Backyard Composting

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Composting is a great way to recycle all types of yard trimmings and provide a free source of compost—a nutrient-rich material that has many uses. A compost pile naturally breaks down yard trimmings into compost right in your backyard, saving you the time and energy of bagging yard trimmings, storing it, and then hauling it to the curb or drop-off center.

Compost piles require only a minimal amount of maintenance to produce a useable product that is a valuable soil amendment. Organic compost loosens soil for better root penetration, improves soil capacity to hold water, and adds essential nutrients to soil.

To download "Backyard Composting: a beginner's guide" click here.
(If you choose to print this brochure, be sure choose the print properties: Landscape, Duplex and Flip on short edge options for correct layout.)

For helpful composting tips, seasonal reminders, and fun stories about composting in Hamilton County, check out the Hamilton County Solid Waste Management District’s composting blog Confessions of a Composter.

Composting Basics

You can compost with very little effort. Composting can be as simple as throwing organic materials into a pile and letting nature do its work. A mix of carbon and nitrogen sources, such as leaves and grass, is needed to get started. Turning the pile once every month or two will keep the process going. This form of composting is simple and requires little effort, but it will take you a year or longer to produce compost.

For faster results, just put in a little more effort. By building a bin, turning the pile every two to four weeks, and getting a good mix of carbon (i.e., leaves) and nitrogen (i.e., grass), a compost pile can decompose very quickly. Properly managed piles can break down organic material into compost in three months or less.

Pick a Good Spot

Choose a composting site with plenty of room that is comfortable to work around and won’t interfere with your family’s lawn and garden activities. A shady, protected area is best because wind and direct sunlight will dry the pile, slowing decomposition.

Your compost pile should stay moist, so exposure to rain is fine, but make sure the area has good drainage. Since you may need to water the pile during dry spells, keep it within reach of a garden hose.

Your compost pile should not be located against wooden buildings or trees; wood in direct contact with compost will decay.

A Hot Pile Means It’s Working

A properly made compost pile will reach a temperature of 90–140° F in four to five days. You can purchase a temperature probe or soil thermometer at garden or hardware stores or through the Internet. You will notice the pile settling - a good sign that it is working!

Turning the Pile

After five or six weeks, turn the materials in the pile. You should not need to turn the compost pile a second time; however, you can make compost faster by turning the pile more often.  

Compost is ready to use when it is dark brown, crumbly, and earthy-smelling. For best results, let it stabilize a few extra days and sift it through a one-half inch screen (optional). When screening compost, be sure to use gloves and wash hands when finished.

General Guidelines for Backyard Composting

Space: A minimum of 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 3 ft. of space is required to maintain the proper volume needed for an active compost pile.

Bin: Placing yardwaste in a bin is recommended but not essential. The bin provides an attractive, controlled environment to contain the material. For more on compost bins, click here.

Oxygen: Turning the pile provides oxygen to the bacteria and other microorganisms doing the work.

Water: The pile should be moist like a damp sponge. With rain, the pile may stay moist without help. During dry spells, use a hose to keep the pile damp.

Material or Food: The microorganisms working to break down the pile need two types of food, carbon and nitrogen. To find out what should be composted, read on to learn about what is included in a compost recipe.

Compost Recipe

Building a compost pile is similar to a pot of soup—collect a few ingredients, mix well, and stir. When gathering materials to compost, remember that a good mix of high carbon material (“brown stuff”) and high nitrogen material (“green stuff”) is needed. The ideal mix of browns to greens is 3:1. Almost all natural, organic material will compost but not everything belongs in a compost pile. Here are some dos and don’ts:

CAN be composted:

Fruit and vegetable scraps
Green plants
Coffee grounds
Tea bags
Grass clippings
Manure from animals that do not eat meat
Pine needles
Wood chips
Shredded newspaper
Wood ash
Alfalfa hay
Brush and shrub trimmings

Always place food waste in the middle of your compost pile to avoid odors and pests. Using a covered compost bin when composting food wastes helps prevent raccoons. Additionally, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands when working with compost.

