Don't Toss Out Your Food Quite Yet—Here's How to Make Compost
By Hannah Twietmeyer
Recognize this scene? Banana peel in one hand, other hand reaching for the kitchen garbage lid—stop there and consider composting instead.
Learning how to make compost for the garden is easy, as long as you're using the right materials and giving it the right care. Think of compost like raising plants: It's not just a set-it-and-forget-it product like your average garden mulch.
So, the number one question you probably have is: how do I make compost? We’ve got the help you need with this comprehensive guide on how to create compost.
Photo via Courtney |The Kitchen Garten
What Is Compost?
Before we get into the ins and outs of composting, it’s important to understand what composting is. It’s quite simple: Composting is the process of naturally recycling organic materials. To get technical, organic matter is material found in nature and high in carbon compounds. Think of leaves, lawn clippings, and the like. For the average person, composting organic materials may just mean saving kitchen scraps, but we’ll get into more detail about this later.
For a moment, think of the plants in your yard, the leaves blowing around during autumn, or the vegetables in your garden. These are all living things that grow, die, and then decompose by one way or another. By creating a contained space for your food scraps, decomposers like bacteria and fungi are able to thrive and speed up the decaying process. Eventually, the waste will be broken down.
It may sound a bit grotesque, but decomposition is a natural process that happens everywhere around us. Plus, taking on composting individually means you’ll soon have rich fertilizer for your flower beds, among other benefits.
Benefits of Compost
Recycling food waste and other natural materials into compost has not only a number of environmental benefits but benefits that can be seen in your own backyard. The benefits of composting include the following:
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the average American family wastes around $150 of food every month, up 50 percent from the 1970s. A study from the NRDC revealed that produce ranked highest in the type of food wasted. Although food waste can be prevented in the early stages of production, there are still scraps leftover from cooking, baking, and eating—think eggshells, rinds, peels, skins, and cores. These scraps make up over 30 percent of what we toss in the trash, and can easily avoid landfill destinations through composting.
The cost of sending our waste to landfills and incinerators isn’t cheap, either. Not only do food and scraps account for a sizable chunk of what we throw away in general, but because the numbers are so large, you can expect the dollar signs to increase when it comes to processing garbage. In 2020, the cost of sending municipal waste to landfills averaged around $53 per ton. (No stats have been recorded for 2019 yet, but more than 292 million tons of waste were generated in 2018.)
Although composting in your kitchen or garden may not seem like it would make a dent in these numbers, it still prevents waste that would otherwise build up in landfills from reaching that destination, as well as your carbon footprint, which absolutely counts for something.
Enriches Your Soil
That bin of rotting food scraps does wonders for your garden soil. From providing ample amounts of phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium—all of which your plants need to survive and thrive—to maintaining moisture, fighting disease, balancing pH, and improving overall soil structure, it’s no secret that compostable food waste yields significant benefits for your garden.
Using compost for fertilizing crops and backyard produce also negates the need for chemical solutions, making compost an organic alternative for au naturel gardening.
Produce needs water to grow and thrive, so it’s no surprise that the American agricultural industry makes up about 80 percent of the nation’s consumption of ground and surface water. You’ve likely heard of irrigation systems, which supply crops with a controlled amount of water. Some irrigation methods are more efficient than others, though, which is where alternative methods like using compost come in. Compost has amazing water retention capabilities—which is why adding it to your garden soil is a gamechanger. The more compost you add to your garden, the longer the soil will stay moist and the less you have to water.
Photo via Queen Patina
What to Compost
You make garden compost out of anything that organically comes from the ground, so keep that in mind when considering whether or not the item in your hand is safe to toss in your compost container. The recipe for a successful compost pile is broken into a few categories:
Items like paper, cardboard, dead branches, twigs, and leaves are full of carbon, an essential substance needed by decomposers as they break down matter. These materials are slow to rot, but provide the air pockets and fiber needed for decomposition. Your compost should be made up of about 50 percent brown materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Grass, fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, and plant debris: These are classified as “green” materials, meaning they are nitrogen-packed and quick to rot. Nitrogen is another element that decomposers—and all living systems—need for growth and reproduction, so including green matter in your compost is a must. The EPA recommends that the other half of your compost should be made up of these types of waste.
Water and Oxygen
Water provides extra moisture to help break down the organic matter in your compost bin. Decomposers also need oxygen, and the right combination of the two—which can be achieved by composting waste in small pieces and layers—will help decompose the material in your compost quicker.
The EPA also provides an extensive list of what you are able to safely compost for the best results:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Shredded newspaper
- Yard trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Hay and straw
- Wood chips
- Cotton and wool rags
- Hair and fur
- Fireplace ashes
What Not to Compost
Similarly, there’s an array of things you should avoid placing in your compost bin. For reasons like spreading harmful pathogens, creating odors, and attracting pests, or containing chemical pesticides, exclude the following from your compost:
- Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Dairy products (butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
- Diseased or insect-ridden plants
- Fats, grease, lard, or oils*
- Meat or fish bones and scraps*
- Pet wastes (dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)*
- Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
Organic materials marked with an asterisk may be accepted by your local composting or recycling coordinator. If you’re able, it might be worth contacting them to see if these items can safely be used in your community’s composting program.
Photo via Hoosier Homemade
Types of Compost Bins
If composting is something you’d like to make a habit of, there are a few different options and methods to consider before assembling the materials you’ll need. Let us introduce you to the compost bin: a common way to get started on small-scale, at-home composting.
