How to set up a backyard composter

Reap the rich rewards of decomposed organic matter

People often think composting is complicated, says avid composter Jennifer Burns-Robinson. All you need is organic matter, sun, air and water. Microorganisms do the rest.

In addition to contibuting to healthy, nutrient-rich soil that enhances your plants, lawn and garden, composting reduces waste sent to the landfill. The City of Edmonton estimates that composting cuts household waste by one-third to one-half. After recycling and composting, Burns-Robinson (Landscape Architectural Technology '07) and her husband throw away one “smallish” kitchen bag of waste each week.

Burns-Robinson completed Edmonton’s master composter program in 2006, has helped set up composters at two community gardens, and has two composter bins and a pile in her backyard, and a bin with worms indoors. Here are her tips on setting up your own backyard composter.

Choose a type of composter

compost binsA pile: Consider a pile for yard waste. Dig a shallow hole to get started.

A compost bin: Options include wood, plastic or wire mesh bins, which can be made or bought.

Decide where you will locate your composter

Choose a sunny location with good drainage. While most people opt for the furthest end of the yard, consider a location close to the back door, which adds incentive to use the composter.

Add organic matter

woman adding to compost

Start with a layer of twigs. This allows air flow. Add green materials, which are high in nitrogen, followed by brown materials, which are high in carbon. Adding an equal amount of nitrogen- and carbon-rich matter starts the decomposition process, ensuring your composter won’t smell or attract flies.

Add water

Nearly finished compost should be wet enough to stick together, but not so wet that it drips. Consider adding a bucket of water after adding layers of greens and browns.

Add soil or finished compost periodically

This will introduce live microorganisms into the pile.

Turn your pile periodically

turning compost

Black plastic composters don’t require turning.

Use your compost

Compost is ready when it looks and smells like dirt. Decomposition takes about one year with a bin, and about one summer season with a pile, if it’s being turned. Start with the compost at the bottom of the bin or pile. Pick up your bin to get to the compost at the bottom.

Add compost to your vegetable gardens and flower beds, working it into the soil before planting, top dress your lawn, or add it to the base of plants and trees during the growing season.

What you can and can't compost

Nitrogen-rich greens

  • fruits and vegetables
  • coffee and tea grinds
  • green garden waste and flowers
  • grass clippings (While it’s best to grasscycle, if you do add it to your composter, first mix the grass clippings with dirt to prevent the clippings from clumping, which slows down decomposition.)

Carbon-rich browns

  • dry leaves, dry grass clippings, prunings and cuttings
  • cleanings from the bird cage
  • wood chips or sawdust (though they take longer to breakdown)
  • dryer and vacuum lint
  • shredded paper and cardboard


  • cotton fabric (break into smaller pieces)
  • feathers
  • hair
  • seaweed

What you can’t compost

  • meat, fish, bones
  • anything with oil in it
  • dairy products
  • pet litter (This can be composted if you don’t intend to use the finished compost on your vegetable garden.)
  • diseased plants (In Edmonton these can be sent to the city compost facility.)
  • dishwater
  • firepit ashes

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