Like many others, I began my composting adventures with grass clippings, the one organic material that I had a never-ending supply of. I didn’t fully understand the science of it all but I loved the idea of putting yard debris to use and creating my own nutrient-rich soil. If you are looking to make free compost from grass clippings, this is a starter guide for absolute beginners!
How To Make Free Compost With Grass Clippings: The key to making compost with grass clippings is to continuously add fresh clippings to your pile to ensure a healthy amount of nitrogen. Don’t just add them on top, mix them deep inside and make sure to water and turn the pile regularly.
Don’t Overthink It – Nature Knows What To Do
Composting is fascinating but it can also be a little intimidating. Carbons, nitrogens, and organic material… oh my! So much to understand, so many opportunities to get it wrong. But you can make your own compost for free using the debris in your yard such as grass clippings, leaves, and pine straw. Throw in some kitchen scraps and you have a buffet or organic material to compost.
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When it comes to composting, just work the process and let the process work. Nature knows what to do if you give it what it needs.
The key to it all is to not overthink it. Not that you shouldn’t strive to learn everything you can but don’t let yourself get into analysis paralysis trying to understand everything all at once. We have a ton of articles on composting. They are filled with information that you can use to expand your knowledge. I highly suggest you read them! And if you really want to understand the process in every detail, read our definitive guide on How Compost Is Made.
But you don’t have to read every article and book on composting before you begin. You can start today. Yes, you will probably make some mistakes but the world won’t end and you can easily adjust your process if the compost pile gets out of balance. And as you read through our articles on composting you will learn more, get better, and perfect your technique. But start now!
A Super-Simple, Imperfect Compost Starter Guide
Mowing your lawn results in nitrogen-rich grass clippings. Unless you are mulching, those grass clippings are probably going to waste. Don’t throw them away! This is a super-simple way to turn those grass clippings and other organic matter that you are probably tossing in the trash into compost for your lawn or garden.
It’s important to start with a layer of carbon-rich brown material. Plan to put a nice thick layer of browns on the bottom of your pile. One way to do this is to simply start with the clippings from your mowing and let them sit for a week or so until they turn brown.
I chose to use some dead pine straw, leaves, and a few small twigs. I also grabbed some limbs from a nearby nuisance tree and dropped a few small ones in, just because they were there. The key is to use brown, dried organic material. That’s where the carbon is at. That’s where we start.
Next, let’s add in the greens with a fresh mow. Since my mower had a side discharge, I gathered the grass clippings and established a nice thick layer in my wheelbarrow on top of the browns. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, you can literally do this on the ground so don’t let that be a reason to not start!
Note: I’ve recently changed out my blades and installed mulching blades. If you have clay soil, I recommend you read this article on the 5 step approach to improving clay soil and the part that mulching plays in the equation.
Greens And Browns – Keep It Simple
Remember that we are not getting too sciency here. We simply want to add a healthy mix of greens and browns. Those will represent our nitrogens and carbons. It won’t be perfect but we can watch our pile and if it needs adjusting, we will adjust.
On top of the greens, add another thick layer of brown material. At this point, your greens will be sandwiched between the browns.
Water, Rotate, Repeat
With our pile ready, we need to get it nice and damp. Not drowning, just damp. You will want to add a little water from time to time as the weather and your pile dictates.
You will also want to turn the pile over regularly. If you are in no hurry at all, you can just let the pile sit. Keep it moist and it will decompose. But you can drastically increase the speed at which the decomposition process occurs through turning. Rotating the organic material will help to ensure that aerobic activity is taking place, accelerating the process. You can read all about the aerobic component to composting in this article.
A Simple Way To Know When To Turn Your Compost Pile
Remember to aerate your pile by turning it is just one more thing to keep up with. I have a simple but effective trick that i use for this. I lay a few fresh limbs and leaves on the top of the pile. Not as a nitrogen source but as nature’s timer. When the leaves from these fresh limbs turn brown, it reminds me that it’s time to rotate my pile. Super simple and it works like a charm.
Greens Turn Brown, So Add More Greens
As the days go by, you’ll notice that those fresh green grass clippings and any other greens you added are starting to brown. That is perfectly natural. But it does mean that you may need to add more greens to your pile to keep the nitrogen levels up.
Mix the greens deep into the pile and cover them back up with the browns. This is especially important if you are adding kitchen scraps like veggie leftovers as it will help to prevent unwanted pests from scavenging your compost pile.
Your source for greens can be a fresh mow of grass clippings or the kitchen scraps. Adding greens will help to ensure that you maintain healthy nitrogen levels for the decomposition process.
What If My Compost Starts To Smell?
If your compost smells bad, you likely have too much nitrogen or the moisture level is too high. The general rule of thumb is that you want to have twice the amount of browns as greens and the pile should be moist but not soaked. It’s a little bit of a learning process to make this balancing act work but it’s really very simple. If your pile is starting to smell, back off of the greens and the watering. Rotate the pile, let it sit for a few days, and see if the smell has gone away.
Larger Piles Decompose Faster
The larger your compost pile is, the better it will heat up and the faster the organic material will decompose. Don’t worry though if you don’t have a large pile to begin with. Each week or so as you mow you’ll have a fresh supply of greens to add in, increasing the bulk of the pile.
At the same time, though, you may notice that the pile is actually getting smaller as the organic material breaks down and compresses. Turning and mixing the pile is very important to prevent it from going into an anaerobic state. Our goal here is an active compost pile. Keep the pile moist and turn it regularly.
Use A Tumbler To Turn Your Grass Clippings Into Compost
The simplest way to start creating compost from grass clippings is to just build a pile on the ground. However, if you would like an easier solution to the turning and rotating process than digging and lifting wet debris with a shovel or yard rake, a compost tumbler may be the solution you are looking for.
This 50-Gallon Wheeled Compost Tumbler on Amazon includes built-in “fins” inside that are designed to assist with breaking up the debris that tends to clump together when wet. It also allows for easy movement around the yard with wheels and a durable steel tube framing. And with a capacity of 50 gallons, you can compost a lot of grass clippings!
Patience: The Final Ingredient
You can accelerate the decomposition process through turning and keeping your pile moist but time is required in order for the compost to truly “bake”. The amount of time required will depend on several factors, not all of which may be within your control. It’s important to work the process and let the process work. Nature knows what to do if you give it what it needs. A healthy supply of carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen (through turning) will allow for the compost pile to decompose efficiently.
Compost accelerators are available (click here for our top picks) and can help to kick-start the decomposition process but time is still required for your grass clippings to turn into compost. Be patient with the process and let nature do its thing. In the end, you’ll have a nutrient-rich soil amendment that you can use in your garden or lawn using the debris from your yard.
If you are ready to learn more about composting and how easy it can be to get started, be sure to read our complete guide to active composting.