Composting: An at Home Guide


Composting is a practice that takes advantage of the natural processes of decomposition. Just as organic materials (those that come from living things) will break down in the environment, they will do the same in a controlled setting like a compost bin or pile. By composting things like food scraps and yard waste, we can generate finished “compost” which is a nutrient rich fertilizer that adds nutrients and structural integrity to the soil. Additionally, compost helps to retain moisture in the soil, and can be mixed in as a fertilizer or laid on top of it as a mulch.

In addition to creating a useful product out of our waste, composting allows us to get more use out of things that would have otherwise gone in the trash. Instead of getting incinerated or taking up space in a landfill, it becomes a means of nourishing the soil and whatever kinds of plants we choose to grow in it.

Getting Started:

To get started, all you need is somewhere to start a bin or a pile. Some of the most important considerations for home composting are that your bin is well aerated, periodically mixed through, and periodically given water to stay moist. A popular method is drilling holes into a trash can, allowing for both air circulation and drainage. From time to time, as you add in your materials, you can mix the compost or give the bin a shake to incorporate everything together, and “water” your compost to prevent it from drying out. Make sure to keep it moist, but also to prevent it from getting too soggy!

When adding to your compost, the things you will be adding will fall into the categories of greens and browns. “Greens” are items that are very rich in nitrogen. While they are not always green in color, this group does include things like leafy vegetation, but also food scraps from fruits and vegetables you have in the kitchen. Nitrogen is a very important nutrient to plant growth, and these materials tend to break down pretty quickly. “Browns” are relatively low in nitrogen, but have high amounts of carbon. Carbon is important for adding structure to the soil, so that it actually has some substance. Browns, again, are not always brown in color, but include dry leaves and woodier materials like sticks and plant stalks. 

By including both of these materials, and keeping them moist, the compost bin has all the ingredients it needs to create a nice batch of finished compost that will add both nutrients and structure to the soil. We suggest having a big bin outside, and keeping a smaller container or tupperware in the kitchen that you can periodically run out to the bigger bin when it gets full. Yard clippings can be dumped directly into your bin or pile.

Once it is fully broken down, your compost will look like dark soil, and is ready to use around the yard or share with neighbors and loved ones!

The Specifics:

The process of composting would not be possible without our microbial friends. While we often think of bacteria as being bad and the reason we get sick, there are actually lots of beneficial bacteria, many of who are living all around us. Some of these bacteria live in compost piles, and get their energy by breaking down the organic material we put into them, and turning it into that luscious organic material for us to add to our gardens. Other microorganisms (and even larger ones like slugs and worms) will also make their home here, helping further to grind up and break down materials into finished compost. 

Trouble Shooting:

Why does my compost smell funny?

Usually, bad odors are a sign of compost bins that have too much nitrogen in them. Try adding in some carbon rich “brown” items (like dead leaves) to get the balance more in tune, and you should start to notice the smell going away as the compost adjusts. Also try turning the compost over and mixing it through, and making sure it has ample aeration. Compost gets a bad reputation as being something that stinks all the time. Really, when balanced out and fully broken down, it has a nice earthy scent similar to the one you notice when gardening.

My compost isn’t breaking down?

Even when it’s properly balanced, compost can take some time to break down. If done well and in a large enough pile, it can be done in as soon as three months, but could also take up to a year depending on conditions. If your compost seems to be going extra slowly, it might be because you have too many carbon rich materials in there. Try adding some nitrogen heavy “green” materials like food scraps to adjust the balance. These break down quickly, and help fuel the microorganisms facilitating the decomposition process.

My compost bin is attracting animals

Try adding some bungee cords on top of your bin to keep it sealed. Try to avoid putting meats and fatty foods in your bin if wildlife are a concern, as these can serve as a strong attractant.

Further reading: