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Composting Guidebook
A collection of information and resources brought to you by YOUR
St. Joseph County Soil & Water Conservation District

Landfills and the Law


The Yard Waste Disposal Ban:Indiana Statute, IC 13-20-9 states that, "...[A] person may not knowingly deposit vegetative matter resulting from landscaping maintenance or land clearing projects in a solid waste landfill."


The ban applies to residential, commercial, and industrial sources.


Based on the plain words of the statute, the [Indiana Department of Environmental Management interprets the following:


Materials SUBJECT to the Yard Waste Disposal Ban:

  • leaves

  • Brush

  • woody vegetative matter (e.g. twigs; branches; tree stumps) greater than 3 feet in length


Materials EXEMPT from the Yard Waste Disposal Ban:

  • Grasswoody vegetative matter (e.g. twigs, branches) that is less than 3 feet in length and is bagged, bundled, or otherwise contained

  • very small amounts of vegetative matter that is less than 3 feet in length that is bagged, bundled, or otherwise contained and combined with other solid waste

  • Christmas trees

  • house plants  



  • Composting saves landfill space.

  • Home composters are one part of the solution in meeting the state's long term disposal needs by reducing the volume of solid waste needing to be land-filled or incinerated.

  • Composting allows for the reclamation and reuse of materials that would otherwise end up at Indiana’s landfills and incinerators.

  • The Indiana Department of Environmental Management administers a registration and annual reporting program for facilities composting vegetative matter.

  • Indiana composting facilities process between 1 and 2 million cubic yards of vegetative matter annually – mostly leaves, wood, and brush.



Solid Waste Management District Of St. Joseph County

621 East Jefferson Boulevard

South Bend, IN 46617

Phone (574) 235-9971

Fax (574) 235-9973

Landfills & the Law



Compost is created from the naturally decomposed parts of organic material such as manure, plants (yard wastes), and food (kitchen wastes).  Its unique physical and chemical properties provide a number of benefits to soil, including:

  • Improved soil fertility

  • Improved soil structure

  • Improved water-holding capacity

  • Reduced erosion

  • Reduced levels of plant pathogens, insects, and weeds  

The Envoirnment


Compost use can result in a variety of environmental benefits. The following are a few of the most important benefits:

  • Compost enriches soils

  • Compost helps cleanup (remediate) contaminated soil

  • Compost helps prevent pollution

  • Using compost can reduce the need for water, fertilizers, and pesticides  



There are 3 main types of “soil additives” (aka soil amendments) (aka soil conditioners).  A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties. The goal is to provide a better environment for roots.

  • Decomposable Organic Materials

  • Synthetic Organic Materials (aka Synthetic Chemical Fertilizers)

  • Inorganic Minerals  

Organic Materials:


  • Soil texture and structure can be modified by using soil conditioners.

  • Soil conditioners act to improve soil aeration, drainage, moisture-holding capacity and tilth, or workability, of the soil.

  • Commonly used soil conditioners include compost, peat moss, sawdust, wood chips, composted animal manures, green manure crops, coarse sand, and perlite.

  • By incorporating coarse, rather than fine sand, and organic matter into a garden soil, the gardener can, over time, produce a desirable loamy-type soil. The addition of fine sand to some soils, especially clay, however, will be detrimental to the soil structure.

  • Compost helps to loosen heavy clay soil by opening pore spaces that allow air and water to penetrate into the soil.

  • With composting, the fine particles in sandy soil are united into larger ones that can hold greater amounts of water.  

Decomposable/Natural Organic Fertilizer vs. Synthetic Chemical Fertilizers

  • Compared to synthetic fertilizers, organic fertilizers contain relatively low concentrations of actual nutrients

  • However, organic fertilizers/amendments perform important functions that synthetic fertilizers do not

  • Organic conditioners increase the organic content in the soil, and consequently the water-holding capacity of the soil

  • Organic conditioners improve the physical structure of the soil which allows more air to get to plant roots

  • Organic amendments increase the bacterial and fungal activity in the soil, which makes other nutrients more available to plants

  • Plants thrive in soil where the organic matter content is high.

  • Organically derived plant nutrients are slow to leach from the soil making them less likely to contribute to water pollution than synthetic fertilizers.

Decomposable organic amendments come from something that is or was alive.


  • Organic amendments include sphagnum peat, wood chips, grass clippings, straw, compost, manure, biosolids, sawdust and wood ash.

  • Inorganic amendments are either mined or man-made.

  • Inorganic amendments include vermiculite, perlite, tire chunks, pea gravel and sand.


