When my wife and I moved into the house we live in now, we had grand hopes of growing a garden. One look at our “soil” set us straight. It wasn’t even fertile enough to grow weeds. It was so sandy and dusty that I needed a drink just looking at it. That little dusty patch was so far from the dark loamy soil that I saw pictured on gardening websites that I got discouraged.
We figured we would simply have to buy a thousand bags of potting soil from Home Depot, build some boxes, and grow our garden on top of our current “dirt.” Luckily when my mom visited, she helpfully suggested, “Well, I guess you better learn how to compost.”
So we did. We started this site to record our journey and the summation of our research, and this article is the tip-top of that! Let’s take a minute (or an hour, this might get wordy) and dive into everything you need to know about starting your very own compost pile. If you make it all the way through, I guarantee you that we can get you making awesome compost faster, cheaper, and with less work than anyone else. Let’s do this!
The Composting Cycle of Life
Composting is the natural breaking down of materials. When we think of the circle of life, we typically think of animals eating other animals – but the reality is much much larger.
In the full circle of life, a plant draws nutrients from soil and the air to create its structure. When the plant dies, the nutrients that it took from the soil are slowly released from the structure of the plant as it decomposes until they are once again available for use.
If an animal eats part of the plant, the nutrients will eventually return to the soil when the animal poops, pees, or dies. In this natural version of the cycle, there are no diverted nutrients. Everything of value ends up back in the soil to grow another generation of plants.
Home composting is an attempt to fix the massive disruption that humans have caused to the cycle. Humans divert massive amounts of nutrients from returning to the soil in several ways:
- Eating from soil we don’t poop on. When we consume plant material we don’t utilize all the nutrients in contains. Instead, we deposit them in a toilet and send them to a central plant. What a “waste.”
- Commercialized farming. In commercial farming, the point is efficient production (profit). Optimizing plant growth means helping plants to suck nutrients out of the soil as fast as possible. After the most nutrient-rich part of the plant is harvested for consumption, the rest of the plant is removed from the soil (as opposed to falling where it grew and returning its nutrients). What we have done is created a system to encourage soil depletion.
- Fostering an unproductive, single-species environment. The artificial environments that humans create (flower gardens, lawns, etc.) often require the removal of material in the name of aesthetics and care. We pick up fallen fruit from the ground, remove dead stems, mow our lawn, etc. This all moves nutrition away from the soil.
It comes as no surprise that humans are the main wrench in the composting life cycle. Now, I’m not vilifying what we do (okay, maybe commercialized farming…), but we must accept that the different ways things happen come with a heap of consequences. Unless we can mediate the effect we have on our soil, we run the risk of universally having very nutrient-poor soil that, in turn, produces less and less food over time. So what is the solution?
Composting in your yard is the one-person, small-scale solution to this problem. By composting your own food scraps, yard waste, and maybe even some human waste (I know, right?) you are able to reintroduce valuable nutrients and microbes to the soil.
Backyard composting attempts to add nutrients back into the soil in a much faster and more efficient way than would ever happen in nature. While it might take hundreds of years for soil to recover on its own, the purpose of backyard composting is to create the right condition to turn a maximum amount of “waste” back into soil at an accelerated timeline.
Who started composting?
When I was in second grade (or so, my memory is fuzzy) I remember reading about how the settlers of Jamestown were starving because they couldn’t figure out how to grow food. The Native Americans helped them by teaching them to fertilize their corn as they planted it. They would dig a shallow hole and drop in a small fish or two with the corn seeds. The fish could decompose and provide nutrients for the corn as it grew.
However, the idea of composting hardly originated there.
The Romans and Greeks were already composting before the time of Christ and there are several references to composting (of sorts) in the bible. Modern composting methods made their way to London and the U.S. in the early 1900’s through the work of Sir Albert Howard, Rudolph Steiner, and J.I. Rodale. But you’re probably not here for their story.
The benefits of Composting
When I first heard of composting, I figured that people were doing it to save money. I’ve been a little obsessed with tracking how my time invested correlates to money – and by my best guess, buying a composting tumbler would mean we wouldn’t even break even for two years. For the same price, we could buy an entire truck load of compost which would be more than we could make in a year. Not to mention that it would be zero work, we wouldn’t have bugs around, and our neighbors would be happier.
But since we obviously well fully into composting, there must be other benefits. As far as I can figure, there are three main benefits:
- It improves the soil. This is the first and most obvious reason that anyone composts. Composting has the potential to rebuild the nutrients in your soil, allowing it to grow plants more productively. In addition, it improves the soil’s water retention – which means you need to water less often.
- It reduces the impact of your waste. Food scraps, yard waste, and compostable paper products make up nearly 40% of our waste. While it obviously isn’t great to have it all rotting in a landfill and not benefiting the soil, it will eventually break down, unlike the other things in the landfill. The real impact it has is the massive waste of energy and resources that it takes to move around and process that much waste. Processing waste is a drain on cities and towns – and cutting the waste stream almost in half would have a huge positive effect.
