Composting is one of those things that everyone agrees is good. There are literally no downsides, only benefits.
Composting creates nutrient-dense, well-fertilized soil.
Composting means “food waste” is no longer wasteful.
Composting is better for the environment.
Composting organic materials is more productive than simply throwing them away into a landfill.
Composting is passive income. You’re not actively breaking down the organic materials. You’re not doing anything except throwing it in the pile or in the container. The microbes handle the rest and you get the benefit.
From all perspectives, composting is a smart move. If you just want a healthier garden, composting does that. If you want to improve soil health and fight soil nutrient deficiencies, composting does that. If you want to fight environmental degradation, composting does that. If you just want less stuff in your trash can and in the landfill, composting does that.
There’s no reason not to compost. Even if you live in a small space without a yard, you can participate. But how do you get started?
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How to Get Started Composting
The basic way to get started is to just get started.
First, figure out what can and can’t be composted:
What to Compost
- Vegetable and fruit scraps
- Coffee grounds and paper filters
- Teabags, old tea leaves
- Unglossy/matte paper products and cardboard products (including PrimalKitchen.com kraft paper used in shipping!)
- Yard clippings
- Leaves, grass
- Hay and straw
- Untreated wood chips, sawdust, wood scraps, toothpicks
- Wine corks
- Eggshells (crushed best)
- Fur, hair, feathers
- Old bread, cooked pasta
- Cotton, wool, linen
What Not to Compost
- Glossy paper products—magazines, “shiny” paper
- Large branches, wood rounds
- Pet and human waste
- Treated wood chips, sawdust, wood scraps
- Synthetic fabrics
So, do you just throw everything from the “What to Compost” list in a big pile or bin out in the yard?
You should think of compostable materials in terms of “greens” and “browns.” Greens are wetter materials, higher in nitrogen. Browns are drier, higher in carbon.
- Most kitchen scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Fresh (green) grass, leaves, and yard clippings
- Wood scraps, dust, chips
- Paper, cardboard
- Dried (brown) grass, leaves, and yard clippings
- Egg shells
Ratio: You want more browns than greens in your compost pile or bin. It doesn’t have to be an exact ratio, but somewhere between 4:1 and 2:1 brown:green is good. “More browns than greens” is good enough. It’s not an exact science, more an art. Your compost should be moist, not soaking wet. It shouldn’t be dry, it shouldn’t be slimy, it should be juuuust right.
Layers: You should create rough “layers” of browns and greens. Browns on the bottom, then greens, then browns, then greens, and so on. Make sure the bottom and top are both browns. This will allow air to flow and prevent moisture from pooling. The layers are bound to get upset as the compost develops and you turn it, and that’s okay. It’s a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule.
What Kind of Compost Set-Up is Best?
You can do your compost on the ground in a pile. No structure, no walls, nothing but the compost and the earth beneath it. That will work.
You can do your compost in a large bin. Four walls and a roof. If your compost is totally cut off from the ground, make sure you “seed” it with some garden soil to introduce microbes. That will work.
You can do your compost in a big tumbler with a handle that lets you tumble the contents and aerate it. That will work.
The best compost set up is the one that you can set up and maintain where you live. If that’s a small bin on your patio, that’s fine. If it’s a big pile in your garden, that’s fine. Whatever you have the room for will be a-ok.
Just stick with the basic concept of “more browns than greens,” frequently aerate or turn your compost with a spade or pitchfork (or tumbler handle), and avoid excessive moisture or too little moisture. Don’t lose sleep over composting set ups. Just do it.
There are some other options, though.
Make a Worm Composting Bin
Worm bins are great for smaller places without yards because they’re self-contained. Making a worm bin is pretty easy. Here’s how:
- Get two plastic tubs. One shorter, one taller, with the taller one able to fit inside the shorter bottom one.
Bottom tub: 15 inches long, 25 inches wide, 5 inches tall
Top tub: 15 inches long, 20 inches wide, 15+ inches tall
The top tub has a lid. Bottom tub doesn’t need one.
