Did you know that up to 30% of what we throw away is yard and food scraps that can be composted? That’s a lot of material that doesn’t need to be taking up space in a landfill and producing greenhouse gasses. Best of all, that organic matter can become plant-feeding nutrient-rich compost you can use in your garden or for potted plants.

Benefits of Composting

If you like to garden, you’ve probably considered starting a compost pile or bin. Even if you’re not an avid gardener, composting has other environmentally friendly benefits too, including:

  • Reducing what goes into the landfill. As mentioned, about a third what goes into the landfill is organic material such as yard and food waste.
  • Recycling kitchen and yard waste. When this material decomposes in a landfill it contributes to methane gas (a type of greenhouse gas).
  • Helping soil retain water and reduce water loss. This not only reduces water use, but can help save on your utility bill.
  • Enriching soil. No matter the type of soil you have, adding compost can help. Is your soil sandy? Compost will help it retain water. Is your soil hard clay? Compost will help loosen it.
  • Reducing need for synthetic chemical fertilizers. Did you know chemical fertilizers in water runoff is a major contributor to pollution in our waterways?

Where to Compost

Composting can be as simple as creating a pile in your backyard, making a homemade bin, or purchasing special boxes, cones, and even tumblers (barrels or drums that rotate to mix the materials). Some cities and areas requires enclosed bins if you are composting food scraps, so check with your local government or waste company for guidance.

Here are the pros and cons of different composting methods and containers:

  • Piles:
    • Pros: simplest, least expensive method, as it needs no special equipment. Easy to access and turn the pile. Works great if you have lots of space and yard waste.
    • Cons: Can easily get too wet or too dry. Not a great choice if you have pets or critters who visit your backyard (raccoons, rats, possums, etc.)
  • Bins:
    • Pros: Looks nicer, contains compost, keeps moisture in, and helps keep animals out. Fairly easy to make if you are handy.
    • Cons: Can be expensive to purchase, depending on the type you choose.
  • Tumblers:
    • Pros: Makes compost quickly and easily. Good when space is an issue.
    • Cons: Can be expensive to buy and more involved to DIY.

Don’t have an outdoor space for composting? Consider vermicomposting, which works well indoors or in smaller spaces. Vermicomposting or worm composting is easy to maintain and doesn’t cost much, plus it can be a fun activity for young children to help with. You can buy a special bin for worm composting or make your own, but it will need to be inside so the worms don’t freeze in the winter or get too hot in the summer.

How to Start Composting

Composting works by decomposing organic material such as yard waste and kitchen scraps into a great amendment you can add to improve the quality of your soil. Making compost the right way (so it’s not smelly or messy) is a bit like following a recipe. For this recipe, you need four main ingredients:

  • Brown, or carbon-rich materials. This includes dry (hence “brown”) materials such as dried leaves, straw, woodchips, branches, etc. You can also add shredded recycled paper and cardboard to your compost.
  • Green, or nitrogen-rich materials. Fresh grass, tree, and shrub clippings are ideal. But you can also add kitchen scraps and manure (from horses, cows, and poultry), which are considered “green” materials—even though they aren’t “green” in color.
  • Water. Compost needs water, as dry materials are resistant to decomposition. To make compost, you need to keep things damp. But don’t let it get too wet, as excess moisture can keep out the last key ingredient, oxygen or air.
  • Air. While it might be tempting to try and tamp down your pile, the bacteria that help things decompose need oxygen to live. If your pile gets too wet or compacted, the good bacteria will die and things won’t decompose properly. You can keep your pile aerated by turning materials occasionally or poking holes in the pile with a pitchfork or stick.

What to Include in Your Compost

Here’s what you should and shouldn’t include in your compost:

 

  OK to Compost Not OK to Compost
GREENS
  • Fresh grass clippings
  • Fresh yard trimmings
  • Manure from cows, horses, or chickens
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Bread, rice, pasta (non-greasy)
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Tea bags
  • Nut shells
  • Herbicide-treated clippings
  • Seed heads and roots for invasive weeds like ivy, morning glory, crabgrass, etc.
  • Pet waste
  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Fat or oil
  • Greasy food scraps
  • Dairy products and eggs
BROWNS
  • Dried leaves
  • Twigs and small branches
  • Hay and straw
  • Woodchips, sawdust, or shavings
  • Shredded paper, cardboard,  paper towels
  • Wood ashes

 

  • Evergreen leaves (a little is OK)
  • Branches over a half-inch in diameter, blackberry stalks, and rose stems
  • Treated wood
  • Coated, colored, or wax paper
  • Charcoal ashes

 

Composting Diagram Photo

Creating the Right Compost Recipe

  1. If you have the option, it’s a good idea to place your compost pile or bin near a water source, and in a shadier location, if available.
  2. Your compost pile should have an equal amount of “green” and “brown” materials in alternate layers. So start with a layer of carbon-rich “brown” material, then one of nitrogen-rich “green” material, and repeat.
  3. Keep your compost pile moist, but don’t let it get too wet. This is where a lid on the bin helps, but you can use a tarp over your pile instead.
  4. Turn your pile with a pitchfork or shovel every week or two to make sure it gets air, and the temperature stays even. When your pile gets to about 3 ft. wide and 3 ft. tall, you can stop adding materials and start a new pile.
  5. It can take anywhere from three to six months to produce compost, depending on how balanced the mixture is and how attentively you tend to your pile.
Composting Steps Photo

Composting Tips and Troubleshooting

  • You can easily collect kitchen scraps in a store bought or DIY container.
  • If your compost is smelly or soggy, there may be too much “green” material, or not enough air. Add more “brown” materials, or turn the pile if it seems too compacted.
  • If your compost is too dry it will take a longer time to decompose.
  • If your pile attracts wild critters, make sure to bury your kitchen scraps to the middle of the pile.
  • Have too much yard waste? Your local waste company may also provide you with a separate barrel (often green or brown) for yard waste and other compostables. This material is then collected and composted at one or more central locations. Check with your waste company about what you can add to the barrel. Some places only allow yard waste, while other allow kitchen scraps as well.