The Ultimate Composting Guide for Total Beginners

published Apr 22, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Alex Brannian

There are a lot of small changes you can make at home in an effort to reduce your environmental impact: eating more vegetarian meals, switching to low-flow shower heads and toilets, or voting in every election to support candidates who advocate for green policy changes, for instance. One other (surprisingly) easy way to make a difference? Reducing your food waste and turning any scraps into a nutrition-dense soil additive through composting.

Starting to compost sounds intimidating, but experts say that it’s easier than it seems. “The hardest part in getting started was just… starting,” says Sarah Robertson-Barnes, the blogger behind Sustainable in the Suburbs and a 20-year veteran of home composting. “There are so many methods and techniques that I was overwhelmed with where to begin.”

But Robertson-Barnes was able to create a routine that worked for her once she narrowed in on a beginner-friendly technique. “Eventually, I just decided that a low-effort method was good enough — and it is!” she says.

Like Robertson-Barnes, you might be overwhelmed about all the possible styles, techniques, and equipment that can be part of the composting process. Never fear! Here’s a guide that breaks things down (pun intended) for total beginners, whether the work is happening in a yard, a balcony, or in no outdoor space at all.

First: What is composting?

Composting is the process of turning food scraps, yard waste, and other materials into the ultimate soil booster. There are two main ways this matter is broken down: by microorganisms or by worms. (Yes, worms!) You can do both at home.

To compost, you’ll need a composting container that you keep either in your home or outside. This can be an initial turn-off for some beginners, says Jen Panaro, who blogs about eco-friendly living at Honestly Modern and started her own local composting service called WasteWell.

“Lots of people seem to think that it’s gross to collect their food scraps in a bucket under their sink,” Panaro says. “But most people already keep their food scraps in their trash can, which lives under their sink or in their kitchen. They forget that separating food scraps and disposing of them through a different waste stream isn’t all that different from what they do now.”

Which type of composter do I want to be?

Home composters fall into two camps: Those who go through the entire process of turning their scraps into fertilizer, and those who collect their food scraps to deposit at a community drop-off where someone else takes care of the composting.

If you have a yard, patio, or balcony where you garden, the full composting process will be well worth it for you. This homemade soil enrichment will keep plants healthy by helping with soil drainage and aeration and preventing disease, among other benefits. And you don’t have to keep your compost usage outside, either. Kathryn Kellogg, eco-minded author and blogger at Going Zero Waste, says she’s used her own compost for her houseplants as well as her patio garden.

If you don’t have any outdoor space or indoor plants, composting is still something you can do! You have a couple of options: First, you can keep a bin that turns your food waste and other material into compost, which you can list for free on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. “I promise it will be immediately snapped up,” Kellogg says.

But if that seems like too much trouble, the lowest-lift lane is still open to you: Collecting food scraps to drop off with a local composting service. You might have a local one, like Panaro’s WasteWell, which will do home pickup. You can also scout out community drop-off locations for food scraps, which are often offered at farmers markets.

“If it’s accessible, I highly recommend using a service to get started,” Panaro says. “It’s so easy, and it’s a great way to get used to separating food scraps and learning what you can compost before having to manage a compost pile yourself. If you use a compost collection service, you really shouldn’t need any other resources. They will provide instructions about what they collect and how to use their service.”

Ok, but: Worms?

You do not have to use worms! Although, if you’re curious, this type of compost is called vermicompost and is made up of the waste worms leave as they eat through the scraps. There are only a few types of worms that will work for this job, with the best option being the red wiggler (yes, that’s the real name). It’s a fairly hardy worm that can tolerate a range of temperatures, so it’s a good bet no matter where you might be located. They can live outdoors in many climates, but if you live somewhere with extra cold temperatures, you will probably have the best luck keeping these indoors.

No, you don’t have to dig up your own worms — and really, you shouldn’t, since you’re not likely to get the right kind. Instead, you’ll purchase worms from a worm farm. Most will sell them by weight, and a pound is about 1,000 red wigglers. You might be able to source your worms locally by asking for recommendations at nurseries or botanical gardens in your area. Otherwise, you can also order them online. You’ll need to make sure whatever container you use is specifically made for worm composting.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Prop Styling: Alex Brannian

So, how do I start?

If you’re making your own compost, start to finish, and want to use it for your garden or houseplants — or give it away — you’ll need to make sure that you achieve the correct balance of materials.

Great compost comes from a mix of green matter with brown matter. You’ll need to add both in a 50/50 ratio.