DO NOT Compost:

Weed seeds
Salad dressing
Diseased plants or weeds
Inorganic material (i.e., plastic)
Butter or dairy products
Cat or dog manure

Common Problems and Solutions

My compost pile has a bad odor.

If your compost pile has a bad odor, it is most likely due to one of the following causes: not enough air, material is too wet, or there is too much nitrogen in the pile. To remedy the odor, try one of the following:

  • Turn the pile more frequently.
  • Add dry material such as leaves, straw, or sawdust.
  • Add more carbon to the pile such as dead leaves, newspaper, etc.


My pile isn’t decomposing.

If your pile isn’t decomposing, it is due to lack of oxygen or nitrogen, or because the pile is too small. Freezing weather will slow or stop the decomposition rate. To increase decomposition, try the following:

  • Turn the pile more frequently to add oxygen.
  • Add a nitrogen source such as grass clippings, urea, bloodmeal, or coffee grounds.
  • Increase the size of the pile by adding more materials. A compost pile should be a minimum of 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 3ft.

If you have additional questions, e-mail the District.

Building or Purchasing a Compost Bin

A compost bin is not required; however, a bin holds in moisture and heat, speeding up the decomposition process (and it looks more attractive in the yard).  Building your own bin is easy and inexpensive.

Wire Bin

All you need is a length of woven galvanized wire (14-gauge wire) or snow fence.
To determine the length needed, multiply the diameter of the bin desired by 3.2. The ideal diameter is three to five feet. Fasten the ends of the woven wire with four small chain snaps or plastic zip ties to make a circle.

Snow Fence Bin

To build this bin, you need the appropriate length of prefabricated fencing. Fasten 2 x 4s as corner posts to the bottom to form a square.

Block or Brick Bin

Compost bins can be made with bricks, cement, or blocks. Lay the blocks without mortar, leaving spaces between each block to allow aeration. Stack them to form three sides of a square container.

Wooden Bins

A wooden bin can be constructed with a removable front or side so materials can be easily turned. Old wood pallets can also be used for construction.

Wood-N-Wire Bins

A wood and wire three-bin turning unit can be used to compost large amounts of yard, garden, and kitchen wastes in a short time. Although relatively expensive to build, it is sturdy, attractive, and durable. Construction requires basic carpentry skills and tools. Click here for building directions.

Lattice Bins

A lattice bin can be constructed with either treated wood lattice or plastic lattice. Wood is a little less expensive. For best results use “privacy lattice” which has smaller holes. Click here for building directions.

Compost Screeners

For fine, aesthetically pleasing compost, the material can be sifted through a screen. Fine, consistent compost is desirable when applying as mulch, topdressing for the lawn, or mixing with potting soil. The coarse material that does not pass through a screen is more appropriate for garden applications or general use as a soil amendment. Click here for building directions.

Manufactured Bins

Compost bins can be purchased seasonally at the following local stores*:

Park + Vine
1109 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202
(513) 721-7275

Worm's Way
1360 Donaldson Highway, Erlanger, KY 41018
(859) 525-9676

Greener Stock
3528 Columbia Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45226
(513) 321-0567


The Home Depot

Sam's Club


Integra Contracting, Renewable Resources Division builds custom three bin turning units for composting.
Robert Waddell,  (513) 379-9069

*Some above retailers also sell compost turners, kitchen collectors, compost thermometers, and rain barrels. Contact retailer for availability and pricing.

Uses of Compost

There are a variety of uses for finished compost. Compost can be used as a mulch and a soil amendment.

Benefits of mulching with compost:

  • Reduces moisture loss
  • Controls weeds
  • Maintains soil temperatures
  • Reduces soil erosion on slopes
  • Beautifies planting area
  • Adds micronutrients
  • Reduces plants need for water

Benefits of incorporating compost into the soil:

  • Loosens heavy clay soils
  • Aerates the rooting area
  • Improves soil’s capacity to hold water and nutrients
  • Attracts earthworms and other microbes that benefit gardens
  • Provides valuable nutrients for plant growth

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