  • Improve Aeration

  • Improve Moisture Retention

  • Improve Drainage

  • Tilth (soil workability)

Soil Addititves

Optimal Composting Conditions

Oxygen: >5%

Moisture: 40-60%

Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio: 30:1

Temperature: 90-140 F

PH: 6-8


C:N (Carbon:Nitrogen Ratio)… A C:N ratio of 30:1 is ideal for the activity of compost microbes

•This is the big one—the one where most people fail.
•Carbons are BROWNS, nitrogens are GREENS
•Leaves, twigs, sawdust, ashes, straw, paper are all BROWNS
•Food waste, grass clippings, fresh weeds and manure are GREENS
•We have far more BROWNS than GREENS around us
•To solve this problem you may actually need to add synthetic organic fertilizer to your compost pile
•The Warren County SWCD in Ohio website includes a great chart of BROWNS and GREENS

Carbon/Nitrogen Ratios

Recipe #3

Recipe #4

Recipe #5

Abbreviation Key

N = nitrogen

NN = higher nitrogen

NNN = highest nitrogen


CC=higher carbon

CCC=highest carbon

Recipe #1

Recipe #2


Composting Cookbook

NOTE: Weed plants heavily laden with seeds might be better left out of the compost pile if the compost is to be returned to the garden. Even though some seeds are killed during composting, those that survive might create an unnecessary weed problem.

Composting Layers

Composting Styles

Composting Styles

Cinder Block Multiple Bin / Turning Unit

A cinder block multiple bin looks like three cinder block holding units in a row. It is sturdy, and if you can find used cinder blocks, it is relatively inexpensive to build.

What You Need

  • about 98 cinder blocks

  • work gloves

Building a Cinder Block Turning Unit

  1. Place 12 cinder blocks in a row along the ground at your composting site, leaving about 1 inch between each block to let in air.

  2. Place four cinder blocks in another row along the ground perpendicular to and at one end of the first row, forming a square corner; leave about 1 inch between each block.

  3. In the same way, place four cinder blocks at the opposite end of the first row to form a three-sided enclosure.

  4. Place two more rows - four cinder blocks each along the ground, parallel to the ends and evenly spaced within the enclosure. This divides the enclosure into three separate bins.

  5. Add a second layer of blocks, staggering them to increase stability and leaving about 1 inch between each block. There should be a layer of 13 cinder blocks across the back and three blocks on the sides of each bin.

  6. Add a third layer of blocks, again staggering them to increase stability, with 12 blocks across the back of the enclosure and three on each side.

  7. The last and top layer should have 13 blocks across the back and two on each side

Adding Wastes

Do not add waste as it becomes available with this system. Collect enough waste to fill one of the three bins at one time. You can collect woody as well as non-wood waste. Add thin layers of different kinds of organic materials or mix the wastes together. Before adding new waste to an empty bin, collect enough to fill the entire bin.

Maintaining Compost

Take the temperature of your pile every day. After a few days, the temperature should reach between 130° and 140°F (54° to 60°C). If your pile gets very hot, turn it before the temperature gets above 155°F (68°C). In a few days, when the temperature starts going down, turn your compost pile into the next bin with a pitchfork. The temperature of your compost pile will increase again and then, in about four to seven days, start to drop. Turn your compost pile into the third bin. Continue to take the temperature and turn the compost pile until the compost is ready. The compost should be stable within two to three months.

Cinder Block Composting Bin

A cinder block bin is sturdy, durable, and easily accessible…

What you need:

  • About 46 cinder blocks for the first bin

  • Optional: about 32 blocks for a second bin

  • Work Gloves

Building a Cinder Block Bin

  1. Place 5 blocks in a row along the ground at your composting site, leaving about ½ inch between each block to let in air.

  2. Place 4 blocks in another row along the ground perpendicular to and at one end of the first row, forming a square corner; leave about ½ inch between each block.

  3. In the same way, place 4 blocks at the opposite end of the first row to form a 3-sided enclosure.

  4. Add a second layer of blocks, staggering them to increase stability and leaving ½ inch between each block. There should be a layer of 4 blocks on each of the three walls of the enclosure.

  5. Add a third layer of blocks, again staggering them, with 5 blocks across the back of the enclosure on each side.

  6. The last and top layer should have 4 blocks across the back and 3 on each side.

  7. Optional: If you wish to decrease your composting time, build a 2nd bin next to the first one so the wastes in one can mature while you add wastes to the 2nd one. Use one side wall of the first bin so you only need to build 2 additional walls.

