3 Free Natural Compost Activators (& Where to Get Them)

Give your compost a kick-start with these natural compost activators. Here’s how and where to find them for free

As you probably know by now if you’ve been gardening for a while, composting doesn’t have to be a labor-intensive process. In fact, you can make perfectly good compost simply by throwing all your yard and garden waste into a big pile and just leaving it be! Depending on your climate, the weather, and the materials you are using, you’ll have beautiful compost within a few months to a year.

However, there are times when you may want to speed up your compost’s decomposition – either to finish a pile off to get ready to use in your garden, or to kick-start a newer pile that is taking its time getting going.

There are a number of things you can add to your compost to speed up decomposition. While you can purchase “compost activators” at most garden centers, the truth is, many of the best natural compost activators are sometimes completely free – if you know where to look and who to ask!

Keep in mind that the best items for your particular compost will vary depending on what your pile is composed of. If you are using a small compost tumbler which you feed with mostly kitchen scraps, “brown” ingredients like dry leaves, shredded paper, or straw will probably work better to speed up your compost. (I like dried beanstalks, as they also help to aerate the contents when you turn it!)

The nitrogen-rich compost boosters below will work best for those with large compost piles mostly composed of leaves and yard and garden waste.

1.) Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds are one of my favorite natural compost activators. Just walk in to any coffee shop and ask nicely. I’ve been able to get spent coffee grounds from big national chains and from local shops—in the city and in the suburbs… I’ve personally never been told “No, you can’t have any grounds.”…

Definitely bring your own bucket for this trip, because the coffee house will probably give you the grounds in a big trash bag, and they will definitely be sloppy. We have a nice agreement with a coffee shop in our neighborhood where we drop off a clean, empty 5 gallon bucket in the morning, and we pick it up full of grounds later the same day.

2.) Supermarket Waste

Some grocery stores will give you their past-date produce if you ask for it, but not all stores will go along with this. I’ve heard that some big chains have policies that say their employees can’t give away old produce, probably because of the legal liability that someone could get sick from eating it. So, you might have the best success asking at independent local markets and small regional chains.

A word to the wise: for this approach, try to strike up a casual friendship with the employees in the produce section. Chat them up and get to know them a bit, if you can. If you casually mention that you make a lot of compost, and that you would love to put that old wilted lettuce in it, you’ll have a better chance than if you ask the manager at the service desk. There’s likely a regular day and time when they throw the old produce out to make room for the new stuff. So, work your charm a little and find out what day that is.

3.) Hair

Some people might flinch at the idea of composting hair from strangers for their vegetable garden, but the crafty composter can find some big payloads at the neighborhood hair salon or barbershop. Just look at the floor next time you’re in there—it’s covered with so much hair that they have to keep sweeping it constantly. You might run in to some different rules and regulations depending on where you live and whom you ask… But I know that some local shops will set hair aside for you if you ask for it. If there’s a pet grooming service in your neighborhood, that would be worth a try, as well.


There are potentially problems with all of these free compost ingredients—and that’s where your better judgment will need to kick in…

Trust your instincts, and don’t compost things that you think are too toxic to use in your veggie garden compost. But also trust the composting process to break down some of those nasty items and return them safely to nature. There’s an entire microscopic food chain playing out in your compost pile, and many things will be completely broken down and returned to the garden as healthy nutrients for your plants.

When I’m in doubt, I throw the compostables that I don’t want in my veggie garden into a separate pile that is only used for ornamental plants around the landscape.

Read more tips at TheGrowNetwork.com


Rose S.

An avid gardener since childhood, I love sharing my passion for gardening with others! I have gardened in a number of different climates and settings, from large fenced garden plots, to tiny patio and container gardens, and I firmly believe that everyone can learn to grow at least some of their own food - no matter where you live. Growing your own food can help you take control of your own health and food supply, and there has never been a better time to get started!

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