How To Start Composting

by heather

Ok, I know composting has a slightly “dirty” reputation. And the thought of saving food scraps to turn into nutrient rich soil might turn people off. After all, it’s easier to just throw it in the garbage right?

Well, before you decide composting is too hard for you, or that you can’t do it because you live in an apartment, please give me another minute to make the case for composting.

We Waste Too Much Food…

It’s amazing how much food we waste in this country. According to the New York Times, 27% of all the food that’s available for consumption gets wasted. This averages out to 1 lb. of food per person, per day.

Yikes. And, there’s more. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 12% of the total waste in this country is made up of food. That food sits rotting in landfills, doing even more harm because it, along with all the other garbage, creates methane. Which is a greenhouse gas. And while most landfills burn off that methane as it’s released, not all of them do.

So, composting just makes sense.

Make Your Own Composting Tools

Composting isn’t as hard or labor-intensive as you might think. And, you really don’t have to spend money to start doing it. Sure, you can go out and buy a $40 “composting crock” for your kitchen counter, and a $100 composting bin.

But, you probably have free things lying around your house that you could use instead. Any container that’s glass or stainless steel will work great for a kitchen crock, since those two materials won’t absorb odors.

As far as the composting bin is concerned, it’s easy to make your own. Here are a few resources you can check out for instructions:

Foods You Can Compost

Now that you’ve got a lidded kitchen crock and a bin to start storing your scraps, there are a few rules you need to know. You can’t just throw any kind of food into the compost crock. Do that, and your kitchen and backyard will start to smell like a rancid landfill. Ew.

Here are the foods you can’t compost:

  • Any kind of meat (including fish)
  • Any bones
  • Any fats or oils
  • Any dairy
  • Human or pet feces

Disclaimer: Ok, you can compost things like meat and bones. They’re organic materials, so obviously they’re going to break down. But, these things stink. Big time. And they can attract other animals, and even promote disease. Which is why most composting sites tell you to avoid them.

As far as what you can compost, think “green” and “brown”. This includes:

  • Veggie scraps
  • Fruit scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells and nutshells
  • Yard waste (grass clippings, weeds, leaves)
  • In limited amounts, newspaper and papertowels
  • Leftovers (with no meat or dairy)
  • Dried pasta

If you’d like a comprehensive list on what you can compost, check out’s list of “163 Things You Can Compost“.

Selecting Your Compost Site

Your compost site should be in a shady spot. This will help keep it moist in during the summer months. And during the winter that spot will be sunny, which will help keep it warm.

It should ideally be located at least 6-10 feet from your home’s exterior. At the beginning, you might have an odor, at least until you find the right balance of organic material. There’s a learning curve here. But, don’t give up!

If you’re composting in a bin, then you can plop it down and be done. If you’re using a more homemade device, such as a hole in the ground and some chicken wire, then you’ll need a larger area. People differ on how large a space you really need. I’ve seen people composting with just a hole in the ground and others who have elaborate piles. It all depends on what you’d like to try.

If you’d like a rundown on all the different ways you can set up a compost bin, here’s the link I posted above to Their site has a very informative list of options for you to choose from.

NOW Can I Start Composting?

Ok, I swear, we’re almost done here.

Now, a successful compost pile depends on a good mix of bacteria and fungi. Bacteria especially depend on nitrogen to thrive, so you might need to buy some sulphate or ammonia to sprinkle on your compost pile. If you’re out in the country and have cows, you can add nitrogen with manure.

You’re going to start your compost pile with a six inch layer of grass clippings, kitchen waste, and leaves. Once you’ve got your base layer, you’re going to add 3-6 inches of soil, manure, some straw, or finished compost.

If you have enough material, try to get your pile to a 3 ft. height. This will ensure that the pile is generating enough heat during decomposition to be effective.

Take Care of Your Compost Pile!

Now that you’ve got your pile set up, you’ve got to take care of it. Just leaving it out in your yard is only going to give you a smelly, dirty looking pile of yuck. And, you probably don’t want that.

You need to check your compost pile every few weeks (some gardeners say 2-3 weeks, others say 3-4 weeks) and turn it. This means rotating it with a pitchfork or compost aerating tool. If your pile starts to smell, it probably means you’re not turning it enough. If you really need some compost fast, turning it at least once per week will speed up the process.

It’s also important that your pile stay moist. This doesn’t mean hosing it down every day with the garden house. The bacteria can’t survive in a mudpile. Just check every few days to see if it’s moist to the touch. If not, spray some water on it. You can also pokes holes in your compost pile to make sure the water is getting down to the bottom.

If you’re having a major storm or a particularly wet season, then you might want to cover your compost pile with a tarp or garbage bags to protect it from the excess moisture.

So When Is The Compost Done Already?

Reach into your compost pile and bring out a handful. If it smells good, like warm brown earth, then your compost is done. Fabulous!

Now this super nutrient-rich earth can go in your garden and flower beds to make blooms and veggies galore!

Um, You Didn’t Address The Apartment Issue

You’re right, I didn’t.

If you live in an apartment, you can still compost your food. But, you’re going to have to compost someplace else.

Some major cities like San Francisco and New York will pick up your compost for city gardens. There also might be local community gardens who have compost piles that several households contribute to. You might want to do a Google search for your area to find one.

If your city doesn’t collect weekly compost and there are no community gardens close by, then you can vermicompost. That means you can compost in your own apartment with worms.

Think that’s too far out? Well, you’d be amazed at the number of people who are starting to compost in their apartments.

You can check out this great video of Barb Finnin, who is a master composter and an expert at vermicomposting.

Click here to see the video; Barb’s going to show you how to get started.

Last Word…

See, that wasn’t so bad, right?

Composting is a great way to reduce garbage and save money. After all, with all that rich soil you won’t have to buy nasty fertilizer!

Good luck!

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[email protected] February 15, 2009 at 9:03 am

Great post, Heather. I’m huge fan of composting; you’ve done a great job explaining it here. I’ve added this post to my Weekend Roundup.

heather February 15, 2009 at 9:31 am

Awesome, Beth, thanks so much!

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