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Home Composting: The Basics

By Amber Pollei, April 12, 2013  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Amber Pollei

PeelThis post is the first in a series of three that will help you start a home composting bin. Then check out the next two posts, which will help you determine what type of compost bin is best for you and how to use the compost!

Composting is a great way to reduce food waste in your home and feed the garden with a wonderfully rich, healthy soil. Fruit and vegetable scraps — along with a number of other things — can be easily composted and used for making your garden, large or small, a place for plants to thrive. As the scraps break down organically, they become a super nutritious additive for your garden’s soil.

What Can I Compost?

While composting is very easy, it’s important to follow a few key guidelines. Understanding what makes good compost isn’t tough: a healthy compost bin will have a fairly even mixture of  “green” (nitrogen-rich items) and “brown” materials (carbon-rich items). Think of the “greens” as stuff that comes from the kitchen; the “browns” generally come from the yard.


Fruit and vegetable scraps

Plate scrapings, excluding meat and bones

Coffee grounds (and the filter, provided it’s unbleached paper)

Tea bags

Egg shells


Small twigs

Dry leaves

Dry grass clippings or hay

Wood shavings

Sawdust from untreated wood

Shredded paper, newspaper or cardboard (as long as it’s non-glossy)

Paper towels

CollardsNow, keep these things OUT of the compost bin:

Meat or animal fat: This will attract too many pests to your compost, and will not break down properly.

Infested plants: If your squash plants suffered a borer infestation or your broccoli plants were attacked by aphids, those plants shouldn’t be added to the compost. The bugs may infest the compost bin and your future gardens.

High levels of fat: Home compost bins generally don’t get hot enough to properly break down a lot of fat, so don’t pour that oil you used to fry hushpuppies into your compost bin.

Pet waste: Leave this stuff out if you’re going to use your compost on edible plants. Some folks say it’s okay to compost for ornamentals, but I like to err on the side of safety and find a different way to dispose of my pet’s waste.

Non-organic materials or compounds: Plastics, chemicals, pesticides…if you wouldn’t want it in your garden, don’t put it in your compost!

With a good mix of “greens” and “browns” plus a little moisture, your compost bin will be thriving and decomposing — in a very healthy and non-smelly way — in no time. (Well, a batch of good compost can take about six months to be ready, but you get my point.)

A Few More Tips

Chopping food scraps prior to adding them to the bin makes for quicker compost.. You could even blend all your kitchen scraps prior to putting them in the compost bin, and add layers of browns in between. If you’re short on time (or like me, a little bit lazy), it’s okay to toss a whole banana peel in there every once in a while.

To keep food scraps from getting too smelly before they make it outside. try a small kitchen compost pail fitted with a carbon filter. Collect scraps under the sink a few days at a time, and make one trip out to the compost bin once you’re ready. While the filter keeps most smells at bay, it’s best to take scraps out every three days.

Are you composting at home? How did you get started?

