Home Composting 101

Practically everything you need to know to get started composting. To download our new Backyard Composting Guide, click here.

Composting Goals

People may compost for different reasons. If your goal is to reduce the amount of trash you make by removing food and yard waste, and you don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, then you could use the “drop and run method.” This means simply throwing everything in the compost bin and then simply letting it rot. It will take longer to form usable compost, but requires virtually no effort. To keep odors down, just remember to cover each layer of fresh kitchen scraps or “green” materials with some sort of carbon source like hay or dry leaves. If you want to spend more time and are interested in a frequent supply of compost to use as a soil amendment, follow the instructions below more carefully.

What should I put in my compost pile?

The process of composting requires five main elements:

  • Browns: Food containing a carbon source is referred to as “browns.” Browns include dried leaves, hay, straw, and woody materials such as wood chips, sawdust or branches and twigs.
  • Greens: Food high in nitrogen is referred to as “greens.” Greens include fresh grass and plants, food scraps, and cow or horse manure.
  • Air: Your pile will compost with or without oxygen. However, the types of organisms that compost without oxygen produce smelly by-products, thus piles without air will tend to smell bad. Therefore it is better to make sure that your pile is aerated. Piles can be aerated by turning them once every few weeks, or by piling twigs or branches at the bottom when constructing the pile to allow air to reach the center. Too much air can dry out the pile.
  • Water: Your pile should be as moist as a wrung out sponge. If it is too wet, the oxygen-needing organisms will drown, and the odor-producing ones will take over. If it is too dry, the compost process will be much slower.
  • Heat: You don’t need to add heat. Your compost pile generates its own heat as materials break down.

The optimum food ratio for composting organisms is 1/3 greens and 2/3 browns.

Attracting micro and macroorganisms to your pile is helpful, since they actually do the composting work. Make sure your pile is in contact with the ground, or add soil, manure or finished compost to introduce organisms. Like people and animals, these organisms need food, air and water. The more ideal the conditions are in your compost pile, the more they will thrive and the quicker they will produce compost. Less than ideal conditions will produce a slower composting process because the organisms doing the work don’t like the living conditions.

Choosing a spot for my composter

Here are some tips for choosing a location to place your composter:

Proximity to the kitchen: If you will be adding food scraps to your compost pile, think about how far you want to walk to get to it, especially in the winter.
Proximity to the garden: Remember that when your compost is ready, you will need to transport it to the garden or wherever you will be using it.
Close to temporary storage space: If you are planning to construct your pile carefully, using the recipe listed below, then you will need space to store materials until they are ready to be added to the pile.
Good drainage: Make sure your compost pile is not in an area where water tends to collect and pool.
Sun or shade: Piles in sunny areas may need to be watered more often, but will also get more heat from the sun. Piles in shady areas may not need to be watered as often, but may also stay too damp.

How can I speed up the process?

The best way to speed up composting is to create ideal food, air and moisture conditions for the organisms, explained above. Other methods are:

  • Chop or blend materials into small pieces;
  • Alternate layers of browns and greens when constructing your pile, and mix well; and
  • Add worms or other composting organisms.
  • Maintain an optimum pile size of 3’ tall, 3’ wide and 3’ long.

Preventing odors

If your pile smells bad, there may be too much moisture or too many greens. Add more browns, mix to aerate, or add lime.

Preventing wildlife from becoming interestedscreenshot-1

To discourage wildlife from accessing your compost pile, try the following:

  • Add more browns
  • Cover all food; bury food at least 6 inches into the pile when adding it.
  • Sprinkle cayenne pepper around the base of the pile to discourage rodents.