The Perfect Compost Recipe | How to Get Your Compost Heap Cooking!

How to Compost Step-by-Step Video

May 3, 2020

If you don’t have a compost pile, fall is great time to start one. Turn dead and dying foliage, weeds, and kitchen waste into a nutrient-rich material that will enrich your soil and nourish your plants for super-healthy growth. Compost is the very best food that you can give to your plants. Here’s our compost recipe.

What is Compost?

Compost is nutrient-rich organic material that you add to your soil to enrich the soil and help plants thrive.  It’s made from nature—shredded leaves, your own plant debris, and food scraps—that you might otherwise just throw away and waste. 

  1. A very simple compost pile can be a heap of leaves that you leave for a couple years. 
  2. A better compost pile layers your “brown” (eq., shredded leaves) and “green” (plant debris, clipped grass), keeps the pile slightly moist, and turns it once in a while to mix the contents.
  3. But to make really great compost that “cooks” quickly and decomposes quickly into plant food, you’ll want to watch the video and read the instructions below. 

Some folks just have a big pile in the corner of their yard. This is fine, but it’s easier to set up a compost “center” to contain your compost and keep leaves and debris from flying away with a bin(s) made of lumber or concrete or even chicken wire on wooden stakes.

If you have a small garden, you could buy a compost bin at your local garden center or mass merchant.

See how to make a compost bin.


How to Compost

While you will indeed get compost that way, you can produce much better compost and get it much more quickly if you follow these simple guidelines for the perfect recipe. 

There are 4 ingredients for good compost: 1. greens, 2. browns, 3. air, and 4. moisture. These 4 need to be balanced correctly for best results. 

The ingredients you add to a compost heap contain carbon and nitrogen. The ratio of carbon to nitrogen determines whether we label it a ‘green’ or a ‘brown’.  

  • GREENS: Ingredients that have a relatively high nitrogen content  and a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio below 30:1 are called ‘greens’. 
  • BROWNS: Ingredients with a lower nitrogen content  (in other words a higher carbon-to-nitrogen ratio) are called ‘browns’. 

Color isn’t always a reliable indicator of what is a ‘green’ or a ‘brown’ material.  For example, fresh grass clippings when spread out and left to dry are still considered a ‘green’ ingredient even though they’ve turned a brownish color, because really all they’ve lost is water. On the other hand, straw is always considered a ‘brown’ because before it was cut, the main stems had died and much of the plant’s nitrogen had gone into the seeds as protein. 

1. Greens

Good examples of greens to add to your compost pile are  

grass clippings (which haven’t been sprayed with weedkiller), vegetable waste, fruit peels, annual weeds before they’ve developed seeds, and old bedding plants.  

Don’t compost animal products such as meat, and try to avoid adding diseased plant material, or fats and oils.  

2. Browns

Good examples of browns include sawdust, straw, woodchippings, shredded brown cardboard, and fallen leaves.  

Bedding from herbivorous pets such as guinea pigs is ideal, as their manure adds a bit of extra nitrogen into the mix.  

Compost decomposes much faster if you chop the ingredients up,  so shredding woody materials and tearing up cardboard speeds up the process  because there is then more surface area exposed to the microbes that decompose the compost.  

However, avoid shredded evergreen trees such as Leylandii  because they don’t compost well and the pine resin can inhibit seed growth.  

3. Balance

When making compost you want to aim for 2 to 3 times more brown materials than greens, at least initially, although some more greens can be added as the compost cooks.  

For most gardeners, the biggest challenge is therefore collecting enough brown materials and not just piling in loads of greens which will result in a soggy, smelly mess.  

Never add lots of grass clippings in one go as they will just form a slimy matted layer.  

Air is vital to the composting process so it’s important to mix the ingredients in together, and never squash them down.  

By turning or remixing the compost more air is introduced, which speeds up decomposition.  

4. Water

The fourth vital ingredient is water.  If like me you stockpile brown materials, you’ll need to water the pile  to things going when first mixing it.  

Build the compost pile up with layers of browns and greens, watering it where necessary to produce a moist (but not soggy) mixture.  

A good compost heap has a slightly sweet composty smell.  If it smells sour or rotten then it either has too many greens, or is too wet.  

In either case, the remedy is to mix more brown materials in to compensate.  

By getting the right balance of 2 or 3 parts browns to 1 part greens with moisture and air, you’re giving the microbes that decompose the materials the best conditions to work in.  


As they break the organic matter down they give off heat, which in turns speeds up the decomposition.  

In a well-mixed heap temperatures can easily reach over 150 degrees Fahrenheit, or 65 degrees Celsius.  

The heap in the video, for example, was mixed several days ago  and it’s already been cooking nicely, although it’s starting to cool a little now.  

After a few more days, I will remix it to introduce more air and to bring materials from the edges into the center.  

Several weeks later the heap will cool, and worms can move in to finish the process.  

If you follow this recipe you should get a fine, crumbly-textured compost.  Any remaining large bits can be sieved out and put into the next compost heap you build, leaving you with the very best food for your plants.  