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Tamara says ...
I have a huge compost going, but it's not seeming to break down a ton. Should I be turning it once in awhile to get it to breakdown easier?
04/12/2013 1:02:21 PM CDT
Beth says ...
My husband was burying table scraps (excluding meat and fat), vegetable trimmings and so forth in the garden for a couple of years. It got harder to find a place to dig stuff in, so we decided to build a proper composting bin. We had space near the kitchen for a two sided bin. It's been working for about three years now. Over that time, we discovered that for our circumstances, it takes about one year to fill one side (the level keeps going down as decay progresses, so you end up putting a much greater volume - maybe 10 times - of trimmings in than the volume of the box), and another year to be able to use the dirt. But it is great stuff in the end. It's soft, dark, earthy, full of earth worms. And it feels really good to not be throwing it away, but to be digging it in to enrich our garden.
04/17/2013 4:39:14 PM CDT
Masayo Honjo says ...
I heard that I should not compost citrus peels if I want to use it for garden. Is it correct?
04/17/2013 5:31:18 PM CDT
Donna Weyrick says ...
We are composting, and excited about it! Not only do our veggie scraps and the remnants of fruits and veggies left in our juicer make for a perfect compost, but the idea of great fertilizer for the garden is a bright one, too!
04/17/2013 7:21:20 PM CDT
Kathryn Orosz says ...
Thank you for posting this article on "home composting" . Most people don't know how to compost and would like to do so. Composting enriches the nutrition in our soil in our gardens whether it be agarden or for your flowers. I look forward to the future posting on this topic!! Happy Gardening!!
04/17/2013 7:26:52 PM CDT
Tim says ...
We have been composting our kitchen scraps for 2 years and putting the compost on our garden. Its so easy to do, we should have been doing it for years.
04/17/2013 7:34:09 PM CDT
Nancy says ...
I started my Grandson composting with a self contained bin. We have one question, where do the white worms come from? There were no worms when we put the veggie remains in, then they were there-no flys, just little white worms.
04/17/2013 8:35:03 PM CDT
Carla Everett says ...
Hi. I live in an apartment, without access to outside that is mine other than a second floor patio. Will you be including worm composting in the series? I have tried twice in the past few years and have been unsuccessful. I would love to turn my food waste into something useful (and not stinky). Thanks
04/17/2013 10:55:07 PM CDT
Patricia Nichols says ...
I have had a compost bin that I started a couple year ago, supplemented by worms. I started with a 1 lb box of worms but there must be thousands upon thousands now. They are amazing! On the brown side, I also use a layer or two of empty egg cartons (paper, not Styrofoam) as it helps separate the layers. It definitely help to turn the layers periodically with a pitchfork to help oxygenate the pile. (It can get very heavy and compacted with the worms breaking everything down.) If it seems dry, it also helps to sprinkle with some water (mostly in summer). Composting is really worthwhile and incredibly beneficial since our native soil is very heavy clay and not good for gardening at all.
04/17/2013 11:32:10 PM CDT
Carol Van Horn says ...
I have a small unit and wonder if this would work in my limited space?
04/18/2013 6:18:08 AM CDT
Nora says ...
Sometimes food scraps in the countertop compost container get moldy before I take them out to the compost bin. Is it okay to add them?
04/18/2013 6:30:44 AM CDT
Valerie says ...
My Dad composted in our back yard growing up ... he put up a cylinder of garden wire fencing about 4 feet high. Churned it with a pitchfork, everything organic went into it. Not as fancy as the composters today, but we always had a great garden! He also collected the rain water with a 55 gallon drum at the bottom of a gutter!
04/18/2013 6:36:42 AM CDT
Nancy says ...
Thank you for Home Composting basics. I've always wanted to start composting at home. I look forward to the rest of your articles.
04/18/2013 6:39:19 AM CDT
elizabeth hetrick says ...
Sounds fun; will get started.
04/18/2013 7:27:24 AM CDT
vlkeeney1 says ...
Can't wait for the next post.....I have a bucket full of table scraps - plant based - waiting to go into a compost bin. I've been trying to figure out the best type of compost bin to create so you can't post the next the next one soon enough!!!
04/18/2013 8:55:43 AM CDT
Sara Vasquez says ...
Can I use a large trash bin to compost (like the trash bins the city uses)? and how long will it take for the composting process from start to finish?
04/18/2013 9:02:16 AM CDT
Sharon Powell says ...
How timely! I was just thinking about starting a compost bin, but really don't know enough about it. Thanks, WF for providing useful info.
04/18/2013 10:06:22 AM CDT
T says ...
It can take a while (like a year or two if you are not paying attention) to get your compost bin going. The easiest thing to check is whether it is too dry (worms can't dig thorugh a giant stack of dry leaves). The other thing I did to get mine going was to toss in some worms from my flower and vegetable beds, and to sprinkle in a half-gallon of compost from my Mom's successful compost bin (since I figured whatever worms or bacteria were working their magic in her bin would start growing in mine). My bin is 3 years old now, and is working fine... even if it doesn't always get as hot as they are supposed to.
04/18/2013 10:49:34 AM CDT
marie says ...
I prefer to compost in the ground but after six months of adding grass cuttings and vegetable scraps find that white grubs have made a home there. Understand that if I add this compost to my raised vegetable garden they will eat the roots of my plants. Do you have any solutions??
04/18/2013 11:04:10 AM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@TAMARA - Absolutely. To speed up the breakdown process, you will want to aerate your compost. Here is more info I found on the topic: http://www.homecompostingmadeeasy.com/turningcompost.html.
04/18/2013 12:57:15 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@MASAYO - I have not heard that you should not use citrus peels in a compost. The peels will probably take a bit longer to break down since they are somewhat thicker.
04/18/2013 12:59:06 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@CARLA - I'm not sure if we will come out with a post specifically about vermicomposting but I found a useful site that covers the basics you can learn more at http://www.wormwoman.com/acatalog/vermicomposting.html. I personally vermicompost and love it! The container I found online is small enough and said it can be used inside, however, I have mine outside on my porch.
04/18/2013 1:02:21 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@NANCY - Is your compost covered? I did read that often times pests can get in to the compost if left uncovered. Here are a few troubleshooting ideas I found and you can also contact them with more questions! http://www.homecompostingmadeeasy.com/troubleshootingguide.html
04/18/2013 1:04:30 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@CAROL - There are options out there that allow you to have a compost in minimal spaces indoors. I would search online for more options but I have heard that either vermicomposting works as a low odor option for indoors or the Bokashi indoor compost breaks down quickly. You can check them out at http://www.bokashicomposting.com/.
04/18/2013 1:06:52 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@NORA - You should be okay using moldy or ugly looking food scraps. I personally keep my food scraps in my fridge until I'm ready to add them to my compost. I find that this helps with delaying the molding of items. For more ideas check out http://www.homecompostingmadeeasy.com/foodscraps.html.
04/18/2013 1:11:00 PM CDT