How To Start Composting: Materials, Methods & Pro Tips For Beginners
Composting at home is a great way to reduce your environmental impact, and it's not as intimidating as you might think. Here are the ins and outs of starting to compost your food and yard waste at home, no matter where you live.
How composting benefits the planet.
Composting is a natural way to repurpose organic matter like food scraps and yard waste. "You take everyday trash and throw it into a designated place where the bugs and bacteria can eat it," says Lexie Gough, master gardener and founder of Hardy Homemade. "Eventually, it decomposes into a dark dirt, often nicknamed black gold, which is really nutritious for your plants."
In addition to making rich soil, compost also cuts down on waste that ends up in landfills, reducing the amount of methane—a greenhouse gas with a much greater warming potential than carbon dioxide—released into the atmosphere.
"Compost allows me to contribute in a beneficial and sustainable way to the cyclical process of healthy plant development and food production right in my garden," Ashlie Thomas, organic farmer and founder of The Mocha Gardner tells mbg.
Choosing your compost method.
There are many compost methods to consider including open-air, direct, tumbler, worm farm, effective microorganisms (EMO), hot, cold, and a combination of any of the former. It can seem overwhelming, but technically, there are only three types of composting: aerobic, anaerobic, and vermicomposting.
You can narrow down your options by considering the space you have to work with, where you live, the amount of waste you have, the container you have to use, and how much time you have on your hands.
"Opt for smaller composting methods if you have a smaller space or if you lack the capacity to maintain a larger compost pile," says Thomas. Anaerobic "cold" composting is typically the easiest method for beginners, as it basically lets nature do the work and leaves waste to break down slowly over a long period of time. We outline how to do it below.
If starting your own compost pile just isn't in the cards—say, if you don't have outdoor space and aren't crazy about keeping worms in your home—here are a few other ways you can keep your organic waste out of the landfill:
- Check with your municipal government agency or county extension office to find a composting program that will take your organic scraps off your hands.
- Contact your local trash removal service provider to see if they collect organic scraps.
- Connect with local farmers markets and stores that take scraps for their compost.
What can be composted?
"It's important to add two different types of organic material to your compost: nitrogen-rich materials (the greens) and carbon-rich materials (the browns)," says Gough. These include:
- Newspaper & paper scraps
- Yard trimmings
- Fireplace ashes
- Pet fur
- Dryer lint
- Toilet paper rolls (it's paper!)
- Pine needles
- Wood chips
- Clothes made entirely from natural fibers (wool or cotton) and natural dyes
- Dry leaves
- Eggshells (best crushed)
- Fruit (minus the sticker)
- Coffee grounds & filters
- Tea leaves
- Manure (herbivore only)
- Seasonings & herbs
- Alcohol (wine, beer, and liquor in small amounts)
What can't be composted?
- Meat & fish scraps
- Fats, grease, and oils
- Pet waste
- Human waste
- Diseased plants
- Yard waste treated with chemicals
- Black walnut tree branches (they can be toxic to animals and plants)
"For bones and shellfish shells, you can actually dehydrate them and pulverize them for using in the soil as a source of calcium," Thomas tells mbg. Anything else can go in the regular garbage.
From what our experts explained, cold composting is the easiest method to get started at home. It's about "just starting and getting into a habit thinking about setting aside the materials needed for composting," Gough tells mbg. Here's how it's done.
- A compost bin that's ideally at least one cubic yard (three feet by three feet). You can buy one or make your own.
- A mixing device, such as a shovel or pitchfork
- Brown matter
- Green matter
- Place your bin in a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day and is easy to access. Preferably, it will be close to a hose too. "It will also need good drainage, as standing water can impede the decomposing process," says Gough.
- Gather the brown and green matter materials you want to add to your compost pile. Thomas suggests "adding a three-to-one brown-to-green-matter" ratio.
- Mix and water the materials. "Mixing your compost aerates and gives the microorganisms responsible for decomposition oxygen," says Gough. "Watering your compost keeps it from drying out."
- Then, let it sit. "It's important to note that composting takes time, so be patient!" Gough tells mbg. It could take up to a year for it to turn into that black gold.
- "Turn the compost pile every two to four weeks," says Thomas. As you add more materials, remember to alternate your brown and green matter.
- Monitor the smell. "Your compost should have a neutral, earthy odor," explains Gough. If it starts to smell stinky, like it's rotting, give it a good mix and add some more browns.
- When your bin is full of fluffy deep brown soil, your compost is ready! It will be a great addition to the soil in your garden or houseplants. But there may be times when you can't use it all. "If you find you have excess compost, you can donate it to a local school or community garden, neighbors who garden, or even sell it!" Gough tells mbg.
Tips & tricks to try.
- Be mindful of the size of materials you throw in your compost. "While it's not required, materials that are cut up or shredded will decompose faster than if the materials are maintained in their original shape," says Gough.
- Keep in mind that "not all things break down at the same rate," Thomas tells mbg. If you notice a certain type of scrap is taking a while to break down, be sure to cut it into small pieces before placing it in your bin.
- Always have a balance of green and brown components. "Over-adding a certain material can cause an imbalance of ammonia and unpleasant odor," says Gough. Layer and strive for an earthy smell.
- Remember, you don't have to go it alone! "Connect with gardeners, farmers, and horticultural experts on social media," Thomas tells mbg. She also says that your local agriculture department can be a great resource.
The bottom line.
While composting at home takes some research and time to nail down the perfect situation for your lifestyle, it's extremely rewarding to be a part of the environmental effort—and it's never too late to start. You're throwing all that waste away anyway. Why not give composing a try?
Alex Shea is a storyteller and generational healing life coach with words in Byrdie, Verywell Mind, HuffPost, Shape, and more. Outside of publications, Alex writes stories that touch on, and sometimes intertwine, themes of grief and magic.
With a unique view on life, she taps into her own experiences to guide folks to live life for themselves, empowering them to explore their inner wild and find their own way in adulthood. Her weekly newsletter is a tiny way she furthers her mission to hold space for the unfathomable, romantic, and messy parts of life that make it that much more beautiful.