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composting for beginners

Composting Facts: 10 Easy Steps for Beginners at Home

Composting is a fantastic way to reduce your carbon footprint and save money on your trash bill. It’s also great for your garden! If you’ve never composted before, you probably have questions. Where do you start? What can you compost?

Never fear, we’re here to help. In this article, we’ll give you all the composting facts you need to get started.

We’ll also walk you through the composting process step-by-step, so you can start composting at home with confidence.

What is Composting and How Does it Work

So what is composting anyway? Composting is the process of breaking down organic wastes into a nutrient-rich, soil-like substance. Basically, it’s nature’s recycling program.

When something is labeled “biodegradable,” this is what that means. Composting is a perfect way to reduce waste and give back to the earth.

The process is simple: you combine your food scraps and yard waste (like leaves and grass clippings) in a bin or compost heap, add some water and air, and let nature do the rest. Microorganisms create the decomposition process, releasing nutrients that are needed by plants.

So not only are you reducing waste, but you’re also creating free fertilizer for your garden. It’s a win-win situation!

What is the Environmental Impact of Composting?

Even if you’re not a tree hugger, it’s easy to be impressed by composting. Composting (along with reducing and recycling) is right up there with the best things a person can do for the planet.

So how does composting your tea bags help the environment? Glad you asked!

compost bin, wheelbarrow and plant materials

1. Composting helps the environment by reducing carbon in the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil.

We’ve all heard of “greenhouse gas emissions” and how bad they are for the environment. But what does that even mean?

Essentially, the earth stays warm (like a greenhouse) because of a nice atmospheric “blanket” made of gases – especially carbon dioxide CO2 and methane CH4 – that traps in the heat. Without it, we’d freeze to death.

CO2 is stored in healthy soil and large, old forests. It’s essential for all plants, because they “breathe” it, just like we breathe oxygen.

CO2 is released by animals when we exhale. It’s also released when we burn fossil fuels, by certain industries and by natural events like volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

Normally this carbon cycle of supply and demand keeps a nice balance. But we’re a busy planet, and several things have upset the balance, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere than we need:

  • a higher population expelling more CO2;
  • removal of old forests (which use CO2) for agriculture;
  • the release of CO2 by energy, industry and infrastructure to support growing populations; and
  • the release of CO2 from healthy soil as plants are grown and harvested.

Because the atmosphere has too much CO2, our insulating blanket is getting heavier. It’s trapping too much heat, and our delicate eco-balance is being disrupted.

So how does composting help?

When we compost, we pull the carbon dioxide from the decomposing material and transfer it into a rich, nutritious organic soil amendment. Composting removes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it back into the soil for storage.

2. Composting reduces soil erosion by increasing moisture content.

One of the great things about compost is its ability to absorb and retain water. Good compost is like a sponge! Rainwater is caught by thirsty compost and then slowly released into the soil that surrounds it.

Finished compost can be added to vegetable gardens, layered around trees, tucked into container plantings and worked into poor soils. It makes a fantastic mulch, and it protects barren patches from drought and erosion.

3. Composting improves soil quality

Whether starting with poor soil or soil that’s been depleted by vigorous agriculture, compost can make a huge improvement in soil structure and its nutrient value.

Adding compost to sandy soils adds rich materials and the ability to hold moisture. Adding compost to clay soils loosens it and adds drainage.

Compost loosens compacted soil and adds fertility to land that’s been overworked and overused.

Is compost magic? It almost seems so, doesn’t it?

4. Composting reduces landfill waste

bulldozer on landfill

Did you know that the United States generates over 139 million tons (yes – TONS) of landfill waste each year? The average American throws away almost 4.5 pounds of trash Every. Single. Day. That’s a whole lot of waste.

And almost 50% of that is from food waste, paper, wood and yard debris. All of that is contributing to carbon emissions. And all of that compostable.

Can’t organic materials break down in a landfill, you ask? Yes, they can break down in a landfill, which is why machines work tirelessly to continually stir all those decaying tons of garbage. But it can take decades or more.

Compare that with just a few months under more ideal conditions – like your back yard.