- It decreases the need for commercial fertilizers. You would think that something meant to improve the health of your soil would be beneficial for the environment. Like, it would be no big deal if you spread it elsewhere, right? Wrong. In fact, commercial fertilizers are potentially poisonous for both humans and animals. Not to mention the fact that the production of fertilizer is a massive source of environmental pollution. Some reports indicate that as much as 90% of applied commercial fertilizer may be lost into the environment (instead of the soil), leading to water and atmospheric pollution.
While composting isn’t without its own issues, it is a much more natural process that simply looks to speed up what already happens in nature without disrupting the cycle.
The 4 Types of Composting
When it comes down to it, composting is composting. However, there are several excellent ways to reach the same goal. Which type of composting you choose will be influenced by the space you have, how much material you want to compost, what kind of material it is, and how involved you want to be in the composting process.
Let’s look at the most popular options:
Cold Composting Pile
A cold composting pile is the easiest (and therefore slowest) type of backyard composting there is. In cold composting, you do none of the work and Mother Nature carries the burden. You simply put your yard waste and scraps in a pile and let them sit. The pile slowly breaks down, just like it would in nature.
Cold Composting: The Good & The Bad
- It’s easy. If you don’t want to worry about your compost, this is for you.
- It’s cheap. You don’t need a single tool to get started, just a spot to put it.
- You can compost most kitchen scraps and almost anything from your yard, lawn, or garden.
- It’s super slow. If you want finished compost to use, this might not be for you. It can take months or even years for things to break down all the way.
- You need a location. Unlike tumbler or vermicomposting you can’t compost on your balcony. You need a place for your pile.
Hot Composting Pile
Hot composting is the active version of cold composting. It’s what composting could be in nature if circumstances played out perfectly for fast and effecient decomposition. As you can imagine, it requires a bit more effort on your part than cold composting, as you need to create and control those conditions.
In hot composting, you want to control the ratios, moisture, and air levels in your pile to promote maximum bacterial/microbial growth. These microbes are the main workers in decomposition and expedite the process. While they’re working hard to break things down, a ton of heat is released which speeds up the process even further.
If you have the desire and the time to put some love and care towards your compost, hot composting is the way to go. Many gardeners consider it to be the only “true” form of composting and will probably look down on you if you choose another way…so beware! Ha.
Hot Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Speed. Hot composting is a (relatively) fast method of composting that can handle a high volume of materials.
- Hot composting kills weed seeds, nasty bugs, and can clear some pathogens from some manures.
- Hot composting can break down things that would be very difficult to break down in a cold compost pile
- Upkeep. To maintain optimum conditions, you have to care for your pile regularly (usually daily).
- Pests. While compost shouldn’t be smelly, if any of them are – it’s hot composting. This can attract pests as well as being a problem in and of itself.
If you’ve seen commercials for composting tools, it probably involved an attractive middle aged woman in a sun hat smiling as she put some leaves into her compost tumbler. And I can’t blame her. Compost tumblers are totally awesome and are the easiest point-of-entry for many people (including myself) into the world of making compost.
A compost tumbler is typically a barrel-shaped container mounted on either rollers or a rotating shaft. You simply open a little door, put your material to compost inside of it, and give it a spin (to mix and aerate it).
Tumbler Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Compost is contained. This is advantageous if you are trying hard to control pests or smell.
- It’s easy to aerate your compost. This is beneficial if you are unwilling or unable to turn over a traditional compost pile.
- Faster compost. Because it is aired more regularly and heats up from the sun, a compost tumbler tends to be much faster than a cold compost pile.
- You have a buy a compost tumbler. They really aren’t that expensive, but that may be a drawback if you’re trying to start composting on a shoe-string budget.
- Limited space. If you have more material that will not fit into your tumbler, you either need to buy another tumbler or start a regular compost pile to work in conjunction with your tumbler.
If there is a runner-up to cold composting when it comes to the “natural” aspect, then worm composting (more properly “vermicomposting”) is a close second. In vermicomposting you utilize worms (typically hundreds or thousands of them) in a “bin” to consume your scraps and turn them into nutrient rich worm castings (poop).
Vermicomposting is an excellent choice for anyone who wants and indoor or balcony solution as it is quick, doesn’t stink, and doesn’t make a huge mess.
Worm Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Worms can handle a wide variety of waste, including many varieties of poop.
- Can be used indoors.
- Cost. While it’s not a ton, there is some amount of money involved in buying or building a bin and stocking it with worms.
- Upkeep. Worms are fairly self-sufficient, but you shouldn’t be leaving your bin unkempt for months on end.
