Reader question… “When you wrote about making compost, you mentioned making a small compost bin out of a garbage can. Could you give instructions for making one of these and how to use it? I’m a newbie both to gardening and to the idea of composting and have no idea how to proceed. Thanks for any help.” –Katie R.

You will need a large plastic garbage can with a tight-fitting lid. Drill a number of approximately 1/2-inch holes in the sides of the can for air circulation and in the bottom of the can for drainage. Raise the can up on blocks so any liquid can drain out. You will have better results with two composting cans… one filled and “working” while the second is gradually being filled.

To begin the composting process, start with a layer of soil or peat on the bottom of the can, and add your material to be composted. Organic materials like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and shredded leaves will decompose rapidly. Twigs, wood chips, and sawdust take a very long time to decompose, require extra nitrogen, and are not a good choice for a can composter. Don’t try to compost fats, meat scraps, or bones because they also take a long time to break down and will make your compost smell bad. Most other kitchen waste can be used, such as coffee grounds, dried eggshells, potato peels, and other fruit and vegetable skins and peels. We do not compost shredded newspaper because of the soy ink.

The secret of making good compost quickly is not to add too much of any one thing at a time, and to chop everything up before it is added to the mix. You will know your compost is “ready” when you can no longer identify any individual components… the compost will look, feel, and smell like dark, rich soil. Anything less needs more composting time… and perhaps more oxygen, more or less moisture, or more nitrogen to re-start the decomposition.

Turning a compost pile adds oxygen and will speed up the process… with a can composter, occasionally dump out the can’s contents, stir them up, and shovel them back into the can. Compost that is “cooking” properly will stay around 140°F, but if the composting material is too wet or too dry, it will not decompose as quickly and the temperature will drop. Too much moisture will also cause the compost to smell. Think of a squeezed sponge… this is how moist the composting material should always feel.

So when will the compost be ready? There are so many variables… it all depends on the type of material you use and the methods you use to maintain the composter. If you chop the materials, give them oxygen and the proper amounts of nitrogen and moisture, you should have beautiful finished compost in weeks or months.

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Caleb N.

You won’t believe this but I have been making up plans to do this in my own yard and then today I came to your site looking for something else and came across this article. I’m so glad to get this information because it reinforces some of the ideas I have and also makes me realize a few of the things I was going to do probably wouldn’t work too well. Your site is a real wealth of information, I think I could just sit here and read for days and not read all of it. Thank you for putting so much time and effort into something like this!


I have made garbage can composters before and didn’t have very good results but after reading this post I can see I wasn’t doing a lot of things right. I did follow some instructions I had found but one thing I didn’t do was make holes in the can and I didn’t aerate the compost either because those other instructions didn’t tell me I needed to. I really appreciate your step by step how tos. They are very easy to follow.


We compost with 3 trash cans. One is always “empty” the other 2 are holding an almost finished batch and a current batch that we are adding kitchen waste to. Every couple days we “Toss The Compost”. Which means we grab our gloves and do a full rotation. Which makes it easier to aerate. Once we added the empty can and started the rotation our compost has turned out beautifully.
Just a suggestion…