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Home Composting

How to Start Composting at Home

Sarita Harbour

Are you looking for a natural way to improve your garden? Or maybe you’re on a mission to reduce your household waste. Whether you’re interested in a prettier flower garden, a more bountiful vegetable harvest or minimizing your contribution to the local landfill site, home composting could be your solution.

What is Composting?

Compost is decayed organic green matter, such as dead leaves or food scraps, and can be used for fertilizing soil.

Composting is the process by which moisture, oxygen and bacteria break down organic matter. This results in a brown, soil-like substance called compost. This process can happen without human intervention, but it takes time. Yet there are many things we can do to hurry that process along.

Five Reasons to Compost

Why compost? Composting has many benefits for your country, community and household.

1

Reduce Household Waste

When you compost, you reduce the amount of household waste that gets sent to the landfill site each year. These sites can be unsightly, stinky, and they can also generate methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

As of 2017 (the most recent year for which figures are available), Americans produced 267.8 million tons of waste, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To add to this, the non-profit organization Feeding America reports that 72 billion pounds of food gets wasted annually in America. And a recent study by Penn State found that American households throw out 31.9% of the food they buy each year!

According to Composting in America, a 2019 report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America Research and Policy Center and Frontier Group, composting could lower the amount of organic waste collected by at least 30%.

2

Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Composting and reducing your household waste means you’ll produce less trash for pickup. This means fewer garbage trucks on the road and fewer carbon emissions—both from the reduced vehicle exhaust and from the methane generated by organic waste in the landfill.

3

Great for Your Garden

Adding compost to your flower beds or vegetable garden can improve the existing soil quality. And according to the EPA, it can even increase agricultural crop yield. This means a more bountiful garden for you.

In addition, composting can produce a liquid, or composting tea, that works as an all-natural fertilizer. You could use this instead of a chemical fertilizer in your garden.

Home Composting is Good for Your Garden

4

Compost Can Take the Place of Soil

Not everyone has access to great garden soil or potting soil. You can use compost instead of soil to start growing herbs, flowers, shrubs or vegetables. The EPA reports that adding compost to your garden or backyard improves the moisture retention of soil. So if you live in a dry area with water restrictions, using compost can improve your lawn and garden when you can’t turn on the sprinkler. You can also use it as mulch around trees and shrubs.

5

Composting Saves You Money

When you compost, you’ll save money in several ways. You won’t have to invest in fertilizer, potting soil or mulch, not to mention saving on supermarket produce due to the vegetables it can help you grow in your backyard garden.

Backyard Home Composting Bin

Composting Methods

There are several different ways to compost. Some are better suited for smaller households, while others work well for large families and even businesses.

Onsite composting works for small-scale compost production because it occurs on the same site it was generated. For example, a family with a kitchen-counter composter or backyard compost bin is using the onsite composting method.

Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting uses red worms to accelerate the composting process and produce high-quality potting soil and fertilizer. Worm farms sell these and you can add them right into your household compost.

Aerated Static Pile Composting

Aerated static pile composting refers to loosely layering organic matter in a heap, including layers of bulking agents like wood chips or shredded newspaper to allow air to pass through the pile to help the composting process.

It’s easy to set up an aerated static pile (often known as a compost heap) in a corner of your backyard, and even easier to add to your compost each evening. However, an open pile can attract wildlife and might even break the by-laws of your region or state.

How to Start Composting at Home

The best way for you to compost at home depends on several things, including where you live, the amount of organic waste your household generates, how much hands-on work you’ll want to do, and the type of organic waste you produce. You’ll also need to consider the climate and wildlife in your area.

While an open compost heap or bin is simple to maintain, it might attract bears, coyotes and raccoons. And these critters can quickly make a mess of your property.

To get started composting at home, you’ll need to make sure you’re complying with the laws in your area. Find out about your state’s composting laws and regulations by looking through the U.S. Composting Council’s free list.

Next, decide on the type of composting set up best suited for your household.

Location and Food Waste Generation

Choosing the best composting method for you depends on a few things.

First, do you prefer to compost indoors or outdoors?

Second, look at how much household waste you produce daily, like:

  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Brush
  • Plain paper waste

A large family might need daily trips to a large compost bin or heap outdoors in the backyard.

On the other hand a single person or couple might do just fine with a kitchen countertop (or under-the-counter) compost bin with a charcoal filter to keep the smell down. This can also be a good solution for condo owners or apartment dwellers who might not have easy access to a backyard.

If you like the idea of composting your food waste and organic matter but don’t want the resulting compost, consider donating it to your local community garden. Some urban and suburban areas even offer city-wide compost pickup. With this service, compost gets collected regularly and composted in one large municipally-run aerated or turned windrow area. The compost might be used for area parks and gardens or sold back to the community at a nominal price.

What to Compost

Many of the food items typical American families buy or produce can be added to compost. These include:

  • Vegetable peelings and scraps
  • Fruit peelings, scraps and cores
  • Coffee grounds
  • Teabags
  • Eggshells
  • Plain paper
  • Wood shavings
  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • Grass clippings
  • Dry leaves
  • Small twigs and branches
  • Wood ash from a fireplace or wood stove
  • Nutshells and seeds
  • Livestock manure (including chickens and rabbits)
  • Straw
  • Hay

What NOT to Compost

It’s just as important to know what shouldn’t get added to your compost. Including the wrong ingredients can inhibit the organic matter from breaking down into humus, the brown soil-like matter that can help your garden. Don’t add any scraps that include:

  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Synthetic oils

The wrong ingredients can also attract animals and increase odor. Save the graphic below as a reminder of what you should and shouldn’t compost.

