3 Ways to Start Composting

April 28, 2015

 Inspired by conversations on the FOOD52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: We have plants, soil, and gardening on the mind, so we're revisiting this guide on three ways to compost kitchen scraps.


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Composting scares many of us the way that baking bread does: It requires us to follow certain rules, use our best judgement, and leave the rest to science (and perhaps add in a few prayers to the homemaking gods for good measure).

The virtues of composting are clear: It reduces waste and gives valuable nutrients back to soil. But the alternative is often too easy—you chop your onion, peel your banana, and slide all the refuse straight into the trash. Still, composting can easily be integrated into your life, whether you have a vast yard or a closet-sized apartment. Even the laziest of us can do something useful with our organic food waste, and we're here to tell you how.

First, the quick and dirty on composting:
Composting is a natural process in which organic matter breaks down into fertilizer with the help of microorganisms in soil (or, as we'll discuss later, earthworms). This resulting soil—which passionate gardeners often call "black gold" and Martha Stewart sweetly describes as having the texture of "crumbled chocolate cake"—is rich in nutrients and will help retain moisture when added to your garden beds or potted plants. Fun fact: The scientific name for that "black gold" is humus.

The right materials:
There are a few things to avoid adding to your compost bin or pile. These include the thick rinds of citrus, fats or lard, ash, pet waste, and dairy. A comprehensive list of what's cool to compost and what isn't can be found here


Once you have the right scraps, your options for composting can be organized in three categories:

Aerobic composting:
At its most basic, aerobic composting requires only carbon, nitrogen, air, and water. The nitrogen comes from "green" materials such as food scraps, grass, and garden trimmings, while the carbon comes from "brown" materials such as fall leaves, straw, and shredded paper. Keeping these different factors balanced is important—a reliable ratio is two parts green to one part brown, added in alternating layers to create a compost pile.

If you're lucky enough to have a yard, you can easily keep an aerobic compost pile. There are a number of ways to do it, but they all require a few basic tools and practices. Find a dry, shady spot, collect and add your food scraps, and add water, turning occasionally for proper aeration. Cover with a tarp if you live in an especially hot or rainy area. Celebrate your resulting humus (maybe by eating some hummus?), and add it to your garden. For more comprehensive instructions, turn to the EPA's composting website.

If you don't have a yard, but you're still committed to aerobic composting at home, there's hope for you yet—you just need to enlist the help of some industrious worms. Vermicomposting is becoming increasingly popular in urban areas. If you're interested, take a look at this handy how-to graphic


Anaerobic composting:
Also known as Bokashi composting, anaerobic composting doesn't require oxygen, water, or even walking outside. With an aerobic composting system—we like the Noaway Countertop Walnut Compost Bin—you simply add your kitchen scraps to a container, drain off excess liquid as your scraps decompose, and wait a few weeks for nutrient-rich fertilizer. These bins are a discreet, smell-free way to compost in the comfort of your kitchen—and they're crafted with gorgeous salvaged walnut, perfect for sprucing up any kitchen counter.

If you don't have any use for fertilizer, or you know that composting just isn't going to happen for you right now, you still don't have to throw away your banana peels and egg shells. Your local farmers will be delighted to take organic food scraps off of your hands—and you'll be contributing to the bounty you'll be buying from them next season. Many cities have drop-off programs for compostable material. Search for one in your area, or simply offer up your scraps to the man selling you that rutabaga. You'll probably make his day.

Tell us: Do you compost? What sort of system do you use? 

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • bellly
  • Smaug
  • Jeremy Kranowitz
    Jeremy Kranowitz
  • Direct Compost
    Direct Compost
  • JoJo
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



bellly July 20, 2019
I keep a rectangular plastic container inside of my fridge to collect scraps throughout the week. It's wonderful, no fruit flies.
Smaug October 6, 2016
Wood ash, or ash from hardwood charcoal, is a great compost addition- most piles are quite acidic and often lack phosphorus. Leaves are generally considered green material, even brown ones. Food scraps are going to be a pretty minor part of your pile if you have a garden and are even slightly serious. Citrus rinds are fine in ordinary quantities. Trying to compose a compost pile is just silly for an amateur- you take what you can get when you get it.
Smaug October 6, 2016
I meant potash, not phosphorus.
Jeremy K. March 30, 2016
Thanks for linking to our infographic at Sustainable America! There's lots more at Readers should also know that we will soon be coming out with a mini-documentary on Huffington Post about composting featuring singer Jack Johnson and racecar driver/environmental activist Leilani Munter! Stay tuned!
Direct C. February 1, 2016
Great article about Composting.Keep posting.Thanks for sharing.
JoJo June 16, 2015
I am with Dairy Maid. We have an Earth Machine and I just throw everything in there along with a few shovels of leaves. Before jumping in I read up on the right proportions of browns to greens, the right moisture level, etc. but it's really not that complicated. Just do it!
Dairy M. April 28, 2015
An additional type of composting: 'lazy ass' composting, which is what we do. More properly called "cold composting." Just throw all your compostables into a pile in the yard. Don't worry about getting the browns and greens right, just toss it all in there.

Frankly most people aren't going to bother to compost because everyone makes such a big deal about doing it "right" and getting the proportions correct. You don't have to worry about that.

When you need some black gold, rake aside the top of the pile and dig into the bottom. We have plenty for our veggie garden every spring, and there are only 2 of us at home.

Bonus: less to bring to the dump!
lazychef April 28, 2015
You forgot vermicomposting! It's one of the best ways for urban folk.
Bec April 22, 2015
Love the countertop composter! Wow - I always thought I'd need to live in a house with a big yard area to do compost properly. Seems I have some investigating to do!
AntoniaJames March 29, 2014
Our scraps are picked up by the city with our green waste every week. They gave us handy little green (square!) buckets with handy flip-top lids to keep under our sinks. We use "bio-bags," which are compostable, to take them out to the big green waste bin in our driveway. The waste management trucks take it to an enormous composting site. Since they started doing this, years ago, my weekly trash has been reduced to less than the size of a standard shoe box. We used to have a compost bin in our backyard, but it became a war zone for skunks and raccoons in the middle of the night, no matter how carefully we dug to bury the new stuff underneath. This device (also provided by the city) actually had a lock-down top, but that didn't seem to matter. It also attracted rats. Yes, I live in a city. There are rats, which seem to enjoy composted food scraps. That said, I'm going to start putting my banana peels in the ground around my fuschias, on the advice of the local garden center.
Elana C. March 26, 2014
Yes! Such a great article. Thanks, Marian!
James W. July 23, 2013
Thanks for sharing the Urban Composter™ with your readers! We noticed that the link to your store is no longer available, but your readers can buy one with us if they like it at
Shiny H. March 29, 2013
To questions: (1) What exactly is in the accelerator? (2) If I have an indoor / container garden, do I just take some of this compost and mix it with my potting soil?
Andrea G. March 26, 2013
If you have a yard, you can take a few days' worth of kitchen scraps and bury it anywhere in your yard. Put a stone or brick on top if you think rodents or raccoons will go after it. You can move the brick each time you bury a new batch. In a few days it will be gone and your soil will be richer.
qktiles March 26, 2013
Wood ash actually is okay in a compost pile...I've had one for many years (I understand fruit trees especially like it). When I lived more rurally I had a 3-bin system; on my smaller village plot I use a covered composter, mostly to keep rodents away from the pile. You can also toss in the occasional shredded newspaper.
StephW March 26, 2013
Shoot, the "here" link for "what's cool to compost " directs to a picture of the urban compositor bucket.
Marian B. March 26, 2013
Sorry about that! Here's the correct link: