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How to Start Composting

Learning how to start composting can seem like an intimidating task. It doesn’t have to be that way. With a few small preparations, you’ll be ready to add compost to your garden in just a few short months. 

Large yellow flowers bloom from a pumpkin plant and a bumblebee pollinates it over compost.

What is compost?

Let’s start with what compost is. Compost is a rich, organic matter created from broken down natural waste. It serves the soil by enriching it with nutrients and allowing plants to grow stronger and healthier in return. By composting, we are essentially recycling plant and food waste into a natural fertilizer. Natural waste will decompose regardless, so why not put it to use in your very own backyard? 

Why you should compost

  • It’s better for the environment since it’s returning valuable nutrients right back into the soil instead of sending it off into a landfill. Like the circle of life: You take plants from the earth, but later return the scraps to keep the earth fertile for growing more plants. 
  • It’s an excellent way to add nutrients to your garden to help grow more plants. It’s affordable and effective! By using compost, you’ll be enriching the soil which also helps keep pests away and helps prevent diseases in plants, too. This all makes for a healthy, robust ecosystem. 
  • It’s easy and requires little effort. Really, anyone can do it. It’s science, for sure, but the act of composting is fairly simple.
A cantaloupe grows over composted soil in the backyard garden.

Before you learn how to start composting, you need to understand more about the basics, the science, of composting. 

There are two kinds of waste you’ll add to your compost pile: green and brown. The goal is to try to get the green & brown waste somewhat balanced. Green waste tends to have a green appearance, is higher in nitrogen, and wet. Brown waste is usually brown, higher in carbon, and dry. 

We are essentially trying to balance carbon and nitrogen because we want them to be in a symbiotic relationship. This helps the good bacteria present in decaying foods and scraps happy and helps them work more efficiently. 

Air and water also play roles in maintaining a healthy compost. You’ll want enough air allow the process of decomposing and enough water to regulate temperature and the decomposing process. This is why it’s critical to keep your compost covered while also allowing airflow. 

Keeping compost covered also helps keep  it warmer, which speeds up the process of it all breaking down. It also allows the compost to stay dry enough so it won’t get slimy and create unnecessary stench that will attract animals. 

If any of these three things are imbalanced the process of composting will slow down, sometimes significantly. The great thing is that compost is very forgiving. Even when you get it “wrong,” it can usually be fixed by a bit of troubleshooting. Even when it’s not perfectly balanced, it’ll still create compost—albeit at a slower pace. 

The hand of a woman who has just learned how to start composting is caressing a tiny pumpkin budding from a large plant.

What you can and can’t compost 

Do add these greens:

Grass clippings

Coffee grounds 

Tea bags 

Fruit & vegetable scraps 

Old and/or moldy fruit and vegetables 

Fresh leaves or flowers

Do add these browns:

Manure from cows

Egg shells

Shredded newspaper

Old potting soil

Straw 

Sawdust 

Paper bags 

Dried flowers

Natural fibers 

Dried leaves

Coffee filters

Egg cartons, torn or cut up 

Paper towels 

Hair or fur 

Do NOT add:

Feces from any meat-eating animals 

Dairy

Bones 

Meat or fish

Diseased plants 

Cores or pits 

Weeds

Leftovers 

Cat litter 

Produce stickers 

Oil or grease 

Styrofoam 

Glass

Plastic

Easy fixes to common issues: 

  • Too much nitrogen (symptom would be slimy and/or smelly), in which case you’d add more brown to the pile and maybe try to bring more air in.
  • Too much carbon (dry pile and no or very little decomposing), then you’ll add more green and even add a bit of water.

There’s no precise measuring involved—mainly just using simple rules and following your intuition. Overall, it should be about a 2:1 ratio of browns to greens.

Tools and supplies you may need:

A small compost pail sits on a wood kitchen counter next to a lemon printed kitchen towel.

I like to use a small kitchen compost pail that is conveniently closeby when I’m cooking in the kitchen. I store my scraps here for a few days until it fills up, and at the end of the week I empty it outside into the large composter, the tumbler we have next to our patio. Then I scrub and wash this pail before reusing it again, so it doesn’t attract any ants into the cottage.

  • 43-gallon tumbling composter:

The tumbler is where all the compost eventually gets put. Here are some things I love about it: 

  • The holes are big enough to let some air in while remaining small enough to prevent vermin from getting in. 
  • It is also fairly easy to turn with a bit of elbow grease put into it. This is essential since everything needs to be well combined in order to break down properly and compost. 
  • It’s very sturdy and durable so I know it’ll last. 
  • The black style meshes well with most outside decor (most people have initially thought it was some sort of grill or smoker when they’ve seen it), which is another perk in my opinion since it’s easy to disguise.
  • I also like that it wasn’t super complicated to put together (as long as you have an extra pair of hands to hold parts while securing pieces together). 
  • The front openings are big enough for dumping my pail into and big enough to scoop shovelfuls of compost out using a hand gardening shovel. 
  • It also has a separator in the middle for two compartments. I personally like to use one for older compost that will be ready for taking out to the garden sooner, and the other side for newer compost that I’m currently adding to. 

The only downside is that when it rains, some water does get in through the holes so it can leak slightly. I have only ever noticed this for a couple of days after rain, when turning it. There is never a continuous leak or anything like that, though even if there were some people prefer to collect this liquid compost to further enrich their garden with. 

Steps on how to start composting: 

  • Start adding waste today: simply dump your daily scraps into the bin and turn it. Make sure large pieces are broken or chopped up before dumping them in. For example, I always compost watermelon skins when I cut up watermelon. I roughly chop the watermelon skins first before adding them to my compost pile. This helps everything break down more quickly, which means it goes back into the garden quicker. 
  • Turn it often to mix everything well. I like to do this several times a week, but I’m not obsessive about it either. As long as I know I’m turning it 2-3 times each week I don’t get too militant about it. Turning it helps the brown and green combine well and helps decomposition by allowing in enough air.
  • Transfer when ready to use. You’ll know it’s ready to use when the compost resembles dirt, has an earthy scent, and is black in appearance. You should not have chunks of waste materials because it will have compounded down into smaller particles when it’s ready. If it doesn’t look natural, resembling a fertilized soil, it’s not done. You’ll then need to repeat turning it, possibly making adjustments to the brown vs green ratio, and add more time. 
Marigolds line a garden and are surrounded by straw as a compost for the soil.

As you can see, composting is no longer strange or just for hippy dippy folks. It’s a great way to give back to the environment and well worth the effort to add to your garden. By following these few steps you’ll learn how to start composting and never look back. My hopes are that you feel confident in how to start your compost pile and will now be able to start composting today. 

Chat with me in the comments below if you’ve ever composted and let me know what’s worked for you. I’d love to hear!

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