Backyard Composting: A Guide to Recycling Yard Waste at Home

Turning yard waste into garden gold through composting is easier than you think! This handy guide covers various composting techniques to help you transform leaves, grass clippings, and more into nutrient-rich food for your plants. Discover the ideal composting method for your space, lifestyle, and tolerance for messiness. With a little effort and know-how, you’ll be on your way to creating free, homemade compost for your garden.

Heap or Pile Composting

For gardeners with ample yard space, piling organic waste into a basic heap or pile is a simple, traditional composting method. Heap composting is also known as aerobic or “hot” composting since the decomposition happens in the presence of oxygen and creates high temperatures. Maintaining proper conditions with minimal effort makes heap composting ideal for the casual composter.

How It Works

  • Yard waste is piled into a heap in a conveniently out-of-the-way spot like along a fence or property line.
  • Periodically mix and turn the pile with a pitchfork or compost turner tool to aerate the heap. This introduces needed oxygen to encourage fast decomposition.
  • Optional: monitor the internal temperature, aiming for 130-140°F.
  • Finished compost will take 4-6 months depending on conditions and how actively the heap is managed.

Benefits of Heap Composting

Simple startup – No special equipment needed, just designate a composting area.

Large capacity – Heaps can process large amounts of yard waste.

Efficient breakdown – Achieves fast composting when maintained properly.

Low cost – Can be done for free or very cheaply.

Drawbacks of Heap Composting

Requires space – Heaps need an area at least 3′ x 3′ wide and tall.

Can look messy – Open piles tend to look unkempt compared to enclosed bins.

Needs turning – Doesn’t work well if left untended; aeration is key.

Some odor – Anaerobic pockets can cause bad smells. Turn pile to introduce oxygen.

Getting Started with Heap Composting

Pick a spot – Choose an out-of-the-way area of your yard near a water source. Part to full sun is ideal.

Build a base – Place twigs, hay, or other coarse material to improve aeration from below.

Layer greens and browns – Mix nitrogen and carbon-rich ingredients as you build the pile.

Add a bit of soil – This introduces beneficial microbes to start the composting process.

Keep it moist – Water occasionally, aiming for 40-60% moisture, like a wrung-out sponge.

Turn it – Use a tool to give the pile a good mix and aeration 1-2 times per month.

Know when it’s finished – Compost is ready when it looks dark, crumbly, and earthy-smelling.

Maintaining a Compost Heap

Once built, a compost heap needs occasional maintenance to keep it actively decomposing. Monitor your pile and make adjustments as needed:

  • Turn the compost when it starts to cool off to raise the temperature back up.
  • Water if the pile seems dry; it should feel moist but not soggy.
  • Add browns or greens depending on if the pile seems too carbon or nitrogen-heavy.
  • Break up large pieces that resist breaking down into smaller bits.
  • Add lime to balance pH if compost emits ammonia odors.

With proper conditions, heap composting results in finished compost in as little as 3 months. Turning the compost pile weekly or monthly requires physical effort but speeds the process considerably.

Uses for Heap-Composted Yard Waste

The dark, crumbly compost created by heap composting has many beneficial uses:

  • Till into garden beds each fall or spring to enrich the soil.
  • Make compost tea by steeping compost in water, then use it to fertilize plants.
  • Top dress lawns by sprinkling 1/4″ of compost over the grass.
  • Mulch gardens by applying 2-3″ of compost around plants.
  • Potting soil amendment by mixing 20% compost into potting mixes.
  • Seed starting media can contain up to 50% compost for seedlings.

The finished compost adds organic matter, nutrients, and beneficial microbes wherever it is applied in the garden. Heap composting makes it easy and free to create this valuable soil enhancement.


For small-space gardeners, indoor composting, or creating high-quality worm castings, vermicomposting is the way to go. This technique uses red wiggler worms to digest and excrete waste in nutrient-dense worm castings. Vermicomposting requires more attentive maintenance than traditional outdoor compost piles but works year-round even in apartments or houses.

