When I was little I was lucky enough to have access to a compost pile in our backyard. It wasn’t a huge operation, there was very little science behind it, and I swear my mom never really did anything to it until she was ready to use the compost in her garden. I remember being three and being handed a bowl of vegetable scraps and my mom telling me to bring them to the compost in the backyard and come back. All I really knew about the compost was that the vegetable scraps went in and dirt came out. I didn’t question this, I just accepted it as part of our daily life. There were also years where we didn’t have compost at all, like when we moved from Washington to Arizona for instance. My mom was probably too busy setting up a business and too overwhelmed by the different climate to think about things like compost. It honestly wasn’t until I was in college that I was reintroduced to composting as a concept again. But I was sold. Minimizing food waste? Check. Converting food waste into something useful for the environment? Check. Less stinky garbage? Check.
I’ve heard every excuse on the face of the planet for why people don’t compost. Here they are in no particular order:
“It takes too much time.” The putting vegetable scraps aside part, or the leaving them in a pile and basically forgetting about them part?
“I don’t have space.” They make apartment sized worm bins that fit under the sink. But if that’s not your cup of tea, what about looking into whether your city composts?
“I don’t know what to do.” Put stuff in a pile, turn it every once in awhile and go about life.
“I don’t live in the right climate.” There is no wrong climate for compost unless you live in Antartica.
“I don’t want it to smell up my backyard.” If you’re doing it properly, it won’t.
“It will be ugly.” You can make a cute container for it, or buy one of the hundreds of beautiful compost receptacles out there.
“I don’t know what I’d do with all the compost.” This one is fair if you don’t garden, then again, you probably know someone who does who would LOVE some free compost. Like me. If you have free compost and live within 50 miles of the Bay Area, California, on the North American continent, hit me up.
Today, I want to dispell some of the myths, fears, and general misunderstandings around compost by showing you how easy it is to make your own. This is a beginner’s guide. Sure, we could go in-depth about how to make hot compost, guerrilla compost, and compost that fits very specific gardening needs, but I think those topics are unnecessary for most people. Think of this as your safe composting space. You’re allowed to be apprehensive here, to ask questions, and to wonder out loud, “But really? It’s that easy?”
Below I answer some basic composting questions that most people have, and show you how to make your own compost!
1. What can I actually compost?
Perfect first question. To make compost you need what is commonly referred to in the compost community as “brown waste” and “green waste”, typically at a ratio of 3 parts brown waste to 1 part green waste. Brown waste is what adds carbon to the soil, and green waste adds nitrogen. Simply put, Carbon + Nitrogen = Happy Compost. So what is brown waste and what is green waste?
Dried Dead Leaves (any variety or type will do. Crush them up for the best results)
Wood Ash (but use sparingly, because it can easily change the pH of the soil to be alkaline, like baking soda. Do not use coal ash.)
Untreated 100% Natural Fabrics (cotton, wool, linen)
Dried Pine Needles
Shredded Paper (or ripped into pieces)
Corrugated Cardboard and Toilet Paper Rolls (cut into small pieces)
Toilet Paper and Used Tissue (Don’t get grossed out! It’s one of the easiest ways to get brown waste. Just make sure it’s relatively un-soiled 😉 )
Compostable Cat Litter (I use this one, it’s made from renewable wood sources. Don’t compost clay litter, and never compost actual cat droppings.)
Rodent Waste (Does your kid have a hamster, gerbil, or a bunny? Prime compost materials right there. You can even compost the droppings because rodents are vegetarians.)
Paper Coffee Filters
Most Fruit and Vegetable Scraps (I don’t to avocado rinds and pits because they don’t break down)
Squash and Melon Seeds and Rinds (though it can help to grind them up so they don’t germinate!)
Grass Clippings (preferrbaly from grass treated without chemicals.)
Spent Tea and Tea Bags (Just make sure the tea bags are paper and not nylon, and snip the tags off)
***Eggshells are compostable, but some people consider them brown waste and some consider them green. Crush them up for best results.
Vegan Food Leftovers (bread, salad, rice you let sit too long, you get the idea.)
2. What shouldn’t I try to compost?
This one’s important because compost is a delicate eco-system of its own that you don’t want to disrupt. The following items are more difficult to compost. As noted in the comments, it’s possible, but for the average person with a small compost pile, or for the beginning composter, these items are best to omit:
Meat or Meat Products (Fish bones are the one exception to this, they are great in the garden!)
