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.
By piling food scraps with other decomposing matters, you create an environment where bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects like spiders and slugs can break it down naturally. The resulting compost–or “black gold” as it’s known to gardeners–becomes a nutrient-rich fertilizer you can add back into the soil. Adding compost makes the soil healthier, boosting its ability to hold on to both nutrients and water. And making your own compost at home also means you’re not using synthetic fertilizers.
We’ve been composting for many years now. And while there are several ways to do it (including indoor worm bins, which I’ve considered but haven’t been brave enough to try!), this method has worked well for us. It’s simple and doable–and not smelly or messy like some people might think. It’s also deeply satisfying to know that we’re turning our food scraps into something useful instead of adding them to a landfill. Food scraps actually make up a significant part of landfills, where they break down and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas.
If you think you might want to compost at home, here’s how to get started:
Get a pail for the kitchen: We have an Eco Kitchen Compost Pail under our sink. It’s large enough that we don’t need to empty it more than once or twice a week (more during watermelon season!) but small enough that it fits neatly under the sink and is light enough to easily carry outside. If you don’t have space under the sink, there are some models like this one that are stylish and compact enough to place on the counter. Note: We have used compost pail liners in the past, 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 backyard bin: You’ll want to find a dry spot in your yard and a bin that latches or closes tightly to keep out any critters. The two we have are the Earth Machine bin and the Soil Saver bin, but you can find similar bins like this one from Gardener’s Supply Company. The outdoor bins sit on the ground so worms and other insects can crawl in from underneath. You can also build your own from wood or wire.
Keep a good balance: 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. Mixing the greens and browns together regularly helps speed up the composting process. (You can also buy “tumbler” compost bins that you turn with a handle, making mixing easier.)
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Give it time: Your first batch of compost can take a while, as much as a year when you’re first getting started. 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). 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 a deep, “earthy” smell.
Use your compost: To create room for more food scraps, remove the finished compost and mix it into your landscape beds, flower gardens, and vegetable plots. Have too much to use? Give it to a neighbor!
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
- Wood chips
- Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
- Hair and pet fur
- Fireplace ashes
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
- Oil and fat
- Eggs (whites and yolks)
- Pet waste or cat litter
- Pesticide-treated yard trimmings
Do you compost too? I’d love to hear your experience with it in the comments!
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