Home Composting: A Beginner's Guide with Complete List
Home composting is the stuff great gardens are made of and you'd be hard-pressed to grow an organic garden (or be a true Treehugger) without it. This is where we get into our bonafide Dirt Worshipper doctrine. It's where we break out the Holy Grail of Hippie Commandments and permanently soil our fingernails for the good of mankind while we discuss the wonders of Black Gold.
Compost is decomposed (broken down) matter consisting of organic materials, such as food scraps or yard debris. Organic matter in the right conditions will decay through the activity of aerobic bacteria and micro-organisms, which break down the ingredients into a usable form. By creating a home composting pile, you are creating exactly what nature creates when matter decomposes - a natural fertilizer, a soil builder and a cycle of life not sustained in a landfill.
Why Should I Compost?
Nearly 25% of all landfill waste could have been composted into a rich, beneficial resource.
Oh let me count the ways! Let's start with the immediate benefits:
- Compost consists of a high concentration of minerals and nutrients to fertilize plants and trees.
- It retains moisture better than most soils and thus helps to maintain healthy plant life and decrease evaporation.
- It helps us to never waste a single penny of our grocery budget by tossing food scraps.
- Compost can be used indoors in houseplants or anywhere outdoors.
- When planting new plants it can be mixed into the soil as a fertilizer, added to potting soil for container gardening or used as a mulch atop the soil and around the plant.
- In our modern society, we unwittingly erode our soil and diminish its ability to retain water or support life. Home composting helps reduce this soil erosion and prevent water runoff, especially in heavily compacted areas of dirt.
- It reduces landfill (because organic matter will not break down when so tightly packed without the right conditions of air and water) and nourishes our land enabling us to get more use from it in the future.
Home composting continues the natural cycles of the Earth that we often interrupt with development and affords us more options down the road when we maintain healthy soil.
How Do I Compost?
There are several methods of home composting depending on the materials you need to break down. All compost piles need some amount of moisture (damp, not soggy) and will benefit from occasional rotation. The complete information is rather extensive, but here is a simple overview:
This requires a bit more attention. You can create hot compost in a pile, bin or container. You must have a balance of "greens" (nitrogen) and "browns" (carbons) to create a pile that will heat properly. The heat generated will rise the inner temperature of the pile to over 130 degrees. I think of "green" as things that are still moist or "alive" such as fruit and vegetable waste or fresh grass clippings. "Browns" are things such as sawdust, dried leaves or shredded paper. A hot pile works rather quickly to break down material but it will need to be kept moist (not soggy) and turned at least once a week or whenever the inside temperature cools down.
The drawback to a hot compost pile is a lower nitrogen level. The pile heats up by eating through your nitrogen and the more you turn it, the more it will heat up. However, if you need organic fertilizer fast, this is the way to do it.
This is usually what my home composting pile ends up becoming. The decay is slower but the effort is minimal. Simply find a spot (preferably an open space in the yard, rather than a container), pile up the compostable materials and let nature do its thing. You can turn this pile once to get the temperature rising and kill off any bad bacteria or sterilize seeds, but after that it's best to let it be. Because you're not keeping the pile moving, you are maintaining higher levels of nitrogen.
The drawback to this kind of home composting is a much slower breakdown of matter. Also, you will see more insects as they help to decompose the pile.
This is generally done in a container and uses worms to digest and produce worm castings (poop) of the scraps. Worms can be purchased through a plant nursery or bait and tackle shop or, worse case scenario, online. Using regular garden worms will not generally work as well as red wrigglers. Vermicomposting can also create a compost tea (water runoff from the bin) that can be used as an additional fertilizer. Worm compost is among the most beneficial of all and makes for a fun project for critter-loving kids.
The drawback of vermicomposting is in maintaining the worm bin, ensuring proper moisture and temperature, as well as the right levels of food. You also have to be more careful about what you add to the bin, as you can only add safe food matter.
Easy Home Composting:
Sometimes called the "Lazy Man's Compost" this is among the simplest to do and only involves burying waste underground. Many people bury it under new plants, or they create an in-ground waste collector (also known as, a giant hole) and covering it with soil as they add waste, then moving to a new spot when it's full. This method encourages earthworms and can occasionally surprise you with new fruit or vegetable plants grown from buried seeds!
The drawback to burying your compost is not having any when you need to amend soil, mulch or fertilize a plant organically.
