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How to Start Composting

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Collecting food leftovers for composting.

Learn how to start composting. This beginner’s guide to composting includes information on how to compost, what to compost, why you should compost, and more!
This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase using one of these links, I may receive a commission from the sale. This does not impact the price of your product. Thank you. This post was originally published on April 23, 2016, but was updated for February 2019.

If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d make less trash with a family of 5 than I did as a single woman, I would have laughed. I knew nothing about composting and not much about gardening. I bought packages of soil… randomly… without understanding why I needed to buy which soils… and plopped a plant in a pot. And I killed most of my plants. In the past 7 years, I’ve reduced our garbage, begun using reusable products instead of disposables, and improved my gardens. I’m even keeping house plants alive!

When it comes down to it, reusable product use helps reduce our family’s environmental impact a lot, but I would hazard a guess that composting has been one of the biggest influences on reducing how much trash we make.

Beginner Composting

Why Compost?

If you’ve never composted, you don’t know what you’re missing. Composting provides so many benefits to your home, your environment, and your garden. Here are my favorite reasons for composting:

  1. You’ll produce less garbage for the landfill.This is huge. Composting has reduced how much garbage we need to haul to the curb each week. As a family of 5, we can use one garbage bag per week when composting and using reusable cloth products around the home.
  2. Your garbage is less likely to smell.We’ve noticed a significant reduction in smells coming from our garbage can. The only time we have a stinky garbage is when we dispose of meats in the garbage. That is unusual, however, because we rinse the packaging before disposing of it and we tend to eat all of the meat we consume. The exception is meat bones, but we purchase a lot of boneless chicken and ground beef for the majority of our meals.
  3.  It’s good for the environment.Keeping stuff out of the landfill is good for the world. Less garbage means using up less landfill space. I’m guessing that IF everyone in the world composted (at home), we’d likely see a reduction in the cost of garbage disposal.
  4. Compost is amazing for your garden. One of the best benefits to composting is being able to use the compost in your garden. Your plants will thrive and you’ll save money over buying someone else’s compost.
  5. You know exactly what is going into your garden- and your food. The nice thing about gardening is that you know exactly what chemicals you expose your fruits and vegetables to- sort of. The reality is that there are a lot of factors involved. If you live at the bottom of a hill and there’s a highway above you, rain water likely sends oil and other chemicals into the soil on your land. If you buy bagged soil, then you’re bringing whatever was in that soil to your property and into your garden. “Growing” your own compost gives you a lot more control.

The Compost Process

Ecochem has a more detailed explanation of the process, but I’ll take a few minutes to give you a basic summary of what this involves.

Composting requires FOUR things:

  1. Organic matter
  2. Moisture
  3. Oxygen
  4. Bacteria

The organic matter is what you add to the compost- your fruit and veggie scraps, shredded paper, etc. You need a good balance of greens and browns, but we’ll talk more about that later.

Naturally occurring bacteria break down the organic material and release heat. The bacteria need the moisture, organic matter, and oxygen to survive and work their magic.

Worms also help break down organic matter. They will not exist in a closed bin, naturally, and the process can occur without them, but like most gardeners, I love worms and think they’re an amazing addition to the process.

In summary though- think of it as the circle of life where everything returns to the soil and benefits the soils in the long run. Everything than’s nature-made, that is.

Speeding Up Composting

If you shred your composting materials, the process will go faster… particularly for items that are harder to break down like orange peels. It’s really interesting to keep an eye on the compost to watch what breaks down fast or slow.

Want to speed up the composting process? Here are some tips for getting compost quicker:

  1. Turn your bin consistently (every 2 weeks)
  2. Carefully balance your bin.
  3. Use a worm composting bin.
  4. Manage the moisture in your bin carefully. Don’t let it get too dry or too wet.
  5. Keep two piles- one that’s ‘working’ and one that you’re adding new materials to.
  6. Heat things up- this isn’t something you have a lot of control over, but you can expect compost to break down more slowly in the winter.
  7. Make sure your pile is big enough (not applicable for worm bins). The weight of materials helps heat things up so the materials break down.
  8. Adding soil or finished compost to your pile can also help.