- Drill a 1-inch hole 2 inches from the top of the top tub. Drill another one inch hole on the opposite side.
- Near each bottom corner of the top tub, drill 1/8 inch holes.
- Cover all six holes with vinyl screen. Glue or staple the screen in place. This will keep worms from escaping.
- The top tub goes inside the bottom tub. Fill the top tub three inches deep with shredded paper and a pound of garden soil to introduce microbes. Add enough water that it’s all moist (but not wet).
- Add the worms. Red wrigglers are best.
- Let them acclimate to the bin for a few days, then add food. Food can be almost anything from the kitchen, but avoid meat, dairy, and bones in your worm bin. To add food, create a hole in the middle of the bin’s contents, add the food, and cover with the soil/paper mixture. You may have to add more soil/paper mix until the worms start creating enough soil of their own.
- Feed your worms about once a week. If they’re ignoring a certain food you put in there, fish it out and don’t add it again. Worms have preferences. Yours simply might not care for that particular food.
- The liquid that pools in the bottom tub is highly nutritious—for your plants. Add it to your garden.
- When the compost reaches the two holes you drilled in the top bin, it’s time to harvest some of your compost and add it to your garden. Try to avoid scooping out worms.
If you don’t want to make your own, you can also buy pre-made setups.
Try Bokashi Composting
Bokashi is a Japanese method of composting that uses anaerobic fermentation to produce compost in a fraction of the time it takes a regular compost pile. And it’s easy to make your own setup.
- Get two 5-gallon buckets and one snug-fitting lid.
- Drill 20 small holes in the bottom of one bucket. Place the bucket with holes in the bottom inside the bucket with no holes. These are drain holes for the composting liquid.
- Add kitchen scraps to the top bucket. Kitchen scraps can include anything, including meat, bones, and fat. Avoid excessive liquid and oil, though, and try to keep the pieces relatively small to speed up fermentation.
- Sprinkle with bokashi bran—this is bran that has been inoculated with the bokashi microbes. Cover the surface of the scrap layer with bran and stir to mix. 1-2 tablespoons per every 2 inches of food scraps.
- Put the lid back on. Make sure it’s airtight, as the bokashi needs an air tight environment to flourish. It’s even a good idea to cover the compost itself with a tight fitting plate or plastic weighed down with rocks to limit air exposure.
- Every time you add more kitchen scraps, sprinkle on more bokashi bran and stir, then press down with a potato masher to compact the compost and minimize air.
- Add kitchen scraps every other day at most; you want to minimize air exposure as much as possible.
- Drain the liquid in the bottom bucket every few days. You can use this diluted on the garden.
Once the top bucket is almost full, cover and leave for two weeks for the process to finish. Keep draining liquid. After two weeks, the contents should be ready to move out to the garden to be buried or composted further. Don’t apply it right away to your plants, as it’s still very acidic. Another two weeks of “curing” outside or buried will render it suitable for garden application.
Some people even have success adding bokashi bran to their existing compost piles. It’s worth a try.
Choose Your Motivation
One important part of composting is your motivation. Why are you composting? Are you composting to save the world and fight climate change? Or are you composting to get better soil, to create your own fertilizer, to have a more sustainable way of life in your own household? I would argue that the latter motivations are more helpful and more sustainable for someone who wants to start composting and keep composting.
Because here’s the thing: when you are composting to save the world or some other grand design with global implications you’re not going to see any impact from your actions. It may help in some small way, but throwing your banana peels in the compost pile is not going to move the needle on the climate or world hunger or soil devastation. However, it will move the needle on the quality of your own garden and your own life.
If you’re expecting your little compost pile to save the world, and then it doesn’t, you’re less likely to stick with it. What’s the point?
If you’re expecting your little compost pile to save your garden, and then it does, you’re more likely to stick with it. Because that’s the entire point.
That’s it: a quick and dirty guide to composting.
How do you compost? What did I miss? What would you add to this article? Let me know down below!