Examples of Green Matter

  • garden trimmings
  • fresh leaves and flowers
  • grass clippings
  • fruit and vegetable scraps
  • coffee grounds
  • tea bags

Examples of Brown Matter

  • fall leaves (must be dry)
  • small twigs
  • straw
  • egg shells
  • shredded newspaper
  • corncobs
  • nutshells
  • wood shavings or sawdust from untreated wood

Note that there are some materials you should definitely not add to your compost, including:

  • poison ivy
  • diseased plants
  • plants treated with pesticide
  • invasive weeds
  • sawdust and shavings from chemical-treated wood
  • meat or fish scraps
  • dairy products
  • fats, grease, and oil
  • colored or glossy paper
  • kitty litter or cat or dog feces

Another to add to that list: non-cardboard packaging materials that say they’re compostable. “Be very careful with “compostable” packaging. These items typically require an industrial composting facility and may not be accepted by your local municipal program,” Robertson-Barnes says. “Unless it is clearly marked as ‘home compostable,’ it will likely not break down in your pile, even after many years. I’ve tried!”

Once you have your material, add it in a 50/50 ratio to your container (more on that below). Alternate the green and brown layers for best results. You might need to add a little water to the mixture, which should be damp but not dripping — often compared to a wrung-out sponge. Monitor the moisture over time and add more as needed, so that the pile doesn’t dry out. If you find it’s too wet, you can add more brown matter.

“I generally approach it with a lot of trial and error, and live by the mantra to ‘Take a Peak, Take A Whiff, and Dig In’ to figure out what the compost pile needs,” says Panaro. “I add more greens when the pile looks too dry, and more browns when the contents get too wet or start to smell trashy. You can fix almost any compost pile even if it’s gone astray.”

Healthy, well-balanced compost piles smell a little sweet and earthy, and not at all like rotting garbage. (Meat and dairy products contribute to stink, so that’s why they’re on the do-not-add list.)

You’ll need to turn your compost regularly using a shovel or likeminded tool every two weeks to make sure that the mixture is well-aerated. Note that composting processes slow or stall in colder temperatures, so in the winter, you won’t need to turn. In fact, any turning at all can cause the pile to lose heat. Your pile will continue with the decomposition process unless it’s completely frozen.

It can take as little as three months to create compost if you have a small container, or up to a year or more if you have a larger one. You can speed up the process by chopping all of your compost additions into smaller pieces before adding. You’ll know your compost is ready when it looks like dark, crumbly soil.

If you’re collecting scraps for a local composter, all you’ll need to do is fill your designated container with the scraps, then drop it off when it’s full. That’s it!

Credit: Daisy Daisy/Shutterstock

What kind of container do I need?

It depends! For full-on outdoor composting, you’ll want something that allows you to easily access the “done” compost, while also keeping out critters. Panaro recommends Algreen’s Soil Saver, which allows compost to filter through various layers to the bottom, where it can be scooped out for use. It’s also relatively affordable at under $150.

If you live in a raccoon-heavy (or bear-heavy) area, Robertson-Barnes recommends something with additional protection. “Toronto is raccoon central,” she says. “Even my backyard bin with a twist-on lid has two large stones on top to keep them out. Not a deal-breaker, but if I was purchasing a new bin or tumbler, something with a critter-proof latch would be on the top of the list.”

For composting in a tight space, like a patio or balcony, you’ll be better served by a more compact compost bin. A compost tumbler like this one will let you turn the whole container — kind of like a bingo cage — so that you don’t ever have to go in and turn the pile manually.

“Stand-up bins are easy, but I would say a tumble bin is going to be the easiest, especially if you have little-to-no balcony space,” says Kellogg. “And if you live in a colder climate, you can keep it moving a lot easier than if it was just a standalone bin.”

The one downside is that you’ll have to wait for the entire container to compost before you can use any of the material, since there’s no way to separate the finished compost from the still-baking scraps. But regardless of what container you use, you’ll need to make sure that there is proper aeration to allow the microbes to do their job in breaking down the material.

Worm composting requires a slightly different container, which you can find locally and online. Robertson-Barnes likes this one from “local legend” Cathy Nesbitt, who is known as “The Worm Lady.” Similar options are available stateside, but Robertson-Barnes encourages readers to buy local, no matter their container.

And lastly, if you’re collecting scraps indoors — whether to take out to your pile at a later time, or to drop off at a collection center — you’ll need a small container that fits on the counter or under the sink.

“If you are storing food scraps on your counter, which is what I do at home, I highly recommend a countertop bin with a charcoal filter inside the lid,” Panaro says. “It really helps eliminate any issues with fruit flies, especially in warm weather.”

No counter space? You can also store scraps in a bag in the freezer.

Credit: Ashley-Belle Burns/Shutterstock

And what happens after?

Now’s the fun part — using it! You can mix compost straight into the soil of your garden beds, patio planters, or indoor potted plants. In general, try for one-to-two inches of compost in the top three-to-five inches of soil. Make sure the compost is fully broken down before using it, since scraps of food can attract bugs and other critters.

Credit: Singkham/Shutterstock

Where can I find more info?

Resources on composting abound. Here are some of our experts’ favorite picks, plus some extras:

Credit: Apartment Therapy

This piece is part of Green Week, where we’re talking about ways to make eco-friendly choices and contributions at home. Head over here to read more!