Closed Compost Bin
A closed compost bin is ideal for outdoor composting. Usually, these three-by-three-foot crates are made of wood, metal, or plastic, and have open bottoms to place over the area you want to fertilize, plus a removable top. You can find closed compost bins, like this model, at most home improvement stores. Or, you can see what you have lying around your house for a DIY closed compost bin. You can try assembling your own compost bin from the following, courtesy of the NRDC:
- Plastic storage bins
- Wine crates
- Wooden drawers
- Garbage cans
- Wire mesh
- Wood pallets
Open Compost Bin
Another option for your compost bin is an open model. These are simply enclosures with open tops and bottoms for you to contain your compost in, best suited for yard waste compost (like leaves and grass clippings) since it’s easier for animals and pests to access its contents. You can make your own open compost bin with metal stakes, wooden pallets, and chicken wire and create a three-by-three-foot contained area for your materials to decompose.
Tumbler Compost Bin
This model of compost bin is more suitable for rapid decomposition. A tumbler bin—a container fixed on an axle—rotates, allowing its contents to move, and making maintenance of your compost simple. Because the tumbler is sealed, it retains heat and moisture; combine that with rotating the contents every now and then, and the waste inside can transform into finished compost in just three weeks. These types of compost bins come in a variety of sizes—this tumbler bin model holds 37 gallons of compost material.
Countertop Compost Bin
How to Make Compost
A fab, refreshed garden is just a few scoops of compost away. So, how do you create compost? Follow the steps below to get started on your compost pile.
Step 1: Select a Spot
Select a dry, shady spot in your yard. Avoid areas where rainwater could gather, while also being mindful of areas with poor drainage or too much sunlight. Once you decide what type of bin you want to use, set it up in this area, preferably with the dimensions of three cubic feet. This is the sweet spot, as anything larger risks stifling airflow, while anything smaller in volume might not create the high temperature needed for decomposers to get to work efficiently.
Step 2: Add Materials
Add your waste materials to your compost bin. Layer brown and green materials as they are collected, and remember to keep things small in size—cut up excess produce and shred newspapers if needed. The smaller the waste, the quicker and easier it will decompose.
Step 3: Moisten and Mix
Remember, water and oxygen are vital in creating a successful compost. Adding water every now and then to help break up dry bits of matter and aerating to balance temperatures and maintain the aerobic environment between layers is extremely important.
Step 4: Wait
The composting process can take anywhere from two weeks to two years depending on conditions like pile size, materials used, and type of bin used, so sit tight.
Step 5: Use Your Compost!
When the material at the bottom of your waste pile is dark and rich in color, your compost is all set. Using compost that isn’t quite stabilized risks harming plants and attracting rodents. Compost that is ready to use should resemble thick, rich soil and emanate an earthy smell; if you get scent traces of ammonia, give it some more time. Observe the size of your compost pile as well—the final product should be about one-third the size of what you started with when you finished layering your browns and greens.
How to Maintain Compost
Three things need to be kept under control after you’ve left your compost to sit—moisture, temperature, and airflow. These are all key maintenance ingredients and need to be carefully observed in order to reach compost success.
Keep Moisture Levels Even
Moisture, as previously mentioned, helps break down dry bits of waste and helps support the beneficial bacteria that break down the materials in your bin. Adding water or wet materials every now and then will balance out moisture levels.
Your compost pile’s moisture levels should always resemble a wrung-out sponge. And if things get too wet, try layering in some more brown materials, which are high in carbon.
Airflow is another key component to rich compost. Aerating your waste pile regularly—whether that be rotating a tumbler bin, using a shovel or pitchfork to mix layers, or leaving small aeration holes in your bin of choice—speeds up the decomposition process. Turn your compost pile at least once a week during the summer, and once every month during the winter.
Lastly, keep a constant eye on the temperature of your compost pile if you are in need of quick results. Higher temps increase the speed at which the waste materials in your compost bin are broken down, and keeping the temperature of your compost between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is referred to as hot composting. Heat in compost is the byproduct of hardworking bacteria, so regular maintenance rotating and having enough of the recommended nitrogen-rich green materials should warm it up.
Hot composting will yield quicker results than cold composting, which requires less maintenance and simply goes with the flow of the natural decomposition process, albeit slower. It’s still a good idea to try and control higher temperatures if you can, though—cold composting means that lingering pathogens and harmful bacteria could survive in the final product, since they may not be killed off by the mild temperatures.
Photo by DeeDee
How to Use Compost
Once your compost is fully matured, your garden, yard, and potted plants are ready to reap the benefits of the super-powered, natural fertilizer. Here are some ways you can use your DIY compost around your yard:
Enrich Your Garden
Mix compost into the soil before planting, or spread the mixture in a five-centimeter layer around the borders of your garden bed.
Feed Your Lawn
Looking to grow fresh, healthy grass? Sieve the compost, ridding the mixture of any larger scraps before blending with an equal amount of sand (this helps the compost to spread easier). While young grass can benefit from compost, it can be intense. Until you know how your lawn will react, it still is best to use this process on mature lawns versus newly seeded ones.
Support Tree Growth
Spread a 5-to-10-centimeter layer of compost around tree roots one or two times a year, being mindful to avoid getting too close to the trunk. The roots will absorb the nutrient-rich contents, strengthening the tree. Placing compost around trees will also limit weed growth in the area.
Use Compost in Your Mulch
Rougher compost with partially-whole pieces of waste is great for mulch, as long as it’s still stabilized; it helps prevent erosion and supplies a bounty of nutrients. Spread it in a five-centimeter layer across mulched areas, leaving some space around soft-stemmed plants or flowers.
Put it in Pots
Patio containers or pots containing vegetables or other plants can also reap the benefits of rich compost. Mix it into your usual potting soil mixture so that about one-third is compost. Root vegetables like carrots and potatoes love compost.
Have a favorite compost recipe or process that you swear by? Share below—we love to hear from you!