What Tools Do I Need for Composting

You might be surprised to learn that you can compost without any special tools. All you really need is a place to put your compost (usually outdoors), some organic matter, some water and a little bit of patience.

However, there are a few tools that can make things easier, such as a compost bin, a compost thermometer, and a pitchfork.

A compost bin is awfully nice. You can buy one or build one – it doesn’t matter to the compost. Otherwise, you can use the old-fashioned “compost heap” method and just layer things on.

A compost thermometer isn’t strictly necessary unless you want to check the temperature of your compost pile (which should be between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

And a pitchfork can be helpful in aerating your compost pile and turning the materials – although you can also use a shovel.

So while you don’t need any special tools to start composting, those are a few that can make the process easier and more efficient.

Ultimately, it depends on your personal preferences. Whether you choose to use tools or not, composting is a great way to reduce waste and create nutrient-rich soil for your garden or plants.

Ways to Compost at Home: Indoors and Outdoors

There are many different ways to compost, and you don’t need a lot of space or equipment to get started. In fact, you can compost indoors or outdoors, and there are lots of ways to do it.

4 Ways to Compost Indoors

Interested in composting indoors? Keep reading for a quick rundown of four easy methods of indoor composting: worm composting, composting machines, Bokashi composting, and small composting bins.

Worm Composting

Worm composting is a great way to compost indoors if you have a small space. All you need is a worm bin (which can be as simple as a plastic storage container with some holes drilled in the top) and some red worms.

Not just any species of earthworms will do; make sure they’re red wigglers (“eisenia fetida”), which you can buy from any worm grower. Those happy little guys don’t actually live in the soil; they prefer to hang out in damp areas filled with lots of organic matter. The red wiggler will eat its body weight in scraps every day and won’t try to escape its bin (unlike some other worms).

The worms will do all the work of breaking down your food scraps, and you’ll have a steady supply of nutrient-rich compost for your plants, thanks to worm castings. Worms can’t handle extremely cold or high temperatures, so worms are ideal for indoor composting or very mild weather.

Composting Machines

Composting machines are another option for indoor composting. These small appliances use a combination of heat, moisture, and oxygen to break down scraps quickly. They come in several shapes and sizes and can handle different types of materials, such as food scraps, paper, and cardboard. Some models even have built-in filters to reduce odor. If you want a “set it and forget it” option for your kitchen counter, this is for you!

Bokashi Composting

Bokashi composting is a fermentation-based method of composting that works super fast. This method uses a special mixture of microorganisms to break down food scraps and other organic waste in an airtight container. (This type of composting uses no air and is called “anaerobic.”) The result is a nutrient-rich liquid that can be added to plants or soil.

One of the benefits of Bokashi composting is that it can handle things like meat, dairy, and citrus that might not be good for other composting methods. A word of warning: Do NOT open the container until you’re supposed to. The odor can be mighty unpleasant.

Small Composting Bins

Small composting bins are great for anyone who wants to compost temporarily indoors but doesn’t have a lot of space. These bins can sit on a kitchen counter or in a pantry and are typically designed to hold just a few days’ worth of scraps. They may use a charcoal filter to reduce odor and can be emptied into a larger outdoor compost bin when full. Some models even come in fancy designs that blend in with home decor.

In summary, whether you’re looking to start worm composting, invest in a composting machine, try Bokashi composting, or use a small home composting bin, there are plenty of options available for indoor composting. Find the method that makes sense for you and start your composting journey today.

4 Ways to Compost Outdoors

If you’re looking for ways to compost outdoors, there are a few different options you can choose from and you can do it on a larger scale than indoor composting.

You can create a compost pile, use a compost bin, get a compost tumbler, or dig a compost trench/pit. Each option has its own pros and cons, so it’s important to choose the one that’s right for you.

Here’s a little about each method:

Compost Pile

A compost pile is the oldest and simplest way to compost. You just need a spot in your yard where you can pile up your compostable materials and turn it regularly. This works well in huge backyards that have more space. The only downside is that a compost pile can attract pests, so you’ll need to be careful about how you manage it.