Bokashi composting is a revolutionary way to compost the things that most people consider uncompostable. Well here’s a secret, mother nature has the tools to break down just about everything, she just needs the right application of environment and time.
In Bokashi composting, people have been successful at composting bones, fats, sugary things, acidic things, whole carcasses, dairy, etc. It involves placing alternating layers of your scraps and a Bokashi inoculant (such as wheat bran or sawdust) in a bucket (or other airtight container) and then sealing it up.
Once the container is sealed, a bunch of anaerobic bacteria get to work fermenting whatever is in the bucket until it is a nutrient rich and safe soil additive. While it doesn’t produce huge amounts of compost or take care of a large volume of waste, Bokashi composting is a viable option if you have things that you can’t compost in a traditional pile or need to compost somewhere like your deck where you can’t have an open container.
Bokashi Composting: The Good & The Bad
- Bokashi Composting is the fastest, safest, and best option for breaking down things like meat and dairy.
- Minimal smell as your container is sealed and airtight.
- Difficult to do at high volume.
- More materials are required than simply having a compost pile.
Choosing a Spot for your Composting
Choosing a spot to start composting isn’t rocket science. I was writing an article on this subject not too long ago (which you can read here) and most people, when I asked them how they chose their composting spot, responded with something like, “Well, that’s the only spot I had.”
Typically, the spot that you have available is going to dictate what type of composting you do. If you are in an apartment, choose vermicomposting, bokashi composting, or a well-sealed tumbler. If, however, you have land or space available, choose a tumbler or some sort of pile.
The main thing to consider in the placement of your compost is that it needs to be close enough to be convenient but far enough away to not be troublesome. Most piles need watered, aerated, and fed on a regular basis. If your pile or tumbler is too far from your house, the likelihood of it getting what it needs is significantly lower. However, some piles (especially unbalanced ones) can produce a smell, they can attract pests/varmints, they can look a bit nasty, and tend to do better when they’re out of the sun. So consider those options and find a place that will work for you.
We currently rent a small house with a small backyard that is bordered by a triplex on one side and other house’s driveway on the back. For most of the year we stick to a two tumbler system that lives on our back patio.
Starting Your First Pile: Get the Ratio Right
A compost pile is most effective (and smells the best) when it’s “balanced.” But what in the world does that mean?
Having a balanced compost pile refers to the ratio of carbon and nitrogen in the pile. It is necessary to have the right ratio to keep your microbes happy and well-fed. Too much carbon and your piles slow down, too much nitrogen and your pile turns into a slimy mess and starts stinking.
If you’re anything like me, you probably want to make the best compost as fast as you can without performing rocket science. If you’re after the nitty gritty science behind ratios, sorry, I only have the practical applications.
So, you want your pile to maintain roughly a 25:1 or 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. In real life this simply means that you should be putting 2 bucket of “browns” in your pile for every 1 bucket of greens. Adding a bucket of kitchen scraps? Better add two buckets of leaves and twigs to balance it out!
If anything, err on the side of more carbon. A ratio of up to 50:1 will allow our pile to continue to progress, albeit at a slightly slower rate than a more optimum ratio.
Things to Include in your First Pile
Without going overboard or getting too simplistic: greens are things that are nitrogen rich, and browns are things that are carbon rich. Here are some examples of common things you should put in your first pile to illustrate the idea:
- Green yard waste (grass clippings, weeds, etc.)
- Veggies, fruits, and their scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Eggshells (and most other kitchen waste)
- Poop (not yours, a cat’s or a dog’s)
- Sawdust (untreated)
- Corn Stalks
- Hay or straw
- Paper (try to find chemical-free paper such as newspapers, paper plates, coffee filters, etc.)
- Cardboard (use uncoated cardboard and be sure to shred it before adding to the pile)
- Pine cones and pine needles
- Dryer line or fabric made of natural fibers (such as cotton)
- Twigs, small brances, wood, and bark
Don’t include these
Despite what most “experts” on the internet tell you, here’s my unprofessional (and probably unqualified) opinion. Pretty much anything can be composted. Mother Nature can break down almost anything and really doesn’t care what you add to your pile. However, there are two truthful reasons that mean you may not want to add a handful of things to your compost:
- It’s just not worth it. There are quite a few things we don’t include in our compost pile simply because they will take too long to break down and won’t contribute much nutrition to our soil when they do.
- It will attract pests. Most household/food items that are on compost’s “naughty” list are there simply because they will bring in pests such as maggots, rats, raccoons, and even bears. This can usually be avoided by either breaking things down for a week or two in a tumbler before adding it to your pile or burying things deep in hot compost to mask their scent.
Given those paramenters, here are a few things that you shouldn’t be trying to compost:
- Fat and Oils
- Corn Cobs (and similar items)
- Sugary Items
- Cat or dog poop
While adding some things in very moderate amounts (for example, the sugar and oils present in bread) will not be a problem, adding too many of these items will typically affect your composting in a negative way.
