How To Compost: Step-By-Step Guide For Compost Beginners

Crazy Easy Step-By-Step Guide To Composting For True Beginners

June 22, 2020 Updated August 26, 2020

how to compost
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Being stuck at home for months on end during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has made us pay more attention to the everyday waste we produce around our homes including in the kitchen and our yards. While there are certainly steps we can take to cut down on our plastic usage (which is definitely important!), we can also do something about the food waste that is leftover from making a tasty meal or snack. And that’s where composting comes in.

According to the EPA, compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow, and can be made using certain food waste you generate in your kitchen. In fact, food and yard waste combined make up more than  28 percent of what we currently throw away, ending up in landfills instead of helping your land. Here’s how to compost, even if you’ve never done it before.

The Benefits of Composting

Most people know that compost can help your garden grow, and helps the environment by reducing what we throw away, but it does more than that. Here are some other benefits of composting, courtesy of the EPA:

  • Enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests.
  • Reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material.
  • Reduces methane emissions from landfills and lowers your carbon footprint.

And now, how to actually do it.

What Can You Compost?

Not all food waste can be composted. For example, meat and fish bones and scraps shouldn’t make it into your pile or bin. Neither should dairy products or eggs. But nutshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, and any fruit and vegetable scraps are fair game. Here’s a handy chart to let you know what can be composted, and what shouldn’t:

From “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook” by Dana Gunders, featured on NRDC website

How to Compost

So now that you know what can and can’t go into your compost pile or bin, where do you start? First, you’re going to need a place to compost, whether that’s a small, fenced-in section in your backyard (3 x 3 x 3 feet is considered ideal), or an indoor bin with red worms.

The EPA says that all composting requires three basic ingredients:

  • Browns: This includes materials such as dead leaves, branches, and twigs.
  • Greens: This includes materials such as grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds.
  • Water: Having the right amount of water, greens, and browns is important for compost development.

When you’re making your compost pile, it should have an equal amount of browns to greens. Also, be sure to alternate layers of organic materials of different-sized particles. So what’s going on in the pile? As the EPA explains, “the brown materials provide carbon for your compost, the green materials provide nitrogen, and the water provides moisture to help break down the organic matter.”

Now that you have a spot and know what goes into compost, the next step is to let the rot set in. “In the summer, use a shovel or old garden fork to turn the pile once a week; in the winter, once every three or four weeks,” Bill Hlubik, a professor of agriculture and plant science at Rutgers University tells the NRDC. “After each layer, I sprinkle on soil from the garden to add beneficial organisms, plus a little water to wash the organisms into the pile.” Not sure whether your pile needs water? The easiest way to tell is to grab a handful, and make sure it feels about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.

When Is Your Compost Ready & What Can You Do With It?

According to the NRDC, it should take a few weeks for your compost to come together and turn into dark, soil-like matter. You’ll know when it’s done by the musty, earthy smell and the fact that you can’t recognize any of the individual items you’ve included. Those with a garden or flowerbeds can sprinkle their compost around the plants, or mix it with potting soil. People without outdoor space can use their compost on houseplants.

What If Your Compost Smells Something Awful?

Obviously, if you’re going to compost and watch food scraps rot you expect a certain odor as a side effect. But, actually, a compost balanced between the greens and the browns should not smell. If yours does then something must be off balance.

Per Gardening Know How, if you have too much green in your compost it will smell like sewage and ammonia. Adding more browns in the form of leaves, newspapers, and straw should do the trick.

If your compost is tightly compacted and not getting enough oxygen to decompose the organic materials it will smell. Try to turn the compost to get more air into the pockets. This also goes for compost that is too moist and not getting enough air throughout. Turn the compost and add more brown materials.

Finally, don’t layer the green and brown layers of the compost, it’s much better to mix the two mixtures together.

Composting 101 For Kids

What better way to get your kids invested in the environment and sustainability than by getting them into composting. The basics of composting for kids is the same, but you might want to keep the area smaller than you would outside in a garden. And if you don’t have outdoor space, that’s alright, a little sunny corner of the house is good enough. Here’s a fun video to watch with your kids for inspiration.