Composting is a process by which organic matter, such as leaves and food scraps, decomposes into soil.
It’s a great way to recycle scraps from your yard and kitchen while also enriching the soil in your garden, improving water retention, and protecting against erosion.
Although it may sound complicated, composting is very simple and makes for a fun, rewarding hobby.
In fact, when I first started composting, I was surprised at how easy it was, even from my small apartment. Now, I regularly drop off food scraps at my local composting center to help reduce waste and support sustainability.
This simple step-by-step guide covers everything you need to know to start composting.
Compost is a type of organic matter that you can add to soil to help plants grow.
To make it, you collect natural materials that you would otherwise discard, such as food scraps, leaves, and yard trimmings, and let them decompose over time.
There are several reasons you should consider composting at home. They include:
- Waste reduction. Composting allows you to recycle kitchen scraps instead of tossing them, which reduces food waste and helps minimize your environmental impact.
- Soil enrichment. Compost helps soil retain more moisture and nutrients. It also prevents erosion by breaking up compacted soil.
- Lower need for synthetic fertilizers. Unlike many synthetic fertilizers, compost is free of harmful chemicals and adds organic material to your soil (
Notably, composting is easy and requires just a few simple steps to get started.
Composting involves recycling food scraps and yard trimmings to create a nutrient-rich organic material that you can add to soil. The practice decreases both food waste and your environmental impact.
Before you start composting, it’s important to understand which items you can compost and which you should avoid composting.
What to compost
Many organic materials can be composted, including food scraps, lawn trimmings, and several other items.
Here are some items that you can compost:
- fruit and vegetable peels and scraps
- rotten fruit and veggies
- houseplant trimmings
- coffee grounds and paper filters
- tea leaves
- nutshells (apart from walnuts)
- hair and fur
- paper, cardboard, and shredded newspaper
- napkins, paper towels, and unused toilet paper
- grass clippings
- wood chips
What not to compost
Not all items from your kitchen or yard should be composted. In fact, some items may attract pests and rodents, while others contain harmful compounds.
Here are some items you should avoid composting:
- Pet waste, such as feces or litter: may contain harmful bacteria or parasites
- Bones or scraps from meat, fish, and poultry: produces odor and attracts pests
- Dairy products: produces odor and attracts pests
- Leaves or twigs from black walnut trees: releases a compound that’s toxic to plants
- Walnuts: releases a compound that’s toxic to plants
- Coal ash or charcoal: contains compounds that may harm plants
- Large pieces of wood: may take a long time to decompose
- Fat, cooking oil, and grease: produces odor and attracts pests
- Pesticide-treated lawn trimmings: may kill microorganisms needed for the composting process
- Coffee pods: most contain plastic and don’t break down naturally
- Baked goods: may attract pests and increase the growth of harmful bacteria
- Plants that are diseased or infested with insects: may spread disease
You can compost many organic materials, including food scraps, yard trimmings, and certain paper products. However, some items contain harmful compounds or attract pests and therefore shouldn’t be composted.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to start composting at home.
1. Create your compost pile
The first step to composting is determining where you want your compost heap or bin.
Try to select an outdoor location with partial shade and plenty of drainage. It’s also important to pick an area that’s easily accessible but removed from animals, including pets and wildlife.
Your pile should be at least 3 feet (91 cm) in width and height, which is a manageable size for most gardeners and ensures that it can retain heat. Heat is produced during the composting process as bacteria break down organic materials (
Alternatively, you can use a compost tumbler, which is a container designed to make it easier to rotate and mix your composting materials.
2. Begin adding materials
Once you’ve picked a location for your compost pile, you’re ready to start adding materials.
It’s generally recommended to alternate green and brown materials in layers. The term “green materials” refers to items like food and yard scraps, while “brown materials” include carbon-rich items like branches, paper, straw, and wood chips.
Although layering isn’t required, it helps ensure that you’re maintaining the right balance of green and brown materials to optimize the decomposition process.
Start by creating a 4–8-inch (10–20-cm) layer of bulky brown materials, such as twigs, at the bottom of your pile to provide aeration and drainage. Then, alternate layers of green and brown materials until your bin is full. Be sure to add a bit of water to each layer to keep it moist.
3. Turn the pile regularly
You should turn your pile regularly to ensure efficient composting. To do so, use a shovel or pitchfork to turn and rotate the materials, which helps distribute air and moisture evenly.
How often you need to turn your compost depends on many factors, including the size of the pile, amount of moisture, and ratio of brown to green materials.
As a general rule of thumb, you should start by turning your pile every 4–7 days. As your compost starts to mature, you may need to turn it less often.
While most of the moisture in your compost pile should come from rain, you may need to water it occasionally to help keep it moist. If the pile becomes soggy, you can add extra brown materials or turn it more frequently to remove excess moisture.
4. Use your compost
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year for your materials to fully decompose, depending on a variety of factors, such as the size of your pile, type of materials used, moisture levels, and climate.
Turning the pile regularly, keeping it moist, and shredding scraps into smaller pieces can speed the process.
When it’s ready to use, your compost should appear dark brown and crumbly, similar to soil. It should also have a rich, earthy smell and be free of any large chunks of material.
You can use compost by mixing it with potting soil, sprinkling it over the surface of your garden, or replacing mulch with it.
You can also brew your own compost tea by steeping a small amount of compost in water for 24–48 hours. Then, strain the mixture and spray it onto plants to supply beneficial nutrients and enhance the growth of your garden.
You can start composting by making a compost pile, adding food scraps and yard debris, and turning your compost regularly to create rich, dark, plant-friendly matter.
If you don’t have a yard or access to outdoor space, you can still try composting at home.
In fact, plenty of apartment-friendly composting bins are available online, which you can use to create a mini indoor compost pile under your sink or in your refrigerator.
Once your food scraps have piled up, you can drop them off at a composting center. You can also contact local farms or community gardens, which may accept compost.
Alternatively, composting kitchen appliances can turn food scraps into a nutrient-rich fertilizer in just a few hours.
Some cities also offer composting programs, which allow you to drop off organic materials or recycle them curbside.
Shop for composting products online
- kitchen compost bins
- compost tumblers (for outdoor use)
- quick compost machines: Vitamix FoodCycler and beyondGREEN Home Backyard Composter
You can compost indoors using a compost bin or composting kitchen appliance. Some communities also offer curbside or drop-off composting programs.
Composting is a simple, effective way to fight food waste and reduce your environmental impact.
It also promotes plant growth by enriching soil, preventing erosion, and reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers in your garden.
Best of all, it’s easy to do at home, regardless of whether you have access to outdoor space.
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re short on space, chop up food scraps before adding them to your compost pail. This practice not only saves room until you’re ready to empty your scraps into a compost bin but also helps the food decompose faster.