A Beginner’s Guide to Making Compost: It’s Easier Than You Think

Salvage & Stitch: Have you ever wondered about starting a compost pile? These beginner's guide will show you how easy it is. Succulents and herbs in mason jars.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.

Finished compost.

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.

Compost and vegetable scraps.

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?

Brown Waste:

Brown Waste for composting: wood chips, natural cloth, dried leaves, torn paper, toilet paper, pine needles, cardboard, compostable cat litter

Dried Dead Leaves (any variety or type will do. Crush them up for the best results)

Wood Shavings

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.)

Hay

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

Green Waste

Green Waste for Composting: Egg shells, vegetable scraps, tea bags, weeds, grass clippings.

 

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!)

Weeds

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)

Coffee Grounds

***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

Synthetic Fertilizer

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.

Succulents and herbs in mason jars.

Salvage & Stitch: If you've ever wondered how to make compost but were too afraid to try, get some of your questions answered here. Starting a compost pile is easy and a great way to use kitchen scraps in the garden!

10 Ways To Make Your Holiday Season Greener

Natural elements found in your own back yard are great ways to decorate for the holidays without spending a ton of money, while also reducing your carbon footprint.When I think about the holidays, the first things that come to mind is beautifully lit Christmas trees, celebrating with family and friends, and how all of it can be terribly wasteful when one doesn’t think mindfully about their impact. Because my wife and I live a relatively minimalist and sustainable lifestyle, we often struggle with how much waste there really is when we leave our bubble.  I get why: thinking critically about where one’s stuff comes from sucks. Unfortunately, this can make the holidays a little more stressful. Examples include well-meaning family who insists that paper plates save time so are better at parties, all the electronics bought as gifts, tons of food waste, and generally people not thinking critically about what they’re buying or doing.  It’s hard to debate every aspect of one’s lifestyle from food, to decor, to clothing. Yet as our environment becomes swiftly faster and more globalized, I find it imperative to continue to be thoughtful and intentional about our lifestyles. The holidays are part of that, whether we like it or not.

Salvage & Stitch: Eco-friendly ways to make your holidays greener!

This is the first year that Amanda and I are living alone and celebrating the holidays together, so they’ve been on my mind a lot. There’s definitely a certain amount of pressure that people don’t talk about when you’re married and you don’t have housemates to decorate one’s house, host family and friends, and invest in things like Christmas tree stands. That said, we’re definitely trying to keep our lives free of too many material things. We’re both very wary of becoming people who store hundreds of boxes of holiday decorations hidden in our future basement or garage, not unlike our parents.

Luckily, all that thinking hasn’t been for nothing! I’ve compiled my top 10 ways of making your holiday season greener, so that you can have a beautiful, Instagram-worthy December, and feel really good about your choices as well. I really believe making sustainable choices can be more beautiful than piling on the gilded wrapping paper and plastic ornaments, and these suggestions will have you feeling the love in no time.

1. Invest In Your Tree

Salvage & Stitch: If you're buying a real tree this year, learn about the many ways you can dispose of it come January in your city. These eco-friendly holiday decorating tips will help you have the most sustainable holiday season ever!

In the past week, I’ve done a lot of Christmas tree research, and it turns out that it’s more sustainable to purchase a live tree over a fake tree during the holiday season (though to be honest, a potted tree that you lovingly tend to is still the most sustainable alternative). The farmed trees are grown on land that has difficulty producing other viable crops, the land is protected through the farm and won’t be developed, the trees provide a habitat for animals throughout the year, and several trees are typically planted for every tree cut. The most sustainable tree farms typically cut from the top of the tree, leaving the rest to grow back, producing several Christmas trees in a tree’s lifetime! Not to mention, the trees suck up CO2 throughout the year, which is great. BUT, not all trees are equal, and there are several ways you can ensure that your tree purchase stays sustainable.

Always buy a tree that’s as local as you can. Do your research and make sure the tree you buy is the best tree you can buy in terms of mileage to ship it. Make sure your tree was grown sustainably by reading up on the farming practices of your local Christmas tree farm before you purchase. Many cities have composting or repurposing programs Christmas trees, see how you responsibly dispose of your tree when you’re done. Some cities turn the trees into multch for parks, others compost them, regardless, look to see what’s in your area before you just chuck your tree in the trash. There are also a ton of cool DIY projects you can make with old Christmas trees. I really liked the idea of turning the pine needles into sachets or natural dye, that might be a post for later!

