How to Compost Yard Debris


Composting is one of the best ways to break down leftover material from outside your house and return it to the soil full of nutrients. The basic plant nutrients of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are present in compost, but compost also carries other nutrients such as copper, iron, zinc, manganese and calcium. While store-bought fertilizers feed the soil quickly, compost contains a mix of materials that are both quick and slow to break down, giving a longer feed to your garden as well as loosening and conditioning the soil.

Step 1

Build or set up your compost bin in a cleared, well-drained area where it will receive full sunlight for four to five hours a day as well as shorter periods of shade. Setting the bin below the canopy of a tree but not directly against the trunk, as noted by "The Rodale Guide to Composting," helps keep the pile from becoming too hot and killing good microorganisms, yet affords some direct light to warm the pile.

Step 2

Collect yard debris any time you're working outside and sort the items into groups of "greens" and "browns." Green material includes fresh leaves, grass clippings and pruned stems of green plants. Brown material includes sticks, twigs, woody stems, dried leaves and dry grass clippings.

Step 3

Add an equal amount of greens and browns to the composter to be sure the blend of finished compost is well balanced, according to the Master Composter/Recycler Program of Clark County. Spread out a layer of greens inside the bin followed by a layer of browns as a cover.

Step 4

Add water to your bin to dampen the material so that it feels similar to a sponge after it has been wrung out. The "Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening" suggests adding 1/2 gallon of water when you begin your compost pile and adjusting this amount as needed to keep your pile damp rather than dry or soaking wet.

Step 5

Close the compost bin, if it has a lid, and leave the material to heat up and start to break down.

Step 6

Turn the material with a pitchfork to mix it up well before adding any new material and water to the bin. Bring debris from the center toward the edges of the bin and push debris along the outside toward the center, then cover it over with your new green and brown layers. When the compost mixture resembles soil it is ready for use.

Tips and Warnings

  • Avoid adding to your composter any yard material that is diseased or infested with pests. The high heat inside the composter is no guarantee the infestation or infection will be killed off.

Things You'll Need

  • Composter
  • Fresh and dried leaves, twigs, grass clippings
  • Water
  • Pitchfork or spading fork


  • "The Rodale Guide to Composting"; Jerry Minnich and Marjorie Hunt; 1979
  • "Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening"; Carroll C. Calkins; 1993
  • Penn State Cooperative Extension: Frequently Asked Questions About Composting
  • Master Composter/Recycler Program of Clark County: Home Composting
Keywords: composing yard debris, composting yard waste, how to compost

About this Author

Margaret Telsch-Williams is a freelance, fiction, and poetry writer from the Blue Ridge mountains. When not writing articles for Demand Studios, she works for as a contributor and podcast co-host.