Composting 101: How and Why to Start a Composting Pile at Home

The What, the Why, and the How of Starting and Maintaining Your Own Compost Pile

compost and a scooper

It’s a given fact of life that garbage smells disgusting. But the thing is, it’s not supposed to. As much as 30% of the things going into your garbage are releasing that smell of rot and decay because they’re not being given the chance to break down properly. Letting them decompose in a natural environment isn’t only going to make your garbage smell more manageable; it’s also great for the environment and ideal for gardening. But what does that mean? And how do you do it? And why should you do it?

Read on to find out.

What is Composting?

Compost: what does it mean, what does it look like, and what goes into it?

fruit rotting in a compost pile
It’s more than just relegating the smelliest garbage to the outdoors. What exactly is compost? Image courtesy of Joshua Hoehne.

Composting is an environmentally friendly means of waste disposal promotes healthy soil microbes, increases the health of the local ecosystem within the soil, and provides a healthy growing environment for plants like tomatoes to fend off disease. When it comes down to it, compost is nothing more than simple decomposing organic matter. Compost is closely associated with fertilizer, but they are distinctly separate things. Fertilizer feeds plants; compost feed soil. The structure of a healthy compost pile mirrors that of natural decomposition, meaning it doesn’t smell like sour rot the way it does in the garbage. This is because of a stable balance of “brown” materials, “green” materials, and water, along with the proper ratio of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. It is vital to be mindful of what you put in composting, but the beauty of the process is that so long as you stick to simple guidelines, the natural process of decomposition will mostly take care of itself.

What to Compost

The overarching rule is that if it came from the ground, you can compost it. This rule has some exceptions, and there are also a myriad of things that can be composted that didn’t directly “come from the ground.”

Here’s a list of some of the things that might go into a compost pile:

  • Fruits, vegetables, nuts, fungi, legumes, etc., and associated byproducts (this can mean banana peels, melon rinds, mushy apples, nut shells, or anything else of the like)
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds, coffee filters, and tea bags
  • Shredded newspaper, cardboard, and some paper
  • Yard trimmings, grass clippings, and leaves
  • Houseplants or trimmings from plants (important: do not use diseased plant life)
  • Hay, straw, wood chips, and sawdust
  • Cotton or wool rags and lint
  • Hair and fur
  • Fireplace ashes

Here are some of the things that should NOT be composted:

  • Black walnut tree leaves or twigs, which release potentially harmful substances
  • Coal or charcoal ash, which also might be harmful to plants
  • Dairy or animal products, since they release foul odors and attract pests
  • Diseased or insect-ridden plants, which could infect the whole pile
  • Anything oily or greasy, for similar reasons as dairy and animal products
  • Pet waste like fecal matter or litter, which may contain parasites and pathogens that could be harmful to humans
  • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides, as this could disrupt the natural decomposition process of the pile

A Healthy Balance

As mentioned previously, a healthy balance of green to brown and of carbon to nitrogen is prudent. In general, “brown” components - things like dead leaves, branches, twigs, sawdust, and newspaper clippings - are dry, whereas “green” components - things like grass clippings, vegetable waste, and coffee grounds - still retain moisture. In order to minimize odor and encourage healthy decomposition, a compost pile should have roughly equal amounts of brown and green components, along with enough water to retain moisture throughout. This moisture helps break down the organic matter in the pile.

On the whole, brown materials provide carbon while green materials provide nitrogen, but this is not always strictly true. In general, a good compost pile has about 2 parts carbon to every part nitrogen, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Carbon-rich materials include corn stalks, shredded brown paper bags, peat moss, and wood ash, and contribute to the light, fluffy feeling of healthy soil. Nitrogen-rich materials include table scraps, seaweed and kelp, and coffee grounds.

Why Should You Compost?

How gardening helps your garden and your environment

two pairs of hands sifting through soil in a compost pile contained within a tub
The benefits of composting amount to so much that it’s less a question of why you should compost; it’s more a question of why you aren’t already. Image courtesy of Conscious Design.

Composting is good for the environment, there’s no doubt about that. But what exactly does that mean? The US Environmental Protection Agency explains that about 28% of materials that go into landfills can and should be composted. When these waste products go to landfills, they don’t get the oxygen they need to properly decompose, and instead end up taking up space and releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane. Avoiding this methane release means lowering your carbon footprint. When these materials are allowed to decompose naturally, not only do they not release harmful amounts of chemicals into the environment, but they also capture and eliminate VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) from the nearby air supply.

Composting encourages beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow and break down organic matter. This process of natural decay introduces microbes and microscopic organisms into soil, creating a dark, nutrient-rich form of soil known as humus. This compost-induced soil is so enriching for plants and soil that it is known among many gardeners as “Black Gold.” It is a highly effective natural alternative to chemical fertilizers, and helps prevent a number of diseases and pests common to plants. It also increases plant growth, making it a highly affordable method for increased harvest from vegetable and flower gardens.

All in all, the only reason not to compost is not knowing how to get started.

How Do You Compost?

Now that you know the what and the why, how can you bring composting into your life?

various herbs, some potted, planted within a compost pile in a wooden enclosure
It may seem like a lot, but composting is simple and relatively easy to manage. Image courtesy of Markus Spiske.

How you go about starting your own compost pile or bin is going to depend on whether you’re doing it indoors or outdoors.

Indoor Composting

Even if you have no direct place to deposit your compost, keeping it separate from the trash will still keep your home smelling better. Do a little research to see what organizations in your town offer composting resources, such as special bins for compost that won’t let foul odors permeate your house and a local center that will accept your compost. The local farmers market is usually a good place to start. Some cities even have special composting bins collected alongside trash and recycling bins. Or, if you have nowhere else to drop it off when your bin is full, see if you have a friend who needs more compost for their garden.

If you want to use your compost but have no outdoor space, indoor compost bins are a viable and DIY-able option. Remember that adding extra brown material will lower smell, and keeping your bin tightly sealed will mitigate the risk of attracting pests. Remember to stir your compost pile periodically to keep it aerated and avoid the methane buildup of landfills.

Outdoor Composting

You’re going to want to start by finding a dry, shaded spot of bare earth with some source of water nearby. You can choose to set the pile up in a tub or leave it as a simple heap, but if you go with the latter option, you may want to fence it in to avoid local critters getting into your compost. While these animals will not necessarily mess with the health of your compost, they will be attracted to plant growth and mess up your garden.

Begin with a layer of brown material, such as twigs and straw, and continue adding materials in layers, alternating at first between green and brown. Once your pile is started, the order of materials will not matter (no one’s asking you to separate your banana peels from your coffee grounds), but a strong foundation is as vital for compost as it is for anything else. Remember to chop or shred large pieces to encourage faster decomposition, and be sure to keep the pile moist. This means occasional watering and moistening dry materials when you put them in.

Mix in your compost, bury some of the fruit and vegetable waste 10 inches below the surface, and consider adding manure to give the pile a good starting point. Along with keeping the soil moist, it is imperative that you keep it aerated. You can accomplish this by turning over the pile with a shovel every other week, at which point you can also keep an eye out for any diseases or unhealthy smells. Cover the initial layers of the pile with brown material, or, to retain extra moisture, with a tarp.

Your compost pile will not be usable soil immediately, but in as little as a few months, the bottom layer will decompose into a dark, rich soil. That’s your Black Gold, ready to use.

Miriam Reid

Miriam Reid is a writer, musician, and history nerd based in Philadelphia, PA.
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