How to make a lot of compost this winter

SchneiderPeeps - How to make a lof of compost this winter.  Compost is one of the most important things you need for a thriving garden.  But it can get expensive.  This is how we make a lot of free comost each winter.

Compost is a gardener’s best friend.  Unfortunately, it can be quite expensive if you have to purchase it.  The cost in my area is about $30 per cubic yard.  I can drive about an hour and a half and get mushroom compost for $10 a cubic yard.  One time there was an incident when I went to get compost, so Carl is never very excited when I mention doing it again.

So, what’s a person to do who wants a lot of compost for the spring but doesn’t want to buy it?  Make it. And make a lot of it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “That’s easy for you, you have chickens and can use their bedding, I don’t”  or “We don’t have many food scraps so it’s not worth it.”

I’m going to share our super secret ingredients for making lots of compost first and then I’ll share some tips and other things you can add to it.  Oh, and a printable for you to put in your gardening notebook.

And the super secret ingredients are…leaves from your neighbor’s curbs and used coffee grounds

That’s it.  That’s all you need to make great compost.  We start collecting leaves as soon as we notice people bagging them up and puttting them on their curbs.  You can tell they are leaves because they are usually in brown paper lawn bags.  It’s ok to take them, but if it makes you feel better you can ask first ;-).  Several times a week we go into our Starbucks or local coffee house and ask if they have any used coffee grounds.  They almost always do.  They’re happy we take them off their hands.

chicken bedding and coffee grounds

Why does this work?  Dried leaves are considered a “brown” in the composting world; that means they have a lot of carbon.  The microbes in compost use carbon as their energy to thrive.  Coffee grounds are considered a “green” (yeah, I know they’re not green); that means they have a lot of nitrogen.  The microbes in compost use nitrogen as their protein to thrive.

Here’s the deal, any organic matter will compost down….eventually.  If you don’t want to wait indefinately, you will need to build a compost pile that has browns and greens mixed throughout.  So, open a bag of leaves and put about 4 shovelfulls of leaves in the area you are going to use for your compost pile and then sprinkle a shovelful of coffee grounds on top and sprinkle with water. Keep layering until you run out of either leaves or coffee gounds, making sure you dampen each layer.   Every few days turn your compost pile and make sure it smells fine and looks fine and isn’t too dry. If you want to speed up the process even more run the leaves through a mulcher and then use a 1 to 1 ratio.

Browns are things like dried leaves, shreaded paper and cardboard,  wood chips, hay, mulch and wood ash (although I like to use this directly in the garden instead of composting it).

Greens are things like fruits, vegetables, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, manure (cow, horse, goat, chicken, sheep and rabbit) and  grass clippings.

Don’t compost things like pet waste, fats and oils, meats and bones, coal and charcoal, dairy or anything with pesticides or diseased plants.

Your compost should have an earthy smell to it.  If it smells bad, you need more nitrogen.  If it’s slimey, you need more carbon.  If it’s really dry, you need to dampen it. See, it’s really not complicated.

composting in garden bed

Where to put your compost pile? Most people who compost have “a” pile or bin that they use which is kind of hidden out of the way. We do, too.  However, we’ve decided to start composting IN the gardening beds that are not being used for our fall/winter garden so they will be ready in the spring.  Once we cleaned out the summer plants, I planted buckwheat in the beds that we’ll be using in the fall, and I started compost piles in several others using chicken bedding and coffee grounds.  When we gather more leaves we’ll use start composting in other beds. It’s similar to the lasagna method of gardening.

I’m not anticipating that these piles will get super hot since they are only a few inches high.  So, I’m covering most of them with tarps to keep the heat in.  Come spring if there are any leaves or bedding that hasn’t composted down we’ll just rake it up and put it all in our permanent compost pile.



I made this handy printable to help me remember what are browns and what are greens.  To download your copy just click the graphic above. Once you print it up, you can put it in your gardening notebook.  You do have a gardening notebook to keep track of all your gardening stuff, right?

