Sustainability

Thinking About Composting? This Is Your Ultimate Guide

Your plants, the earth, and your garbage can will thank you.

February 28, 2022
Photo by ROCKY LUTEN

When we polled our community, we found that 83 percent of you who don’t compost would like to start—so we’re here to help! Whether you’re looking for a way to reduce your carbon footprint, create nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden, or simply stop your trash from smelling, composting is the way to go. When you start composting, all your kitchen scraps, grass trimmings, and fall leaves will be transformed into rich, beneficial soil, and the best part is that it doesn’t require much effort on your part—you mostly just mix it all together and wait! Plus, with the advent of bins that fit in your kitchen (like, ahem, the new Five Two compost bin), it’s easier than ever before to get started.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that composting can be intimidating to beginners. I myself had no idea what I was doing at first, and I found myself peering into my compost bin several times a week, asking myself, “Is it working? How do I even know if it’s working?” To assuage my worries and get answers to all my pressing compost questions, I called in an expert: Erin Rhoads, an eco-lifestyle blogger and the author of Waste Not, a guide on how to make a big difference by throwing away less. Here’s what she had to say about composting best practices, along with several lessons I’ve learned in my first few years of composting.


Why Compost In the First Place?

"When we compost organics like food, they’re no longer waste," explains Rhoads. "Instead, they become food for soil. Our food, the unprocessed stuff, is designed to break down in soil where all types of insects, bugs, and worms will eat it up, helping return nutrients to the soil while improving its quality."

The end result is nutrient-rich soil that your houseplants or garden will absolutely love.

Another benefit of composting is that it makes your trash less stinky—if you’re putting all of the food waste into the compost, there won’t be any rotting items in your garbage bin. Finally, composting reduces the production of a common greenhouse gas and helps minimize use of chemical fertilizers.

"Starting a compost not only cuts down rubbish sent to landfill, it’ll help cut down on methane gas, and reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers, which is another money saver,” she says. “Composting is a win-win!”


What Can Go in My Compost Bin?

According to Rhoads, compostable items are commonly broken down into “green” and “brown” categories. Green items are plant-based, wet materials, including:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Plant trimmings
  • Weeds that haven’t gone to seed
  • Animal manure, but only from “vegetarians” such as cows, sheep, chickens, and rabbits

Brown items, on the other hand, are dry plant material, such as:

  • Dried leaves and twigs
  • Straw, hay, or corn stalks
  • Paper, such as newspaper, coffee filters, or paper tableware
  • Sawdust
  • Corrugated cardboard

Plus, there are some items that can’t go in your compost bin at all:

  • Meat and dairy products, which can attract pests
  • Fats, grease, lard, or oils
  • Glossy paper or cardboard

For a more comprehensive breakdown, check out the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.


Any Common Mistakes I Should Know About?

Composting is all about balance, and Rhoads says it can take a little practice to get it right.

"The most common mistake when it comes to composting is not maintaining a balance between the green and brown matter," she explains. "An oversupply of the green stuff—food scraps, green leaves, grass clippings—will not break down properly. Alternately, too much brown waste, like newspaper and brown paper, brown leaves, branches and twigs, slows down the process."

You’ll also want to keep your compost from drying out: "If your compost becomes too dry, spray lightly with water." On the flip side, you don’t want your compost too wet, as a soggy pile will likely smell and take longer to break down. Again, balance is key here, and it might take a little trial and error to get right.

Another common beginner mistake is placing your compost in the wrong spot. Ideally, you’ll want your compost pile directly on the ground and in the shade, as this will prevent it from drying out. Many people think they should put the compost as far away from their home as possible, but in reality, it’s usually better to have it fairly close and accessible to make it easy to tend.


How Do I Maintain the Balance?

It’s actually pretty straightforward.

"Keep the balance between green and brown by adding the same amount of both at the same time," Rhoads recommends. "Turning your compost regularly with a shovel or compost turner promotes the circulation of oxygen. This is key to reducing funny smells, too!"

The 1:1 ratio is just a suggestion, so don’t worry too much about having exact amounts of green and brown materials. However, if you find yourself with way too much of one type, you can either hold off on adding it until you can balance it out, or simply ask a friend or neighbor if they have any materials for you.


What Can I Compost That I Might Not Know About?

Don’t believe everything you hear about composting. Rhoads says there are several items people think can’t be composted, but actually can!

“There is the myth that lemon peels can't be composted, but really they can, so long as you are not putting too much in, especially when you are using a worm farm,” she explains. “Coffee grounds can be added to the compost, as can pizza boxes, but tear them up to make it easier to break down.”

You can even compost pet waste, but you need to do it separately from your normal pile: “Hair, nail clippings and even pet fur will break down in a compost. If you have pets, consider starting a designated compost for their waste, too.” The USDA has a thorough guide on how to compost pet waste.


Can I Compost Indoors?