Dairy of any kind (No milk, cheese, butter or cream)
Oils and Grease (Including bacon grease)
Dryer Lint (Ok, technically you can compost dryer lint, and people do, but you really shouldn’t. Most people wear synthetic clothing, and those fibers shed when you do laundry. Your dryer lint is likely mostly made of synthetic fibers, which is a fancy way of saying plastic. You shouldn’t add plastic to your soil.)
Dog & Cat Droppings
Glossy or Coated Paper
Saw Dust from Treated Wood
3. How do you get the compost to, well, compost?
Put all your green and brown waste into a pile or compost receptacle in your yard. Remember that you want 3 parts brown waste to 1 part green waste, otherwise, your pile will just rot and start to smell. It isn’t an exact science though, so if you have a little bit more brown waste than green or vice versa, you’ll probably be fine.
Add a few handfuls of moist dirt from your yard. The dirt contains the microorganisms that are needed in the composting process. Just make sure the dirt is not potting soil from a commercial bag of potting soil. Add some water. You want it to be moist but not soggy, like a rung out sponge.
Mix up your compost using a shovel or garden fork. Do this every so often, at least once a week in the beginning, and then over time you can slowly forget about it and you’ll still end up with compost. If you live in a dry climate, or you notice your compost is starting to dry out or there are a ton of ants, water it and then turn it again.
Over time you’ll start to notice that when you’re turning it, earthworms and other bugs have naturally made a home in your compost pile. This is great news! This means that you’ve set up an ideal composting environment for these critters, and you’re going to get awesome compost.
4. How long will it take before I get compost?
That really depends on the type of composting you’re doing. For basic, “I just threw this stuff into a pile,” composting, I think it’s safe to say that in 6 months you’ll have some pretty nice compost. If you’re interested in hot composting, you can get good compost in as little as 3 months. Hot composting takes more work and space, but it does yeild faster compost.
5. How big do I make my pile?
This is one of those questions that I’ve seen answered in absolutes all over the internet. I’ve heard people say, “Your compost needs to absolutely be at least 3 feet by 3 feet for it to work.” I’ve also seen people say, 3 by 5 feet, 6 by 6 feet. After making a lot of compost, here are my thoughts: The more space you have, the easier it will be to compost in large quantities, or make hot compost. If you have a small pile that’s a couple feet by a couple feet, as mine is, you’re still going to end up with compost. It might take a little longer, but as long as you’re adding to it, turning it, and reading it bedtime stories (just kidding) you’ll end up with something that resembles compost.
6. How will I know my compost is finished?
It looks like rich, moist soil. There are no random bits of vegetable or plants left. The leaves are gone. It’s ideally filled with hungry worms.
7. Seeds are germinating in my compost. What do I do?
This just means that your compost pile is cool enough to germinate seeds. Take your garden fork and turn the seedlings under the compost. Make sure you turn your compost more often so air can get in to help break stuff down.
8. There are ants in my compost. Help!
I had this problem last summer. California becomes super dry in the summer and my compost was drying out way faster than it should have. Once the ants realized I’d effectively created them a palace of free food and shelter they moved in. This isn’t actually a bad thing, ants help break things down too. It is a problem though if your compost pile has turned into an ant nest overnight. No one wants to create a garden with an ant nest.
Water your compost more. I watered mine a little everyday for awhile, and turned it every time I watered it. Eventually, the ants will feel like their new palace is more like a wet grovel and they’ll set up shop someplace else.
9. How do I keep my vegetable scraps from attracting household pests before I’m ready to compost them?
Ah yes, this problem. I lived in a co-op for almost 3 years where we left our scraps for composting on the counter in big buckets. Of course, every summer the compost would attract ants and fruit flies. I hated it. When we moved into our own place, I made a rule that the compost would live in the fridge, and guess what? All my problems are solved. I keep two plastic containers with lids in the fridge for composting, and every few days I empty them. Every so often I’ll take the containers outside and hose them down to get all the bits of food out.
If the fridge really isn’t an option, you could also empty your compost more often. Sometimes when I’m cooking I’ll put all my vegetable scraps in a bowl on the counter. When I’m done cooking I’ll take the bowl outside to the compost. It’s a little easier because the bowl takes up less counter space in my tiny kitchen than if I were to take the whole container out of the fridge. If you’re in a hurry, it’s also ok to throw the bowl of scraps in your fridge and come back for it later.
10. Does food have to be organic for it to be composted?
No. You can absolutely compost conventional produce. It is better to compost organic produce over conventional because it means your compost will be completely organic. If you’re washing your produce before you cook with it though, you should be fine. And if you’re cooking with conventional produce, please wash it. You don’t want to eat all those pesticides.