How to Compost -- and Why You Should Start Right Now

Author: Sarah Breeze

August 25, 2020

Ever wonder how an organic tomato could taste so delicious? How the produce at your local farmers market packs so much flavor into every bite? Or how the neighbor down the street always has the most beautiful, vibrant flower garden?

The secret’s in the soil. Actually— it’s what goes into the soil. Compost is a rich, organic matter created by plant material to feed other plants. Also known as black gold, it’s an easy way to boost the health of your garden or indoor plants.

And good farmers and gardeners know that enriching their soil with compost is not only good for the vegetables but good for the planet.

Most of the food waste in the United States ends up in a landfill.

landfill from waste

You might think all the food breaks down in a landfill, but it doesn’t. Landfills aren’t aerated, which means that organic matter doesn’t have enough oxygen to decompose.

The matter ends up releasing methane. Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 and accelerates problems caused by climate change.

And food waste is responsible for 16% of all methane emissions in landfills.

It’s clear — reducing food waste should be a top priority. Plus it aligns with a zero-waste lifestyle and the circular economy.

You might be thinking, “I can’t possibly compost! I live in an apartment.” Or, “Where do I find the time to add another task to my to-do list???”

The truth is, once you’ve set up your composting system, all you need to do is feed it your food scraps and turn it once in a while. Then sit back and let the microscopic organisms do all the hard work.

Keep reading for our easy guide to making your own compost.

The Benefits of Composting

First things first. Besides reducing food waste (which is huge), what are the benefits of composting?

Turns out— there are a lot! Check them out below.

Enriches your soil

All those microorganisms and nutrients are like superfoods for your soil.

Reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Methane is twice as bad for the environment as carbon dioxide, according to EPA estimates. Turning your food waste into compost keeps it from releasing methane into the air.

Deters garden pests

Compost makes plants healthier. That means they are better at deterring common pests.

Reduces erosion

Erosion is caused by soil runoff from heavy rains and storms. Compost increases soil’s ability to hold water and aids in plant growth. Plants “fix” the soil in place and provide cover from heavy rain.

It’s fun

Got kids at home? Composting is a great science experiment. Get them involved with vermiculture. It’ll keep them entertained for hours!

Saves you money!

Cities sometimes charge residents for the amount of waste they produce. Less food waste = lower garbage bill. Plus if you’re making your own fertilizer, you’re saving even more money.

Now that you know how good composting is for the environment, are you ready to get started? Check out our easy guide below!

The different types of home composting systems

Composters these days have several options for getting started.

And if you’re an apartment-dweller, no worries! You can get in on the fun too.

For larger spaces:

Nothing. If you live in a rural area or have a lot of acreage, you can simply start your compost on the ground.
Pros: inexpensive, easy set-up, good if you have a lot of food waste
Cons: requires outdoor space, you have to turn the pile, may attract animals/pests

A rotating compost tumbler. A drum-style bin on legs that does the turning for you. Here are some good options.
Pros: turns the compost for you, doesn’t need much space, good for city dwellers
Cons: expensive, harder to use in cold winter environments

guy composting

For smaller spaces or apartments:

A worm bin. A small container full of worms that process your food waste. Vermiculture is an awesome option for apartment dwellers and families with children.
Pros: inexpensive, can make your own container, good for small spaces
Cons: not great for large amounts of food waste, surprisingly easy to kill the worms

A bokashi bin. A Japanese method of composting, Bokashi uses a “starter” to process food anaerobically. The process creates a “tea” that can be used as fertilizer and a small amount of compost that should be buried. Read more about the process here.
Pros: low odor, good for small spaces, can add meat/fish/dairy scraps
Cons: somewhat expensive, have to have space to bury the excess compost

An electronic composter. Composting made super-easy! Throw your scraps into the FoodCycler and you’ll have ready-to-use compost in about three hours.
Pros: easy to use, can add meat/fish/dairy waste, good for small spaces
Cons: expensive, uses electricity

What to Add to Your Compost

Most materials for composting are separated into wet or dry, green or brown material.