Compost Bin

A compost bin is a great way to contain your compost so it doesn’t attract pests. You can buy a compost bin or make one yourself. It allows your compost to break down naturally while keeping it contained and tidy.

Compost Tumbler

A compost tumbler is a container that can be rotated to mix and aerate the contents inside. This speeds up the composting process and makes it easier to manage. It’s a good option if you want your own compost fast. Also, you don’t need to turn it with a fork, as the tumbler takes care of that.

Compost Trench or Pit

A compost trench is a great option if you have a large garden or lots of space. You simply dig a trench or big hole, fill it with compostable materials, and bury it. This method lets the biological process take place naturally and enrich the soil as it decomposes. It’s best for larger gardens or agricultural spaces.

No matter which method you choose, you’ll soon enjoy the benefits of your own compost from recycled organic materials.

List of What You Can and Can’t Compost

When just starting out, most people are surprised to learn just how many things you can compost. From coffee grounds to eggshells to leaves and more, there are a lot of things you can throw in your compost pile.

Of course, there are also some things you may not want compost. Things like meat, dairy, and oils can attract pests, take a long time to break down or just smell awful.

In general, you’ll want about 50% “green” material for nitrogen. Green waste is fresh, like fruit and veggie scraps, grass clippings, garden waste, etc.

The other 50% should be “brown” material for carbon. (Carbon is food for the microorganisms as they break down the compost.) Brown waste appears dry – things like paper, cardboard, dry leaves, straw, wood chips and similar.

(Compost actually needs more carbon than it does nitrogen. But since green matter contains both nitrogen AND carbon, it all works out.)

So before you start tossing everything into your bin, let’s cover what can and can’t be composted.

Here’s a quick list of DOs and DONTs for your compost pile:

DO Compost ListDON’T Compost List
Bread, pasta, rice, grainsAnything treated with pesticides or chemicals
Cardboard (not glossy)Charcoal or coal ash
Coffee grounds & filtersDairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) *
Dead leavesDiapers
Dryer lint (cotton, silk, wool)Diseased plant material
EggshellsFeminine products
Fruit and vegetable scrapsMeat and fish *
Garden waste (healthy)Oils and fats *
Grass clippingsPet waste, human waste *
HairPlastic and synthetic materials
Hay and straw
Paper (non-glossy)* These aren’t necessarily non-compostable,
Paper towels and napkinsthey just aren’t good for beginners or for
Tea bags (staples removed)all composting situations
Wood chips
Yard trimmings

Remember, composting is a natural process that relies on the right balance of ingredients. Stick to organic waste like fruit scraps, veggie peels, paper, coffee grounds and yard waste, and avoid animal products, oils, and chemicals. Happy composting!

10 Steps on How to Make Compost

Step 1: Decide your compost method

The first step to starting a compost pile is deciding what type of composting method you want to use. Do you want to compost indoors using a countertop machine? Or will you compost outdoors? What type of bin will you use – or will it simply be a big composting pile? (The pile method often works well in rural areas, where there’s lots of space and lots of green plant material, and maybe even some non-herbicide livestock manure.)

They’re all great options, it’s just a matter of deciding which one suits your lifestyle and space the best.

Step 2: Choose your composting location

Depending on the compost method you’ve chosen, you’ll need to find just the right spot for your bin. You’ll need someplace that’s warm but not hot; a partially sunny place is great. You also want it to be convenient! And finally, make sure there’s a water source nearby, as you’ll need to keep your compost damp.

Step 3: Learn what is compostable for your method

Although some materials are great for all compost methods (like veggie peels and shredded paper), some won’t be right for all. For example, you can get away with bones and meat scraps in trench composting (bury them well!), but your little red wigglers won’t like them in their worm bin. (Treat them to fresh grass clippings instead.) Likewise, you won’t want wood chips in a tiny little bin that likely won’t get hot enough to break them down for a long time.

