How to Compost: Expert Tips on Composting for Beginners

by Katherine Sacks

7/01/20

Even in normal times, food waste in the US is a big problem — before the coronavirus pandemic’s shelter-in-place rules went into place around the country, the average family was already wasting an average 25 percent of their food. In the last four months, we’ve seen residential food waste grow as many Americans are staying home and dining in to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Simultaneously — despite the need for more food waste solutions — many state and local composting programs have been suspended.

If you live in an area that no longer offers composting services, and you want to reduce your impact and cut back on personal food waste, home composting is a good way to start. To help newbies learn how to compost and cut back on some of the confusion surrounding the process — e.g. how do you keep rodents away? — we asked two compost and soil experts for their composting tips.

Why Compost?

In a sense, composting gives your food a second life, because the process keeps your food scraps and “waste” out of the landfill, and transforms it into a new resource, a nutrient-rich material that can be used for home gardening and farming. “Compost is full of billions of beneficial microorganisms, so you are feeding the soil. Compost enhances the fertility of the soil, it helps soil retain nutrients, and it helps hold water,” explains Brenda Platt, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting for Community Project. “Compost really is just amazing.”

The easiest way to start composting is by collecting food scraps to bring to a compost drop-off location; many farmers’ markets and nonprofits collect compost and some cities have collection sites, as well as curbside compost pickup. But with safety restrictions in place and budgets tightened due to COVID-19, a number of these larger composting programs have been cut, including in cities like New York City, Lexington, Kentucky, and Alexandria, Virginia. While it’s an unfortunate loss for food waste advocates and the environment, it’s a call to action for residents to start composting at home. And the good news is that your end product might be even better than what the municipality would produce — and then sell — anyway.

“I actually suggest that people make their own compost rather than buying it from municipalities or large composting facilities,” says Jo Tobias, regenerative soils consultant and founder of Vancouver’s RootShoot Soils. “I find that when a system gets too large to manage, you run into more challenges, so I tend to let people know that their compost is going to be a lot better and will have a lot more diversity in microorganisms than what you would find in a large composting facility.” Challenges for municipal composting systems include needing to handle an array of items that are not compostable — such as produce stickers, twisty ties and plastic bags, as well as contaminants including municipal solid waste and pesticides in green materials.

Getting Started with the Basics

Once you’ve decided to start composting, you need to choose the technique or method you’ll use. There are two main types, hot composting and worm composting, also called vermicomposting. “Composting is not rocket science,” says Platt. “but you do need to know a few things about composting to get started.” First up, Platt says, understand that hot composting — a process of mixing food waste scraps with dry materials such as leaves, straw and paper — is an aerobic process, which means the compost pile needs oxygen, water and carbon-rich materials.

Most people with an outside space like a backyard or roof space will make a hot compost pile. For this, you need three main things, along with your food scraps: water, air and carbon-rich materials, often called brown materials. “You want to make the microbes in your compost pile happy. They need air and they need moisture, more moisture than people think,” says Platt explaining that a new compost pile should be 40 to 60 percent water. “If you were to grab a handful of your mix, it should feel like a wrung-out sponge when you squeeze it.”

The other thing you need to get a compost pile started is a steady supply of carbon-rich materials: leaves, woodchips, straw, sawdust, shredded paper, etc. “All living things need carbon and nitrogen. And most living things need 20 to 30 times more carbon than nitrogen,” says Platt. Her advice: for every bucket of food scraps, add in two buckets of carbon-rich materials.

How to Compost: Follow the Recipe

Once you have the basic ingredients, composting is “like cooking, it’s about the recipe,” says Platt. To get a compost pile started, mix one-part food scraps with two-parts carbon-rich materials and water, stirring occasionally to aerate. While many composters aggressively manage their piles, maintaining the perfect mix of ingredients for ideal temperatures and the prime environment for food to break down, there are also the passive composters, those that Platt says like to “dump and run.”

No matter where you fall on that spectrum, there is one golden rule to keeping your compost pile well managed: always cover your food scraps. “People think they can just throw their banana peels on top of a pile of leaves or yard trimmings and it’s going to compost,” says Platt. “No. You never want to see any food scraps visible at all because you don’t want to attract anything.” A watermelon rind will attract fruit flies, rotting food will attract maggots. “It’s not terrible, there’s a lot of things living in your compost pile, but you don’t want to see it necessarily,” says Platt. To avoid a face full of flies when you open the lid to your bin, always cover your food scraps with dry leaves, wood chips or other carbon-rich materials.