Maintenance: Although you do not need to turn this pile, keep things moist during dry spells. Compost should be ready in about 1 year or a little longer.

Garbage Can Composter

A garbage-can composter is inexpensive and easy to build. It can be used for food or garden wastes. The wastes do, however, need to be turned.

What you need:

  • garbage can with cover

  • coarse sawdust, straw or wood chips

  • drill

  • pitch fork, shovel or compost turner

  • work gloves

Building a Garbage Can Composter

  1. Drill three rows of holes 4 to 6 inches apart all around the sides of the garbage can. Then drill several holes in the base of the garbage can. The holes allow air movement and the drainage of excess moisture.

  2. Place 2 to 3 inches of dry sawdust, straw or wood chips in the bottom of the can to absorb excess moisture and let the compost drain.

Maintaining your Garbage Can Compost Pile

Regularly mix or turn the compost with a pitchfork, shovel, or compost turner and keep it covered. This adds air and mixes up the different wastes, preventing the compost from getting smelly. A smelly compost pile may attract animals and cause neighbors to complain.

TIP: If the lid will stay on, try rolling the garbage can on its side to mix things up…

Composting Mounds

Yard wastes can be composted without a bin if you don't mind the appearance of an unconfined compost mound in your yard. The only costs are your time and effort and the benefits are a rich soil amendment, reduced waste to the landfills, and wonderful fresh veggies and flowers.

What You Need

•shovel or pitchfork

•work gloves

Building a Compost Mound

Find a good location and pile your yard waste in a mound about 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet (1meter x 1 meter x 1 meter). If you cover the pile with a layer of soil, it will keep in moisture for the micro-organisms and soil animals working to make compost.

Adding Wastes

Add wastes as they become available. Non-wood materials such as grass clippings and garden wastes work best.

Maintaining Your Compost

It's best to have two piles. After the first pile is large enough, stop adding organic material and let the material in the pile age or decompose. In the meantime, add your wastes to the second pile. Make sure the piles are kept moist, especially if they are not covered with soil.

You can turn the pile to speed composting process. Compost should be ready in three to four months if a good compostable mixture of organic materials is used and the pile is turned regularly. It will be ready in about one year if you don't turn the pile.

Compost Pockets

This is an easy composting shortcut!

What you will need:

  • Food wastes

  • Shovel

  • Work gloves

4 easy steps:

  1. Start by digging a hole about 18" deep. Place fruit, vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the kitchen in the hole. Remember, don't use meat, fat, milk or eggs because animals will dig them up and eat them.

  2. Next, cover the scraps with soil to bury them and fill the hole.

  3. Now you can make more compost pockets in other locations.

  4. After about a month or two you can plant something on the spot where you made the compost pocket.

Compost Bins Vs. Compost Tumblers

Compost Bins:

  • -  Easy to use

  • -  Often just as easy to put together as a tumbler, with few to no parts

  • -  Popular manufactured compost bins, have few parts and take about 20 minutes to assemble.

  • -  Personally turning compost with a pitchfork or other tool can be satisfying and good exercise

  • -  For the Expandable Worm Tower and other vermiculture-type bins, the worms do most of the work (vermiculture = worm casting compost)

  • -  Can get messy when evacuating the finished compost

  • -  Does take quite a bit of time and a commitment to maintain (turn the compost, etc.)

Compost Tumblers:

  • -  A bit more expensive than manufactured compost bins

  • -  Ideal for those who don’t have as much time on their hands

  • -  No need to manually turn the compost

  • -  The whole point of a tumbler is that you can easily rotate it via a crank or just by spinning it, therefore aerating the compost inside

  • -  Can get messy especially if you have to roll the tumbler around the yard when the compost it not yet ready


Additional resources for consideration:

-, "Compost Tumblers" -- Mother Earth News tests several compost tumblers and shares results, including tumbler styles, feature pros and cons, operating factors, test results.


-  Gardening Tips n, "A Review of Garden Compost Tumblers"


Where can I purchase a compost bin?

Compost Tumbler

Wooden Pallet Compost Bin

Wooden pallets can make an inexpensive and durable compost bin. The bin can be used as a holding or turning unit. Used pallets are often available from local businesses, manufacturers or landfills.