Step 4: Dig, build or buy your compost bin

Once you’ve covered the first three steps, you’ll need to start a large compost pile or acquire a compost bin. If you’re handy, you can build your own out of wood, chicken wire or other materials. Or you can buy a bin that’s specifically designed for composting. Whichever route you choose, make sure your bin has several key features:

  • It should be large enough to hold a decent amount of compost*
  • It should have a tight-fitting lid to keep critters out.
  • It should have vents or holes to allow air to circulate.
  • It should be made of durable materials that will last for years.

Large Dual Chamber Compost Tumbler – Easy-Turn, Fast-Working System – All-Season, Heavy-Duty, High Volume Composter with 2 Sliding Doors - (2 – 27.7gallon /105 Liter)

*What is a “decent amount?” For an open bin or pile, try for at least a 3-ft X 3-ft x 3-ft cube of space. This allows for enough active materials to get hot enough for fast decomposition. A smaller size is absolutely fine, and many bins and tumblers fit that description. Their closed design and black color absorb heat and keep composting active. They’re also convenient, can be easier to use and look nice in the backyard.

Once you have your bin, it’s time to start composting!

Step 5: Gather or buy any tools or necessary materials

It’s compost time! Do you have your bin ready?

  • You’ll need equal parts of green waste material and brown waste material
  • A hose or some water to wet it down
  • Your pitchfork to mix everything in

Step 6: Layer your compost materials (the “lasagna” method)

If you’re using the pile method, start with woody materials on the bottom. Make a layer several inches thick, then top with the same amount of greens. Repeat the layers until all your materials are used up. Sprinkle well with water. You want your pile nicely damp (like well-spun clothes going into a dryer) but not wet.

Step 7: Stir and cover

Now get in there and turn the pile with your pitchfork or spin your tumbler bin till it’s well mixed. Cover loosely with a tarp or a lid that breathes. Remember, your compost is filled with live microorganisms that need air and water to do their work.

Step 8: Wait, water and turn

Turn or tumble on a regular basis – once every week or more. (The more you turn, the faster your compost breaks down.) Check to make sure the pile stays damp. If it’s too wet or slimy, add brown material. If it’s “cold” and not active, add green material. You want the temperature of the pile to get nice and warm – up to 140 F degrees. This is where the magic happens.

Step 9: Screen (optional)

Is your compost ready? If you want a small, symmetrical texture, you can screen the compost to remove any larger, non-composted pieces. Add these back to your next compost batch. (You’ve got another one started, right?)

Step 10: Harvest the finished product

You did it! Go spread that dark gold over your lucky gardens and potted plantings. You’ve done something wonderful for them and for the earth. Good job, you amazing alchemist!

Composting Facts and Q&As

Isn’t composting smelly (dirty? messy?)?

Composting is often thought of as a smelly, dirty, and messy process. But it doesn’t have to be! Healthy, well-managed compost smells earthy and pungent.

Here are a few tips to help you compost without any problems:

  • Choose the right location for your compost bin. It should be in a warm spot that’s tucked away from foot traffic.
  • Make sure your bin has a tight-fitting lid. This will help to contain any smells.
  • Avoid adding animal products that can be harder to break down – like meat, cheese and fat.
  • Keep the right ratio of greens/browns. If your compost is wet, slimy or smelly, add dry browns. If the compost is too dry and not active, add greens.
  • Turn often to add air. Your pile should be composting, not rotting.

With experience, you’ll soon learn what to compost for your composting method, and what makes sense for you.

How long does it take to make compost?

The amount of time it takes to make compost depends on what you’re breaking down, the size of the materials and the method you’re using. In ideal conditions, compost can be made in just a few weeks. Or it can take several years.

Do you want to speed up your compost time? Here are some things to remember:

  • Start with materials in smaller pieces. This lets the composting microorganisms reach more surface and break them down quicker. Shred your paper. Crush your eggshells. Chop your apple cores.
  • Keep the compost pile damp (not wet!) and warm – between 40-140 degrees F. Colder temperatures will stall the decomposition process and higher temperatures can kill the good bacteria you need. You don’t want to cook your compost; those microorganisms are tough but tender workers.
  • Turn the pile often – even daily, if you want.
  • Stick with “vegan”-type greens; they break down much faster than animal matter.

