person scraping food scraps into a compost bin

How To Compost: Getting Started With Home Composting

Anna Wolski7-Minute Read
August 23, 2022

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Many homeowners are looking for ways to make their homes greener and to reduce their carbon footprint. One of the best ways to do this is by composting, a practice where homeowners can use organic materials that would normally be thrown away as a fertilizer.

To help you create a greener home, we’ve created a complete guide on why you should compost, what it is and how you can start composting today.

Why Should We Start Composting At Home?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 8% of greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste, most of which occurs at home or while food is being produced. Composting reduces food waste by creating a way waste can be broken down and utilized as a fertilizer. Additionally, composting keeps this biodegradable waste out of landfills, where a lack of oxygen prevents it from breaking down properly.

Aside from being a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, composting also adds a lot of value to your soil by:

  • Providing nutrients for your plants that aren’t in most fertilizers
  • Helping soil keep its structure so it can retain water and decrease runoff
  • Releasing the nutrients slowly into the soil over a long period of time
  • Buffering the soil and keeping its pH at the best range for plants

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What Is Compost?

Composting is the process of recycling organic matter like leaves and table scraps into fertilizer.

In the composting process, these scraps are consumed by organisms like worms and nematodes. Once these organisms have consumed this matter,  they’ll leave waste, which has microbes in it. Along with oxygen and water, these microbes heat up and break down the leftover organic material in a process that typically takes several weeks. Once this process is over, you’ll be left with a fertilizer that is ready to be incorporated into your garden or landscaping.

How To Compost At Home In 10 Steps

Composting has a lot of benefits, but many homeowners might not be sure how to begin. Below, we’ve broken down the process into simple steps that explain how you can start composting at home, today.

You can start composting at a smaller scale until you’re more familiar with the process and once you’re ready, you can increase the waste you compost to maximize the use of your waste and increase your soil fertilization while minimizing your carbon footprint.

Step 1: Consider Using A Compost Bin

Image of compost bin.

When you start composting, it’s important to think about whether you want to hold your compost indoors or outdoors.

To compost inside, you’ll need a special container from your local hardware or garden store to prevent any unwanted smells and insects that can become a downside of composting if done improperly.

If you’re looking to compost outside, you want to find a space that’s dry and shady. While you don’t need to use a bin if you plan to be outside, it can help if you’re worried about attracting pests or vermin. A lid can also help control temperature and moisture, which could speed up the process. Your bin can be as fancy or custom-designed as you want it to be, but you can also purchase a simple plastic bin designed for composting at many major retailers.

If you’re interested in custom designing your compost bin, either to make it more efficient or more aesthetically pleasing within your eco-friendly landscape, you might want to consider contacting a professional to help with your project.

Step 2: Choose A Spot For A Compost Pile Away From Your House

Woman dumping food waste into small compost bin.

As mentioned above, a bin is not your only option for outdoor compost. You can also place it in a pile, which we’ll get more into later. For now, it’s important to determine where you would want to place your pile, if you choose this method.

Your ideal spot:

  • Isn’t too cold or hot since the pile could freeze or dry out
  • Isn’t too windy since that could dry your pile out
  • Isn’t under a tree since the tree roots will want to take those nutrients and can grow its roots into your pile
  • Leaves some room for growth but is close to a water source
  • Is at least 10 feet away from your and your neighbor’s house since you don’t want to attract pests and smells towards either of your homes

Step 3: Designate An Interior Collection Station For Compost

Interior compost bag.

When you’re building your compost pile, adding food scraps is a step to plan. So, until you get to that step, you need somewhere to store your materials. You can keep food scraps in a zip-close bag in the back of your fridge or freezer, or you could even get a more customized container to hold them in. Either way, you want to make sure they’re in some sort of air-tight container so you don’t attract fruit flies or other pests.

Step 4: Know What To Compost

Pile of food scraps safe for compost.

As discussed above, many homes use biodegradable waste for compost piles. Consider adding things home to your compost pile like:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Crushed eggshells
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags
  • Nut shells

Step 5: Don’t Forget The Yard Waste

Wheelbarrow full of yard waste.

