person scraping food scraps into a compost bin

Composting 101: How to Compost at Home

Erica Gellerman4-Minute Read
October 19, 2021

A lot of homeowners are working toward having greener homes. One of the ways to do that is through composting – taking unused materials that would generally be sent to a landfill and making them into valuable material for the garden. If you’re interested in composting, we have a simple guide to help you get started.

What Is Compost?

Compost is organic material, like food scraps, that can be used to enrich soil, making it easier to plant and grow. Bacteria and microorganisms break down organic material – all they need are water, oxygen, and the right mixture.

According to the EPA, compost should include items such as fruits and vegetables, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea bags, cardboard, grass clippings, leaves and dryer lint. But there is also a long list of things you shouldn’t compost, including meat, fish, and dairy products (they can lead to pests), disease-ridden plants, pet waste and coal.

During the composting process, oxygen and water help the bacteria that is already present in your composting material to heat up and break down the organic material. The process of heating and decomposing the compost materials in the center of the pile can take at least 2 weeks. Once the center has decomposed, turning the edges into the center will allow more of the material to heat up and compost.

Insects and earthworms can also be used during composting, and can be especially helpful when breaking down larger materials.

Benefits Of Composting

There are a number of benefits that come with composting at your house. We’ll get into them below.

Reduces Landfill Contributions

Food waste is a big problem for households. In fact, it’s estimated that 30 - 40% of food supply in the U.S. is wasted. That means it ends up in landfills where it can produce harmful methane gas. Not only is food going to waste, it’s harming our environment.

When you compost, you avoid sending wasted food to landfills, lessen the amount of methane gas produced, and do something useful with the waste (though don’t forget it’s important to do what you can to not waste food!).

Great For Gardening

Adding compost to soil can greatly improve the quality of the soil and keep your garden looking healthy. With great compost, you can reduce or eliminate your need for chemical fertilizers. The compost is a fertilizer you can add to the soil for a healthy, happy, chemical-free garden.

If you buy expensive soil, fertilizers, or pesticides, compost can help you save money and achieve a great garden.

How To Make A Compost Bin

Once you’ve decided to compost at home, you reach the next decision: should you compost indoors or outdoors? We have tips to help you choose between the two.

Outdoor Composting

If you have space to compost outdoors, try to find a place that’s dry and shady for your compost pile or bin. If you have plenty of space, you might want to consider incorporating it into your landscaping so it doesn’t look out of place.

You can choose to compost in a pile or with a bin. If you go the bin route, you’ll have to choose between having an open or lidded bin. Having a lid can help you control the moisture and temperature of your compost better, which may help in the overall process.

If you decide to use a bin, you buy them online, at home improvement stores, or at garden stores.

Indoor Composting

If you don’t have space outdoors for composting, indoor composting requires a slightly different approach. No composting in a pile like you can outdoors – you’ll need a special composting bin that you can buy from a hardware or garden store.

You’ll want to make sure to follow the instructions closely and monitor your compost bin. Done correctly, it shouldn’t smell or attract pests, and it shouldn’t pose health hazards to residents.

Home Composting Tips

Composting at home doesn’t need to be complicated. Start with the right materials and the right process by reading our tips.

Give It Time

Composting isn’t an overnight process so be patient. How quickly it takes to compost depends on the material you’re composting, the water content, the size of the pile, and how often it’s turned. 

If you’re composting outdoors, the process can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years. If you compost indoors, the process is much faster and should be completed within 2 – 5 weeks. 

Choose Your Proportions Carefully

Composting isn’t quite as easy as throwing food scraps into a pile and waiting. There are two types of materials that you’ll compost with: green and brown.

Green materials include lawn clippings and fruit rinds. Brown materials include manure, leaves, and dead twigs. According to the University of Illinois Extension, the best ratio to use is 1 to 1. That is, you’ll have equal parts of green materials and brown materials. If you have more brown material than green material, they recommend adding a 10-10-10 fertilizer to add nitrogen to your compost pile.

Layer Strategically For Optimal Aeration

If you want to speed up the composting process, make sure you break up the large materials into smaller pieces. Shred, chop or mow these items. Bacteria will be able to turn this into compost more quickly.

Oxygen is a crucial component of the composting process. To ensure that the entire compost pile gets enough oxygen, it’s important to turn the pile. The compost materials that are at the edges of the pile will get moved to the center when you turn it. The University of Illinois Extension recommends waiting 2 weeks before turning the pile.

Keep Your Compost Moist

Water is another important component of the composting process. Your compost pile needs to stay moist, but not too wet, to ensure the materials get composted well. The right moisture is comparable to the dampness of a wrung-out sponge.

Dry materials will take longer to compost. Add water during periods when the pile is too dry.

If your materials are too wet, you can try turning the pile to see if that helps achieve the right moisture level. If that doesn’t work, consider adding more dry materials.

The Bottom Line

Composting isn’t just great for the environment, it can be great for your garden, too. While it may seem overwhelming to get started, once you know the basics, it’s really simple.

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Erica Gellerman

Erica Gellerman is a CPA, MBA, personal finance writer, and founder of The Worth Project. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Money, Business Insider, The Everygirl, The Everymom and more.