7 Simple Steps to Start Composting

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One of the tenets of organic gardening is to feed the soil, not the plant. The easiest (and cheapest) way to do this is by composting kitchen and yard scraps to make rich organic fertilizer. Composting is fairly easy and can be done almost anywhere (even in an apartment), so there’s no reason not to give it a try!

Benefits of Composting

There are many reasons to start composting. Here are some of the biggest ones:

Reduces Food Waste

The EPA estimates that 22 percent of solid waste that enters the landfill is food. Composting is a perfect way to divert a lot of that organic matter away from the landfill. While it’s still important to cut down on food waste by eating leftovers and using up produce before it goes bad, no one is perfect. So, composting the kitchen waste that can’t be saved is a great way to reduce food waste. It’s amazing what can be composted too. Anything from the inedible parts of your produce to nut shells and even toenail clippings (ew, right?) can be turned into garden fertilizer.

Saves Important Organic Material From the Landfill

Much of our food lacks the nutritional value it once had due to poor soil for growing. Most store-bought (and even farm or homegrown) food is magnesium deficient. When food is grown in nutrient-depleted soil, it becomes nutrient depleted as well. By composting our food waste we can add some of the nutrients present in food scraps back into the soil much more quickly than they if those scraps were sent to the landfill. Additionally, you can compost year-round, even in cold climates. The pile may slow down but will still decompose.

Creates Nutrient-Rich Soil

If you compost your kitchen and yard scraps, you end up with a perfect soil amendment. Adding compost to your garden beds helps improve the health of the plants as well as deter disease and pests. Compost also helps neutralize the pH of the soil for a healthier garden. Homemade compost is also free (or very cheap) to make and boosts the abundance of your garden almost instantly.

How Does Composting Work?

You probably know that composting breaks down organic matter, but you may not know how or why it’s better than leaving material to decay on its own. Organic material (like kitchen scraps, cut grass, twigs, etc.) will eventually decay and break down under most conditions. But composting creates the ideal conditions to help organic matter break down as quickly as possible with the help of microorganisms. The ideal conditions include:

  • A ratio of 1 part green material to 2 parts brown material, roughly. This helps heat the pile to the optimal temperature for organic matter to decompose (more on this below).
  • Enough water to be damp like a wrung-out sponge, but no more.
  • Plenty of oxygen (this is why turning or mixing the compost is important).

Once these conditions are met, composting can begin.

The Three Stages of Composting

There are three stages to the composting process:

  • The first stage is just a few days long. Mesophilic microorganisms (microorganisms that thrive in temperatures of about 68 to 113 degrees) begin physically breaking down the biodegradable material. As these microbes break down the organic matter, they produce heat. The temperature of the pile rises to about 104 degrees.
  • At this point, thermophilic microorganisms (these guys thrive in higher temperatures of up to 149 degrees) then take over and break down material into finer pieces. This goes on for a few weeks or months. The higher heat of this stage makes it easier to break down things like fat and meat. If the pile gets too hot, these microorganisms die off. Turning the compost heap regularly helps keep it from getting too hot.
  • The last stage brings the mesophilic microorganisms back after the material has been almost entirely broken down and the pile cools. These microorganisms finish the job.

When the compost is done, you can add it to your garden as rich fertilizer (or sell it to a neighbor!).

7 Steps to Composting

Now that we know how composting works, here are the steps you need to follow to do it.

Choose Composting Location

If you have outdoor space, find a spot to start your compost pile. Consider a place that gets some sun, does not have standing water, and is easy to get to every day.

If you’re in an urban location and don’t have access to an outside space for composting, you still have options. An indoor worm composting bin (below) may work for you.

You could also compost through your city’s municipal composting program if there is one in your area.

Choose a Compost Bin

Once you’ve decided on where you will compost, you will need to figure out what kind of bin will work best for you. There are three main types:

  • Indoor worm bin – Good for small spaces and urban setting where there is no outside space. This one is fantastic.
  • Compost tumbler – These are easiest to turn (you turn the handle and the drum rotates, “tumbling” the compost inside). These are good for anyone who doesn’t want to or can’t do the physical labor of turning compost with a pitchfork. But these are almost always made out of plastic, so a tumbler isn’t the most sustainable option.
  • Compost box – This is the simplest solution that most people can create in their yard. You just need three sides that are about 4 feet long and high (pallets or chicken wire and posts work) and a pitchfork. Add your materials and turn the pile manually every week. You can also use a trash can or similar receptacle with a lot of holes drilled in the sides (non-plastic one here).

