One of the best lawn deeds is an annual top-dressing, ideally with a quarter-inch layer of homemade compost atop the existing turfgrass.

DIY compost is not only free and a good way to recycle organics, but the microbes and blend of materials that go into making it add up to a rich diversity that aids grass growth.

Making your own compost isn’t as difficult or “messy” as you might think. Nature does it all the time without bins or instruction manuals.

Compost Piles

Compost piles “cook” best when they have sufficient bulk. A good minimum is 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep.

Bigger piles of 5 feet or more are fine, but they’re more labor-intensive to turn by hand. A better option for larger amounts is to build a series of 3- to 5-foot piles.

You don’t need a bin or enclosure, but many composters use them to keep the material in place. Besides commercially sold bins and drums, enclosure options include scrap lumber, used wooden pallets, stacked concrete blocks, chicken wire wrapped around stakes, or large plastic garbage cans with holes drilled in them for airflow.


Most important is having a mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon materials, which is easy to determine because nitrogen-rich materials are generally green and damp while carbon-rich materials are generally brown and dry.

Good “greens” include grass clippings, kitchen peelings, spent plants, and even weeds that haven’t gone to seed.

Good “browns” are dried leaves, chipped branches, newspaper, straw, and sawdust.

A good mix is about twice as many browns as greens.

If you have a pile that’s too high in browns, the pile will just sit there. Mix in some greens to “fuel” it with nitrogen.

If the pile is slimy-looking and smells like methane, it’s likely too high in greens. Mix in more browns.

Other things to add (and avoid)

One good compost addition that’s a ready-made mix of nitrogen and carbon is the combination of fallen leaves and grass clippings from end-of-season lawn mowings.

Another good resource is keeping a covered compost pail under the sink to collect assorted kitchen scraps.

Consider these for your compost:

  1. Eggshells
  2. coffee grounds
  3. manure from non-meat-eating animals
  4. tea bags
  5. shredded paper
  6. shredded cardboard
  7. dryer lint
  8. wood ashes from the fireplace.

Although they’re organic materials, it’s best to skip meat, bones, fats, and dairy products, which are ingredients most likely to draw animals and create a smell.

Avoid these in your compost:

  1. Diseased, bug-ridden, and pesticide-treated plants.
  2. Weeds that have gone to seed.
  3. Manures from meat-eating animals (dogs and cats included) that could spread disease if not composted properly.

Five ways to speed up the pile’s breakdown:

  1. Start with small particles. Shredded paper or leaves run over by a mower, for example, will break down faster than whole sheets of paper or whole leaves.
  2. Make sure you’ve used a blend of nitrogen- and carbon-rich materials and mixed them well.
  3. Keep the pile slightly damp. If it goes dry, sprinkle it with a hose… enough to dampen but not make it soggy.
  4. Toss in a few shovelfuls of soil or finished compost with each layer of green and brown materials to supply natural organisms that aid in breakdown.
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks. That ensures enough oxygen is getting into the pile to fuel decomposition.

Spreading your compost pile

The finished compost will be black, crumbly, and have an “earthy” smell to it. When it reaches this stage, it’s best sifted or broken into small particles before being spread as a lawn top-dressing.

Anything that’s not fully composted can be used to start a new pile – or added to another pile that’s in an earlier stage of decomposition.