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Home Composting Basics

Practically everything you need to know to get started composting is below, or download our User's Guide to Backyard Composting Guide (PDF).

Why compost?

You paid for all of your food, including the scraps like fruit and veggie peels, egg shells, and apple cores, so don't throw them away! There are many benefits to composting for you, your community, and the larger environment. People 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 several inches 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, you can put more thought and time into your compost system.

What should I put in my compost pile?

The process of composting requires five main elements:

  • Browns: Organic materials that are relatively high in carbon are 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. Read our tips for collecting food scraps in your kitchen.
  • 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 ratio of ingredients for composting organisms is 1/4 greens and 3/4 browns by volume. 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. No food scraps should be visible from anywhere outside the pile.

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 a small amount of 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.

What to keep out of your compost pile

Meat, bones, fish, dairy, oils, and fats should not be included in your home compost pile because they can create odors that attract wildlife and pets and they can take a long time to break down in a cool compost pile. Animal products like meat and dairy can be dropped off for composting instead. Egg shells are OK to include in your home compost pile. 

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 feet tall, 3 feet wide and 3 feet 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 interested

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

  • Add more browns! Not having enough browns will cause the pile to produce odors that attract wildlife.
  • Cover all food; bury food at least 6 inches into the pile when adding it. No food scraps should be visible from anywhere outside the pile.
  • Line the bottom and walls of your bin with hardware cloth (wire mesh).
  • Sprinkle cayenne pepper around the base of the pile to discourage rodents.