Cost:  Less than $30

Capacity: Holds 1 cu yd or 8 to 10 30 gal bags of yard materials


  • 4 wooden pallets (5 if want a bottom for bin), sized to make a four-sided container at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet

  • 8 large hook and eye gate latches (bolt latches, rope or bailing wire are also options)


  • Level

  • Shovel

  • Work gloves

Construction Details:

  1. Level ground at location where pallet bin will sit.

  2. Connect four pallets with hooks and eyes or bolt latches to make a four-sided bin at least 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet. The bin is then ready to use. To turn the pile, unhook the sides, set up pallets next to existing pile and transfer compost materials to the empty pallet bin. The pallets can also be tied or wired together.

  3. (Optional) A fifth pallet may be used as a base to allow more air to get into the pile and to increase the stability of the bin. However, this base pallet will decompose faster than the sides and make turning the bottom of the pile more difficult.

Visit YouTube for several videos on how to build your own pallet composter.  The photo above comes from "Vegipower's Channel"

 Wood and Wire Three-Bin Turning Unit

A wood-and-wire three-bin turning unit can be used to compost large amounts of yard, garden and kitchen wastes in a short time.  Although relatively expensive to build, it is sturdy, attractive and should last building three more frames with a long time. Construction requires the remaining 12-foot lengths of basic carpentry skills and tools.


Lumber should be cedar, pine painted with nontoxic wood preservative or latex paint, or recycled composite lumber.

  • Four 12-foot lengths of 2x4 lumber

  • Two 10-foot lengths of 2x4 lumber

  • One 10-foot length of 2x4 lumber

  • One 16-foot length of 2x6 lumber

  • Six 8-foot lengths of 1x6 lumber

  • One 22-foot length of 36-inch wide 1/2 inch hardware cloth

  • 16d galvanized nails (2 pounds)

  • Poultry wire staples (250) or a power stapler with 1 inch galvanized staples

  • Twelve 1/2 inch carriage bolts, 4 inches long, with washers and nuts

  • One quart wood preservative or stain

Optional Materials - for lids

  • One 4x8 foot sheet of 1/2 inch exterior plywood

  • One 4x4 foot sheet of 1/2 inch exterior plywood

  • Six 3 inch zinc-plated hinges

  • Twenty-four 3/16 inch galvanized steel bolts, with washers and nuts


  • Tape measure

  • Hand saw or circular power saw

  • Hammer

  • Tin snips

  • Carpenter's Square

  • Drill with 3/16 inch and 1/2 inch bits

  • Screwdriver

  • Adjustable wrench

  • Pencil

  • Safety glasses, ear protection, dust mask and work gloves


  1. Cut two 31.5 inch and two 36 inch pieces from a 12 foot length of 2x4 lumber.  Butt-joint and nail the four pieces into a 35 inch x 36 inch "square."  Repeat, building three more frames with the remaining 12 foot lengths of 2x4 lumber.

  2. Cut four 37-inch lengths of hardware cloth.  Fold back the edges of the wire 1 inch.  Stretch the pieces of hardware cloth across each frame.  Make sure the corners of each frame are square and then staple the screen tightly into place every 4 inches around the edge.  The wood and wire frames will be dividers in your composter.

  3. Set two dividers on end, 9 feet apart and parallel to one another.  Position the other two dividers so that they are parallel to and evenly spaced between the end dividers.  Place the 36 inch edges on the ground.  Measure the position of the centers of the two inside dividers along each 9 foot edge.

  4. Cut a 9 foot piece from each 10 foot length of 2x4 lumber.  Place the two boards across the tops of the dividers so that each is flush against the outer edges.  Measure and mark on the 9 foot boards the center of each inside divider.

  5. Line up the marks, and through each junction of board and divider, drill a 1/2 inch hole centered 1 inch from the edge.  Secure the boards with carriage bolts, but do not tighten them yet.  Turn the unit so that the treated boards are on the bottom.

  6. Cut one 9 foot piece from the 10 foot length of 2x4 lumber.  Attach the board to the back of the top by repeating the process used to attach the base boards.  Using the carpenter's square, or measuring between opposing corners, make sure the bin is square.  Tighten all the bolts securely.

  7. Fasten a 9 foot length of hardware cloth to the back side of the bin with staples every 4 inches around the frame.

  8. Cut four 36 inch long pieces from the 16 foot length of 2x6 lumber for front runners.  (Save remaining 4 foot length.)  Rip-cut two of these boards to two 4 3/4 inch wide strips.  (Save the two remaining strips.)

  9. Nail the 4 3/4 inch wide strips to the front of the outside dividers and baseboard so that they are flush on the top and outside edges.  Center the two remaining 6 inch wide boards on the front of the inside dividers flush with the top edge and nail securely.

