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Composting Organic Materials at Home

Compost is a dark, crumbly and earthy-smelling form of decomposing matter that improves your soil and the plants growing in it. Decomposition and recycling of organics are an essential part of soil building and healthy plant growth in forests, meadows and your home garden. By using compost, you return organic matter to the earth, improving plant growth by adding essential nutrients to any soil.

Composting helps suppress plant diseases and pests and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Yard materials—such as leaves, grass trimmings and twigs—are great candidates for home composting, as well as some food scraps.

Four Steps to Compost Organic Materials at Home

  1. Choose Your Compost System
  2. Collect Materials to Compost
  3. Troubleshoot Some Common Composting Problems
  4. Use Your Finished Compost

Step 1: Choose Your Compost System

Illustration of compost holding unit.

Compost systems vary depending on what materials you want to compost and the quantity of materials you have. Several types of composting units are available online or in stores for purchase; however, residents may wish to construct their own instead (PDF). Below are some of the most popular types of composting systems.

Holding Units

These compost systems require the least amount of labor and are great for beginners who do not generate a large amount of yard materials. 

  • Designed for non-woody yard wastes such as grass clippings, leaves and trimmings from garden plants and flowers.
  • Holding units can be portable and moved around a property.
  • This method can take from six months to two years to produce compost from yard materials.
  • Holding units can be made from a variety of materials including yard stakes and chicken wire. Some people prefer a commercially manufactured compost bin.
Illustration of compost turning unit.

Turning Units

These units consist of a series of three or more bins that allow waste to be turned on a regular schedule.

  • Most appropriate for residents with a large volume of yard materials.
  • Designed for non-woody yard materials such as grass clippings, leaves and trimmings from garden plants and flowers.
  • Designed to place yard materials in one of the bins, then transfer materials from the bottom of the pile to the second bin when the first bin becomes full. This process is repeated again and again. Each time material is moved from one bin to the next, it helps to aerate the pile and hasten decomposition.
  • These systems produce high quality compost in a short period of time, but require considerably more labor than a holding unit.
  • The unit can be built using wood, a combination of wood and wire, or concrete blocks.
Illustration of compost tumbler.


These smaller systems, which are generally raised off the ground with a handle for rotating the bin, have the fastest rate for generating finished compost from yard materials.

  • By regularly rotating and tumbling the yard materials, these units aerate and heat contents to a finished compost in as little as three weeks.
  • The systems are designed to be turned daily.
  • It is possible to maintain relatively high temperatures in tumbler systems because the container acts as insulation and the constant turning keeps the microbes aerated and active.

Step 2: Collect Materials to Compost

Many types of yard and garden materials can be composted in your bin. Baltimore County residents are also permitted to compost some food scraps in an outdoor bin (see below for details).

Materials to Include

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Flowers
  • Twigs
  • Small branches
  • Straw and hay
  • Bark
  • Peat moss
  • Sawdust
  • Pine needles
  • Some food scraps, including:
    • Most fruit and vegetable scraps
    • Most grains, nuts and legumes
    • Eggshells
    • Loose tea and coffee grounds

Do Not Include

  • Diseased and insect ridden plants
  • Inorganic materials (synthetic chemicals, lime, BBQ char metal, etc.)
  • Pressure treated lumber
  • Pet waste
  • Certain food items:
    • Animal fats, grease and cooking oil
    • Bakery and bread products
    • Bones
    • Citrus peels
    • Dairy products
    • Garlic
    • Meat, poultry and fish
    • Onions
    • Rice
    • Tea and coffee bags
    • Walnuts

Step 3: Troubleshoot Some Common Composting Problems

When composting, resident sometimes experience one or more issues, many of which can be solved by following these simple troubleshooting tips.

If Your Compost System Is Producing an Odor

Ammonia Smell: Too Much Nitrogen (Green Matter) in Compost System

  • Aerate materials
  • Add more carbon (brown material)

Putrid Smell: Pile is Too Wet or Not Receiving Enough Oxygen

  • Aerate materials
  • Add extra dry carbon (brown material) to absorb excessive moisture
  • Avoid adding water to materials

If Your Compost System Is Not Heating Up

Too Wet: Materials Are Soggy

  • Aerate materials
  • Add extra dry carbon (brown material) to absorb excessive moisture
  • Avoid adding water to materials

Too Dry: Materials Are Brittle and Dusty

  • Moisten pile to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge
  • Add nitrogen (green material)

If Your Materials Are Not Decomposing

  • Aerate materials regularly
  • Add more materials—large volumes can speed up decomposition on the bottom of the pile
  • Add moisture to the pile—materials should be the consistency of a wrung-out sponge
  • Chop and shred large items, making it easier for bacteria to break the materials down
  • Move the compost system in the sun for at least part of the day—heat will speed up the process

Step 4: Use Your Finished Compost

Once your compost is ready, it is time to begin using it around your lawn and garden. You’ve set up your system, added all the right materials and fixed any issues that popped up along the way. Now it is time to reap the benefits! Finished compost is dark brown or black, crumbly textured and has a rich earthy smell.

Finished compost can be used in seed-starting mixes or to cover seed rows in vegetable gardens. Compost can also be used to enrich flower gardens and improve the soil around trees and shrubs. When spread around garden plants, shrubs and trees it can help retain moisture. 

You can make compost tea by steeping a shovel full of compost in a five-gallon bucket of water for a few days. You can then pour this nutrient-rich "tea" on plants, vegetables and flowers. 

Finished compost can also be used as a soil amendment by placing it into the soil two to four inches below the surface, throughout the year or at planting time. Everything around your lawn and garden will benefit from the compost as it releases its nutrients over a one to two year period.

Revised April 27, 2022         


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