How to Compost: the Complete Guide


Call me a dirt girl, but I’ve always loved composting. There’s something very special about helping nature along in the process of turning orange peels and carrot tops into dark, rich, fertile soil. There’s such joy in helping to create more of the soil that grows the food that sustains us – and the cycle is complete. To the novice, it may seems like a messy and mysterious process, but done right, composting is tidy, easy and fairly low-maintenance. Here’s how to do it.

- Choose your bin or composter. You can buy a commercial composter, which can be very tidy and makes turning easy, or you can make your own bin in the backyard out of a barrel or plywood scraps. Ultimately, what you need is to have a system which makes it easy to add and remove the content and move things around if you’d like to turn and aerate.

- Choose your spot. You don’t want to have to walk a long distance from the kitchen to the compost pile, otherwise you might get lazy and avoid taking your scraps out. At the same time, you don’t want your compost area to be right next to the front door. Choose a discreet spot, preferably in the shade.

- Collect food scraps in your kitchen. An attractive container on your kitchen counter will help remind you to collect the scraps and not toss them into the trash. You should empty your container into the outdoor compost pile at least every 2 or 3 days. If you can, rinse your container outside. Soapy water is good when you need it, but if you have a fireplace or firepit, a handful of wet ash makes a great, eco-friendly scrub to remove any residue that may build up over time.

- “Seed” your compost. You see, compost, the dark, rich fertilizer that comes out at the end of the composting process, is more than just dirt – it’s alive. Tiny bugs and bacteria are needed to break down the food scraps and turn them into rich, fertile soil. When starting a compost pile from scratch, it may take months before a healthy balance of bugs and bacteria move in, but if you have access to a few handfuls of  finished compost from a friend’ s bin or a garden store, it will help speed up your process. If you don’t have that, a shovelful of healthy, worm-filled garden soil will also do it.

- Start with your scraps. Start the bottom of the pile out with some dry scraps, such as dry grass clippings, dry leaves, and even some cut up twigs and plant stems. This will keep the “wet” waste (like fruit and veggie scraps) from becoming too moist on the bottom of the bin at the start of your process. Continue tossing organic matter into the compost bin as you go along.

- Know what to throw. Not every organic material is appropriate for a compost pile! Meat, cheese and processed foods are a composting no-no because they’re likely to attract vermin and give off quite unpleasant odors. Also, the feces of any carnivore are out (but things like goat or bunny poo are great, if you’ve got “Ëœem). Take note: you do have more options than just banana peels and watermelon rinds; there are plenty of surprising things you can compost.

- Achieve brown and green balance. For the most efficient composting, it’s best to have a balance of “brown” matter (dry stuff, like dry grass, dry leaves, shredded paper, etc) and “green” matter (the wet stuff, like fresh grass clippings and your fruit and veggie scraps). The proper ratio is about 5:1, brown to green. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be scientific in your measurements, but every time you add a bunch of wet vegetable waste, cover it up with a layer of dry leaves or grass. Layering dry over wet keeps odor and excess insect activity down.

- Avoid weeds and seeds. If you pull up a big bunch of weeds with forming seedpods and put them in your compost, there’s a good chance those seeds will survive you’ll be soon fertilizing your garden with weeds again. Unless you’re sure your compost pile is maintaining a very hot “cooking” temperature in the middle, I’d avoid throwing weeds in there. If you can, burn the weeds and put the ash in your compost. Or simply create another compost pile for them, which won’t be used in the garden.

- Turn and aerate. Some people say you can leave a compost pile alone, but I personally think you’ll get better results if you turn it regularly. Many commercial composters have a hand crank so you can just turn it round and round. Wooden slat bins are built best in pairs, so you can shift the contents from one side to the other. Airing out your compost helps keep an aerobic environment, because if compost gets too compacted, it becomes anaerobic and the good bugs and microbes won’t thrive. Turning your compost also prevents the growth of mildew. You should strive to turn your compost about once a week, but it’s not a big deal if you can only manage it every two or three weeks. If worse comes to worse and you’re too busy to turn it for months on end, don’t worry, it will still survive!

- Monitor moisture. You want your pile to be neither too wet nor too dry. If you have an outdoor bin and it’s been raining cats and dogs, consider covering it with a tarp so it doesn’t get waterlogged. And if it’s the dead of summer and your veggie scraps turning crispy, spray some water on it to keep it moist.

- Time to harvest your compost! At some point you’ll notice that a lot of what were once recognizable food scraps are now crumbly, black soil. The smell should be pleasant and earthy – that’s how you know your compost is cooked. My favorite way to harvest finished compost is to use a homemade sifter, gather up the crumbly compost for the garden, and throw the twiggy, unfinished parts back into the pile for further decay. Of course, if sifting isn’t your cup of tea, just stop adding new scraps to your pile and within a month or two it should all be perfectly suitable for the garden. This is why a two or three bin system is ideal.

- Relax and enjoy the process! Compost piles are very forgiving and it’s fun to watch nature at work. You almost can’t mess it up – nature knows how to do its thing. But if you keep the above tips in mind, you’ll have a faster acting, more efficient system.

I hope you find composting as fulfilling and rewarding as I do. I don’t even have a garden at the moment, but I continue to compost because I just can’t stand the thought (or the smell!) of food scraps turning into stinky slime in my plastic garbage bag. Better they go back into the ground where they belong!

Image: Indoor Compost Bucket at Smith and Hawken