"It’s easy to troubleshoot, it’s going to be okay."

Brenda Platt

Director, Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Composting for Community Project

Things to Leave Out

While composting is a great way to reduce your food waste and give your food scraps a second life, not everything goes in the compost pile. When people want to learn how to compost, one of the biggest fears is the possibility of smells, rodents and bugs that might appear. If you live in an urban area, an area with “rodent pressure,” as Platt likes to call it, it’s important to avoid adding meat, cooked food, moldy cheese and other items that could attract rodents. “Rodents like protein,” says Platt. “If you don’t put protein in there, you won’t attract rodents. And rotted meat can smell, so just avoid it.”

Another key thing to keep out of the pile are aggressive weeds, which likely carry seeds along with them. To effectively optimize a compost system — keeping the right balance of two parts carbon materials to one part nitrogen materials — will result in a hot environment. Platt says you need to maintain 145 degrees Fahrenheit for four days in order to prevent seeds from germinating. “If you’re picking all these weeds that you don’t really want in your garden and you put all the seeds in the compost, but you aren’t reaching 145 degrees, then you’d be reintroducing those seeds into your garden when you’re using that compost,” she explains. “Aggressive weeds, just leave out.”

At the end of the day, composting is all about trial and error. “Don’t give up,” says Platt. “It’s a very flexible, forgiving process. If it’s too wet, you add some dry leaves. If it’s too dry, you add water. If it seems like it’s a little smelly, well, give it a turn or add more carbon-rich materials. It’s easy to troubleshoot, it’s going to be okay.

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Other Composting Options

If you don’t have land or outside space, or you want to compost more quickly, consider worm composting, or vermicomposting. It’s a fairly straightforward process, requiring specialized worms (usually red wigglers), a container that provides air for the worms, some carbon-rich materials such as shredded newspaper and, finally, food scraps.

“In some ways, it can be easier,” says Platt. “You can do it in your apartment, you don’t have to worry about fall leaves, you can just do it with newsprint, and you can have vermicompost ready within 30 days. And it is just orders of magnitude more fertile, more beneficial than hot compost.”

Despite these benefits, keep in mind that worm composting is generally a smaller operation because you are constrained by how much the worms can eat each day. For an apartment bin, Platt suggests starting with one pound of worms — around 1,000 worms — which will eat about 20 percent of their weight a day, or two ounces. Additionally, worms shouldn’t be fed citrus, onions and garlic, or the peels of all three, or meat and bones. As the worms multiply, you will be able to feed them more scraps per day, but depending on the amount of and items in your daily cooking, it’s likely vermicomposting won’t entirely eliminate your food waste.

For other options for limited space, Tobias suggests dropping compost off at a local composting center or finding a neighborhood area to start a shared composting system. “If you have access to a community garden, you could try and collaborate with the members to set up a composting system,” says Tobias. She also suggests bokashi, a Japanese system that uses fermentation to process food waste into a high nutrient liquid you can use like fertilizer.

Get Educated

Both Platt and Tobias say that with composting, you just need to get started and troubleshoot the process. But if you want more resources on how to compost, Platt recommends checking out a webinar on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s website, along with Rhonda Sherman’s book “The Worm Farmer’s Handbook” and her other resources on worm composting. Tobias is a student of Dr. Elaine Ingham and suggests Ingham’s website, Soil Food Web, as a resource, as well as New Mexico State University researcher David Johnson’s work. FoodPrint also has a comprehensive guide to getting started with both hot composting and vermicomposting.

How to Use Compost

Once you’ve made compost, you’ve got to decide what to do with it. Some folks compost as a way to get rid of food waste, while avid gardeners compost in order to have that rich, soil additive. “If you are not going to use it, maybe you have a neighbor or somebody that wants it,” says Platt. “But you can use it as mulch, you can use it to amend your soil, you can use it for houseplants, so there are lots of good uses for it.” If you are using a closed container system, such as a worm bin, a compost tumbler or a compost bin, eventually the pile will outsize its space and you will need to use the compost and start fresh. But if you have a large space of land, you can also compost continuously, watching the pile grow and your food waste shrink.

Top photo by Skórzewiak/ Adobe Stock.

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