2. Set The Table With Real Plates and Silverware

Salvage & Stitch: If you plan to throw any holiday parties this year, use real plates and silverware over plastic! These eco-friendly holiday tips will help you have a sustainable holiday season!

Make your guests feel special this holiday season, and serve them dinner on real plates and let them eat with real forks! I don’t even want to think about all the paper and plastic plates I’ve eaten off of in my life, when it’s so easy to just serve food on actual plates. And silverware! If you don’t have enough plates for your party, spend the extra dollar and rent some. As someone who has rented tableware for numerous events, and my own wedding, I’m always surprised by how easy it is. You can even just rent 10 plates, which is pretty awesome. 10 plates would cost you around $5, and those are Bay Area prices. Not only is it a much more sustainable way to serve dinner, it’s an elegant gesture that will go over well with your mom. The best rental companies won’t even make you wash all the dishes, just scrap off the excess food and put them back in the crate. It’s a win-win.

3. Buy Locally Handmade Gifts

Buying local holiday gifts this year can help reduce your carbon footprint! Find out more eco-friendly holiday tips to have a sustainable holiday season at Salvage & Stitch

Is there anything better than supporting a small business? Every year Amanda and I try to buy our gifts from locally owned small businesses run by women. It’s so much fun to go to a craft fair or to a locally focused shop and pick stuff out for family and friends, and we get the added satisfaction that we helped support a real person with real aspirations that aren’t just a bottom line. Plus, we always end up making a few friends along the way, and I’ve never had someone disappointed by the handmade soap, body butter, jewelry, home decor, or accessories I’ve purchased. It’s also really cool for relatives who live out of town to get something special from where you live.

4. Better Yet- Make Gifts Yourself

Make holiday gifts this year instead of buying them! This knitted hat will keep someone very cozy.

Of course, if you’re crafty and have the time, making your gifts is the best way to go, especially if you think intentionally about where the materials are coming from. The hat photographed above I knitted myself from locally sourced and naturally dyed wool from a local yarn shop here in Berkeley called A Verb For Keeping Warm. It took me a while to finish the hat, but I know my friend will really appreciate it. There are so many wonderful projects to try out, it’s almost impossible to run out of ideas. In the past we’ve made everything from flavored cooking oils to mittens made from sweaters. All are fantastic options.

5. Give Experiences and Causes over Things

Wandering the moors in Yorkshire, England.

Every year for Christmas my mom asks for the same thing: a renewal of her membership at the DeYoung Art Museum in San Francisco. She loves art, she loves the museum, and it’s never been a disappointment for her because she gets reduced rates for shows and then she can bring me or a friend as well. While some people might sneer at getting an experience or a cause over a physical gift, others would actually prefer it. The truth is, not everyone wants more stuff, but if you spend the same amount of money on an experience that they’d never think to get themselves or one they’ve been wanting for awhile, it can be really worthwhile. The photo above, for example, was taken of me wandering through the moors of Northern England. Because Amanda and I don’t spend a ton of money on things like televisions, iPads, or designer clothing, we’re often able to travel to really amazing places.

As for causes, I love when people donate to causes in my name- assuming I agree with the cause. It can help here to choose politically neutral causes, like wildlife refugees, humane societies, children’s foundations, hospitals, you get the idea. Definitely don’t try to stir up controversy with this gift. That said if you really know the person and suspect they might enjoy a donation in their name to Planned Parenthood (me, if anyone’s reading this), go for it.

6. Get Creative with Gift Wrapping

This year, try wrapping presents in brown paper bags from the grocery store, with sprigs from the Christmas tree.

Wrapping paper might be one of the most fun things about putting presents under the Christmas tree, but it’s also one of the most wasteful parts of the holidays. Most people in my experience rip their gifts open with glee and then toss the respective paper in the trash. I’ve seen big black plastic bags of paper just thrown away at various holiday events. Because trees make paper, and we currently have a shortage of trees in the world, recycling your wrapping paper is one of the best things you can do with it. Better yet – use recycled materials to wrap your gifts, and then recycle the paper when you’re done. Even better than that is if you can use recycled materials to wrap your gifts, and reuse that wrapping time and time again until it can’t be used anymore. Kids will typically always rip paper, but you can teach them about recycling by getting all the kiddos to gather up the wrapping paper at the end of opening their presents and talking about how we need to save trees.

