Composting is nature’s way of recycling.
Want to reduce your trash while building healthy soil for your garden? One word… Compost. By turning your food scraps and yard trimmings into compost, you can transform your waste streams into a beneficial, value-added soil amendment and use it to help protect the environment.
Indoor Advantages to Composting
All those veggie bits and other food scraps left over from food prep can go into the compost container on your counter or in the fridge. This keeps them out of the kitchen drain/garbage disposal where they could possibly clog your pipes AND out of the trash can and landfill.
Outdoor Advantages to Composting
No need to bag up your leaves or grass clippings and wait for them to be picked up by the city or county truck—or delivered by you. No more plastic bags, no more yard waste sent to the landfill. AND, you won’t have to buy bagged compost from the garden center anymore to give your soil a boost.
What do you need to create healthy compost?
- Browns (two parts) — These ingredients include dry leaves, plant stalks, and twigs. These are the carbon-rich materials that provide food for the microorganisms to consume and digest.
- Greens (one part) — These ingredients include grass clippings and food scraps. These nitrogen-rich materials heat up the pile to create ideal conditions for the material to break down.
- Water (moisture)
- Air (oxygen)
What You Can Compost at Home
Nitrogen-Rich Material (“Greens”)
Food and vegetable scraps
Most grass clippings and yard trim
Coffee grounds and paper filters
Paper tea bags (no staples)
Carbon-Rich Materials (“Browns”)
Plant stalks and twigs
Shredded paper (non-glossy, not colored) and shredded brown bags
Shredded cardboard (no wax coating, tape, or glue)
Untreated wood chips
What to Avoid Composting at Home
Meat, fish and bones
Cheese and dairy products
Pet waste and cat litter
Fats, oils and grease
Treated or painted wood
Aggressive weeds/weeds with seeds
Diseased and pest-infested plants
Compostable food service ware and compostable bags*
Cooked food (small amounts are fine)
Herbicide treated plants
*Backyard composting piles do not generally reach high enough temperatures to fully decompose certified compostable food service ware and bags. These items are designed to be composted at commercial composting facilities.
Courtesy of EPA.gov
Steps for Backyard Composting
Determine how you will collect and store your browns and greens.
For greens, collect and store your fruit and vegetable scraps in a closed container on your kitchen counter, under your sink, or in your fridge or freezer. For browns, set aside an area outside to store your steady supply of leaves, twigs, or other carbon-rich material; these will be mixed with your food scraps.
Set aside space for your compost pile and build or buy a bin.
Choose a space in your yard for your compost pile that is easily accessible year-round and has good drainage. Avoid placing it right up against a fence and ensure there is a water source nearby. Your compost pile will break down in sun OR shade. Next, choose a type of bin for your pile. Bins can be constructed from materials such as wire, wood, and cinder blocks. They can also be enclosed in barrels and tumblers.
Prepare your ingredients for composting.
Try to chop and break your greens and browns up into smaller pieces (e.g., corn cobs, broccoli stalks, and other tough food scraps). Doing so will help the materials in the pile break down faster.
How to build your compost pile.
Start your pile with a four- to six-inch layer of bulky browns such as twigs and wood chips. This layer will absorb extra liquids, elevate your pile and allow air to circulate at the base of the pile. Then layer your greens and browns like lasagna. If needed, add a little water to dampen the pile.
Having the right proportions of ingredients in your compost pile will provide the composting microorganisms the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and moisture they need to break down the material into finished compost. When adding browns and greens to your pile, add at least two to three times the volume of browns (such as dry leaves) to the volume of greens (such as food scraps). Always ensure your food scraps are covered by four to eight inches of dry leaves or other browns.
Air and water are the other key ingredients in your pile. To ensure air circulation, add enough browns and turn your compost occasionally. To maintain moisture in your pile, ensure your combined materials have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
Maintain your compost pile.
As the materials in your compost pile begin to decompose, the temperature of the pile will initially begin to rise, especially in the center. A backyard pile, if well maintained, can reach temperatures of 130° to 160° F. High temperatures help reduce the presence of pathogens and weed seeds.
Turning and mixing your pile from time to time will help speed up the decomposition process and aerate the pile. Use a garden fork to turn the outside of the pile inward.
Monitor your pile for moisture, odor, and temperature and make adjustments as needed.
- If the pile is too dry, activity in the pile will slow or cease. Moisten the pile and turn it.
- If the pile has a bad odor, it may be too wet or need more air circulation. Add more browns/dry material to the pile and turn the pile.
- If the pile is not heating up, mix in greens and turn the pile.
Harvest your finished compost.
When your compost pile is no longer heating up after mixing, and when there are no visible food scraps, allow your pile to cure, or finish, for at least four weeks. You can relocate the oldest compost at the bottom of the pile to a separate area to cure or stop adding materials to your pile. After curing, your pile will have shrunk to about one-third of its original size.
Compost in a well-maintained pile will be finished and ready for use in about three to five months. Left untended, a pile may take a year to decompose. The compost will look dark, loose, and crumbly and smell like fresh soil. Most, if not all, of the materials that went into the compost pile should be decomposed.
Screen or sift your finished compost to filter out materials that didn’t break down—twigs, fruit pits, eggshells, and items like produce stickers and plastic. (You can make a homemade screener out of ¼ inch hardware cloth.) Pits, eggshells, etc. that you sifted out can be added back into the active pile or to a new pile.
Good to Know
- You can add compost to your flower and vegetable beds, window boxes, and container gardens; incorporate it into tree beds; mix it with potting soil for indoor plants; or spread a light layer on top of grassy lawns.
- Compost can be used as a soil amendment; simply mix in two to four inches of compost to the top six to nine inches of your soil.
- Compost can also be used as a mulch. Just loosen the top two to three inches of soil and add a three-inch layer of compost on the surface, a few inches away from plant stems and tree trunks.
- Compost improves the structure and health of your soil by adding organic matter.
- It helps your soil retain moisture and nutrients.
- It attracts beneficial organisms to the soil and reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizers.
- It reduces the potential for soil erosion.
Good to Do
- Keep food scraps out of your drain and reduce your waste by composting them.
- Add shredded paper to the bottom of your indoor compost container to absorb excess moisture.
- In addition to adding grass clippings to your outdoor compost pile, you can “mulch mow,” leaving the clippings on your lawn as a source of natural fertilizer.
- Keep your compost pile moist enough (remember: “wrung-out sponge”) and you’ll keep pests away.
- Encourage your neighbors to compost too!