*A quick tip for faster compost: The little helpers that live in your compost pile get to work on the edges of your scraps as soon as you put them in. Their main limiting factor is that they can only work on the available surface area. If you grind up, chop up, or shred items you’re adding to your pile, you will increase the surface area and vastly decrease the amount of time needed for them to physically break down.
Caring for your pile
While your pile is aging, there are a few things that you can do to ensure that it is doing as well as it can. First off: water your pile! A dried-out pile is a dead (slow) pile. Just use your hose and dampen your pile every couple of days. Hose won’t reach? You can always try peeing on your compost pile instead.
If you are trying to hot compost, I cannot over emphasize the importance of mixing/turning your pile. Getting in there with a compost aerator or a pitchfork will spread the nutrients around and make sure the right bacteria (the aerobic ones) are doing their job.
Now, eventually, you’re going to need to stop adding new material to your compost pile. This is especially true if you have a compost tumbler. Once it’s 80% full, close it up and let it age. If you keep adding fresh materials all the time, you’ll never be able to add it to your soil!
How long does it take to make compost?
The length of time required to make compost will depend heavily on your method, your climate, how well you care for you pile, and the types of material that you are composting.
On the fast end, there are people who claim to be able to complete a batch of compost in 3-4 weeks – but a timeline of several months has been more realistic, in my opinion.
Your compost is done when it has no recognizable chunks and looks/smells like dirt. If you need the space in your compost tumbler/bin back and the load isn’t quite mature, you can screen out the largest pieces to save and re-add to your pile.
Using your compost
If you have a garden or significantly-sized yard, it may surprise you that people wonder what compost should even be used for. In fact, many people start composting to avoid throwing away large amounts of food waste and end up wondering, “What do I do with this compost?”
Luckily, there are a million and one things you can do with it. First and foremost, compost shines at adding nutrients back into the ground. You can utlize it around your veggies, flowers, on your lawn, etc. If you’re not going to be able to till it in, apply a layer of compost that is 1-2″ thick. This will not only nourish plants, but can help increase water retention and control weeds as well.
If you don’t have an outdoor space, compost can be equally effective for indoor plants. Just be sure that your compost isn’t filled with weed seeds! If you don’t have any sort of plants, compost can be extremely easy to give away. Just post on Facebook that you have compost (even for free if you want) for the taking and watch the messages roll in.
I’m sure you have a lot of questions still. The best way to figure things out is to simply start composting and learn as you go. You can’t possibly be 100% prepared before you start. However, here are a few questions that I see pretty often that I didn’t work into the article above:
How big of a compost tumbler do I need?
It depends on how much stuff you want to put in it. However, there is a fairly simple formula that you can use to predict your size requirement. Find that here.
What is compost supposed to smell like?
A forest is one of the biggest compost piles in the world. Does it smell like rottenness? Nope! Your pile should smell like dirt. If it starts smelling sour or a bit off, first look at your ratios to solve the problem.
What should I do about bugs and maggots in my compost?
Probably nothing. If they are not causing actual issues, leave them be. Bugs that get into your compost are in there because they’re hungry. With their help, your compost will be done even sooner.
However, there are some levels at which the little bugs and microbes become pests. If they are consuming large amounts of your biomass and showing up in places besides your compost, adding some more carbon and drying things out a bit will typically control their population.
If you have maggots in your compost you can learn how to control them here.
Can I compost poop and pee?
Most poops can be composted. As a rule of thumb, avoid any poops that come from carnivores or omnivores (meaning cats, dogs, or yourself) unless you have a specific plan and know what you’re doing. Other manures should be carefully added to your pile after they have aged appropriately.
As far as urine goes, peeing on your compost pile actually has some interesting benefits (and a few drawbacks) Read this first though if you want to pee on your compost.
Can I compost X, Y, Z?
Probably. There are tons of lists online and we even have a regular spot on our blog called Can I Compost This? If you are starving for info, however, this database is a great resource.
Can I add worms to my compost tumbler?
Please don’t. They won’t breed, they can’t escape into deeper soil, and they’ll probably cook. If you are turning your pile regularly, your compost should have all the needed aeration that the worms would provide anyway.
Can I compost grass clippings?
Yes, as long as they’re not covered in pesticides and toxic sprays. Learn how to properly compost it in this article.
Can I compost poisonous plants?
Typically, yes. Most plans and their poisons will break down in your pile without any problem. Avoid dangerous plants like stinging nettle but most others are fine. Be sure to do your research before-hand though.
Can I use compost as topsoil or mulch?
Not really. They are each their own distinct things with separate uses. Check out a full discussion on that topic here.
And there you have it! You now know how to compost just about anything that you might want to. From food scraps to yard waste you now have the skills to get it done and save your soil. So get out there and get started today!