How It Works

  • Special bins contain 1-2 pounds of red wiggler worms along with bedding and food waste.
  • Worms digest food scraps, yard waste, and bedding material, excreting castings.
  • Drainage separates worm castings from excess liquid fertilizer.
  • Harvest finished castings every 2-4 months to use and give worms fresh bedding.

Benefits of Vermicomposting

Compact size – Systems range from small indoor bins up to multi-level worm towers.

Continuous harvests – Worm castings can be harvested every few months.

Great for indoor use – Kept indoors, worms compost year-round.

High-quality compost – Worm castings contain more nutrients than traditional compost.

Reduces waste – Diverts kitchen scraps and yard waste out of landfills.

Drawbacks of Vermicomposting

Moisture management – Worms require careful moisture monitoring. Too wet or dry can kill them.

Some odor – Excess nitrogen can cause ammonia buildup.

Smaller scale – Worm populations limit how much waste a bin can process.

Worm escape risk – Lids and screens must be secure to prevent mass worm escape!

Getting Started with Vermicomposting

Obtain a worm bin – Buy a specialized worm composting bin or make your own from plastic storage containers.

Add bedding – Coconut coir, shredded newspaper, or fall leaves give worms a home.

Buy red wiggler worms – Order 1 lb. of worms online or find them at a bait shop.

Feed worms gradually – Start with a handful of scraps so worms can adjust.

Bury food in bedding – Worms are surface dwellers; bury scraps to bring them to the food.

Harvest castings – Remove finished compost every 2-4 months to make room for fresh waste.

Maintaining a Worm Bin

Caring for a worm bin requires more attentive management than traditional compost methods:

  • Monitor moisture and drainage. Worms thrive at 75-85% moisture. Excess water makes bins soggy.
  • Feed worms gradually, 1-2 cups per pound of worms per week. Overfeeding breeds odor and pests.
  • Bury food scraps under 8-10″ of bedding so worms migrate up to eat.
  • Fluff and re-wet bedding as needed every 4-6 weeks.
  • Remove castings regularly so worms have space to work.
  • Watch for worms trying to escape, a sign of poor conditions!
  • Keep bins between 55-75°F.

With attentive care, a pound of worms can process up to half a pound of waste per day into vermicompost. While more labor-intensive than traditional composting, the reward of nutrient-dense worm castings is well worth the extra effort for many gardeners.

Uses for Vermicompost

The microbe and nutrient-rich worm castings have a wide variety of garden uses:

  • Potting soil amendment by mixing 10-30% worm castings into potting mix.
  • Seed starting media can contain up to 50% castings.
  • Compost tea is made by steeping castings in water for 24 hours then spraying plants as fertilizer.
  • Top dress lawns by sprinkling 1/4″ of vermicompost over grass.
  • Mix castings into garden beds before planting.
  • Make worm casting “compost cakes” by combining castings with 10% clay and enough water to form cake shapes. Dry and add to soil as slow-release fertilizer.

Vermicompost releases nutrients over longer periods than traditional compost, so it’s idea for potted plants and seedlings in need of gradual feeding. Though more labor intensive, vermicomposting produces an end product dripping with microbial life and readily available nutrients plants thrive on.

Closed Bin Composting

Backyard composters with limited space, tidy gardening styles, or pests to deter may prefer contained compost bins over open heaps. Closed bins neatly corral waste out of sight while retaining heat and moisture. Compost tumblers make turning simpler through built-in aeration mechanisms. Closed bins work efficiently for smaller yards and gardens.

How It Works

  • Yard waste is layered into an enclosed plastic or wooden bin, sometimes with a lid or sliding door.
  • Air vents and slots aid passive aeration, while tumbler-style bins require turning.
  • Compost finishes faster than open heaps due to retained heat and moisture.
  • Harvesting finished compost simply requires opening the bin and removing mature compost from the bottom or door.

Benefits of Closed Bin Composting

Neat appearance – Bins keep piles tidy looking.

Deters pests – Lids and sides prevent animal access.

Reduces odor – Enclosed bins contain smells better.

Efficient decomposition – Retains heat and moisture for faster composting.

Convenient harvesting – Doors or sliding panels allow easy compost removal.

Drawbacks of Closed Bin Composting

Plastic cracks over time – Plastic bins become brittle and crack with prolonged sun exposure.

