10 Compost Dos and Don’ts + Troubleshooting Common Problems

a new window of opportunity for learning about compost

Whether you’re a beginner at composting or someone who has been helping to fight climate change by regularly recycling your scraps, problems may be unavoidable. For a worry-free way to turn your pile of food and garden waste into something that can support plants, soil, and our planet, this article will explore some compost dos and don'ts.

When it comes to the dos and don'ts of composting, you should prioritize three important elements: oxygen, heat, and moisture. Considering these will keep you keep the process moving along as quickly as possible and it will prevent pests and piles that turn into stinky, smelly messes. With this in mind, let’s dive into the composting dos and don’ts.

Composting Dos: 5 things to do for optimal compost

Let’s start on the positive side of the do’s and don’ts. Consider these, and you’ll be well on your way to turning “waste” into garden wealth. 

1. DO start on bare earth

heat speeding up the decomposition of straw

If you’ve got the space, consider building a compost pile directly on the ground. While special care will have to be taken so that your kitchen scraps won't attract animals, bare earth will make it easier for organisms like earthworms to process your compost.

Pro tip: While the compost heap should be built directly on bare earth, a covering tarp can be used intermittently to trap heat and moisture, speed up the composting process, and prevent pests from getting in. Just be sure to remove it from time to time to turn the compost pile. 

2. DO consider a compost bin or tumbler to suit your needs

woman adding waste to black bin

If you’re renting or have a small, urban backyard, a compost bin or tumbler might be your best bet. Unlike piles, indoor and outdoor compost bins are enclosed, which means that they generally won’t attract rodents or other types of animals.

However, with bins and tumblers, it’s very important to regularly turn them so that they get adequate airflow. Similarly, the addition of dry matter and regular monitoring should be incorporated to prevent too much moisture from slowing down the decomposition process and providing a breeding ground for mold.

Pro tip: If you’re really strapped for space, an electric kitchen composter like the Lomi can do all the dirty work for you. In a matter of hours, you can transform your food scraps into natural fertilizer.


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Lomi allows you to turn food waste into plant-ready nutrients in under 24 hours. Boost your plants while reducing your waste.


3. DO use a balanced mix of green and brown materials

black bin with the addition of greens inside of paper bag

As one of the most important backyard composting do’s, a balanced addition of brown and green material is absolutely essential. This means that nitrogen-rich things like fruit scraps and coffee grounds (green) should be balanced out with carbon-rich ingredients, like dried grass clippings and paper.

Using an appropriate balance of green and brown items will help to ward off pests and minimize odors.

Pro tip: When adding compost, use a green layer followed by a brown layer. Wood chips can be used to support a better carbon:nitrogen ratio, which is generally recommended as 30 parts carbon (brown) for every 1 part nitrogen (green)

4. DO ensure adequate moisture

two compost bins with a watering can

In order for organic materials to become something to support your garden, an appropriate level of moisture must be maintained. To keep compost moist, it might be helpful to have your heap or bin close to a water source, like a hose or watering can.

If you touch the heap and feel that it’s a bit dry, or recognize that it’s not getting as hot as it used to, the moisture level might be too low. You can squeeze the contents of your compost pile to test if it’s wet enough. There should be a few drops of water that make their way out. If there aren’t, give it a thorough soak with a hose or watering can.

Pro tip: As a general rule of thumb, the items that go into your backyard heap should be about 40-60% water to promote microorganism activity. 

5. DO promote aeration

man using shovel to turn heap of food and garden waste

Proper air circulation is one of the most important aspects of making compost. Airflow will impact all of the other aspects of a healthy composting system: moisture levels, heat, and compaction.

A regularly turned or tumbled compost heap will enable adequate moisture evaporation, prevent overheating, and limit compaction. Additionally, the even distribution of oxygen will support the decomposition of organic matter.

Pro tip: While adequate airflow is important, too much can be harmful. Don’t turn the compost too often (daily) as it will disrupt beneficial actinomycetes and fungi formation. Instead, consider bringing the material at the center to the outside by turning your heap every 4-5 weeks or giving your tumbler a few spins a week.

Composting DON’TS to avoid issues

Compost piles are like living entities. In fact, they aren’t too different from humans! They thrive when regularly fed a balanced “meal” and supported with adequate moisture and airflow. Here are some important “don’ts” to consider. 

6. DON’T let the compost heap get too wet

gloved hands picking up dry materials

While moisture is essential, excess moisture can bring about problems. Things like fresh grass clippings may seem dry to the touch, but they’re actually very water-rich. Add too much, and you might end up with a mucky, slimy mess.

In fact, when you notice a bad smell or soaked appearance, this is a sign of too much moisture. Most gardeners use a wrung-out sponge as a metric for adequate moisture levels. If your bin or heap appears to be more saturated than that, or you notice puddles, it’s likely too wet.

Pro tip: If you can’t drain water, consider adding dry material to soak some of it up. Sawdust (from untreated sources), cardboard, pea straw, and shredded paper are all good options. 



7. DON’T add large pieces and expect them to break down quickly

Compost bin with large food scraps

When it comes to building your own compost, smaller is better. Especially for green waste like tree and shrub prunings, the organic materials you add should be finely chopped or shredded.

This is also the case for all your kitchen waste. While whole heads of old lettuce or huge chunks of watermelon rinds will eventually break down, you can support the system by chopping them finely before they go into the compost bin in your kitchen.

Pro tip: If you really want to speed up the process, you can use your blender to help break down the waste material. It’ll transform your scraps to a slurry, which can then be added to your outdoor bin for faster decomposition. 

