dirt in garden bed with yellow buck and green trowel learning how to compost

How to Compost

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Learning how to compost is much easier than you think

The weather is warming up and thoughts of gardening is in the air. If you’re looking to create a more low-waste home, gardening and composting can go hand in hand. 

Learning how to compost can feel a little overwhelming. No one wants a smelly pile of garbage sitting in their yard. But done correctly, there aren’t any bad smells,  and it’s really pretty simple.  I’m going to share some basic info about compost and then I’ll give you a few of my tips on how to compost.

About 30% of what we Americans throw away is food and yard waste. Much of it can actually be recycled into compost, significantly reducing what ends up in landfills.

When getting started composting, there are just a few things you need to keep straight: 

  1. What can go in the compost bin 
  2. Balancing greens and browns 

So what can go in compost?

bowl of vegetable and fruit scraps for compost

It’s pretty simple: Fruits and vegetables, plants, egg shells, coffee/tea grounds, shredded newspaper or paper packing material, grass clippings, leaves, sawdust/wood chips (not from chemically treated wood though), hay/straw.

And what should NOT be composted?

According to the EPA:
Black walnut tree leaves or twigs (Releases substances that might be harmful to plants)
Coal or charcoal ash (Might contain substances harmful to plants)
Dairy products such as butter, milk, sour cream, & yogurt along with eggs (Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies)
Diseased or insect-ridden plants (Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants)
Fats, grease, lard, or oils (Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies)
Meat or fish bones and scraps (Create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies)
Pet wastes such as dog or cat feces or soiled cat litter (Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans)
Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides (Might kill beneficial composting organisms)

What’s this about greens and browns?

When learning how to compost, the biggest thing is keeping a good balance between green and brown matter to get the best compost as quickly as possible. Green matter is nitrogen rich and includes fruit and vegetable scraps, grass/plant clippings, coffee grounds, and eggshells. The browns are carbon rich and generally are, well, brown: dry leaves, hay, cardboard,  paper, wood chips. 

You need (by volume) more browns than greens – generally try for a 4:1 ratio of brown:green. I save the brown paper packaging material from my Thrive and Misfits orders along with the boxes, we keep a stash of leaves as much as we can as well. I’ve been known to get things out of balance but then by adding some extra brown material, it doesn’t take much to get it back where it needs to be. 

Getting started

double barreled black compost bin from amazon learning how to compost

Once you make the decision to learn how to compost, pick a spot in your yard. Pick a sunny spot – the warmth from the sun will help everything break down much faster.There are ways to compost using worms that can be done in a garage or other cool area, but I do not have any experience with that. We’ve always used a compost bin. Since it’s mostly just me and my husband now, we bought a drum style bin that has two compartments – fill up one side and let it “cook” and then switch to the other to keep adding your scraps. We’ve found that by the time one side is full, the other is ready to be dumped. If we had more people in the house, I’d just get two full size bins and use in the same way. You can buy something like this, or just make an open pile. We like the bin as it contains everything, the heat of the sun on the bin speeds things up. It’s easy to turn and mix up the contents and it keeps critters away.

stainless compost bin with lid for the kitchen when learning how to compost

We collect our kitchen scraps in this bin from Thrive. It has a filter in the lid so there is never any odor from the contents. I keep it out on the counter and even in the heat of summer, had no problems with aroma or bugs. 

I keep cardboard and paper in a stack in our storage area. In the Fall, we just scoop up leaves from the yard and stuff them in the bin. 

While you can just pile everything up and wait for nature to take its course, it’s a good idea to turn or mix up your compost when you add fresh material. We just rotate our drum, but if you have a pile, a pitchfork will be your friend. Keep it moist but not soggy. If it’s super dry, add some water, and if it’s too wet, some additional brown material can help. Even if you’re not adding new material, mix or turn your compost weekly to keep things moving along. 

If the center of your compost is hot, you have all the right pieces in place. If it’s not, don’t stress. Check your balance of green:brown. It may just take a little longer for your compost to be ready.


When is it ready?

When it’s dark, crumbly, with a earthy smell, you are good to go. It can take a few weeks or a few months (it definitely takes longer over the winter months). The bin we have now works pretty quickly, especially if we are diligent about turning. 

Learning how to compost has been a great way to reduce our waste AND have amazing “black gold” to add to our garden. We also use other easy low cost and low waste tricks to add nutrients to the garden like this Banana Peel Tea.

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