(I learned while researching for this post that there are MANY kinds of composting containers, some more expensive and fancy than others. For example, there are composting bins that have different compartments so you can let one get hot and decompose while you add scraps to the next one. Find the one that works best for you and your situation, but don’t overthink it. Simple is sometimes the best choice!)

Learn What Is Compostable

As mentioned above, to compost, you need two types of materials: brown and green. Green (nitrogen-rich) material adds “fuel” to heat the pile and brown (carbon-rich) material adds energy for the microbes to break down.

Green materials might be:

  • Kitchen scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Seaweed
  • Garden waste
  • Yard waste
  • Weeds (try to avoid ones that have set seeds)
  • Outdoor animal manures (cow, horse, sheep, chicken, rabbit, etc. No pet manure.)
  • Wood ash

Note: Avoid adding diseased plants which can reinfect other plants in your garden.

Brown materials you can use:

  • Dry leaves
  • Wood chips
  • Straw or hay
  • Pine needles
  • Twigs
  • Sawdust
  • Paper (newspaper, paper plates, napkins, coffee filters; avoid colored paper)
  • Cotton fabric
  • Corrugated cardboard (no plastic or glossy materials)

If your compost pile is smelly, add more brown materials. If it’s slow to decompose, add more green.

Which Kitchen Scraps Are Okay for Compost?

“Kitchen scraps” is a term that could mean a lot of different things. Here are the kitchen scraps that can (and should) be composted:

  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags (only if tea bags have no staples and are made of paper, not plastic mesh)
  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Corn stalks (technically a brown material)

It’s best to keep oils, meats, dairy, and other animal products out of your compost bin to avoid pests. However, as mentioned above, it is possible to compost these items if your pile is hot enough and there is enough other material to fuel the pile.

Decide How You Will Collect Compostables

You can go as simple as a bowl on your countertop or you can choose something more visually appealing like a stainless steel canister. The benefit of using a compost canister or bin is that they usually come with charcoal filters to keep the smell down.

Start Layering

Once you have your compostable materials, you’re ready to start composting. The best way to get the right ratio is to add 2 parts brown material to 1 part green. You can keep your brown materials in a bag or other container next to your compost bin and throw some in with your kitchen scraps every day. When you’re building your pile, water each layer as you go to make sure the whole thing is damp.

Maintain The Compost Bin

Keep the pile damp, aerated, and with fresh material to compost. When your pile is about 4 ft square you can stop adding material and let it finish composting. Turn or mix the pile once a week to add important oxygen and keep it evenly moistened.

Harvest the Compost

After several months your compost will be ready to use. You can just use a shovel to add the compost to your garden. If there are a few kitchen scraps that haven’t decayed yet, it’s not a big deal. You can still add the compost to your garden soil. If there is a lot of undecomposed materials, wait a little longer to use the compost.

Need Compost Fast?

Use an organic compost starter to speed up the process.

Bottom line, it’s easy to get a compost pile started in your yard today. Follow these steps and you can make your own compost while diverting kitchen waste from the landfill. It’s a win-win!

Have you ever tried to compost? How did it go?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


23 responses to “7 Simple Steps to Start Composting”

  1. Kelly Avatar

    Love all these helpful tips! Just wanted to mention that for a spot to hold scraps inside the house, without the smell, I ended up buying one of those big glass jars of pickles from the grocery store. It’s a gallon in size and costs about $5, with the bonus of pickles! I store it under the kitchen sink and add the scraps through the week. The screw top does just fine to seal all the smells in, and I haven’t had any bug problems. Hope this helps someone else too!

  2. Janet Avatar

    Hi katie
    I’m wondering if you have any tips or knowledge about making yogurt from almond ( orother non dairy) milk. I tried once following powdered starter instructions and it failed quite badly! Is it possible?

  3. Samantha Avatar

    Around us we have these gorgeous giant pine and cedar trees. But no trees that make leaves or bushes that have sticks or shrubbery. What can I use for brown material? Do I have to buy wood chips and what not?

  4. Liz Avatar

    I would love an answer to Amanda’s question-love the idea of a tumbler but black plastic seems toxic.