8. DON’T expect overnight results

humus in hand

Given the right conditions, a perfect amount of heat, microbial and fungal activity, and airflow will support a relatively quick process. Unfortunately, most of us can’t provide these ideal conditions.

It’s important to realize that it could take up to six months or longer to produce finished compost, the soil amendment that can boost plant health in your backyard.

Pro tip: Avoid the temptation to use your compost waste too early, If it’s immature, it may contain pathogens or attract pests that could negatively impact the health of soil and your plants. 

9. DON’T leave your compost uncovered

Food scraps in an open compost bin

That heap of organic waste in your garden will look extremely attractive to rats and other pests like raccoons, flies, skunks, and other creatures. That said, there should be some form of protection to keep animals and insects away.

Additionally, covering your heap with a wooden frame or tarp will help to trap some of the heat, speeding up the process. As such, a darkly colored (and heat-attracting) tarp can be used to help keep the process going during winter.

Pro tip: If you’ve got an old carpet lying around, it can make for a perfect cover. As it’s thick and slightly insulated, it’ll keep heat in and kill off any weeds.

10. DON’T add the wrong materials

add vegetable peels to yard waste in bin

If you don’t want to attract pests, spread plant diseases, or compromise the overall texture of your compost pile, then be sure to only add approved materials! In fact, when it comes to avoiding some of the most common composting problems, it’s important that you only add compost-friendly materials.

Pro tip: When in doubt, throw it out. If you’re skeptical of whether or not something is compostable, do some research before adding it to your heap—or, consider a highly-reviewed smart composter that’s able to process more than a traditional system. 

What you do and don’t compost

woman adding scraps to metal bin with new window behind

Knowing what can be composted and what to leave out of your system is crucial. Far too many people have made mistakes like trying to turn expired meat into something plants can use—only to be left with a stinky, disease-spreading mess as the flesh decomposes.

Even supposedly “compostable” plastic may remain intact after several months (or years!) in a backyard heap that doesn’t have adequate oxygen, heat, moisture, and microorganism conditions.

With this in mind, here are some other things that will either have a positive impact on your heap—or hinder your efforts. 

Do compost

Don’t compost

Fruit and vegetable scraps

    Meat, fish, and bones

      Coffee grounds and filters

        Dairy products

          Tea bags (unless made with plastic)

            Oily foods or grease

              Grass clippings

                Cat and dog waste 

                  Garden waste

                    Diseased plants (burn plants instead)

                      Egg shells

                        Weedy plants and weed seeds

                          Paper towels


                              Unwaxed paper, cardboard, and newspaper

                                Anything treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides

                                  Human and pet hair

                                    Glossy or coated paper

                                      Chicken manure

                                        Citrus peels

                                          Bread, cooked rice, and cooked pasta

                                            Produce stickers

                                              Herbs and spices

                                                Plastic, metal, glass, styrofoam



                                                  Common composting problems & solutions

                                                  white bin containing moist and decomposing food

                                                  Unfortunately, you may run into problems along the way of turning things like yard waste into something that can support your garden! Fortunately, there are often easy ways to solve your backyard composting problems. 


                                                  Possible causes


                                                  Attracting insects

                                                  Insects looking for something to eat or a place to lay eggs

                                                  Establish barriers, cover with a tarp, use enclosed tumblers or compost bins 

                                                  Attracting rats, flies, racoons, skunks, or other pests

                                                  Inappropriate material in compost (bones, meat, fish, dairy products, oil, etc.)

                                                  Dispose of anything that shouldn’t be in the compost bin

                                                  Ammonia-like odor

                                                  Deficient in carbon-rich material

                                                  Add brown materials (cardboard, dried leaves, etc.) and aerate

                                                  Rancid or rotten odor

                                                  Lacking oxygen, too wet, or too compacted

                                                  Aerate contents and add dry material (cardboard, shredded paper, dried leaves, etc.) to soak up moisture

                                                  Taking too long

                                                  Not enough heat, inadequate C:N balance, heap is too small, contains hard materials that take longer (i.e. nut shells)

                                                  Add more carbon-rich material to balance out too much nitrogen or consider an electric countertop composter

                                                  Pile isn’t getting hot

                                                  Uncovered pile, seasonal changes, or inadequate C:N balance, pile is too small

                                                  Add more nitrogen-rich green materials, build a larger compost pile (3’ x 3’), cover with a dark, heat-trapping tarp

                                                  Fire ant infestation

                                                  Not hot enough, food too close to surface, or too dry

                                                  Move food scraps into center of pile, wet thoroughly

                                                  Too much moisture (soggy, stinky)

                                                  Anaerobic conditions, too much moisture from water-rich scraps

                                                  Aerate pile or bin, add more dry materials to dry out (newspaper, untreated sawdust)

                                                  Too dry, slow decomposition process

                                                  Too many browns, hot summer temperatures

                                                  Re-wet the compost pile, add water-rich green materials

                                                  Compacted or matted grass clippings

                                                  Poor aeration, compaction

                                                  Aerate pile and break up matted grass, avoid adding thick layers of garden waste

                                                  As you’ve probably learned from this exploration into backyard composting dos and don'ts, paying attention to moisture levels, heat, pests, airflow, and a good balance of greens and browns can really help your efforts. Similarly, getting to know all the things that can’t be added to your pile is also helpful. 

                                                  Because a Lomi can handle a diverse range of items for composting and it avoids many of the common problems, it remains one of the best tools for turning kitchen waste and other organic matter into usable, nutrient-rich dirt. If you don’t want to worry about the dos and don'ts of proper decomposition, then join thousands of households by trying the indoor electric composter today!

                                                  Written by: Heather Seely