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Day 8: Composting 101: Everything You Need to Know

Improve your garden & reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Howdy, challengers!

You’re more than halfway through the Green14 challenge. Hopefully by now you’re seeing just how easy it is to make rewarding choices for the planet (with some bonus benefits for your health and wallet!).

Today, we’re talking composting. Composting is one of the best eco-friendly habits you can build at home, and you’ll learning how to start your own compost collection process with these easy steps and tips.

Have you been thinking about giving composting a try? This growing trend is more than just a trend, it’s the perfect opportunity to increase your sustainability at home and put your food scraps to use in a variety of ways. Best of all, it’s quite easy to get started and even easier to stick with once it’s a part of your daily routine.

You can turn your food waste, along with other kinds of waste, into a nutritious ingredient for your garden through composting. When you compost at home, you’re able to use items that otherwise would’ve headed to the landfill to later produce toxic methane gas, which is bad news for the planet. With the simple switch of separating your waste, you can transform food waste into organic matter that can be put to use right in your yard. You’ll recycle more of your waste, enrich your garden soil and help the environment right from your kitchen.

If you’re ready to give composting a try, here’s your complete guide to getting started.

Composting 101

Have you been thinking about giving composting a try? This growing trend is more than just a trend, it’s the perfect opportunity to increase your sustainability at home and put your food scraps to use in a variety of ways. Best of all, it’s quite easy to get started and even easier to stick with once it’s a part of your daily routine. 

You can turn your food waste, along with other kinds of waste, into a nutritious ingredient for your garden through composting. When you compost at home, you’re able to use items that otherwise would’ve headed to the landfill to later produce toxic methane gas, which is bad news for the planet. With the simple switch of separating your waste, you can transform food waste into organic matter that can be put to use right in your yard. You’ll recycle more of your waste, enrich your garden soil and help the environment right from your kitchen.

If you’re ready to give composting a try, here’s your complete guide to getting started.

What is compost?

Compost is organic material that’s created from food scraps, yard waste and other would-be trash. It’s created from items you’d normally throw out – according to the EPA, approximately 30 percent of the stuff you toss in your kitchen trash can can actually become compost.

Compost is made of three basic ingredients:

  • Brown materials, which are items like leaves, branches and twigs
  • Green materials, which are fruit and vegetables scraps, grass clippings and kitchen material like coffee grounds.
  • Water, which helps turn brown and green materials into compost.

To create compost from your scraps and waste, you’ll need approximately equal amounts of brown and green materials. While the brown materials create carbon, the green materials deliver nitrogen; water breaks everything down when it’s added. It does take time for your food scraps and other waste materials to decompose and turn into compost, but it can be a relatively quick process.

By turning waste into compost instead of trash, you’ll send less to your local landfill. That, in turn, takes up less valuable space and limits the release of methane – a greenhouse gas contributor to climate change. This is critically important because human-created methane is responsible for at least 25 percent of today’s global warming.

How to start composting in your kitchen

Composting is an easy habit to get into. You can begin creating compost right in your kitchen – it’s where you’ll generate the majority of your green materials.

Follow these steps to create your own composting routine.

Pick a spot to store your compost material

Gathering compost material you generate inside your home, like fruit and veggie peels, egg shells and other compost-friendly food waste, is easy when you have a dedicated place to put everything. To do this, you’ll need to decide where you’re going to put your waste. 

You’ll actually want to choose two locations: a convenient scrap collection spot inside your kitchen and another destination where you’ll toss your scraps into a true compost pile.

There are plenty of different containers, bins and even tumblers available to choose from. It’s a good idea to select a small countertop container that sits in your kitchen for easy access. Then, you can choose a larger container to empty your countertop bin into; that larger container is where your material can actually turn into true compost. You can find bins in every size for indoor and outdoor spaces online and at local hardware or gardening stores. 

If you have enough space outdoors, you don’t need a second container at all. You can create a compost pile right in your yard. Just choose a shady, dry corner of your yard; you can add material as you collect it and water as needed. Outdoor compost piles can take longer to generate finished compost, but they’re quite convenient. 

Decide which composting method you’ll use

There are two primary ways to turn your scraps and material into compost: cold composting or hot composting. Consider each method outlined below and then decide which is the best fit before you begin putting your home composting plan into action.

Cold composting, which is also called passive composting, is the slower method. It breaks down organic matter slowly over a year or two, allowing it to decompose with little effort or intervention. You’ll basically let nature run its course – all you have to do is add a mix of brown and green matter to your compost bin or pile. This approach can, however, come with downsides like unpleasant smells and potentially bacteria, fungi and parasites.

Hot composting, or active composting, is the alternative option. Most people choose hot composting, as it’s faster and keeps unpleasant effects like odor under control. To practice hot composting, you’ll need to manage your compost pile more carefully. You’ll want to balance the amount of carbon and nitrogen produced to maximize decomposition, and you’ll need to aerate and water your compost every so often. Hot composting can lead to finished compost in as little as a month. 