Want an easier method?

See both “hot” and “cold” methods of composting.

See in-situ or in-garden composting.

How about worm composting?

After you watch the video, click here for a free trial of our Garden Planner:


Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

forest compost

we live next to a section of woods that has been untouched by people! Can we use the dead leaves and straw from the trees as compost or even the dirt to help us get started? Or is that not a healthy way? I know sometimes the leaves get moldy if there's not enough sun exposure! Thanks

ants in compost pile

Living here in SC, we have a real problem with fire ants, and they have taken over a corner of my compost pile. Now, I'm not too keen on the idea of adding an ant killer like Spectricide or Andro into my compost that I will be using in a vegetable garden, but I am at my wits end trying to think of a way to get rid of them permanently w/o chemicals. Any advice? Thanks, Don

Ants in Compost Pile

The Editors's picture

Try turning your compost pile more frequently; the ants won’t enjoy the disturbance and may pick up and move. If you can expose the nest, pour boiling water on it—that will also encourage the ants to move to a new location.

Composting Video

We have used a square plastic "canadian made" compost bin for 20 yrs with great success adding kitchen vegetable waste and coffee grounds as well as grass clippings and some decidious leaves. I would say more brown that green contrary to your ration so I'll have to modify according to your formula, thanks! We do do some occasional turning and watering. We recently in past 6 weeks have started a red wriggler compost bin as an experiment to recycle composter at a foaster rate and also "grow" fishing worms with grandson.


Im much prefer to read than to watch so I miss a lot of good information. Are there transcripts available for any of the videos offered?


The Editors's picture

Thanks, Kat. We added the article so that you are also able to read the instructions. The video helps bring the written words alive. 


CARBONS = BROWN, NITROGEN = GREENS. LOOK at the information at the beginning of the video, it's wrong.


The Editors's picture

Allow us to clarify. The C:N ratio is actually a label on the axis of a graph (the black arrow shows the axis), so going to the right indicates a higher C:N ratio; in other words, more Carbon is to the right (more brown materials).  In retrospect, we could have made that a bit clearer in the video, although the narration does explain that it’s the carbon to nitrogen ratio that we’re referring to.

Compost video

I appreciate the explanation of what type and how much you add on ingredients to make a good compost. Is there a way to save the video to my computer for frequent review as I learn how to compost?


The Editors's picture

Thanks for the kind words. To answer your question, you could bookmark this page! On your computer, there should be a label that says “Bookmark.” That’s the only way to save the video. Hope this helps!


Your articles are the Best. Most helpful educational. I don’t have words to say how very much I love your information. Born in New England. Living tropical Florida whet I can grow most of the year. Last year was first experimental crop heirloom tomatoes. Thank you. Thank you!


can you compost in the winter,I live in rhode Island

Compost in Winter

The Editors's picture

Hi Frank,

You can add to your compost pile in the winter, but the composting process will cease during the period of time when the ground is frozen. It will resume in the spring.

Citrus in compost

Have been advised that citrus in compost will kill the earthworms... ?? Anyone knowing what is actually true is welcome to reply by email. Thanks!

I've always heard u can use

I've always heard u can use chickin manure

I have a few chayote from my

I have a few chayote from my neighbor last month, and it's sprouting at the bottom of the chayote now, should I start growing it im my back yard? I live in San Jose ca/Zone 9. (The temperature is around 68 Degrees everyday.) Thanks a lot for your time.

I compost my kitchen scrapes

I compost my kitchen scrapes in a uncovered double tumbler composter and I have a covered worm cafe composter. During the winter last year my tumbler didn't get hot enough, so I used the worm bin a lot but, still neeedd to us the tumbler. This year I will cover the tumbler with a tarp to keep the rain moisture out, but I'm wondering what type of dry material to use. Last year I used soft wood shaving. This year I was thinking of using rice hulls or straw. What do you think would be a good choice?

I use junk mail, phone books,

I use junk mail, phone books, etc for my brown fodder for composting and worm bins. Just don't use shiny paper, pick the dull, flat papers.

I am a Certified master

I am a Certified master composter and we are instructed that you can compost dog or cat feces , but use it only for trees and shrubs,
NOT FOR vegetables or fruits nothing you eat.

chicken waste

can you use chicken droppings in the compost bin that is used in the vegetable garden.

chicken droppings in compost

The Editors's picture

Chicken droppings can help to enrich your compost when mixed in with it. Avoid adding too much all at once though. 

I've been composing for years

I've been composing for years never using meat, poultry or diary products. Should you use dog and cat feces?

Most cooperative extensions

The Editors's picture

Most cooperative extensions advise against using pet waste. Though it can be done, most backyard compost heaps rarely reach the required temperature of the compost heap--which is a minimum of 165 degrees F for about five days--from the middle through the outside layers. If interested, here is information on how to compost pet waste correctly:

Lucid and concise! I screen

Lucid and concise!
I screen compost through 1/2 inch hardware cloth on a sloping 3 foot by 6 foot frame.


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