  5. Amanda Avatar

    What compost tumblers do you recommend? It seems like nearly all of them are plastic, which does not seem like a good idea to me…

  6. Lara Avatar

    We have a vacation home that we are only at periodically. When there, I blend all of our compost able kitchen scraps in the VitaMix with a bit of water and then bury the sludge in a dirt area in the yard. I haven’t harvested the dirt yet but there are lots of earthworms when I turn it over. Is this type of composting okay?

  7. Adrienne Avatar

    I grew up in Ga where we had a big garden and a compost system– 2 pallet based sections so one could rest, etc. As a teacher, I used a worm bin in my classroom in the city– it was shocking how city kids knew so little about their food and how it came to be.
    Last year, I moved to Denver, and I started a fresh worm bin with my school in the greenhouse. We added lots of worms and it seemed balanced, but the worms always died. I wasn’t sure if I was doing something wrong with the elevation and humidity here.
    Fortunately, Louisville COLORADO, like Boulder, has municipal composting too. (:

  8. Shena Avatar

    As far as in-kitchen compost storage we found an old stainless steel ice bucket to be perfect! It has a rubber gasket seal so the stink doesn’t get out!

  9. Carolyn German Avatar
    Carolyn German

    but how do I “build” the greens from the browns in a everyday eating day? do I have to separate the leftover and then throw it in order? afterall they are going to get “turned”

  10. Heather Avatar

    Ok- this is the coolest idea ever. I really want one of those compost bins! I stopped saving stuff due to fruit flies. I started keeping my bucket on my deck, but that invited hornets too. Anyway, fabulous idea, I ‘d love one and I would love to see it try again for funding, if it didn’t get any before.

  11. kayle olson Avatar
    kayle olson

    Awesome! Just started my own compost bin(trash can)! I am gonna have some fantastic soil for my garden & plants!

  12. Jennifer Avatar

    For my compost system, I use a large, tough trash can. I drilled several holes for aireation and drainage–bottom, sides, and in the lid. Twice a week and after a rain I lay it on its side and roll it around a bit to stir it up and/or let excess water drain out. Helps my yard a little bit, too. So far, this has been an easy and effective method. It was a lot cheaper than commercial bins and tumblers; I don’t ever have a smell problem. I plan to buy one more large trash bin to start a second batch while this one turns itself into golden food for my garden beds.

    1. Kristen Avatar

      Jennifer, that’s great! I love your cost effective, resourceful method. I think the double system is smart too. That way you can process one batch all the way without adding fresh waste and throwing the chemistry off.

  13. Katie Flynn Avatar
    Katie Flynn

    glad to see this article. i previously lived in south carolina and had a worm factory in my garage. it worked out great, had a few fruit fly incidents though (i was adding food too quickly). now we live in SF bay area and there is curbside pick up! yay! for my worm bin (which is now outside – critters are less of a problem here) i have always kept a plastic container in the fridge and once a week empty into the worms. i will continue this method, but for my street side pickup they take many more things than i would put in my worm bin i.e. greasy takeout boxes, bones, really any leftovers. i havent yet come up with a good kitchen solution for storing those items. suggestions?

  14. Clea Willow Avatar
    Clea Willow

    I live in Telluride Colorado (8750 ft, 6 months of winter). When I lived on a couple acres I could just keep it outside and despite the cold it would maintain enough heat in the center to keep working! Now, I live in town…I have tried worms, my family of 5 with a csa and lots of carrots tops and kale stems overwhelmed them and they now live in my garden. I’ve seen the barrels that I could stash in my garage and I’ve been wondering who to ask!!! Could the barrel work for us?!

    1. Kristen Avatar

      Hi Clea, I went to the Blue Grass Festival in Telluride this summer. It was amazing, what an incredible place to live! Which kind of barrel do you mean? If you’re talking about a tumbler (usually an elevated barrel with an easy way to rotate it, that could absolutely work for you. If you have space in the garage that should be a good place to keep the bin warmer, but you’ll want a good way of emptying your finished compost without making a huge soil mess in your garage. By turning the compost a few times a week that will keep the microorganisms working and the contents hot enough. If you’re keeping it in your garage I’d be extra intentional about the balance of green vs brown material because if it’s off the compost could end up smelling bad. I’ve never actually experienced composting in the extreme cold at that elevation, so you might have to do a little trial and error.

    2. Katie Flynn Avatar
      Katie Flynn

      you should look into a worm factory or equivalent, they are great for the garage and the worms break down the food quicker than it would compost on its own.

      1. Katie Flynn Avatar
        Katie Flynn

        thanks for the info, looks like exactly what i need for my curbside stuff 🙂

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