How do I keep critters out of my compost?

Tasty kitchen scraps can definitely attract raccoons, mice and other critters. Avoid this by burying fresh scraps deep in the compost bin till they start to break down.

A critter-proof lid is another good idea. It might not keep out bears, but it’ll deter a lot of smaller scavengers.

And this is another reason to skip meat and dairy scraps in the compost bin. At least wait till you know which critters – if any – you’re inviting to dinner.

Composting seems so involved and time-consuming. Isn’t it inconvenient?

Like any new activity, composting may seem a little complicated at first. It really isn’t! Once your bin is set up, composting is just a matter of putting scraps in a pile instead of putting them in the trash. And then you’ll want to turn the pile once a week or so.

If turning that pile seems like work, consider it free exercise. Plus, you’re saving on your trash bill AND making dirt (kinda). That’s pretty cool.

Can I compost X? Why or why not?

Eventually, anything organic (made by nature) will break down into the soil – even rocks. Anything that was once alive can certainly be composted. The question is your time, space and willingness to do so.

Some organic material needs a hotter, active process than others to truly decompose. Pet waste, diseased plants and weed seeds fall into this category. Likewise, meat, fish and dairy products take longer to break down and can smell bad while they do.

As an example: We come from a farming background, where stillborn calves were often buried behind the barn. And yep – they did eventually compost and made some pretty dang incredible soil.

But that took years and an awfully large area. You may not have that, and your neighbors (and city ordinance) might not take kindly to a pet cemetery in your backyard.

The best idea is to start with small, plant-based materials (see the list above) and see how it goes. Then adjust according to experience and good sense.

Where do I buy compost bins/worms/etc?

One of the best places to get compost stuff – especially worms – is from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm (affiliate link). Visit his site and enjoy a fun read through all the material that comes from 40+ years of vermiculture. Uncle Jim knows his stuff, and he’s happy to share it with you.

Of course, our good friend Amazon can set you up with everything you need for composting. Whether bins, machines, bokashi or worms – you’ll find it all there. Even Uncle Jim and his red wigglers!

You can also check for compost paraphernalia at your local hardware store, nursery or extension office. With just a little digging (pun intended!), you’ll unearth something quickly.

What are some good books about composting?

Compost Everything

There are tons of great books on composting. We love “Compost Everything” by David the Good. It’s probably more extreme than most people are into, but you’ll get a great introduction to composting and it’ll remove any fear a messing things up. It’s an easy, entertaining read that’ll get you completely educated and ready to compost in whatever manner you choose.

Another good one is Let It Rot by Stu Campbell. Now in its 3rd edition, it’s been educating gardeners and composters since 1975. This one gets a little more into the science of composting and gives lots of usable charts, graphics and info to answer all your composting questions.

Can I buy bulk compost?

If you want to buy compost in bulk, check with your local garden and landscaping centers. Places that sell mulch will often sell compost, too. Also, many cities have a composting program that accepts yard waste to create compost for city residents. Check Litterless to see what’s available in your area.

Can I sell my compost?

If you compost on a large scale, selling your compost could be a great small business idea. Check with your local authorities for approval first.

When creating your compost for sale, make sure to carefully track composted materials so you can disclose them to your buyers. For example, aminopyralids (herbicide) can easily pass into the manure from animals grazing on treated grass. Aminopyralids aren’t deactivated during the composting process. Compost made with this manure can kill garden plants, so beware! Gardeners burned by this herbicide once will be gun-shy about buying compost made with manure.

Your customers could include local greenhouses, nurseries, farmers and home gardeners. Consider advertising in the newpaper, online marketplaces like CraigsList and Facebook Marketplace and using local billboards and flyers. Farmers markets could be an excellent sales venue.

How can I get my family involved in composting?

Composting can be fun for the whole family – especially for kids. (And they REALLY like the worm method.) It’s a simple but important project that can make them feel proud.