  10. Cut remaining 4 foot length of 2x6 lumber into a 34 inch long piece, and then rip-cut this piece into four equal strips.  Trim the two strips saved from step number 8 to 34 inches.  Nail each 34 inch strip to the insides of the dividers so that they are parallel to and 1 inch away from the boards attached to the front.  This creates a 1 inch vertical slot on the inside of each divider.

  11. Cut the six 8 foot lengths of 1x6 lumber into 18 slats, each 31 1/4 inches long.  Insert the horizontal slats, six per bin, between the dividers and into the vertical slots.

  12. (Optional) Cut the 4x8 foot sheet of exterior plywood into two 3x3 foot pieces.  Cut the 4x4 foot sheet of exterior plywood into one 3x3 foot piece on one of the three bins, and attach each to the back, top board with two hinges.

  13. Paint or stain all untreated wood.

Adding Wastes

With this type of bin, do not add wastes as they become available.  Collect enough waste to fill one of the three bins.  Collect woody as well as non-wood wastes.  Chopping and shredding materials are recommended.  Layer different materials in, or you can mix the wastes together.

Maintaining the Pile

After a few days, the temperature of the pile should reach between 130-140 degree F.  In a few days, the temperature will start to drop.  (You may want to monitor the temperature with a thermometer.)  When the temperature starts to drop, turn the compost into the next bin.  The temperature of the pile will increase again and then, in four to seven days, start to drop.  Turn the compost into the third bin.  The total time for composting should be four to six weeks.




  • Enriches the soil

  • Protects the soil from erosion

  • Preserves water

  • Helps to keep roots cool

  • Helps prevent freezing and thawing damage to plants

  • Prevents weed growth


Applying mulch

Apply mulch when plants are established and soil is warm. First, water your garden well. Then place a layer of mulch around the plants.

Thickness of the mulch layer varies for each material:

  • Dry grass clippings - 2 inches

  • Shredded hardwood mulch, straw, or wood chips - 2 to 4 inches

  • Compost - 3 to 4 inches

  • Dry leaves - 6 inches

  1. Should I leave Grass clippings on the lawn?  Find the answers at:  Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (, “Don’t Trash Grass”

  2. How often should you mow your lawn?  Find the answer at Cornell University, "Lawn Care"

  3. What ratio of Carbon:Nitrogen is optimum for composting yard wastes?  Find the answer at Ohio State University Extension: Horticulture and Crop Science: Composting at Home Fact Sheet

  4. What causes foul odors in compost?  Find the answer at Purdue University Extension, "Composting Turns Trash to Treasure"

  5. Which materials are suitable for composting?  Find the answer at Florida's Online Composting Center, "Can I Compost It?"

  6. A good sized compost pile will reach what temperature in the center?  Find the answer at Ohio State University Extension: Horticulture and Crop Science: Composting at Home Fact Sheet

  7. Why is it important to turn the compost pile?  Find the answer at Washington State University: "Compost Fundamentals, Why Compost"

  8. What causes foul odors in compost?  Find the answer at Gardening Know How "Composting Basics"

  9. How do you know when the compost is finished decaying?  Find the answer at Planet Natural: "When is it Finished?"

  10. What are the uses of compost in the garden and landscape?  Find the answers at Virginia Cooperative Extension, "Using Compost in your Landscape" and Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, "Managing Yard Wastes: Clippings and Compost"

  11. Apartment Guide A Basic Guide to Composting at Your Apartment

  12. Can I add coffee grounds to my garden or compost?  Several resources are available online, here's one article that explains the good and the bad of using coffee grounds:  Composting With Coffee Grounds – The Ultimate Guide by Elizabeth Waddington

  13. More resources:

    1. How to Make Compost at Home - University of Maryland Extension

Composting Books

Check your local library or bookstore

The St. Joseph County Public Library can be reached at 574-282-4646)

The Mishawaka-Penn-Harris Public Library can be reached at 574-259-5277


  • Compost This Book – The Art of Composting

  • The Dirt Doctor’s Guide to Organic Gardening

  • Easy Composting – Environmentally Friendly Gardening

  • Great Garden Shortcuts

  • Indiana Yard Waste Solutions

  • Let it Rot – The Gardener’s Guide to Composting

  • Maria Rodale's Organic Gardening: Your Seasonal Companion to Creating a Beautiful and Delicious Garden

  • The Mulch Book

  • Mulch It!

  • The Organic Garden Book

  • Organic Gardening for Dummies

  • Rodale’s Chemical-Free Yard and Garden

  • More Choices from your library can be seen here!

Background picture from:  UM Flat blog

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