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, you don’t have to spend a lot of time on it. To keep odors down, just remember to cover each layer of fresh kitchen scraps or “green” materials with plenty of “browns” like straw or dry leaves (see a complete list of browns below). If you are interested in a higher quality 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, dried grass, dry garden trimmings, and woody materials such as wood chips, wood shavings, cardboard, newspaper, egg cartons, sawdust, or branches and twigs.
  • Greens: Food high in nitrogen is referred to as “greens.” Greens include fresh grass and plants, food scraps, coffee grinds, tea bags, and cow or horse manure.
  • Air: Your pile will compost more quickly and without odors in the presence of oxygen, so it is important to make sure that your pile is aerated.  Piling twigs or branches at the bottom when constructing the pile will allow more air to reach the center.  Using plenty of browns, including bulkier twigs or wood chips, in a mix of different sizes will help create spaces for air.  Piles can be aerated by turning them once every few weeks to break up compacted areas.
  • 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.  Every time you add a volume of greens, add two to three times that volume of browns.  Mix the browns in with the new greens, then “cap” the pile with a layer of browns to keep down odors. 

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 your compost

Here are some tips for choosing a location to place your compost bin or pile:

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.
Good drainage: Make sure your compost pile is not in an area where water tends to collect and pool.
Sun or shade: You can compost in either sun or shade.

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
  • “Turn” the pile by moving or mixing it every few weeks.

Preventing odors

If your pile smells bad, there may be too much moisture or too many greens. Add more browns and turn to aerate and homogenize the pile.

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.