Composting can be as elaborate or as simple as you want it to be. We have found that a simple pile works best for us, but bins to hold the compost can be made out of a wide variety of materials… like chicken wire, bricks, concrete blocks, bales of hay, or railroad ties. For the best results a compost pile should be at least three feet long by three feet wide by three feet high, but no higher than five feet or the materials in the center of the pile won’t get enough oxygen and therefore won’t decompose completely. If you need only a small compost bin, a twenty or thirty gallon garbage can with holes punched in the bottom and sides will do the job.

Completed compost, ready to be used

We have a lot of garden “green stuff,” animal bedding, and wood ashes to take care of, so we keep two or three compost piles “working” all the time. Right now our most current pile is just starting to heat up, another pile is still warm but not hot, and the third pile is lovely black ready to use compost.

Here is how we start a new compost pile. First we decide on an inconspicuous, out of the way location, away from the house so we’re not always having to look at a compost pile. We have lots of small trees and brush on the outskirts of our property, and these spots are perfect for our compost piles because they get lots of sun. We have found that it helps to start with a layer of soil, because the soil already contains microorganisms that will jump start the decomposition. Then we add composting material as we have it… weeds pulled from the gardens, grass clippings, shredded leaves, vegetable and fruit peelings, and the wood shavings and manure from our goat. Our approach to composting is very relaxed… we don’t think too much about proportions and just add whatever we have at the time. We also do not turn the piles because we have never needed to. As long as the material we add is natural and is kept moist, it will all decompose quickly. A compost pile made this way has only a pleasant “woodsy” odor and we have never had problem with flies or rodents.

Our current compost pile is “working”… 130°F and rising

What can be composted? Anything organic and vegetable… straw, sawdust, hay, leaves, shredded twigs, bark, and wood, pine needles, coffee grounds, eggshells, unusable garden produce, vegetable and fruit peels.

What shouldn’t be composted? Cat or dog litter or manure, meat, bones, grease, cheese, eggs, diseased material or pesticide-sprayed material.

We take paper and cardboard to the recycling center instead of composting them because both undoubtedly contain soy or soy inks. (I am allergic to soy.) We also do not compost meat scraps, bones, or dairy products because they would make the pile smell and would also slow down the decomposition rate. Meat and dairy products can, however, be composted separately in a fermenting bin made from a garbage can… the process is the same, except an enzyme is added to accelerate the process. With the added enzyme, there should be no odor there, either.

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Earlier this spring I was coveting one of those compost tumblers. I never could really justify the expense, though, so didn’t buy one. I do have an empty unused plastic garbage can, though. You said to drill holes in the bottom? Do I need to elevate it? There are only two of us, and we recycle paper, plastic and glass, so if we composted our vegetable waste, it seems like we could almost get by without a trash service! (not that we could really do that, but already we only take a 1/2 filled can to the road about every 10 days.)

Thanks for the great post.


Initially I was so worried about ratios etc and now I have the same approach as you….throw it in, turn and water…if I remember. This does take a little longer to break down but when you have several on the go it doesn’t really matter.

Shirley (Choosing Voluntary Simplicity)

Have you ever thought about making a garbage can composter? The garbage can should be on blocks or something with holes in the bottom so any liquid can drain away, and holes in the sides of the can for more ventilation. I agree, composting sure can cut down on “garbage”… we either compost or recycle everything.

Frugal Babe

We have two compost bins that we rotate, filling one up while the other one is “working”. We love it, and haven’t used any other fertilizer on our garden for the last three years. I love the picture of your compost pile – it looks like a cozy nest in a beautiful forest! (ours isn’t that pretty ;)


Hi, I have read a lot of the information you have here and its wonderful! I had a couple question regarding your composting method. We actually have the same approach as you. We have a large pile that we started about a year ago and have not used it yet. We have a sunny out of the way area where we have been dumping our chicken manure and coop bedding, we put garden discards and grass clippings in there too. Anyway, it does stay moist and we have never turned it. How do I know when it is done? How do you take the temperature?? Do you dig down and use an instant read thermometer in the center?? At what temperature should it be at??
Thank you for any help and I look forward to reading more:)

Shirley (Choosing Voluntary Simplicity)

Cindy, thank you for the kind comment. I’m glad you have been enjoying my blog. You should be able to tell if your compost is ready by the way it looks. When compost is ready, it will look like black dirt, and you won’t be able to actually see any of the individual items you put into it. The temperature of the compost is important while the compost pile is “working”… we like to have the temperature reach at least 140°F, and with a good pile the temperature will stay high for several weeks. We use a compost thermometer with a very long probe that reaches down into the pile. We just stick the thermometer into the pile of new compost and check the temperature occasionally. It’s especially interesting to see a high temperature in a pile of compost during the winter when the air temperature is below freezing. You might want to check out my other article on composting, “Nature’s Free Mulch — How We Make Leaf Mold.”


We are building a community garden in our apartment complex. Our compost is
the three bin system and we just started the first pile today. The kids are really looking forward to using the compost on the gardens.