In addition to food scraps, yard waste can also add valuable nutrients to your compost. Consider adding things like:

  • Yard trimmings
  • Grass clippings
  • Houseplants
  • Hay and straw
  • Leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Woodchips
  • Hair and fur
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Shredded cardboard

Step 6: Know What Not To Compost

Image of dairy products.

While there are many materials that are great for composting, there are others that you shouldn’t add to your compost pile because they can be harmful to plants, might hurt the organisms in the compost, or present a health hazard to humans, like:

  • Black walnut tree leaves and twigs
  • Coal or charcoal ash
  • Pet waste
  • Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides

Other substances shouldn’t be added because they create odor problems and attract pests, like:

  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Fat, grease, lard or oils
  • Meat bones
  • Fish bones and scraps

You can learn more about what you should and shouldn’t add according to the EPA here.

Step 7: Mix Your Browns And Greens

Layers of brown and green compost.

Compost piles are made up of three different parts: greens, browns and water. “Greens” refers to the wet, nitrogen-rich materials in your pile, like food scraps. “Browns” refers to the dry, carbohydrate-rich parts of your pile, like your shredded newspaper and cardboard.

When you’re building your pile, you want to start with your browns on the bottom and then layer your greens on top of them. You’ll want to alternate your layers so you have brown layers, followed by a green layer, followed by your brown layers and so on.

Each layer should be about 1-2 inches thick and you’ll keep repeating the process until you’re satisfied with your pile. Some gardeners say you want 2 brown layers for every 1 green layer, others want 3-4 browns for every green. Regardless of the ratio you choose, the consensus is that you want more browns than greens so the browns can sop up the more wet material and encourage airflow.

Step 8: Stir The Pot

Man turning compost pile with pitchfork.

Once you’ve made your compost pile, you have to make sure that the microorganisms are able to breathe. Once the middle of your pile heats up (usually after a period of 2 weeks), you want to aerate, or turn, your pile about every 3-7 days. Turning your pile can solve several common composting problems:

  • Compaction: When particles get too close, there’s no room for air. Turning the compost create air pockets so your microbes can breathe.
  • Too much moisture: Turning your pile can drain away some of the water and reopen air pockets.
  • Over consumption by microbes: Microbes near the center of the pile can use up too many nutrients and die off. When you turn your pile, you mix materials back into the middle of the pile so healthy microbes can find more nutrients and continue the process.
  • Overheating: When microbes do their jobs, it can produce heat, which can then kill off other microbes. Turning the pile redistributes the compost so the hot inner area can be transferred to the cooler outer areas.

You may need to turn your compost more frequently if you’re noticing slow decomposition, pest infestations or your pile smells especially bad.

Step 9: Water, Watch And Wait

Compost pile being watered.

The microorganisms working on your compost pile need a moist environment so the pile should be damp. It should be wet to the touch, but not so wet that you could wring water out of it.

When your finished product is a rich dark brown color, smells like earth and crumbles in your hand, it’s ready to be used. It’s not ready if you can still see recognizable food scraps, it’s still warm, or there are a lot of large lumps in your pile.

If you’re not sure whether your pile is ready, you can use the bag test: put a sample of your compost into a zip-top bag, remove the air and seal it. Leave it for 3 days. If, after 3 days, you can smell ammonia or a sour odor, the microorganisms are still working and your pile isn’t done yet.

If that doesn’t happen, congrats, your compost is ready!

Step 10: Apply To Your Flower Garden And Watch It Blossom

Man holding fresh compost.

Now it’s time to introduce your compost into your garden. You can sprinkle the compost on top of or mix it into plant beds, gently rake compost into tree beds, blend it with potting soil or simply spread it over the soil on your lawn.

Gardeners who use compost for their projects can expect to see healthier soil, need fewer chemical fertilizers, and use less water, all while reducing their carbon footprint.

The Bottom Line: Composting Is Good For The Planet And Your Yard

As you look for ways to be more environmentally friendly in your daily life, consider composting. It’s a great way to reduce food and yard waste, all while improving your home. It’s affordable, it’s easy and most importantly it’s one small step you can take to make the world a better place.

For more tips on managing your home, check out Homeowner Guide our today.

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Anna Wolski

Anna Wolski is a blog writing intern and a senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a degree in Psychology and English. In her free time she enjoys reading and creative writing.