Wet, or green, materials are nitrogen-rich and includes:

  • Your food scraps! Fruit and vegetable peels and trimmings
  • Grass clippings from your yard
  • Coffee grounds and tea leaves

vegetable scraps

Dry, or brown materials should be torn up or shredded first. They’re more carbon-based and include:

  • Egg cartons
  • Newspapers
  • Cardboard
  • Dry leaves

yard waste

What NOT to Add to Your Compost

For best results and for safety, there are some materials that you should leave out of your compost:

  • Meat, fish, or dairy-based food waste. They’ll attract pests.
  • Large amounts of oil or butter.
  • Perennial weeds or diseased plants. They may spread weed seed or disease to other plants.
  • Anything with pesticide residue, like non-organic banana and orange peels.

Basic Home Composting Method

This simple method will ensure you get any compost pile started the right way.

Step 1: Choose an area in your yard. Make sure your pile won’t lean against any walls, as it may discolor them. You should plan for about 9 square feet of space for your compost pile.

Step 2: Lay down a few inches of twigs or straw. This will help with aerating your compost pile.

Step 3: Add your compost materials, in layers. You always want more browns than greens— a good ratio is ⅔ browns to ⅓ greens. Layer the brown material on the bottom with the greens on top.

composting in the ground

Step 4: Add a nitrogen source, like manure. Other sources of nitrogen are buckwheat, grass clippings, or clover. This will kickstart the process of breaking down the wet/green material.

Step 5: Cover the pile to help retain heat and moisture. You can use a tarp, some wood, or anything you have lying around.

Step 6: Keep your compost moist, but not soaking wet. Give it some water occasionally, or uncover it when it’s raining.

Step 7: Turn your pile. This is the only real work you have to do, once you get your pile going. Turning it adds oxygen which is needed for the material to break down — you don’t want to make your own methane-producing landfill! When you add new material (your food scraps), turn them in instead of just dumping them on top.

Step 8: Give it time. If you follow the steps above, you could have compost ready in as little as four weeks. If your ratio of greens to browns is off, it could take longer than that. The more you turn your compost, the faster it will be ready to use.

Your compost is ready when it smells rich and earthy. It should be crumbly in texture— a lot like soil!

compost end product

Compost Troubleshooting

If you follow the steps above, you shouldn’t have any problem with turning your food scraps into compost. But here are some troubleshooting tips for common compost issues.

Compost smells bad or is wet. Compost should have a rich, earthy smell. If you’re noticing off odors, you probably need to turn the pile more and add more brown material.

Compost is too coarse. It can take longer for brown materials like egg shells or corncobs to break down. Shred your brown material into smaller pieces, or pick the pieces out and turn them back into the pile.

Compost pile is attracting animals. Make sure you haven’t put any meat/fish/dairy scraps in your pile. Turn the compost more often, and make sure fresh food scraps are covered.

What to Do With Compost

Congratulations— you and those microorganisms just put a lot of effort into creating food for your plants! Here’s how you can use it.

Mulch. A layer of compost spread thinly over soil around trees or in garden beds will help keep the dirt cool, add nutrients, and prevent weeds. This is an easy way to use up a lot of compost.

Flowers or Vegetables. Mix at least a half inch of compost into the top six inches of soil. Make sure the soil’s not too wet or the texture will become like clay when it dries. This can harm your plants.

planting a tree

Perennials. For these plants you only need to mix the compost into the first inch or so of soil.

Seedlings/Potted Flowers. Add 20% compost to your soil mix when starting seedlings or potting flowers.

Indoor Plants. Mix into the soil when starting your houseplants. Add a thin layer to the top of the soil periodically to keep them healthy.

What to Do With Extra Compost

If you practice a zero-waste lifestyle, you may not even have a lot of compost.

But if you can’t use it all up, give it away! Ask friends or family members if they could use it. Or contact local community gardens and small farms.

Spread the compost love! ❤️

Author: Sarah Breeze


Nature lover, foodie, eternal optimist. I split my time writing, cooking up delicious vegan creations, and getting lost in the Pacific Northwest woods. In the winter I trade my hiking boots for cross country skis. Loving the slow life.

Favorite nature spot: Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington State.

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