Make a Home Composter

Why Compost?

Composting is something everyone can do to make a difference every day for our environment (and gardens) that is uncommonly gratifying! There are two sides to the environmental benefits of composting:

Preventative: Composting starts with separating your compostable stuff, aka organics, from your trash. When you do this you are keeping a valuable resource out of landfills. Landfilling organics is a wasteful practice we can help change by composting. It wastes two valuable resources: land space and organic matter that should go back to fertile soil. It also creates toxic groundwater-contaminating leachate and methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

Proactive: Compost creates fertile soil necessary for growing healthy, nutritious food. Healthy soil absorbs more rain than depleted soil and therefore helps with storm water run-off and erosion.

Compost 101: Get Your Green On!

Compost is soil humus, made up of broken down organic matter such as maple leaves, garden weeds, apple cores, cheese rinds, chicken bones, leftovers, coffee grounds, and banana peels. It is the acceleration of natural decomposition by creating ideal conditions for rot! But it's more than rot, it's alchemy. Turning a banana peel into soil humus is a somewhat mysterious and complex biological/physical/chemical or “bio-alchemical” transformation. Luckily, nature has it all figured out. All we have to do is follow a few easy steps and compost will indeed happen.

Backyard Composting Recipe—All You Really Need to Know

1. Blend 3 to 4 parts dry, brown material (like leaves or sawdust) with one part food scraps
2. Make sure it’s moist, like a wrung sponge
3. Turn it about every week or two until it’s finished

Hungry for more information? Read on!


Anyone can compost—even if you live in a tiny apartment! You can do great things in a small amount of space. Compost bins take up about the same amount of space as a lawn chair. You can even compost on a porch, stoop, or balcony with a tumbler or worm bin! Whether you’re composting outside in a bin or inside with red worms, composting is fun, easy, and uncommonly gratifying.

City Dwellers:
Live in an apartment with no yard? No problem, you can still compost all of your fruit & veggies, tea bags, and coffee grounds. Put a worm bin right under your sink, on your stoop, or under your living room coffee table. Or find a compost bin or tumbler that's just right for your situation.

Suburb Dwellers:
Have a yard with lots of neighbors? No problem! There are plenty of really good options for you. It all depends on what you want to compost and whether you're willing to participate in the joy of composting. (See the Choosing Your Compost Bin section below)

Country Dwellers:
You already know you can compost!

Choosing Your Compost Bin: Are You Omnivore, Vegetarian, or Vegan?

Your personal fueling preferences are a major determining factor in what kind of backyard compost bin is right for you. Bins come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and prices. To help point you in the right direction answer this one question:

What kind of food scraps do you want to compost?

Everything? This includes dairy, meat, bones, shells, fats, oils, grains, leaves, clippings, and of course fruits & veggies.
[The bin that's right for you keeps out scavengers. Make sure it allows you to turn your pile if you want to make faster compost.]


Not everything? Vegetarian or vegan food scraps only!
[The bin that's right for you is pretty much anything that fits your budget and sense of aesthetics because scavengers and odors should not be a problem. However, if you want to make faster compost then choose a bin that allows you to turn the pile.]

What IS Compostable?

Easy Compost Factoid: Anything that was once alive or came from something alive (such as milk) can be composted. It just depends on your bin and your level of participation.

»  fruit & veggies, including citrus peels & corn cobs leaves, grass clippings & garden
»  weeds (see below for more on composting garden weeds)
»  meat, bones & dairy
»  cooked & baked goods
»  grease, oil, beeswax & fat
»  compostable plates, cups & tableware (check the label)
»  sawdust & wood shavings
»  tea bags & coffee grounds
»  eggshells & clamshells
»  paper & cardboard
»  droppings from vegetarian pets like rabbits & horses
»  oddball things like hair, wine corks, leather & old potholders

What is NOT Compostable?

Composting is about returning organic material into the soil and keeping it out of landfills. Things that were never alive, like plastic or glass, cannot be composted and shouldn’t be in the soil.

NOT Compostable:
»  plastic, glass & metal
»  dog poop & cat litter (may have pathogens)
»  anything inorganic or inert or hazardous

How to Compost: It’s Easy as 1—2—3
(… and it’s a lot less smelly than you think!)

Your compost pile is like a Maserati: It’ll do great things if you take good care of it and give it the right amount of fuel. In the case of compost we’re talking about oxygen, moisture, carbon, nitrogen, and little bit of love.

Ingredients: Color-Coded Compost
Like you and me, microbes in the compost pile need air, water, nitrogen for proteins, and carbon for building and fueling their bodies. Our job as composters is to keep those critters happy by giving them the right amount of nitrogen, carbon, moisture, and oxygen. So in fact, a compost recipe is nothing more than a dietary plan for compost critters! Sound complicated? No worries. We’ve simplified matters by color-coding composting into "greens" and "browns".