I find that worm composting in a special bin is fastest, but it’s also more work to maintain. With increased composting speed comes more work, in my opinion.  You can compost successfully with a few piles in the woods and minimal work if you don’t mind being patient.

What to Compost

I think it’s easy to just throw everything in the compost bin. After all, instadisposal. Composting cuts down on the amount of waste that goes into a landfill AND helps your garden once the compost is ready. But there are actually quite a few things you shouldn’t put in your compost bin.

(Before I scare you off, you CAN actually be pretty lazy about composting, it just might not compost as fast. I am pretty lazy and just make sure I don’t put anything toxic in and turn it so we won’t get pests)

Putting the wrong things in your compost bin could attract some nasty critters- and the problems they bring.

Imbalance in your compost bin could cause your bin to smell bad.

You need to maintain a good balance of nitrogen and carbon in your compost. The “brown stuff” is rich in carbon while the “green stuff” is rich in nitrogen. You want more carbon that nitrogen.

The correct balance and moisture in your bin ensures that the compost heats up correctly to compost your materials quickly and give you a great turnover for nutrient rich compost to add to your garden. Correctly composting will save you a ton of money in your garden because soil and soil additives are EXPENSIVE.

Some common problems with compost bins:

  • Pests (dogs, bugs, etc): You need to cover your food scraps with other types of materials. You can turn your compost to cover them.
  • Smells bad: This is often due to inappropriate items in your bin, too much moisture or too much nitrogen. To fix, turn your compost and add more carbon materials. You can also cover it with a tarp if it’s a very rainy season so your compost won’t be soaked all of the time.
  • Pile is dry: Add moisture. This seems obvious, but it’s easy to let the compost sit and forget about it.
  • Compost pile isn’t warm enough: If you really want to have quick turnover, this is something you may check. This can be due to cold temperature outside, too little or too much moisture, not enough air flow, too small of a pile, or needing more nitrogen.
  • Composts slower than expected: This could be due to issues with moisture or warmth in your pile, but often it’s just a matter of the size of the items that you put into your bin and how frequently you turn the compost. If you turn it more frequently, cut all things into small pieces before putting them in the compost bin, and add just the right amount of moisture then you’ll have the quickest turnaround. Worm compost bins are faster than traditional kinds.

If you want the free printable for what you can and can’t put in your compost bin, make sure to sign up at the bottom of the post!

Composting Methods

There are many different types of composting, but every home and gardener has their own personal preferences or needs. Some people don’t use compost so they compost through their county trash pickup program. Some people prefer worm composting or an open pile. We’ve experimented with several different composting methods so I’ll discuss my experiences here.

Bucket Compost

Bucket composting is simply using a 5 gallon bucket as a compost bin. It’s easy to “turn” because you can shake the bucket and the compost takes about two months to process. Learn more about setting up your own bucket compost bin here.

Compost Pile

Throw all of the compost in a pile in your yard, let it build up, and done. It’s a slower method to composting, but it works. The downfall is that animals (aka the wildlife or your pets) may help themselves to the contents. It’s not fun to attract the local bears to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Closed Bin Composting

If you have a bin that’s closed off, that is what I consider ‘closed bin composting.’ Often these closed bins are made so they’re easy to turn. They tend to be black which may help heat up the compost better. The good thing is that they keep out excess moisture- the bad thing is that you need to make sure they don’t get too dry either.

The bins can be pricey, but I recommend trying to find them used.

Read more about closed bin composting.

Open Bin Composting

An open bin is similar to just having a compost pile, except you contain the pile. This makes composting slightly faster because you’re piling it all into a smaller area, allowing the compost to heat up faster/better. I’m using the term ‘bin’ lightly because it could be an actual bin with an open top, or it could be a wood frame with or without a door. The bin is open to rain and sunshine. And a clever animal can get into it- my dogs were caught dumpster diving in our open bin several times before I moved it outside of our fenced yard.

Pallets are a really cheap option to start an open bin, but our county also gave away free open bins.

Read more about open bin composting.