SchneiderPeeps - The Gardening Notebook

This post is shared at Homestead Barn Hop, Mostly Homemade Mondays, Backyard Farming Connection, Tuesday Garden Party, The Maple Hill Hop, 


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  1. says

    I am not too great about turning compost, but I will pile the stuff up! I have access (at the stables my son and I take horseback riding lessons at) to half rotted manure mixed with hay. I was thinking that maybe that would be a good mix to bring home and pile up for awhile. Is that too much brown and we would still need to add green? I’d like it to be ready for spring and I hate having to buy compost.

    Thanks for the article! I stopped by from the Homestead Barn Hop.

    • Angi Schneider says

      If it’s the bedding, it’s perfect because urine is a green. I’d absolutely try it and just keep an eye on it. If it starts to smell, you need to add more green. We really like coffee grounds because they smell so good to begin with.

      • says

        I hadn’t thought about getting the bedding hay with urine in it! Most of the horses stay in the pastures, but we do occasionally get one on stall rest. I bet I can mix some of that in to help out with the greens (and see if I can get more coffee grounds than what I produce). Thanks so much!

        • laura says

          horse manure gives you LOTS of weeds.
          let me rephrase, unwanted plants….
          i have used it very successfully, but i have it in black bags lying in the sun for at least 1 month, before it turn it into the compost pile.

          • Angi Schneider says

            That’s a good tip, Laura! Thanks for sharing. I’ll have to remember the black bag trick if I’m ever fortunate enought to get some horse manure.

  2. says

    I am confused why hay is a brown but lawn clippings are a green. Hay is dried grass that you feed animals. High protein means high nitrogen. How would lawn clippings have higher protein content than hay? If lawn clippings had higher protein content than hay, wouldn’t people be feeding their animals lawn clippings and not hay?

    Straw is dead stalks of wheat, etc., that you use for animal bedding. Straw has very little protein, and should be in the brown category.

    Perhaps we are having a regional terminology or farmer/non-farmer terminology misunderstanding?

    • Angi Schneider says

      Sorry for the confusion, I should have mentioned that the grass clippings that are mentioned in the Green category are fresh clippings and are full of nitrogen. When they are dried out (as they are for hay) they lose their nitrogen and become a Brown for the compost pile. The green and brown has to do with nitrogen and carbon content not protein content. And you are right, straw is in the brown category. Hope that helps.

  3. Jayme says

    Your list looks good but manure is a green. Chicken manure having the highest nitrogen content of the list. Even dried all animal manure are greens due to the high nitrogen content in them. Also, if you aren’t completely grossed out by it you can use your own urine as a jump starter if you are using the pile method.

    • Angi Schneider says

      {sigh} I know that. I have no clue why I put it under browns. I’ve corrected it in the post and on the printable. Thank you so much for bringing that to my attention, I really appreciate it!

  4. Mary says

    I have two bunny rabbits as pets. They eat a lot of greens and I use recycled paper litter as bedding and in their litterboxes. I know that I can compost their droppings (aka bunny berries) or just till them into my garden and houseplants directly, but can I compost their litter as well? Its a mixture of hay, urine, and recycled paper litter, so based on the horse comment above I want to think this OK, but “pet waste” is on the do not compost list. Anyone know?

    • Angi Schneider says

      Yep, you can compost it all, Mary. Pets meant cats and dogs. We have wild rabbits around here and I forget that rabbits are pets for some people.

  5. says

    Hi Angi, thanks for posting this. We are starting our garden in the spring and we’re starting from scratch. This will certainly help us out in the compost department! I also featured this post on my Sunday Good Reads post if you’d like to check it out.

    • Angi Schneider says

      Thanks for the feature! What a great idea for a post. How exciting to be starting your garden; now is such a great time to begin getting ready for it.

  6. says

    Hi Angi! I really like these compost tips. I am horrible about just throwing stuff on my compost, then totally neglecting it otherwise. I will definitely be implementing these ideas this fall! Thanks!

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