Want to repurpose your food scraps and create a no-cost, environmentally-friendly fertilizer? Here’s how to compost at home.
When I was growing up, I thought everyone had a milk carton under their sink filled with food scraps.
My dad, an avid gardener, collected fruit and vegetable scraps for his compost pile–and when the compost was ready, he added it to his garden beds.
So when my husband and I bought our first house, we decided to start composting too. We got a plastic pail for under the kitchen sink and a compost bin for the corner of our backyard. Right away, we noticed that we produced a lot less trash. And when the scraps eventually broke down into genuine compost, we turned piles of it into our landscape beds and watched our flowers and shrubs thrive.
What Is Compost?
Compost is decomposed organic matter. A compost pile, made up of items like food scraps and yard clippings, is an environment where bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects like spiders and slugs can break it all down naturally. The result is a dark, earthy material called compost (or “black gold” as it’s known to gardeners) that’s a nutrient-rich fertilizer you can add back into the soil.
Why You Should Compost At Home
There are so many benefits to composting at home:
- You’re making your soil healthier. Mixing compost into your garden and landscape beds boosts the soil’s ability to hold on to both nutrients and water.
- You’re using natural compost instead of synthetic fertilizers, which carry the risk of overuse or misuse.
- You’re putting less food into the landfill. According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste make up a third of what’s thrown away. When food is tossed in the landfill, it breaks down and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.
How To Get Started
We’ve been composting for many years now. And while there are several ways to make garden compost, this method has worked well for us. It’s simple and doable–and not smelly or messy like some people might think. (Intrigued by worm composting? Here’s how to create and maintain a worm composting bin.)
Get a kitchen compost bin
You’ll need a small pail in your kitchen for stashing food scraps. The most common spot for a kitchen compost pail is under the sink. We have the Eco Kitchen Compost Pail under ours. It’s large enough that we don’t need to empty it more than once or twice a week but small enough that it fits neatly under the sink. It’s also light enough to easily carry outside.
If you don’t have space under the sink, you can get a countertop compost bin like this one that’s stylish and compact.
Should you use compost pail liners? We have tried them, but found that they don’t break down quickly enough in the outdoor bin–which meant picking out pieces of liners from the finished compost (not fun).
Install a compost bin in your yard
Find a dry, shady spot in your yard and a bin that latches or closes tightly to keep out any critters if you live in a city or town (if you live in a rural area, you may be able to get away with an open bin). The two bins we have are the Earth Machine bin and the Soil Saver bin. You can find similar bins like this one from Gardener’s Supply Company.
The outdoor bins sits right on the bare ground so worms and other insects can crawl in from underneath. Placing a pile of sticks or straw at the very bottom of the outdoor compost bin can help aerate the pile. Then start layering on your food scraps, yard waste, and other compostables.
Interested in making your own outdoor compost bin? Here are 45 ideas using different materials, from wood pallets to garbage cans.
Tips For Composting At Home
Keep a good balance between “greens” and “browns”
A key to successful composting is having a mix of “greens” and “browns” in your outdoor bin. Greens are foods scraps and grass trimmings. Browns are dry leaves, twigs, newspaper, and cardboard. Between our food scraps and yard work, we have plenty of greens. To make sure we have enough browns, we collect leaves in the fall in a large container we keep next to the compost bin. When we dump our pail of food scraps in, we cover it with a layer of leaves (or newspaper) and mix them together using a pitchfork.
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Turn the pile
Mixing the greens and browns together regularly helps increase the pile’s heat, which speeds up the composting process. You can buy “tumbler” compost bins that you turn with a handle, making mixing easier. Or you can simply get in there with a pitchfork and mix it around, bringing scraps from the middle and bottom to the top. Try to turn your pile once every week or so.
Keep it covered
Compost piles can become overrun by flies. To avoid that, each time you add food scraps, cover them well with dry leaves, grass clippings, or newspaper.
Give it time
Your first batch of compost takes time, as much as a year when you’re first getting started. You’ll know your compost is ready when it’s dark brown and resembles very rich soil. Many of the bins have a small door in the bottom where you can check. It has an “earthy” smell but doesn’t have a bad odor.
Keep in mind that compost will break down quicker when it’s warmer and then stagnate in the winter if you live in a cold climate. When both of our outdoor bins got full this winter, I found a local service that takes food scraps and delivers them to local farms for composting (for those in the Columbus area, we joined the Compost Exchange).
Use your compost
To create room for more food scraps, remove the finished compost as you need it. Here are some ways to use it:
- Rake it into your landscape beds and flower gardens
- Combine it into the soil of your vegetable garden before planting
- Spread it on top of existing landscape beds as you would mulch
- Blend it with potting soil for container gardens
- Sprinkle it on your lawn as a natural fertilizer
- Give some to a neighbor!
- Use this tip sheet from the NYC Compost Project for specific instructions on using compost in gardens and beds
What You Can Compost
You can compost any kind of fruit or vegetable scrap, including peels and cores, but you can also compost some common household items too. Though we include all fruit and veggie scraps in ours, keep in mind that some hardcore gardeners (like my dad!) advise against including anything with seeds, which can sprout in your garden if they’re not fully broken down. (For instance, if you compost a lot of tomato scraps and use your compost to fertilize your garden, you may end up with a lot of volunteer tomatoes!)
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Eggshells (ideally, smashed up a bit)
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Nut shells
- Newspaper (preferably shredded)
- Yard trimmings & grass clippings
- Hay & straw
- Wood chips
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint*
- Cotton rags
- Hair and pet fur
- Fireplace ashes
*Only compost lint from natural fibers, such as cotton. And do not compost lint if you use dryer sheets. Read this article for more information.
What You Can’t Compost
These items can create unpleasant smells, attract rodents, or result in compost that’s unsafe to use on food gardens.
- Dairy products
- Meat or fish bones or scraps
- Grease, oil, fat, lard
- Eggs (whites and yolks)
- Pet waste or cat litter
- Pesticide-treated yard trimmings
- Black walnut tree leaves and twigs
- Coal or charcoal ash
- Diseased or insect-infested plants
Do you compost too? I’d love to hear your experience with it in the comments!
Products For Composting at Home
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