Composting 101: All Your Beginner Questions Answered

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

When you pull the trash can to the curb every week, it’s easy to overlook how heavy it is. But it is heavy, and eventually your ever-growing contribution to the landfill can get to you. Thankfully, you have options. Between 20 to 30 percent of your garbage could be composted instead of sent to the landfill. Consider this article composting 101: how to start composting and begin making soil from waste.

What Is Composting?

Composting entails the collection and storage of your plant-based trash in a way that’ll turn it into soil. It’s really just letting nature do its thing, with microbes breaking down the waste’s organic material.

wooden compost bin

Where Should You Make It?

Find a secluded spot in your backyard to set up your compost site. You have a lot of options for how to collect it: drums that turn, barrels with an opening near the bottom, wooden bins, or simply a hole in the ground.

rotating compost bin

My family has both a rotating drum and literally a trash can with the bottom cut out and holes drilled into the sides and lid. The drum is great for our daily use and is easy to turn. The trash can contains the past year’s compost that wasn’t quite ready.

child with compost bin

What Can You Put in Your Compost?

Try to go for one part “green” waste (nitrogen-based, wet content) to three parts “brown” waste (carbon-based, dry content). Green waste includes your veggie and fruit scraps from the kitchen, recently pulled weeds, grass clippings, green leaves, and other foliage that hasn’t died yet. Your browns, however, can include dead plants, as well as paper products like tissues (even cotton swabs!), dryer lint, spent potting soil, and dry leaves.

contents of compost bin

The ratio of wet to dry items does matter, but it isn’t rigid. Whatever you throw in your compost, don’t include dairy products, meats, eggs, or fats and oils. These will make it smelly, attracting animals and unwanted bugs.

Do You Need to Mix Your Compost?

Mixing compost does really speed up the process, but is by no means necessary.

How Do You Know When It’s Done?

Your compost has become actual compost once it looks like black soil. It’ll smell earthy, but not foul. Most traditional compost piles will be ready in three months depending on how much you have and how much it gets moved around.

I have a separate composter for the material that just isn’t quite ready yet. It often includes a lot of the woodier material and the so-called compostable bags and plates. For this second bin, make sure it does include some completed compost for the microbes to help it along. This one is in direct contact with the ground, which invites a more natural environment.

How Do You Stop Animals from Getting into It?

Sharing with the animals isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could get sloppy. If you don’t like the mess, an open bin isn’t for you. Go for the composters with tight-fitting lids.

What Do You Do with Compost When It’s Done?

Spread it all over your flower and veggie gardens! They’ll be fed properly and not require any fertilizer.

What If You Live in Cold Weather?

Often the outer edge of compost will freeze in cold climates. To mitigate this, you can mix it more often, move your composter to a sunnier local, or try inside the garage.

What If You Have Limited Garden and Yard Waste?

If you have limited waste or live in an apartment, vermicomposting is a great option for composting on a small footprint. Vermicomposting is, well, composting with vermin. For this method you need the right kind of worms (Eisenia fetida is the most common), a bucket with air holes, and some paper bedding. These special worms will eat up your food waste and create “castings” (feces) that create a very nutrient-rich compost. Their favorite is coffee grounds, along with fruit and veggie scraps and other paper products. Like the traditional compost, you can’t add any dairy products, meats, eggs, or fats and oils.

What about Dairy, Egg, or Meat Waste?

If you have a lot of this type of waste, try Bokashi composting, which breaks down all food scraps. This is an anaerobic (oxygen-free) fermentation process that requires two steps: collecting food in an oxygen-free environment, then letting it fully decompose outside, underground.

Looking to take the composting plunge? Tell us your composting 101 tips on Twitter @TomsofMaine.

Image source: Flickr | Flickr | Maureen Wise

This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.

Why It’s Good

You can't avoid kitchen waste and trash, but you can lower the amount of trash you collect and have fun in the process. Composting helps conserve landfill space and boosts your garden's flavor and color. Plus, it's something the entire family can get involved with, making it a new planet-saving adventure you can embark on together.