Smaller capacity – Bins limit how much yard waste can accumulate at once.

Turning difficulties – Non-tumbling bins must be disassembled to turn compost.

Moisture loss – Compost dries out faster than open piles.

Getting Started with Closed Bin Composting

Obtain a bin – Buy pre-made bins ranging from $50-200 or construct a wooden bin.

Select a shady spot – Avoid direct sun to prevent plastic bin deterioration.

Layer green and brown materials – Follow standard compost layering practices.

Turn tumblers regularly – Rotate tumbler-style bins at least weekly for aeration.

Add water as needed – Compost should feel moist but not saturated.

Monitor temperature – Heat generation indicates active composting.

Maintaining a Closed Compost Bin

Closed bin composting requires less physical labor than open piles but still benefits from occasional maintenance:

  • Turn tumblers or stir compost to re-aerate.
  • Check and adjust moisture levels every 1-2 weeks.
  • Monitor for odors, which indicate anaerobic conditions.
  • Harvest finished compost as soon as its ready to free up space.
  • Remove uncomposted woody pieces if they accumulate.
  • Mix in fresh greens, browns, or water as needed.

With minimal effort, closed bin composting conveniently recycles yard waste without sacrificing tidiness or space.

Uses for Compost from Closed Bins

The dark, crumbly compost generated by closed bins has all the same gardening uses as heap and vermicompost:

  • Till into garden beds each fall or spring.
  • Make nutrient-rich compost tea for fertilizing.
  • Top dress lawns by sprinkling thin layers of compost.
  • Mulch gardens by applying 2-3″ of compost around plants.
  • Amend potting mixes by adding 10-30% finished compost.

Thanks to efficient heat and moisture retention, closed bins quickly produce compost to enrich garden beds and soils all season long.

Trench and Pit Composting

For extremely simple, passive composting, trenches or pits allow garden waste to decompose in place with minimal effort. While not producing compost as quickly as more active methods, this “set it and forget it” approach works well for large properties or those seeking an undemanding technique.

How It Works

  • A pit 1-3 feet deep is dug out or a long trench is excavated where compost will be created.
  • Yard waste such as leaves, plant trimmings, and grass clippings are dumped into the pit and covered periodically with a thin layer of soil.
  • Given 1-2 years to decompose, the buried organic matter will gradually break down into finished compost.
  • The nutrient-rich humus can then be excavated and harvested for use in the garden.

Benefits of Trench/Pit Composting

Extremely low maintenance – No turning or watering once waste is buried.

Out of sight – Keeps yard waste from piling up visibly.

Simple technique – Requires very little labor or attention.

Gradual compost creation – Produces useful compost over time with no effort.

Drawbacks of Trench/Pit Composting

Very slow process – Can take up to 2 years to yield finished compost.

Difficult harvesting – Excavating compost from a pit can be physically demanding.

Can attract pests – Rodents or other animals may dig in unsecured pits.

Weak internal heat – Doesn’t achieve the hot temperatures needed for rapid decomposition.

Getting Started with Trench/Pit Composting

Designate location – Pick a low-traffic area away from gardens since the spot will be occupied for 1-2 years. Consider proximity to waste sources.

Dig pit/trench – Excavate a hole or trench approximately 1-3 feet deep.

Layer waste – Add a mix of greens and browns, covering with thin layers of soil occasionally.

Leave it alone – Let the waste decompose without turning or watering for at least one year.

Check for readiness – Finished compost will look dark, crumbly, and earthy smelling when ready to harvest.

Maintaining a Compost Pit or Trench

Minimal maintenance is needed once the pit or trench is prepared and filled:

  • Cover food scraps immediately to deter pests.
  • Periodically cover waste with a thin layer of soil to prevent odors.
  • Allow at least 1 year for full decomposition. Very woody waste may take closer to 2 years to fully compost.
  • Introduce additional moisture if contents dry out. Urine makes an easy organic compost activator!

Over time, buried yard waste will transform into fertile, finished compost that can enrich gardens for years to come.