There is one more hands-on composting method, but it’s not for everyone: vermicomposting, or composting with worms. Vermicomposting contains your compost pile in a bin, and you’ll add about a pound of red wriggler worms into the mix to help the organic matter decompose. Like hot composting, this method requires some regular maintenance – and you’ll only want to add scraps once per week. Otherwise, you may wind up with way too many worms.

Don’t want to get your hands dirty during the composting process? Electric composting is another new method you can try. It makes composting incredibly simple and quick using a FoodCycler machine. The FoodCycler sits right on your kitchen counter and rolls both your food scrap bucket and composting machine into one convenient device. All you have to do is place your waste in the scrap bucket, then place that bucket into the FoodCycler. Press a button, and you’ll have compost created for you in just a few hours. 

Know what you can put in your compost bin – and what you can’t

As you begin separating potential compost material from trash, it’s absolutely critical that you keep tabs on what you’re composting and what you’re throwing away. While many different kinds of kitchen scraps and organic household waste are perfectly fine to add to your compost bin, others can negatively affect your composting process.

The EPA suggests composting only these items:

  • Fruits and fruit scraps
  • Vegetables and vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Nut shells
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Tea bags
  • Yard trimmings and leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Houseplants and their clippings
  • Hay and straw
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Paper towels
  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Wood chips
  • Sawdust
  • Cotton rags
  • Wool rags
  • Hair and fur
  • Wood ashes from fireplaces or fire pits

Keep in mind, however, that some of these recommendations may not work for everyone. Tea bags, for example, shouldn’t be tossed into your scrap bin as is. Most tea bags aren’t compostable and contain plastic, so you’ll want to cut the bag open and use only the tea inside. 

You’ll also want to avoid adding the following items to your compost bins or piles, as they can lead to pest and odor problems, create harmful parasites and bacteria or even breed viruses:

  • Leaves or twigs from the black walnut tree
  • Coal or charcoal ashes
  • Dairy products of all kinds, including yogurt and butter
  • Fats or lard
  • Grease
  • Oils
  • Eggs
  • Meat scraps or bones
  • Fish scraps or bones
  • Diseased plants
  • Plants riddled with insects
  • Pet waste
  • Any yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.

Over time, you’ll get into the habit of separating compost-friendly materials from non-compostable materials, and you’ll find it easier to divvy up different types of waste without even having to think about it.

Check in on your compost regularly

Once you’ve begun building a compost pile or adding material to a compost bin, you’ll be well on your way to creating finished compost. However, in order to help the process along, you’ll want to keep an eye on your compost so you can give it the nutrients it needs.

Compost often requires a mix of oxygen and water to encourage the decomposition process along. These two ingredients help your organic material decompose faster. Think of your compost pile as a living organism; you’ll want to add oxygen every so often to allow it to breathe, and you’ll spray it down with water to keep it hydrated (or moist). Upping the amount of food waste in the pile can also increase the moisture level. You can aerate compost with a rake or by rotating your bin, if it’s a tumbler. 

Temperature is also important. Compost is created quickly at an optimal temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, as that’s just the right amount of heat for macro- and microorganisms to break down waste. As an added benefit, ensuring your compost pile maintains this high temperature helps it ward off bacteria and potential weeds. However, if you’re sticking with cold composting, you don’t have to worry about the temperature at all. 

Keep these handy composting tips in mind

Composting may be pretty straightforward and simple, but sometimes surprises can happen. If you’re wondering how to maintain your compost or keep it healthily turning into finished, garden-ready material, there are a few extra details you’ll want to know. 

Here are a few tips that can help you solve common composting woes or answer unexpected questions.

Check the moisture if your compost develops an odor

If you’re smelling something funky coming from your compost bin or pile, you’ll want to see what the moisture level looks like. Too much water, either from water itself or from extra food waste, can lead to a foul odor. To balance out your compost material, you can add more brown matter or dry material. You want the material to feel spongy in your hand instead of mushy or crumbly.

A lack of oxygen can also cause an odor. If you haven’t aerated your compost bin or pile, it’s time to flip the pile, aerate it with a rake or give it a spin in a tumbler. 

Keep a supply of dead leaves or shredded newspaper handy

To achieve balance in your compost pile, you’ll want to make sure you keep dry materials on hand. Leaves and shredded newspaper are particularly helpful to have. You can add handfuls of these items to your compost in progress if you need to soak up excess moisture or balance out your green versus brown materials. 

Like your indoor or kitchen countertop scrap bin, you can even keep a bag or bin filled with these materials in your garage. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of space, but it ensures you’ll always have some kind of dry material when you need it.

Practice lasagna layering as your compost pile grows

Lasagna layering, or sheet mulching as it’s officially known, alternates your composting material to create just the right mix of organic matter plus moisture. You’ll alternate between layers of green material and brown material, with a bottom layer of newspaper and a final layer of soil over top.

Using the lasagna method is also a great way to turn your compost pile into a usable outdoor space. As the pile turns into finished compost over time, you can plant your garden in it and take advantage of the nutrient-rich material beneath the surface. 

Of course, once you’re successfully composting, you’ll need to know all the ways in which you can use it. Check out our guide to using finished compost [article in progress]. You can also read up on other sustainable ideas like root-to-stem cooking and making everyday eco-friendly choices.