List of What to Compost and What Not to Compost

Creating Your Compost

Maintaining the right ratio of organic matter and regularly turning your compost are two important elements of a successful batch. For an average family sized compost, the University of Illinois suggests turning it every two weeks (with a small shovel). This gives the composting material in the middle enough time to heat up and get the process going.

Your compost needs equal parts green and brown organic matter. Your compostable kitchen scraps are mostly green matter, while brown matter includes:

  • Animal manure
  • Leaves
  • Twigs

Remember, your compost needs the right ingredients and the right amount of moisture and oxygen. The University of Illinois suggests adding water to a dry compost pile to get it to the moisture level of a “wrung-out” sponge.

When home composting, try to alternate layers of green and brown organic matter. If your compost seems too wet, try adding shredded newspaper or small pieces of cardboard egg cartons to soak up the extra moisture.

Composting Tins and Bins

While store-bought charcoal-filter composting bins can be an attractive addition to your kitchen, you can also collect compost indoors using a large tin or jar with holes punched in the lid.

For example, you can use use empty large coffee tins to collect compost each day. Then each evening, empty the tin into your outdoor compost bin or heap.

How to Make a Simple Compost Bin

You can buy a compost bin for your backyard online or from your local building supply or hardware store. Some cities and municipalities also offer compost bins to residents at a low cost to encourage composting in their areas. These bins often have covers on top as well as a small door at ground level for easy access to the composted material. They do not have bottoms.

You could even make your own simple outdoor compost bin using a large plastic storage container. Cut off the bottom of the tote and drill air holes in the sides and on top to allow oxygen into the compost. Place it in a corner of your garden and add your food and yard waste to it regularly.

Home composting doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s a simple way to do your part to divert waste from landfills, and you get the added benefit of creating a natural garden booster to help your flower beds or vegetable patch.

Do you have a home composting tip or story to share? We’d love to hear from you!

13 Responses to "How to Start Composting at Home"
    • Barbara palma | September 19, 2020 at 9:05 pm

      Anxious to start

    • Robert T Jones | October 22, 2020 at 11:31 am

      I have been composting for 6 years now. All my vegetable waste goes in a pile and covered with lime and compost from the landfill ( which is acidic, therefore the lime). All my meat scraps go to a feeding station at the back of my property and always disappears over night. No animals try to disturb my mulch pile. I only have to go to the dump once or twice a month now to dispose of plastic, cans and paper/cardboard.

    • Cathy Seibert | October 23, 2020 at 9:53 am

      My mother as a senior collected her compostable scraps in a pie pan and then dug a hole in the garden and buried it each day or two. She found it a very easy method.

    • Susan Pickett | October 23, 2020 at 10:19 am

      Coffee grounds are especially good. So much so that I buy extra grounds (very inexpensive) from a local coffee shop to add to my compost.

    • Gina Soltis | October 23, 2020 at 11:29 am

      For my little house on a small piece of property I am composting in bins made of wire storage cubes. I leave a loose section on top for easy access for me and to keep the raccoons out.

      Um, worms are not insects.

      Enjoy participating in Nature’s flow of nutrients.

      • Extra Mile Staff | October 23, 2020 at 1:32 pm

        Gina – Thank you so much for catching that! We’ve removed that. Happy composting!

    • Jay Lunde | October 23, 2020 at 11:33 am

      This is a really nice article. I am happy that you are encouraging folks to compost. I have been composting in one form or another since I moved to Montana; almost 50 years now. First I would just dig the scraps into my garden beds that were not actively growing something. I do have a garden fence but the garden is big and cost prohibitive to really fence out the small animals like skunks. Our neighborhood had a skunk problem for some time, and they would come and dig out my scraps. Now I use bins; rubbermaid tubs with holes drilled for aeration, and I did purchase a very nice metal trash can shaped bin with holes in sidewalls and lid. Works great; my tip would be to stir your compost if you want it to produce quickly. It makes a big difference on production/breakdown. We do have bears in our area in early spring looking for food before the woods can produce for them (can scale any type of fence!) so when they are in the “hood” I will move my bins into an outbuilding. I must admit I do not really focus on adding equal amounts of “brown” waste; it still seems to turn into compost. Thanks again for reaching out to us all. jl

    • JANET S LUNDEEN | October 23, 2020 at 11:37 am

      p.s. I would love to do the vermi composting, but how does one keep them alive through the cold winter season? I hate the thought of raising them and then just letting them die a freezing death. I’ve had a friend use an indoor worm setup, but I don’t have the setup for that. I’ve thought it would be fun to try building them a straw bale house that would be protected from too much moisture, but… a big endeavor and a big responsibility then.

      • Extra Mile Staff | October 23, 2020 at 1:37 pm

        Janet,
        Yes, it looks like most recommend moving to an indoor setup in the winter, but here are a few tips on insulating your outdoor setup.

    • Alice Seal | October 24, 2020 at 9:30 am

      I’ve been composting for over 40 years and have found that sprinkling old beer on the pile occasionally really starts it “boiling”. I even had a compost pile go on fire one summer when it was very hot. (It eventually put itself out). The materials turn into great compost quickly.

    • Glenn Ford | October 24, 2020 at 2:56 pm

      In various parts of the U.S. there are plants that are not recommended to be composted in an an avg. composter. Those plants with tomato disease (hybrids) and family members solanaceae (night shade, egg plant, datura, etc.) to name but a few.
      Check with your local Agricultural Extension office for assistance, especially for moisture, soil types and crop rotation.

      • Extra Mile Staff | October 25, 2020 at 2:11 pm

        Thanks Glenn!

    • Joe Weisensee | October 24, 2020 at 6:15 pm

      The counter composter that cooks your scraps, and the mulches it up, then calls that compost. A 16 hr process or so, but the appliance is expensive. I am wondering if I cook my food scraps in a slow cooker, then grind it, is that compost then?

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