Not all of us have an outdoor space where we can compost, but countertop composting products are becoming increasingly common, making the practice more accessible. When I lived in an apartment, I used a Vitamix FoodCycler to dehydrate and break down kitchen scraps, and while it’s not technically compost since it’s not decaying, the resulting material is still a great organic material to help feed plants. The Down-to-Earth compost bin is another great option for keeping your countertop compost pile within reach, and the 1.5 gallon size means it won’t overfill with just two dinner’s worth of scraps. No need for liners, a dishwasher safe body, and a stink-proof lid really…seal the deal (ha!).

That’s not the only option for indoor composting, though. “I've seen a rise in worm farms being used indoors disguised within seats inside kitchens!” says Rhoads. “You might think it will smell, but like any compost or worm farm, once the balance is right there will be no smell.”

There are also crowdsourced composting groups, which allow you to work with your neighbors to reduce waste, like one Rhoads recommends called ShareWaste. "This is a website and app that connects people who wish to recycle their kitchen scraps with their neighbors who are already composting, worm-farming, or keeping chickens."


How Long Does Composting Take?

So you’ve made a compost pile and put in your greens and browns… then what? Essentially, you wait. In a well-maintained compost pile, decomposition can take anywhere from two to four months, but there are numerous factors that affect this timeline, such as the time of year. As Rhoads mentioned, too many browns can slow the decomposition process, and you’ll also need to be diligent about wetting the pile if it dries out and turning it once a week or so.

If you want your compost ready to use ASAP, there are ways to speed up the process. One easy option is to mix in some already-finished compost—this will ensure there are plenty of beneficial bacteria to break down the materials. There are also commercial compost accelerators that serve the same purpose, helping to speed along decomposition.

How do you know when it’s ready to be used? Your compost should look and feel like rich, dark earth—not rotting vegetables! If you see large chunks of food waste or it has a sour odor, it’s not finished yet.


What Can I Do with Finished Compost?

Once your compost has sufficiently decomposed, you can use the beautiful “black gold” in several ways. Many people use finished compost as mulch, spreading it over their garden beds to feed nutrients to the plants and prevent weeds from growing. It can also be used to amend soil in your gardens—mix it into your beds before adding plants or seeds to give them a nutrient boost.

No outdoor gardens? No worries! Your houseplants will love compost, too. Just mix compost into your favorite potting soil and use it to repot your indoor plants. They’re sure to appreciate the rich growing medium.

There’s also a concept called “compost tea,” which is exactly what it sounds like—just don’t drink it! To make tea, you soak compost in water for three days—a 5:1 ratio of water to compost is recommended—then strain out the solids. The resulting liquid can be sprayed onto your plants or garden best as a fertilizer. It’s a great way to stretch a little bit of compost farther.

Do you have any clever tips for indoor or outdoor composting? Let us know in the comments!

This article was updated in February 2022 to add even more composting know-how.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mary
    Mary
  • vaughan
    vaughan
  • LiliD
    LiliD
  • Levie Ann Doton
    Levie Ann Doton
  • Emily Taylor
    Emily Taylor
Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.

17 Comments

Mary April 2, 2022
I would love to have compost for our garden and a good use for our food waste but I have some questions about outdoor piles. What about rainy weather? How do you keep a pile together in the yard with days of heavy rain? Also, I don’t want to provide more reasons for the possums, raccoons, and skunk that already occasionally visit my bird feeders to come to my backyard. Won’t they make a mess of a compost pile besides pissing off my neighbors? I also have squirrels in my yard. Is it safe for them to play in compost piles? Any advice would be appreciated.
 
Smaug April 2, 2022
Compost piles should generally be covered (good old inexpensive blue tarps work well, with a few weights around the edges)- it keeps out excess rain, keeps in moisture (much more of a problem in California), retains heat etc. Raccoons, possums and skunks will indeed tear apart a pile looking for food, and moles can get in in search of worms. Commercial composting containers, such as the biostack types, will have both a cover and a base (moles, tree roots). Squirrels have never shown an interest in my compost.
Biostacks also are relatively easy to turn- unfortunately, they're not very practical in dry summer areas because the ventilation is excessive, a problem with most of the commercial systems I've come across.
 
vaughan March 6, 2022
Been composting for 40 years. I use a plastic coffee container that lives under the sink. It seals up smells well. In it goes veggie peels, fruit leftovers, tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells and even the paper egg carton. It all eventually goes outside to a black (heat) top-loading multi-level bin. I stir the contents occasionally and black gold comes out the slot in the bottom. I would recommend using a special compost turning tool that deploys little wings as it is pulled back out of the pile. Our bin is up against a fence near our neighbors. They've never mentioned it bothering them. Very easy overall.
 
Smaug March 6, 2022
Those tools (mine is called a "Compost Hound" are pretty neat; they both stir and aerate the compost- veery useful in a large pile. Those multi level bins (at least those I've used) are also good for turning the compost- you start from the top (you need a second base- I think they come with one); lift off the bin, move the top part of the compost over, then move down to the second tier etc. Unfortunately, like most manufactured bins they're fairly useless in California because they dry out too much.
 
