EXPLAINER

Thinking about composting? This is your ultimate guide

Your plants, the earth and your garbage can will thank you

By Camryn Rabideau

Published April 4, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

 (Rocky Luten / Food52)
(Rocky Luten / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

When we polled our community, we found that 83% of you who don't compost would like to start — so we're here to help! Whether you're looking for a way to reduce your carbon footprint, create nutrient-rich fertilizer for your garden, or simply stop your trash from smelling, composting is the way to go. When you start composting, all your kitchen scraps, grass trimmings, and fall leaves will be transformed into rich, beneficial soil, and the best part is that it doesn't require much effort on your part — you mostly just mix it all together and wait! Plus, with the advent of bins that fit in your kitchen (like, ahem, the new Five Two compost bin), it's easier than ever before to get started.

However, I'll be the first to admit that composting can be intimidating to beginners. I myself had no idea what I was doing at first, and I found myself peering into my compost bin several times a week, asking myself, "Is it working? How do I even know if it's working?" To assuage my worries and get answers to all my pressing compost questions, I called in an expert: Erin Rhoads, an eco-lifestyle blogger and the author of Waste Not, a guide on how to make a big difference by throwing away less. Here's what she had to say about composting best practices, along with several lessons I've learned in my first few years of composting.

Why compost in the first place?

"When we compost organics like food, they're no longer waste," explains Rhoads. "Instead, they become food for soil. Our food, the unprocessed stuff, is designed to break down in soil where all types of insects, bugs, and worms will eat it up, helping return nutrients to the soil while improving its quality."

The end result is nutrient-rich soil that your houseplants or garden will absolutely love.

Another benefit of composting is that it makes your trash less stinky — if you're putting all of the food waste into the compost, there won't be any rotting items in your garbage bin. Finally, composting reduces the production of a common greenhouse gas and helps minimize use of chemical fertilizers.

"Starting a compost not only cuts down rubbish sent to landfill, it'll help cut down on methane gas, and reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers, which is another money saver," she says. "Composting is a win-win!"

What can go in my compost bin? 

According to Rhoads, compostable items are commonly broken down into "green" and "brown" categories. Green items are plant-based, wet materials, including:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Plant trimmings
  • Weeds that haven't gone to seed
  • Animal manure, but only from "vegetarians" such as cows, sheep, chickens, and rabbits

Brown items, on the other hand, are dry plant material, such as:

  • Dried leaves and twigs
  • Straw, hay, or corn stalks
  • Paper, such as newspaper, coffee filters, or paper tableware
  • Sawdust
  • Corrugated cardboard

Plus, there are some items that can't go in your compost bin at all:

  • Meat and dairy products, which can attract pests
  • Fats, grease, lard, or oils
  • Glossy paper or cardboard

For a more comprehensive breakdown, check out the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

Any common mistakes I should know about? 

Composting is all about balance, and Rhoads says it can take a little practice to get it right.

"The most common mistake when it comes to composting is not maintaining a balance between the green and brown matter," she explains. "An oversupply of the green stuff — food scraps, green leaves, grass clippings — will not break down properly. Alternately, too much brown waste, like newspaper and brown paper, brown leaves, branches and twigs, slows down the process."

You'll also want to keep your compost from drying out: "If your compost becomes too dry, spray lightly with water." On the flip side, you don't want your compost too wet, as a soggy pile will likely smell and take longer to break down. Again, balance is key here, and it might take a little trial and error to get right.

Another common beginner mistake is placing your compost in the wrong spot. Ideally, you'll want your compost pile directly on the ground and in the shade, as this will prevent it from drying out. Many people think they should put the compost as far away from their home as possible, but in reality, it's usually better to have it fairly close and accessible to make it easy to tend.

How do I maintain the balance? 

It's actually pretty straightforward.

"Keep the balance between green and brown by adding the same amount of both at the same time," Rhoads recommends. "Turning your compost regularly with a shovel or compost turner promotes the circulation of oxygen. This is key to reducing funny smells, too!"

The 1:1 ratio is just a suggestion, so don't worry too much about having exact amounts of green and brown materials. However, if you find yourself with way too much of one type, you can either hold off on adding it until you can balance it out, or simply ask a friend or neighbor if they have any materials for you.

What can I compost that I might not know about? 

Don't believe everything you hear about composting. Rhoads says there are several items people think can't be composted, but actually can!

"There is the myth that lemon peels can't be composted, but really they can, so long as you are not putting too much in, especially when you are using a worm farm," she explains. "Coffee grounds can be added to the compost, as can pizza boxes, but tear them up to make it easier to break down."

You can even compost pet waste, but you need to do it separately from your normal pile: "Hair, nail clippings and even pet fur will break down in a compost. If you have pets, consider starting a designated compost for their waste, too." The USDA has a thorough guide on how to compost pet waste.

Can I compost indoors? 

Not all of us have an outdoor space where we can compost, but countertop composting products are becoming increasingly common, making the practice more accessible. When I lived in an apartment, I used a Vitamix FoodCycler to dehydrate and break down kitchen scraps, and while it's not technically compost since it's not decaying, the resulting material is still a great organic material to help feed plants. The Down-to-Earth compost bin is another great option for keeping your countertop compost pile within reach, and the 1.5 gallon size means it won't overfill with just two dinner's worth of scraps. No need for liners, a dishwasher safe body, and a stink-proof lid really…seal the deal (ha!).

That's not the only option for indoor composting, though. "I've seen a rise in worm farms being used indoors disguised within seats inside kitchens!" says Rhoads. "You might think it will smell, but like any compost or worm farm, once the balance is right there will be no smell."

There are also crowdsourced composting groups, which allow you to work with your neighbors to reduce waste, like one Rhoads recommends called ShareWaste. "This is a website and app that connects people who wish to recycle their kitchen scraps with their neighbors who are already composting, worm-farming, or keeping chickens."

How long does composting take? 

So you've made a compost pile and put in your greens and browns… then what? Essentially, you wait. In a well-maintained compost pile, decomposition can take anywhere from two to four months, but there are numerous factors that affect this timeline, such as the time of year. As Rhoads mentioned, too many browns can slow the decomposition process, and you'll also need to be diligent about wetting the pile if it dries out and turning it once a week or so.

If you want your compost ready to use ASAP, there are ways to speed up the process. One easy option is to mix in some already-finished compost — this will ensure there are plenty of beneficial bacteria to break down the materials. There are also commercial compost accelerators that serve the same purpose, helping to speed along decomposition.

How do you know when it's ready to be used? Your compost should look and feel like rich, dark earth — not rotting vegetables! If you see large chunks of food waste or it has a sour odor, it's not finished yet.

What can I do with finished compost? 

Once your compost has sufficiently decomposed, you can use the beautiful "black gold" in several ways. Many people use finished compost as mulch, spreading it over their garden beds to feed nutrients to the plants and prevent weeds from growing. It can also be used to amend soil in your gardens — mix it into your beds before adding plants or seeds to give them a nutrient boost.

No outdoor gardens? No worries! Your houseplants will love compost, too. Just mix compost into your favorite potting soil and use it to repot your indoor plants. They're sure to appreciate the rich growing medium.

There's also a concept called "compost tea," which is exactly what it sounds like — just don't drink it! To make tea, you soak compost in water for three days — a 5:1 ratio of water to compost is recommended — then strain out the solids. The resulting liquid can be sprayed onto your plants or garden best as a fertilizer. It's a great way to stretch a little bit of compost farther.


Camryn Rabideau

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