Gift bags are also a great alternative to traditional wrapping paper. I’ve been using the same brown giftbags that I hand-stamped myself for several years now. My family knows that I’d prefer they give them back to me if they don’t plan on keeping them, and they always do. I mix and match different additional decorations to keep things interesting, and it really never gets boring. A well-thought out wrapping job is a well-delivered package no matter what you use.

7. Choose Natural Decor

Salvage & Stitch: DIY Holiday wreath made from foraged materials, all compostable at the end of the year!

 

You know what you can’t recycle? Petroleum-based holiday decorations. But you can compost natural decor like branches, berries, leaves, and misteltoe. Culinary herbs like rosemary and sage make beautiful holiday decorations in little vases or mason jars, the added benefit being that you can cook with them when you’re ready to take them down! Almost anything from your backyard can be repurposed into stunning natural decorations, like this wreath I made from branches that fell off a tree near my apartment building. Of course, you could argue that you plan to use your plastic decorations for years to come, but those decorations would have to be used for many years to earn back their carbon footprint after production and shipping from China. Natural decor- even the branches you snipped of your Christmas tree to fit them into are elegant, minimalist, and provide a great alternative to synthetic ribbons piled with glitter, in my humble opinion.

8. Turn Off Your Lights

Fairy lights for the holidays.

There is absolutely no reason your Christmas tree or holiday lights need to stay on all night. If no one is enjoying them, turn them off and save energy. It’s much more efficient in the long run, even if your lights are battery operated LED lights, because no matter what makes your lights twinkle, they’re running off of something. I keep mine off during the day, or when I’m not in the room with them, turn them on in the evening to enjoy during dinner, or when I have company over, and then turn them off when I’m going to bed.

9. Eat Less Meat

Eat less meat this holiday season. These yummy roasted brussel sprouts are a great start!

Whether we love it or hate it, no one can deny that it takes a lot of energy and water to raise livestock for food. I’m not suggesting that you can’t eat meat, only hinting that if you want to cut back on your impact, maybe having numerous meat dishes at your family’s holiday feast is unnecessary. It can be just as delicious to have a main dish like lamb or turkey and a bunch of tastey sides. Yes, that might mean giving up anything bacon-wrapped, but with a million vegetarian recipes out there you’re bound to find something that satisfies your pallet. And while you’re at it, make sure that the meat you do buy is local and organic- which will definitely mean less CO2 was released while shipping the meat, and it will be more nutrious overall.

Better yet- go completely meatless! As a not so strict vegetarian who actively does try to eat vegetarian, my favorite recipe blogs for vegetarian food are Cookie + Kate, 101 Cookbooks, and The Simple Veganista. You can’t go wrong with these sites, trust me.

10. Compost Your Food Scraps

Compost your food scraps.

I know, I know, I know, you probably don’t have compost in your city and don’t have the space for your own compost garden. I’ve heard it all before. But if you do, you should be composting. It’s so beneficial to the environment, it provides the city with a free mechanism to get compost for local parks and gardens, it’s super easy, and it doesn’t cost a dime. If you have space, you could also think about setting up your own compost pile. Regardless, holiday parties create a lot of leftover food and it’s way more sustainable to compost that food and the scraps than toss it into a plastic garbage bag and ship it off to the landfill.

Of course, meat isn’t something you can compost. That said, making bone broth from the bones left over from your holiday meal is really easy and a great boost for the rest of cold and flu season!

Anyone have other tips?

Salvage & Stitch: How to celebrate the holidays in style and reduce your carbon foot print! These sustainable holiday tips will have you feeling merry, bright, and greener all around.

I hope you enjoyed these tips for keeping your holidays sustainable! What are other ways to cut back on your waste during the holidays? I’d love to hear more suggestions.

Salvage & Stitch: This holiday season challenge yourself to choose environmentally conscious ways to celebrate! There are tons of ways to have a greener holiday season, whether it's eating less meat, or composting your tree.