One of the simplest ways to reduce the amount of waste we produce in our homes is to deal responsibly with food and garden waste, and the simplest way to do that is by composting. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that food scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Additionally they state that making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Luckily, the composting basics are simple to understand, and while you may read very in-depth articles (or even books!) that break the topic down into almost ridiculous detail, one thing holds true: organic matter breaks down, naturally, without much help from us at all. This is the basis of composting, and it’s worth remembering. You really can’t mess it up. Compost happens.
Compost Piles and Bins
If you have a yard, the easiest thing to do is set up a compost pile in a corner of your yard. It can just be a pile, or you can create a simple ring of wire fencing to contain your compost. You can also buy pre-made compost bins at most home and garden centers. It’s really up to you, and no matter what type you use, they’ll work just fine.
If you don’t have an outdoor space, you can still compost indoors, on a balcony or patio. Some municipalities will even pick up your kitchen waste, just as they would your trash and recycling. So it’s worth checking to see if your city or town offers something this service.
However, many cities don’t offer that service, and apartment-dwellers will have to figure out another way to keep their kitchen scraps from ending up in the landfill. For indoors-only composting, consider getting a worm composting bin (though that requires a bit more attention than a regular compost bin). You can also find small bins or compost tumblers that work for a small space.
What is Compost?
We should start off our discussion about composting basics by explaining exactly what compost is, and what it’s used for. Compost is the nutrient-rich result of organic matter that has broken down over time. It looks and smells like clean, rich soil. Finished compost can be used as a natural, organic fertilizer for vegetable gardens, flower gardens, lawns, or even houseplants. Once you have a finished batch of compost, just add a layer to the surface of the soil in your garden or houseplants, and your plants will benefit from both the additional nutrients and the fact that compost helps soil maintain moisture longer. A win-win, on all counts!
What Can You Compost?
Honestly, it would be easier to ask what can’t you compost. There are long lists online of items you can put in your compost bin or pile, but to keep it simple (and reduce any likely odors) let’s keep it to vegetative matter. So for composting basics, this list is a good place to start:
- Fruit and vegetable peels, cores, and seeds
- Grass clippings
- Spent flowers
- Coffee grounds and tea bags
- Egg shells
- Shredded newspaper
A few things you never want to add to your compost pile include human or pet waste (unless you have rabbits, guinea pigs, or other small, herbivorous pets), meat, bones, dairy, and grains. While all of those will technically break down, they could result in a smelly compost bin and possibly attract pests, which we’d rather not deal with.
How to Compost
Honestly, if all you do is make a pile of your kitchen and garden scraps, in a few months you’ll have compost. It really is that simple. However, if your home generates a lot of waste, or you’re a gardener and would like to speed the process up as much as possible, there are some things you can do to help it along some.
Mix “Greens and “Browns”
Having a general idea of the two types of materials you’ll be adding to your compost pile or bin is helpful when discussing composting basics. “Greens,” in composting terms, are rich in nitrogen. They’re not always green, but it sort of helps if you think of them as the soft, more alive parts of your compost pile. So, things like grass clippings, veggie scraps, coffee grounds — all of these are nitrogen-rich additions. Greens are generally wetter than browns, and keep the pile moist while also breaking down fairly quickly.
And to balance them out, you’ll want some “browns” as well. “Browns” are rich in carbon, and usually are drier and break down less quickly than the greens. Think fall leaves, shredded newspaper, animal bedding, wood chips. These help your pile from getting too soggy or smelly, which it can if it’s overloaded with nitrogen-rich matter.
If you want the composting process to happen more quickly, one composting basic is to aerate your pile. That can be as labor intensive as turning the entire pile with a shovel or garden fork, or as simple as sticking a garden fork or even a large stick into the pile and sort of wiggling it around to get some air deeper into the pile. By doing this, you help the microbes, which need oxygen to work efficiently, work better.
That’s All There Is To It!
And that’s honestly all there is to it. Make use of those kitchen and garden scraps, pile them up somewhere, try for a mix of materials, and give it a poke every once in a while. After a few months, you’ll have crumbly, perfect compost, which will smell like rich, clean soil — as it should. All soil is, after all, is broken-down organic matter. When you compost at home, you’re just harnessing what nature already does to turn your kitchen and garden waste into something useful, rather than sending it to the landfill.