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Home Composting: The Basics

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.

GREENS

Fruit and vegetable scraps

Plate scrapings, excluding meat and bones

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

Tea bags

Egg shells

BROWNS

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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34 comments

Comments

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?

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.

Masayo Honjo says …

I heard that I should not compost citrus peels if I want to use it for garden. Is it correct?

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!

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!!

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.

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.

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

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.

Carol Van Horn says …

I have a small unit and wonder if this would work in my limited space?

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?

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!

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.

elizabeth hetrick says …

Sounds fun; will get started.

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!!!

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?

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.

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.

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??

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.

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.

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.

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

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/.

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.

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@SARA - You should definitely be able to use a large trash bin but make sure to aerate the compost so it will break down faster. I can't say exactly what time frame it will start to breakdown due to the size of your bin.

Beth says …

If you don't want to purchase a carbon filtered compost pail you can collect scraps in a bucket and freeze it. This too keeps down the smell, but you do have to remember that you have it in the freezer! I have mixed feelings on the paper shreds due to the ink used. If someone has a comment on whether or not most commonly shredded items are using non-toxic inks I will gladly add that to my compost heap ASAP.

Kristen says …

I started with a compost bin many years ago. I have since added a worm bin. The kids next door love to come and watch all the bug activity in the bins.

Sandra says …

Note: Sorry for not having paragraphs. I can't get my comments to format correctly. :( @ Masayo and Nikki - I use citrus peels all the time in my compost pile, and get great results from them. My neighbors who have citrus trees give me bags and bags of peels after the fruit has been juiced, and I add them in layers to my compost pile. Surprisingly, the citrus is extremely quick to break down, usually in two to three weeks. I also live in Arizona, where we have very alkaline soil, so I don't have to worry about the compost pile being too acidic for my garden. For those who are looking to start a new compost pile, you can get compost starter from most garden centers and nurseries. It's full of beneficial bacteria that you add to your pile, to help jump start the composting process. As for keeping your pile going and keeping it hot, layering green and brown items is key to the whole process. Whenever I turn my pile, I layer it diligently, keeping each layer about 2-3 inches deep. (The exception is freshly cut grass. I never layer grass thickly, or it will mat and become smelly. I sprinkle it sparingly instead.) Then I spray the pile with water after each brown layer. Some people recommend turning your pile every 3 days, but I've never turned mine that often. I usually turn it every 1-2 weeks, and my piles do finish quickly, usually within 3-4 months at most. If I need finished compost sooner, then I turn it once a week, adding new green as I go. I also usually have 3 piles going at once, in varying stages of "finished". For people who don't have a lot of space, then the trash can composter style (you can get these from the waste management of many cities) is a good way to go. It's also great if you have a problem with rodents or other animals getting into your pile. There are also commercial kitchen composters that do all the work for you, but those are pricey. As Nikki mentioned, the Bokashi is another method for indoor composting. Keep in mind that you do have to follow certain guidelines when adding the Bokashi compost to your garden, as it's unlike traditional compost. Hope that helps; happy composting everyone!

Carole Staelgraeve says …

My mother composted all her vegetative scraps yrs ago when I was just a kid. I have continued the practice to this day. I simply dig a hole in the garden and add the scraps every day or two. My garden soil is wonderful after all these yrs of doing this. I am 69. So that is a lot of composting.

Mama Z says …

Love this article!

maesaysdoit says …

@masayo some gardeners believe that the addition of citrus to composting raises the acidity level too high. Rest assured that would only matter if you are making a very small amount of compost.

maesaysdoit says …

@Tamara - yes, and you should be adding leaves and cutting. Also you can add grass clipping after mowing as long as you don't have too many weeds or if you do add them make sure the weeds have not gone to seed at the time you mow. And you need to wet it once in a while as well. A good way to work your compost is to layer leaves, food waste, clipping, food waste, and so on. Spray some water before and after turning it. Don't soak it, just a spray of water during dry hot time. Always turn in new additions of food waste.

Cynthia Sebetes says …

This comes a bit late. If it takes 6 months to make the compost and I start now, it will be October when it's ready to use for gardening. I won't be gardening in October as it will be too cold. Solutions would be appreciated!