LiliD February 28, 2022
We compost at home. We have learned that it is best to leave onion and other allium waste and citrus waste out of backyard compost, as they discourage worms. Egg shells can be composted, but usually best to rinse them and then grind them to a powder in a food processor or coffee grinder.
 
Levie A. January 24, 2022
Great content. I compost my trash by burying it in my garden probably once a week.

Here is a link where Lauren Singer demonstrates her ways of composting.
https://trashisfortossers.com/how-to-compost-anywhere/
 
Emily T. April 22, 2021
Not sure if it is worthwhile to note, chickens by nature are omnivores, free range chickens are great bug eaters!
 
Mike L. April 20, 2021
I'm really surprised the author didn't mention Bokashi composting. It is pest free. You can do it indoors, and can also compost small amounts of meat and greasy items.
It makes great compost tea, and is a lot faster.
 
Jerry W. July 15, 2020
Composting at home is easier than it sounds. Start slowly and you won't go wrong.
www.JerryWhiting.com/compost/ and www.JerryWhiting.com/red-wigglers/

Share what you learn with others.
 
JulieKay January 24, 2020
I have been composting for years now... teach classes in my upstate NY community. You can put amounts of kitchen waste in your freezer( or outdoors in winter) and cells break down, ready to be added to compost
piles. We use a stainless indoor container then transfer to big kitty litter containers with lid in our garage until ready for a trip to the pile. Crush eggshells. Also stick a crumpled newspaper in bottom of the bin for easy dumping without waste stuck on the bottom! Good luck! So glad to see such interest... you can do it!!
 
debbie J. January 8, 2020
I give all my vegetable scraps to our pet cow, Sara and donkey, Ernestine...they in turn give me beautifully rich “composting material” in return 🥰🐴🐮
 
debbie J. January 8, 2020
I also add used coffee grounds (and leftover coffee) to all my outside flowering plants, like Bougainville, bird of paradise, azaleas, hibiscus, gardenias...
 
gustadora April 26, 2019
Great reminder. I'm fortunate to live in a town in California that has a composting program as part of our waste management. Our green bin contents are collected weekly like usual then each spring we get to pick up two free 10 lb. bags of really lush compost her household. Our flowers and veggies are really happy right now. The town couldn't have made it easier for us.
 
Linda M. April 2, 2019
I’ve been having success with trench composting. Kitchen scraps are taken outside, placed in a hole dig and covered with some soil. Dig the next hole so you know where the last one went. No need to worry about balancing the fresh material with green materials. It’s also not necessary to buy a composter or worms, no need to turn composting materials. Anything you can put in a composting pile can be buried.
 
Smaug April 10, 2019
That can be a good approach for small amounts of material, if you have the determination to carry it out. Of course, it has it's limits- burying pizza boxes is not quite so easy as, say, coffee grounds. You need a place where you can dig without disturbing growing plants, meaning parts of the yard will remain fallow, yet must be kept moist. And it can become pretty impractical. In my wild youth, I once decided to improve a plot (maybe 2-3 hundred square feet) by digging in leaves; after a fall spent digging (burying a foot deep pile of leaves on 100 sq feet takes considerable doing). The results were pretty good, but only a loony 20 year old would undertake it. But if you're talking a days worth of coffee grounds and zucchini peels, it can be a good approach and produce good results long term.
 
Tim April 1, 2019
Pizza boxes, at least the grease-soaked bottoms, are also great to use for lighting charcoal in a chimney starter.
 
Smaug April 1, 2019
I'm not sure how helpful this is as far as telling people how to get started, but there are a lot of resources for that. A few general tips; I live in California, where it may not rain for six months at a time, and virtually all of the manufactured compost bins I've tried have had far too much aeration- If you have a bin 2 feet across and 6" on each side are too dry to compost, you don't have much ; you're better off with a pit in the ground or a simple pile. This leaves you vulnerable to moles and roots getting into the pile, and if you have the bucks you can build a set of piles (you should really have at least two) with concrete floors, but it's not vital, and spending money on composting just doesn't seem right. Your piles will need to be covered (blue tarps work well), both to keep out pests (racoons and skunks in particular are apt to tear apart piles looking for worms and such) and to keep moisture in (in dry areas) or excess moisture out. I've never had any problem with composting sea food, egg shells etc., but they do need to be dug into the pile. If you want to compost garden waste on any scale, a small electric chipper is invaluable- they can be had for about $200- of the half dozen or so I've used the Duro Star "Eco Shredder" is probably the best. There is some controversy as to whether dried leaves constitute green (nitrogenous) or brown (carbonaceous) material- I vote for green. For home composting on a small level, some people simply trowel their waste into planting beds which can work if you're careful. Home compost piles seldom heat up enough for sterilization, so you need to be careful about weed seeds (or roots of some), diseased plants etc.