Weekend How-To: The Quick and Not-So-Dirty Guide to Composting

Okay, so maybe you recycle practically everything—paper, aluminum, glass, even your old tires and batteries. But do you compost? You may not think of composting as recycling, but it’s actually the most natural way to recycle ever. In composting, nature breaks down organic materials, such as table scraps, weeds and leaves, and “recycles” them into usable, nutritious soil.

By composting, you’ll prevent yard and food waste—which makes up 30% of total waste—from entering landfills, waterways and water treatment facilities. Plus, you’ll save money on fertilizers, pesticides, manure and water because composting helps soil retain moisture, adds valuable nutrients to promote plant growth and helps ward off pests. And if you have a garden, you’ll be glad to know that composting also increases the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.

Convinced yet? How about if we said you can do it anywhere? Even if you live in an apartment and don’t have a yard, you can use the compost for houseplants or donate it to a local farm or community garden. When done correctly, composting is clean and odor-free. All you need is some basic information to get started.

Step 1: Figure out where and how you’ll compost.

The very first step is deciding whether you’ll be composting inside or outside. If you have a yard, composting outdoors is ideal. If not, you can compost indoors on your countertop, under the sink or in a corner of your kitchen. There are different options for both.

Outdoors: Outside composting can be done using a bin or a pile. A bin makes composting neater and more manageable. It also keeps animals away and helps to regulate moisture and temperature. Whether you use a bin or a pile, here are some options and things to consider for each:

  • Rotary-style Composter Bin: These bins can be placed anywhere. They keep all material organized and off the ground, are also easy to turn and produce compost quickly. On the other hand, the compost can dry out quickly, so you may need to add water frequently.
  • On-ground Composting Bin: These bins keep material contained, but in contact with the soil, which keeps the compost moist and adds naturally occurring microbes and worms. You can either buy this type of bin or make one yourself.
  • Compost Pile: If you choose to compost in a pile on the ground, a good minimum size for a pile is at least one cubic yard or one cubic meter. Also consider using a tarp to cover the pile. This will keep the compost at a good moisture level.

Indoors: If you don’t have space for an outdoor compost pile, you can compost materials indoors using a special type of bin, which you can buy at a local hardware store or gardening supply store. There are several types of bins available:

  • Hot Automatic Indoor Composter: If you’re willing to shell out a little extra, tuck this little gem under the sink and watch it do its magic. It can heat, mix and aerate up to five pounds of food a day and turns just about anything into compost, including dairy, meat and fish, which usually can’t be composted.
  • Bokashi Composter: A Bokashi composting container is a smaller, more aesthetically pleasing indoor version of an outdoor composter. Bokashi microbes “digest” scraps into ready-to-go compost in about two weeks, odor-free.
  • Worm Composting System: Composting worms digest organic matter and break it down into “castings”—in essence, worm poop that’s nutrient-rich and great for gardens. A bit trickier than automatic composters, vermicomposting (or worm composting) may require conditioning of the worms before they’re ready for a full-scale onslaught of kitchen scraps.

Step 2: Choose the right materials.

Anything that was once alive (organic) will compost, but not all things that were alive should be composted. It also depends on the method you use to compost. Hot automatic composters can take just about anything you want to dish out, provided it’s organic. That said, here’s a quick list of dos and don’ts for most methods of composting:

Do Compost

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Egg, peanut and nut shells
  • Stalks, stems and vines
  • Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags
  • Bark
  • Wood ashes (in limited amounts)
  • Manure (horse, cow, chicken & rabbit)
  • Garden clippings
  • Leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Apple cores and citrus rinds

Do Not Compost

  • Meat and fat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Bones
  • Dairy products
  • Plastic or synthetic fibers
  • Diseased plants
  • Vegetable oils
  • Dog and cat feces
  • Weeds which have gone to seed
  • Invasive weeds
compost items

Step 3: Prepare your composting site.

First, choose a location near a water source in your yard or garden for your compost pile or bin. The amount of sun or shade doesn’t matter as much as convenience. If it’s not in a convenient place, you probably won’t deposit the composting material regularly.

If you’re planning to compost inside your house or apartment, choose a place to put your composting container—pretty much anywhere you’d place a kitchen garbage can.

Step 4: Fill your bin or pile with a balanced mixture of compost.

All composting requires three basic ingredients:

  • Brown Materials: These materials are high in carbon and serve as the “fiber” for your compost. They include sawdust, dried flowers, dead plants and leaves, branches and twigs.
  • Green Materials: These nitrogen-rich materials make up the rest of the debris and include grass clippings, young weeds, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, tea bags, coffee grounds, yarrow, and chicken, rabbit or pigeon manure.
  • Water: Keeping the right moisture level is also important in composting.

For backyard composting, add brown and green materials as you collect them, making sure any large pieces are chopped or shredded, and moistening dry materials as they are added. Once you have an established compost pile, mix grass clippings and green waste into the pile and bury fruit and vegetable waste under 10 inches of compost material. If you have a compost pile instead of a bin, you may also want to cover it with a tarp. For indoor composting, follow the instructions on the kit or container you purchased.

Step 5: Maintain the right water, air and temperature levels.

  • Water: Your compost should be kept at about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge—moist but not soggy. Otherwise, the materials won’t decompose. So make sure you add enough water to maintain the right consistency.
  • Air: Oxygen is essential for decomposition. For compost piles, fluff with a pitchfork or hoe every time you add material, and do a more aggressive turning in the spring and fall. Less frequent turning results in slower composting. (Note: Turning a compost pile can be labor intensive, but you can purchase special compost aerating tools, which are good alternatives to using a shovel or pitchfork. Rotary composting bins also make the process of turning easier.)
  • Temperature: Temperature is also very important. The simplest way to track the temperature of your compost is by feeling it. If it’s warm or hot, that’s a good sign. But if it’s not, you need to add more green materials to the bin or pile.

For indoor composting, follow the instructions on the composting kit or bin you purchased. Each type of composter has specific instructions on use and maintenance.

Step 6: Harvest and Use Your Compost

Composting can take anywhere from two weeks to two years. When the material at the bottom of a compost pile is dark and rich in color, it’s ready to use. You may wish to sift it through a coarse mesh screen or use your hands or pitchfork to remove any larger chunks that haven’t quite broken down. Any large particles that can’t be broken apart can be put back in the compost pile or bin.

  • Use it in Your Garden: Apply one to three inches and work the compost into the top four inches of soil about one month before planting. It can also be used as a top dressing or mulch throughout the summer.
  • Use it as Potting Soil: Filter the compost through a ½” sieve, then combine equal parts of compost, sand and loam.
  • Use it on Your Lawn: Apply ¼” of compost to stimulate biological activity in the turf.
  • Donate it: If you have more compost than you can use, donate it to a community garden, a local farm or a friend or neighbor.