"Green" = Nitrogen-rich
Includes food scraps, grass clippings, tea bags, old flowers, nettles, weeds, rhubarb leaves, spent bedding plants, rotting fruit and vegetable peelings).

"Brown" = Carbon-rich
Includes leaves, sawdust, wood shavings, twigs, prunings, straw, cardboard, shredded paper.

Putting it all together
1. Recipe: Cover up 1 part "greens" (smelly stuff) with 3 or 4 parts "browns" (non-smelly stuff)
2. Turn the pile every week or two for aerating and blending OR just layer greens and browns like lasagna and let compost happen…slowly
3. Keep your pile moist but not sopping wet—think the consistency of a wrung out sponge

Some Like it Hot

The composting process involves many organisms including worms, beetles, and centipedes but most are too small to see. The metabolic heat of the microscopic organisms is what heats up the compost pile making the process go faster. These “thermophiles” break down your food scraps and yard trimmings very fast but you have to give them plenty of air. This is especially important if you're an omnivore and you want to compost everything, including meat and dairy.

If you’re a gardener then pile heat is also important for killing weed seeds and most pathogens. Most of these will break down in a hot pile that stays at least1300 F for 72 hours. Turning the pile regularly and thoroughly ensures that everything gets heated up. The pile temperature will temporarily dip and then spike after turning. After a few months the pile will go into the final cooler “curing” phase when turning no longer creates a thermal spike and no new ingredients should be added. Curing compost no longer resembles banana peels and hot dogs but looks like brown loamy soil. It may be removed from the bin to make room for a fresh batch. Using a compost thermometer is a great way to monitor and manage your compost pile.

A Few More Composting Tips from the Compost Maven
  • In the kitchen: Keep a food scrap container on the kitchen countertop or under the sink for easy access.
  • Batch composting: Composting works best if you have at least two bins. That way you can start a new bin as the old one’s finishing. This is called “batch composting”.
  • Kick-start your pile: Inoculate your pile with beneficial organisms once in a while by tossing in a few handfuls of finished compost
  • Odor-Free Compost Makes Good Neighbors: A healthy compost pile will not smell. The key to having an odor-free compost pile is mainly having enough “browns” and keeping the pile aerated. Keep a nice pile of dry “browns” nearby for easy layering on top of your “greens”. Even a thin layer of “browns” will eliminate odors from the most pungent “greens”

Compost: Think globally and locally!

All terrestrial life depends on the thin brown line that is known as topsoil. Topsoil is where food, fuel, and fiber are grown and where groundwater is filtered. Globally, the carbon stored in the organic layers of topsoil affects Earth’s climates. Many soils are unfertile due to carbon and nutrient depletion, and many are simply contaminated or eroded. Keeping organics out of landfills and putting them back into the soil in the form of compost is a small step everyone can make for personal, societal, and planetary well being.

Compost & Your Organic Lawn and Garden
Compost is the best way to improve your soil’s health, fertility, and structure. It also grows healthier and more nutritious plants. The chemistry of compost makes it easier for plants to take in nutrients. In compost there are abundant in the form of slow-release nutrients that won’t run off in a rain storm. And compost is teeming with beneficial micro-organisms or microbes that make up a healthy soil food web. The soil food web makes nutrients available to plants, fights disease organisms, and gives the soil good structure. Soil management is a big part of growing plants. That’s why compost is a big part of the picture for organic gardeners and farmers who do not use conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Compost grows healthier plants, reduces the need for watering, and for fertilizing.

Compost & Clean Water
Compost improves soil drainage while increasing the water holding capacity. Healthy soils that have good drainage and can hold water, filtering it over time, reduce erosion and storm water run-off. This helps to keep your watershed clean and healthy.

Compost & Global Warming
Organics are compostable materials. They can account for up to 50% of garbage. When organics are put in the trash they’re on their way to a landfill where they produce methane, a very potent greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Methane is 23 times more potent than CO2, which is released into the atmosphere in transporting organics to the landfill. Organics may take about two days to start decomposing in a compost pile but two decades or more in a landfill where there is no oxygen. The other problem with putting organics in a landfill is that the organic acids and liquids mix with things like battery acid making a toxic leachate that pollutes groundwater.

Here are just a few of the many great things about composting

1. Rejuvenates soil (Adds nutrients and soil biodiversity necessary to grow healthy plants and to keep the air and water clean)
2. Reduces your impact on the environment (Keeps organics out of greenhouse gas-emitting landfills)
3. Saves you money (Pay for less garbage removal)
4. Makes your garbage smell like a plastic DVD wrapper, i.e., nothing! (No organics in the garbage = no smelly garbage)
5. Connects you to your world! (Composting is like baking cookies, keeping a pet, and praying—all rolled into one)

This info should get you started with your own backyard composting. If you have composting questions or comments please feel free to email Holly Rae Taylor, Compost Maven:

"Compost Maven Haiku #1"
compost trashes waste
each person every day
food scraps into food

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  Holly Rae Taylor, Compost Maven