Worm Composting

WORMS! I love worm composting, but I’m pretty sure I’ve spent more money on it than all of the other methods combined. Buying red wigglers is a bit of an investment and heck if I can keep them alive over the winter. I should probably bring my worms inside for the winter, but we had “an incident” where the worms escaped SEVERAL times in a row… and I can’t handle that stress again.

I still love them most though. Their compost is superior to regular compost, in my opinion, and the compost tea does wonders for my garden.

For worm composting, you keep a container of worms and add “food” (organic matter) to the bin regularly. They need moisture so it’s important to not let the bin dry out. You can compost with them indoors too, but you need to put a light on the bin initially so they won’t escape. FUN FACT I wish I’d known when I started.

One option for a worm composting bin is The Garden Tower 2. This is a raised bed in the shape of a tower that has a compost tube down the center. The tube is for worm composting and it’s quite amazing. I’m hoping the worms survive this winter better than they did in my normal bin because the soil around the center tube should insulate the tube a little. I’ll find out in the spring. The plan is to grow lettuce exclusively in the tower for this coming year and I’d really like to avoid purchasing another set of worms.

There’s all sorts of options for creating your own worm bin though or you can buy a tiered worm bin like I have. I find that worms compost pretty quickly and the worm compost tea is available for use pretty quickly.

Read more about worm composting.

Trench Composting

I haven’t gotten a chance to try trench composting, but it’s on the list for this spring. Trench composting involves digging a 12″ deep trench in your garden beds and burying your compost in it. You don’t want your plants to be sitting in the trench but rather next to it… the soil will be improved by the composting materials.

It’s nice as an “invisible” way to compost.

Dig and Drop Composting

Another invisible way of composting is the dig and drop method. For this method, I would fill up my kitchen compost bucket, then take it outside to my garden. I’d dig a hole, drop in the contents, then cover it back up.

It’s fast, it’s easy, and it is simple. It’s also on the list and I’ll likely give it a start this winter because I haven’t setup a bin area at our new house yet.

Aerated Static Composting

Want to compost FAST without turning your compost routinely? You can add regular air via a blower to help speed up the process.

Read more about aerated static composting for horse manure.

How to Use Your Compost

The main thing to remember when using compost is to wait until it is ready. That is why having several bins is useful so they can be at different stages of breaking down the organic materials into usable compost. You won’t have to be quite so patient that way. Sometimes materials can take a very long time to break down, particularly if you have watermelon rinds, orange peels, and the like in your bin.
I find that the easiest way to tell when the compost is ready is to look at it. You shouldn’t be able to see ‘stuff’ in it- it should look like really rich soil. It shouldn’t have a strong odor either. Here’s the test- decide if you want to run your hands through it. If you think, “EW GROSS” then it’s not ready.
You can apply the compost after the growing season is over in the Fall or wait until up to 2 weeks before planting. Mix it into top soil or apply it as mulch to the top of your soil and let the worms mix it in.
Never use compost by itself for plants. It needs top soil mixed in to help retain water and provide stability for the plants.

Get the Free Compost List Printable

Sign up below to get the FREE compost printable that tells you what to put in your compost bin. Subscribers to my newsletter get regular updates about gardening, living in a more ecofriendly way, and more.

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How to start composting at home. Learn why you should compost,, how to compost, and about the different types of composting.
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Monday 2nd of July 2018

Oops. I didn’t know about not being able to add limes. I knew no citrus for worm bins, but mine isn’t. I added boiled old lime peels a week ago and it looks like they’re pretty much broken down now. What will happen?? And why aren’t you supposed to include them? Will my compost be okay?


Wednesday 4th of July 2018

Hm so I had to look it up. I just assumed it was bad for the worms, but it looks like the reason you don't want to add them is because worms don't LIKE the peels so they aren't likely to break them down. Maybe because you'd boiled them, it wasn't such a strong smell that they refused to break them down? Not sure. Vermicomposting really relies on the worms munching on the items so it's probably good to avoid them in the future in case they decide they won't touch them.

Learn about Open Container Composting

Monday 9th of April 2018

[…] what you can and can’t put in your compost bin? I have a great post on what to put in your compost bin (I even have a free printable), but the quick and dirty is this: No meat, no dairy, veggies and […]