Helpful Home Composting Items
There are dozens of ways to make composting easy or possible for your circumstances, whether you're in a home or an apartment. Below are some products we've found helpful (these are affilate links and purchasing from them will support our site at no extra cost to you):
- Composting Worms: Red Wigglers are the most popular worms to use for composting kitchen scraps. They can eat up to their body weight in food each day (so 1 lb of worms will compost 1 lb of food scraps each day) and they quickly multiply.
- Stainless Steel Kitchen Pail: Probably the most popular way to collect kitchen scraps and keep any odors trapped within the charcoal filter or liner until you can transfer them to your compost bin or pile, and it's one of the few that aren't plastic if you're trying to decrease your exposure to plastic in your home.
- Worm Composting System: These tray systems are great for indoor or outdoor use. They help you to "harvest" your worm castings without having to sift through the worms, and also gives you a way to remove the compost tea easily.
- Compost Activator for Hot Composting: This mix of fungi, bacteria, and nutrients helps to kickstart your compost pile, especially good if you're working with soil or an environment that has been treated with chemicals and have created an imbalance in your ecosystem.
- Compost Tumbler: If you don't have the ability to leave your compost open, or you need an easy way to turn your compost pile without strain, using a tumbler is a great option. It also decreases the amount of time it takes to breakdown food and yard debris by turning it more often, easily.
What Can Be Composted and What Can't?
Any organic matter can be composted, but there are some things that are usually suggested to avoid. Many people have successfully composted these items without issue, so don't take my word for it.
So, avoid or your own best judgment when it comes to the following:
- Meat products can attract unwanted wildlife and cause odor.
- Dairy and other fats can also attract wildlife or flies.
- Do not use cat or dog feces, which may contain pathogens.
- Manure from farm animals (horses, pigs, cows, backyard chickens, etc) are generally a great source of nitrogen but know your source and do not use manure from sick animals or any animals taking routine antibiotics or hormones.
- Onion or garlic, as it can scare off beneficial bacteria and insects.
- Inorganic materials, such as polyester, plastic, acrylic, rubber etc (Some plastics are now made from corn and say "compostable" on them in lieu of a recycling symbol. They take much longer to compost, even when shredded, so be aware.)
- Dead animals - these are better off buried deeply underground.
The list of what can be composted is much longer:
- Aquarium water or sludge
- Brown paper bags
- Cardboard, preferably shredded
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Cotton materials - rags, clothing, etc
- Dryer lint
- Egg shells (crushed is best)
- Fabric, thread, ribbon made of natural materials, etc
- Freezer-burned foods
- Fruit and vegetable scraps (peels, cores, stems, rinds, cobs, etc)
- Grass - fresh or dried
- Grains (pasta, bread, etc)
- Green comfrey leaves (for a natural activator)
- Hair clippings
- Hay or straw (use it sparingly to avoid too much carbon to nitrogen ratio)
- Hemp materials
- Houseplant trimmings
- Junk mail (non-glossy)
- Leaves - dried or fresh
- Manure from organically raised animals
- Nail clippings
- Paper, preferably shredded
- Paper napkins and plates
- Peat moss
- Pencil shavings
- Pet hair
- Pine needles (they have a high pH so use them sparingly or around plants that love acidic soil)
- Seaweed or kelp
- Shells from seafood
- Silk materials
- Soap bits - organic only
- Tea bags, used or not
- Tree bark
- Untreated wood (may take more time, so leave it at the bottom of the pile)
- Urine (it's totally sterile)
- Vacuum bag contents (remove any plastic toys!)
- Waste from wine or beer making
- Wood ash
- Wood chips, pellets, sawdust, etc
- Yard debris, such as shredded branches, trimmings, thinnings etc
- The list of what can be composted goes on and on!
"But I Have No Use For All That Compost!"
If you have even a single outdoor plant or tree, you have use for home composting as a soil amendment. But perhaps you're having trouble finding a use for all of your compost with limited space. Here are a few ideas of what you can do with your extra compost:
- Replant any potted houseplants (these need to be repotted every few years anyway)
- Use it on the plants around your apartment complex
- Donate the rest to a gardening enthusiast, community garden or other local organization
- Petition your local representatives to start a town or city-wide composting service with either curbside pickup or nearby dropoffs.
- Or give a gift to the Earth (and your neighborhood) by placing the finished product around the plants in a public area.
But whatever you do, don't throw away what could benefit our ever eroding soils. Sustaining the soil - not just our own backyard soil - should be a community priority and home composting is the key!
Home Composting Books
Interested in learning more about home composting? Enjoy the following books all about soil, microbes and growing dirt.