can be done even in a small garden. Even if you don't have a garden, you can still follow the same method on a smaller scale, simply using a kitchen compost bin to make compost for window boxes and container plants. Find out how to compost below. 

How to compost

Beehive design compost bin

This natural-looking Rowlinson Beehive Composter is available from Dobbies at £119.99

(Image credit: Dobbies)

First, you'll need a sturdy lidded compost bin. Choosing the correct compost bin is crucial to correct composting. Ideally, you want a bin that's made from metal or wood, not plastic. A garden compost bin should ideally have ventilation and drainage (think a slatted construction), and contact with the ground, because the soil will activate the composting process. It should have a cover to protect your compost from the rain, or you'll end up with a mixture that is too wet.

If it’s a kitchen composting bin, again try to use a metal or ceramic one, and place it away from direct sunlight – under the sink is ideal. Add a layer of garden soil to the bottom of the bin to help the composting process. 

Whether it’s an indoor or outdoor compost bin, the larger the better. It is possible to make compost without a bin and use a shady corner of the garden instead. Ideally choose an area covered by a tree or some sort of canopy to protect it from the rain. That said, most gardeners prefer to use a container to deter mice and rats.

How to make compost: what can and can't go in

If you're making your own compost, the main ingredients are divided into green and brown waste. 

Green waste 

Between a quarter and half of your compost should be organic waste, primarily from vegetables and fruit. Cut grass from your lawn and weeds are also good sources of green waste for your compost. 

Brown waste 

This is the dry waste that helps to aerate your compost and prevent it from getting too wet and rotting, as opposed to composting. Use dead, dried plants, shredded paper and cardboard. If you have too much brown waste in your compost, you won't get the rich, soil-like compost texture in the end.

Don't include 

Don’t add fish, meat, bones, or dairy waste to your compost bin – you won't get the right balance of nutrients and adding this kind of waste could attract rats or mice to the heap. 

How to DIY compost in 5 easy steps

1. Layer it 

Speed up the compost process by layering your compost heap or bin correctly: line the bottom with straw, twigs, or even old newspaper, then alternate green and brown (or wet and dry) materials. Veggie peelings, tea bags, and food scraps count as wet, whereas leaves, twigs, and wood ash or pellets count as dry.

2. Feed it 

Your compost will be more nutrient rich and will mature quicker if you add a nitrogen-rich feed or well rotted manure. 

3. Water it

Yes, you should 'water' your compost – rain water is fine, or you can lightly hose it. Just make sure that it's not soaking wet.

4. Turn it

Turn your compost regularly (see below) – about once a week. This introduces the air needed to speed up the composting process. 

5. Put a lid on it

Cover your compost heap. Rain will cool the compost heap down and slow the composting process so it’s important to keep it covered. If using a compost bin, cover it with the lid provided.

Turning compost

Some gardeners swear by turning compost, saying it’s important to turn compost to add air to the mixture, essential for the chemical processes that make the compost. Without sufficient air, the compost can be compacted, slimy, and rotting. This is often the case when you're making compost on a small-scale and only add wasted every so often. To combat this you should turn the mixture.  

For best results, turn your compost as often as you can with a pitchfork. If you're making compost indoors in a small kitchen container, you can turn the contents with a long-handled kitchen utensil. 

For larger outdoor compost heaps you can also use a compost aerator to pump air into your compost.

However, there’s another school of thought that says if you layer your compost correctly, making sure that there's ample brown waste between layers of green, you shouldn’t need to turn it. 

Compost tumbler

A compost tumbler is a sealed drum-shaped compost container on a stand, which turns on its axis with a push, or has a handle attached. Place your composting material in the drum and turn the handle every 2-3 days and you should have rich, crumbly compost within 3 weeks. Try Lifetime's whopping 302.8 litre capacity Compost Tumbler from Wayfair. 

Try a wormery

For a speedier process, and handy for a household with limited outdoor space, consider a wormery. A starter kit includes everything you need to get going, including the worms themselves. Try Wiggly Wigglers for more details, or Wormery and if you're squeamish about worms, fear not, you don't have to get too close, they're very self-contained and just mind their own business, turning your kitchen waste into the richest crumbliest compost you can imagine, along with bonus concentrated liquid feed that you draw off using the tap supplied. 

How long does it take to make compost?

It can take anywhere between several months and over a year for compost to rot down enough to be ready to be used in your garden, depending on the average temperature, and materials you're using, and how well the compost is aerated. 

You'll know it's ready when it has a rich, crumbly texture, and a uniform brown colour. Compost that's ready has a fairly pleasant smell of damp earth. Not all the compost in your bin/heap will mature at the same rate though, and you may end up discarding some of it, or putting it back into the container to continue rotting as you add in new layers of waste. 

Buy compost online

If you don't have the space or don't want to make your own compost, you can buy it from these online shops instead

GoodHome Pots, planters & hanging baskets Compost 50L | £4.87 at B&Q
This compost is ideal for growing plants in hanging baskets and pots. It's free from peat too, making it an environmentally friendly choice. View Deal

Miracle Gro Premium Cactus Succulent Bonsai Compost With Vital Minerals 6L Bag | £9.99 at Amazon
Hoping to re-pot a Bonsai tree soon? This special compost will help with the process. View Deal

Carbon Gold BioChar All Purpose Compost | £9.95 at Harrod Horticultural
Approved by The Soil Association, this all-purpose compost is 100 per cent peat-free and organic too. View Deal

Premium Professional Compost Blend 80L | £16.99 at You Garden
This is some of the best compost you can buy for perfect results every time. It's made from high-quality ingredients and will be delivered straight to your door.View Deal

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