Here are some easy ways to get your family involved in composting:

  1. Set up a compost bin in your home or backyard, and make sure everyone knows where it is.
  2. Put a composting poster in your kitchen to remind everyone to compost.
  3. Teach your kids about the benefits of composting and why it’s important.
  4. Schedule a family composting day where everyone can help out.
  5. Leading by example is the best way to get your family involved in composting. So make sure you’re composting too!
  6. When the compost is ready, do an experiment using compost. Grow one plant in poor soil alone, and another plant in the same soil but with lots of your rich, homemade compost. Watch how differently they grow, and let your whole family see the value of simple, easy activity.

How do I compost outside in the winter?

Composting outside in the winter is more difficult, but not impossible. The biggest challenge is in trying to maintain a hot compost pile, even though the temperatures are cold. Although an active compost pile does generate heat, harsh winter temps can interfere with the that. Second, it can be harder to access an outside bin, so it’s less convenient to maintain.

To keep compost active during winter, surround your compost bin with hay bales, garbage bags of leaves or other insulating material. Make sure it stays covered, and turn it less often. (Turning your compost pile can release heat.) The pile will continue to break down, just more slowly. The worst-case scenario is that active composting will pause till the spring thaw.

Make winter composting more convenient by keeping a lidded bucket in the garage or outside the kitchen door for collecting food scraps. When it’s full, journey to the compost bin. Throw the scraps on the heap, tuck them in and cover it back up.

With a little care, you can keep your compost bin going all winter long. And when spring arrives, you’ll have fresh compost for your new gardens!

Composting Facts - Easy Steps for Beginners

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. Hopefully we’ve answered your questions and given some usable composting facts to get you started.

Whether you decide to compost indoors or out, on a large scale or small, composting is for everyone. It’s nature’s recycling machine: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Get started today, and let us know how it goes!

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15 Comments

  1. Wow, this was so inspiring and resourceful! We are trying to teach our kids to be mindful of what we use and what we waste. This would be a great addition to our home.

    1. Thanks Lindsey! What a fantastic mindset to instill in your kids. It’s so convenient to just throw things in the trash, but we can’t “un-know” something once we’re aware.

  2. Awesome article! This is actually very helpful. I like the 50/50 ratio and just adjusting according to the feel of the compost. I need to do better adding browns-
    But I am always wondering how to really tell if it’s “done”- I probably worry too much but… can it be done if you can still see parts of leaves?

    1. Thanks for the comments, Carol! You can actually use compost any time you feel ready. You can even bury compostable material right in your garden and let it break down there! But that’s not really pretty, is it? (Although it can be covered with dirt and mulch.) And active compost (lots of greens) can release more nitrogen and warmth than your plants want. Browns are generally always safe by themselves; a few brown leaves are just fine. And you can always sift out any larger, uncomposted material if you’re in doubt.

  3. This article is incredibly helpful. We have the basics–a compost bin to turn and a smaller bin under the sink to empty into it, but we’ve not been very good at using either as a family. I think that’s because we’re all a bit intimidated by the fear of doing it wrong. Also, we have flowerbeds but we’re not really gardeners, and I’m not sure what we’d do with the compost. I’m pinning this to reference later. I hope to get much better about composting in the near future! (Also, I grew up in the country with a “compost heap” for yard clippings and spoiled vegetables. We just let it break down. That was so easy–living in a subdivision brings its own challenges!)

    1. Hey Courtney! It sounds like you’ve got a great setup for composting. Don’t be afraid of doing it wrong! Compost is forgiving and will break down no matter what you do (as you learned growing up in the country). Just add a good mixture of fresh & dry (greens & browns) and give the tumbler a spin once in awhile. Voila – black gold. 🙂

  4. So many great suggestions for composting, I personally have free chickens so a lot of my compost goes to my chickens.

    1. Oh, you lucky thing! If you have chickens, you also have eggs. 🙂 And yes – chickens are good eaters, aren’t they? Well done!

  5. Composting is a very important part of sustainable living. I remember to have tried it a few years back. Your post is very informative.

  6. Great information in this article for starting composting. We have been late in starting composting so thank you for the tips and links to some great products.

    1. That’s the cool thing about composting, Stephanie; it can started at any time, and done on large or small scale. Thanks for popping by!