Uses for Pit/Trench Compost

Despite the slow process, compost produced from trenches or pits contains valuable nutrients to boost soil health:

  • Dig finished compost from the pit to mix into garden beds and potting soil.
  • Brew nutrient-rich compost tea by steeping compost in water for 24 hours.
  • Mix compost into new garden bed areas before planting.
  • Top dress lawns by sprinkling a 1/4″ layer over grass.
  • Use as potting soil amendment by mixing 20% compost into mixes.

With little effort, pit and trench composting lets nature do the work of transforming yard waste into black gold for your garden!

Sheet or Lasagna Composting

To compost directly on garden beds instead of in a separate pile, sheet composting, also called lasagna composting, layers organic materials over the soil to decompose in place. While slower than other composting methods, sheet composting immediately improves the soil structure and fertility of existing or new garden beds.

How It Works

  • Yard waste and other organic materials are layered directly over soil like a lasagna.
  • Alternating thin layers of nitrogen and carbon materials allows it to decompose into a nutrient-rich amendment.
  • Given 2-4 months to break down, the layered compost then gets tilled into the soil before planting.
  • The process can be repeated to enrich soil season after season.

Benefits of Sheet Composting

Composts where it will be used – Avoids the step of moving finished compost.

Immediately improves soil – The layered compost feeds the soil as soon as it’s applied.

Simple technique – Requires no special equipment, just layering.

Can be done repeatedly – New layers enrich soil year after year.

Drawbacks of Sheet Composting

Slow composting times – Can take 2-4 months compared to other faster methods.

Space intensive – Requires open bed space to apply layers.

Can’t be stockpiled – Compost must be used in placed instead of harvested.

May not heat up – Lacks insulation needed to reach hot composting temperatures.

Getting Started with Sheet Composting

Select garden bed area – Clear existing vegetation where compost will be layered.

Moisten soil – Water the bed thoroughly before adding compost layers.

Layer greens and browns – Alternate 2-4″ thin layers of nitrogen and carbon materials.

Top with mulch – Finish with 2-3″ of straw or leaves to retain moisture.

Let decompose – Allow layered compost to break down for 2-4 months before planting.

Mix and till – When ready, thoroughly blend compost layers into the soil before planting.

Maintaining Sheet Compost Layers

Minimal maintenance is needed once compost layers are added:

  • Check moisture weekly and water dry spots to aid decomposition.
  • Supplement with manure or fertilizer to speed breakdown.
  • Add additional layers on top as lower layers shrink down.
  • Turn and mix layers into soil when fully composted before planting.

Sheet composting allows composting and gardening to happen simultaneously in the exact same space with very little work required.

Uses for Sheet Compost

Once turned under the soil, sheet compost provides the following benefits:

  • Enriches soil structure and moisture retention before planting beds.
  • Adds a slow-release source of macro- and micronutrients.
  • Improves soil drainage and aeration for better plant growth.
  • Supplies a buffet of microbial life to boost soil biodiversity.
  • Reduces need for chemical fertilizers when rotated annually.

Think of sheet composting as giving your garden beds a nourishing lasagna layered with organic matter and nutrients from your yard and kitchen.

Choosing the Best Compost Method for You

With so many backyard composting options available, choosing the right system depends on your space constraints, patience, and willingness to actively maintain a pile.

  • Open heap composting offers flexibility for large amounts of yard waste but requires physical labor to turn the pile periodically.
  • Vermicomposting produces high-quality worm castings but involves careful moisture and feeding management.
  • Closed bins neatly contain compost but sacrifice capacity compared to open piles.
  • Trench composting is extremely low-maintenance yet very slow to yield finished compost.
  • Sheet composting provides immediate soil enrichment at the cost of waiting for layers to decompose before planting.

Key Questions to Determine the Best Compost Method:

  • How much yard waste do you need to compost?
  • What level of maintenance are you willing to commit to?
  • How quickly do you hope to produce finished compost?
  • Do you prefer contained systems or open compost piles?
  • How much work are you willing to do turning and managing compost?
  • Do you have garden beds needing enrichment or just want stockpiled compost?

With a variety of techniques to choose from, every gardener can find a composting method well-suited for their unique space and needs. The possibilities are endless when it comes