Composting 101 – Basic, Tips and Tricks

Compost is proof that there is life after death.

Ron Finley, an artist, designer & gardener based in Los Angeles, once said that growing your own food is like printing your own money. While the fruits of one’s labour takes time to be nurtured, to grow and reaped, how can one saves money on fertilisers that will enrich the garden soil to ‘print more money’? Organic waste that came from all the food we don’t consume contributes 60% of what we put in landfills. When raw food are left to rot in the solid waste landfills, it produces Methane gas which contributes to global warming. The modern and convenient lifestyle which we live in today is both broken and wasteful.

Composting is one way to create a closed-loop ecological system that do not rely on matter exchange with any part outside the system.

Borken vs Closed-Loop Ecological System

Composting is a closed-looped ecosystem generated by our daily waste by mimicking nature in her way of reducing and reusing resources. Compost is one of the most green ways of improving the quality of the soil as it avoids wastage by transforming waste from the garden and the kitchen into nutrient-rich humus. When compost is added to the soil, it provides and holds essential nutrients for plant growth, improves soil structure, helps retain water and improve soil aeration, and it attracts beneficial micro-organisms to the soil. This closed-loop cycle provides the plants an abundant and diverse supply of the nutrients they need to grow, thrive and to provide an abundant yield without depleting the soil health.

“Composting offers many benefits to the environment and as a means of creating an organic garden that helps to break down micro-organisms. Many nutrients can take place in the soil leading to new nutrient content that helps to ward of plant diseases while leading to new means of recycling.” – Brandon Gaille

Composting 101

Compost consists of carbon and nitrogen. Nitrogen heats the compost up rapidly and carbon is the sponge which absorbs the heat.

  • This is because the bacteria responsible for the composting process require these two elements as nutrients to construct their bodies as they reproduce and multiply.
  • For these micro-organisms, carbon is the basic building block of life and is a source of energy, but nitrogen is also necessary for such things as proteins, genetic material, and cell structure.
  • Materials that are high in carbon are typically dry, “brown” materials, such as sawdust, cardboard, dried leaves, straw (organic, not plastic), branches and other woody or fibrous materials that rot down very slowly.
  • Materials that are high in nitrogen are typically moist, “green” materials, such as lawn/grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, animal manure and green leafy materials that rot down very quickly.
  • The composting process can be sped up by turning the compost.
  • Be sure that your compost materials haven’t been contaminated with pesticides or other chemicals.

Brown and Green:
Compost piles need both brown materials and green materials to thrive. Brown material is the “fiber” of the pile, and provides carbon to your mix. The green material provides the nitrogen needed for plant growth, and is responsible for generating the heat in your composting pile.

Moisture (water):
Compost pile should be moist but not soggy. A pile that is too wet will become stagnant, while one that is too try won’t decompose at all. New compost usually needs much more water than compost that is partially rotted and making good progress.

Aeration (air):
Air circulation is key to allow a compost pile to break down. A pile can easily be aerated by turning it.

In the process of composting, micro-organisms, like bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, rotifers, break down organic matter and produce carbon dioxide, water, heat, and humus. Without micro-organisms, decomposition will not happen. A successful compost pile will get hot because these organisms are doing their job decomposing the garden and kitchen waste, and producing energy (heat) in the process. The right amount of carbon and nitrogen makes the microbes happy, and they grow fast. Fast growing microbes means that the composting process happens quickly and the pile heats up to desirable temperatures. For fast compost it is important to feed the microbes the right ratio of carbon nitrogen ratio. And remember that small insects, like ants and pill bugs, help the decomposition process.

What to add to the pile or compost bin

What you put in the compost pile is up to you — just remember that it needs to be from an organic material. Here’s a short list of possibilities:


  • Small branches/twigs
  • Wood chips, untreated
  • Cardboard, shredded
  • Sawdust
  • Newspaper, shredded
  • Paper towel
  • Straw (not plastic)
  • Tissue Paper
  • Dried Leaves
  • Dried grass clippings
  • Peanut shells
  • Ashes, wood


  • Fruit waste
  • Garden waste
  • Weeds
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Food waste
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Seaweed
  • Horse Manure
  • Cow Manure
  • Alfalfa
  • Chicken Manure
  • Rabbit Manure
  • Hair
  • Pigeon Manure
  • Humus (soil)
  • Urine

What not to add

Avoid adding the following to your compost bin:

  • Kitchen scraps like meats, oils, fish, dairy products, and bones. They attract unwanted animals, such as rats to the pile.
  • Weeds that have gone to seed or that spread by their roots.
  • Diseased or insect-infested vegetable or flower plants.
  • Herbicide-treated grass clippings or weeds.
  • Pesticide treated plant waste.
  • Human, dog, cat, or pig feces.
  • Large wood pieces.
  • Waxed cardboard.
  • Grease or oil.
  • Plastic
  • Colored newspaper

How much to add to the compost bin

Batch Pile: creating a batch pile of compost in your bin.
The 2-to-1 ratio of Greens to Browns is a good bet when creating a ‘Batch Pile’.

Add as You Go Pile: choosing to add waste to your compost bin gradually over time.
A 1-to-1 ratio works well with the ‘Add as You Go Pile’ as well as the ‘Batch Pile’.

What’s wrong and how to amend

A lack of decomposition

  • Ensure there is enough water (remember we want it to be moist but not soggy). Water your compost pile if it seems too dry.
  • A pile that is too wet should have brown material, such as dried leaves or old compacted soil included to absorb the excess moisture.
  • A pile with more brown material than green material. Top up the green material to heat up the compost pile, you can consider using an activator like coffee ground (2.1% nitrogen), dry rabbit manure (12% nitrogen), fresh rabbit manure (2.4% nitrogen), dry chicken manure (8% nitrogen), bonemeal (4% nitrogen), and bloodmeal (15% nitrogen).
  • A pile that is very thick or dense, aerate it. Compost won’t decompose without proper aeration.
  • Material that is too large will decompose very slowly. Make sure the pieces are small enough to decompose quickly.

A pile that stinks

  • Your pile may be too wet with too much the green material. Add brown material to soak up the excess moisture.
  • A pile that is poorly aerated will result in anaerobic conditions, causing it to stink.
  • Remove any dairy, meat or fish products, grease, or oil immediately if you added these to your compost pile. Consider disposing of the compost and starting over. These are not healthy ingredients to include in a compost pile and will cause serious problems when they start to rot.

A pile that attracts animals, such as vermin, rodents or even dogs.

  • Make sure not to include any dairy, meat or fish products, grease, or oil that attract unwanted guests.
  • Consider a bin with enclosed sides and top to provide a barrier to critters, but not solid enough to prevent aeration.
  • If you are creating an open pile of compost, make sure you bury any vegetable or fruit scraps a bit in the pile instead of leaving them on the surface.

Composting 101 Workshop at Hotel Jen Tanglin Singapore, Spice Garden

Sign up for a 1.5 hour hands-on experience. Learn how to start, amend and apply compost in your very own garden.

Composting 101 Workshop

“The organic gardener does not think of throwing away the garbage. She knows that she needs the garbage. She is capable of transforming the garbage into compost, so that the compost can turn into lettuce, cucumber, radishes, and flowers again…With the energy of mindfulness, you can look into the garbage and say: I am not afraid. I am capable of transforming the garbage back into love.” – Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

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