Thinking about composting? This is your ultimate guide

When we surveyed our community, we found that 83% of you who don’t compost would love to start – so we’re here to help! Whether you’re looking for a way to reduce your carbon footprint, create a nutrient-dense fertilizer for your garden, or simply keep your waste from smelling bad, composting is the answer. When you start composting, all of your kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and fall leaves will be turned into rich, beneficial soil, and the best part is that it doesn’t require much effort on your part – you just mix it all up and wait! Plus, with the advent of bins that fit your kitchen (like, ahem, the new Five Two compost bin), getting started is easier than ever.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that composting can be daunting for beginners. I myself had no idea what I was doing at first, and I found myself looking in my compost bin several times a week, wondering, “Does this work?” How do I even know if it works? To ease my worries and get all my pressing questions about compost answered, I turned to an expert: Erin Rhoads, eco-lifestyle blogger and author of don’t waste, a guide on how to make a big difference by throwing away less. Here’s what she had to say about composting best practices, plus several lessons I learned in my early years of composting.

Why compost in the first place?

“When we compost organic materials like food, they are no longer waste,” says Rhoads. “Instead, they become food for the soil. Our food, the unprocessed stuff, is designed to break down in the soil where all types of insects, bugs and worms will devour it, helping to restore nutrients to the soil while improving its quality.”

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

Another benefit of composting is that it makes your waste less stinky – if you put all the food scraps in the compost, there won’t be any rotten things in your bin. Finally, composting reduces the production of a common greenhouse gas and helps minimize the use of chemical fertilizers.

“Starting a compost not only reduces waste going to landfill, it will help reduce methane and reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers, which is another money saver,” she says. “Composting is a win-win!”

What can I put in my composter?

According to Rhoads, compostable items are generally divided into “green” and “brown” categories. Green items are moist, plant-based materials including:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • plant trimmings
  • Weeds that have not 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 materials, such as:

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

Additionally, there are some items that cannot fit in your compost bin at all:

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

For a more complete breakdown, consult the guidelines of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Common mistakes I should know about?

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

“The most common mistake in composting is not maintaining a balance between green matter and brown matter,” she explains. “An oversupply of green materials – food scraps, green leaves, grass clippings – will not decompose properly. Alternatively, too much brown waste, such as newspaper and brown paper, brown leaves, branches and twigs , slow down the process.

You’ll also want to keep your compost from drying out: “If your compost gets too dry, spray lightly with water. On the other hand, you don’t want your compost to be too wet because a soggy pile will likely smell and take longer to decompose. Again, balance is key here, and it might take a bit of trial and error to get it right.

Another common beginner mistake is putting your compost in the wrong place. 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 house as possible, but in reality, it’s usually best to have it close enough and accessible for easy maintenance.

How to maintain the balance?

It’s actually quite simple.

“Keep the balance between green and brown by adding the same amount of both at the same time,” Rhoads recommends. “Regularly turning your compost with a shovel or a compost turner promotes the circulation of oxygen. This is also the key to reducing bad odors!”

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 a type, you can either wait to add it until you can balance it, or just ask a friend or neighbor if they have any materials to you.

What can I compost that I may not know?

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

“There’s a myth that lemon peels can’t be composted, but they really can, as long as you don’t overdo it, especially when using a worm farm,” she explains. “Coffee grounds can be added to compost, just like pizza boxes, but tear them up to make them easier to break down.”

You can even compost pet waste, but you must do this separately from your normal pile: “Hair, nail clippings and even pet hair will decompose in a compost. If you have pets , also consider starting a designated compost for their waste. The USDA has a comprehensive 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 more 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 even though it’s not technically compost since it does not decompose, the resulting material is still an excellent organic material to help feed plants. The Down-to-Earth Compost Bin is another great option for keeping your countertop compost pile handy, and the 1.5-gallon size means it won’t fill up with just two dinner leftovers. No need for liners, a dishwasher safe body and a smell proof lid really…seal the deal (ha!).

It’s not the only option for indoor composting, however. “I’ve seen an increase in worm farms used indoors disguised as seats inside kitchens!” Rhoads said. “You might think it’s going to smell, but like any compost or worm farming, once the balance is right there won’t be any smell.”

There are also participatory composting groups, which allow you to work with your neighbors to reduce waste, like the one Rhoads recommends called ShareWaste. “It’s a website and app that connects people who want to recycle their kitchen scraps with their neighbors who are already composting, raising worms, or raising chickens.”

How long does composting take?

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

If you want your compost ready to use as soon as possible, there are ways to speed up the process. A simple option is to mix in already finished compost – this will ensure that 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 up decomposition.

How do you know when it’s ready to use? Your compost should look like rich, dark soil, not rotting vegetables! If you see large chunks of food scraps or they smell sour, you’re not done yet.

What can I do with finished compost?

Once your compost has decomposed enough, you can use the beautiful “black gold” in a number of ways. Many people use the finished compost as a mulch, spreading it over their flower beds to feed plants and prevent weed growth. It can also be used to improve the soil in your gardens – mix it into your beds before adding plants or seeds to give them a nutritious boost.

No outdoor gardens? Carefree! Your indoor plants will love the compost too. Simply mix compost into your favorite potting soil and use it to repot your houseplants. They will certainly appreciate the rich growing environment.

There’s also a concept called “compost tea”, which is exactly what it sounds like – don’t drink it! To make tea, you soak the compost in water for three days – a water to compost ratio of 5:1 is recommended – then strain out the solids. The resulting liquid can be sprayed on your plants or garden as fertilizer. It’s a great way to stretch some compost further.