Let’s Talk About Scraps: A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Photo: Stocksy/ Lauren Lee
While composting for gardening has been lauded for generations, it seems like almost everyone is outfitting their kitchens and backyards with compost bins in an attempt to live more eco-conscious lives. Intrigued? Keep reading to learn more about how to compost at home.

Experts In This Article

What is composting?

Composting is the practice of recycling organic waste scraps. “Composting is a great way to recycle extra food scraps from the kitchen, as well as scraps from your yard, to create a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can greatly improve plant growth in your garden and yard,” says Rebecca Sears, CMO and Resident Green Thumb at Ferry-Morse.

What can be composted?

Composting scraps are categorized as either green or brown. Where green scraps include items like fruit and veggies, egg shells, coffee grounds, and stale bread, brown scraps refer to fallen leaves, dried grass clippings, brown paper bags, used paper towels and napkins (untouched by cleaning products or greases), and more.

In general, Sears says that almost all kitchen scraps are fair game, except for meat, dairy, and cooked foods. “The more natural materials used, such as veggie and fruit scraps, the better,” she says.

What are three things you shouldn’t compost?

Of course, composting mistakes will happen and there are some items that should never make it into your compost bin. “Always make sure to avoid any types of plastic or styrofoam from ending up in your mixture, as these materials aren’t biodegradable and won’t break down properly like your other compost ingredients,” Sears says. Oil should also be avoided, she points out.

What plants should not be composted?

Beyond kitchen and home good materials, there are certain plants that shouldn’t be composted either. Just like you should never toss chemical-soaked paper towels into your compost bin, plants treated with pesticides and/or preservatives should be left out, too. Incorporating them can taint your entire bin.

Benefits of composting

Composting has myriad benefits. “There are numerous benefits of composting, including reducing waste sent to landfills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving soil health and fertility, reducing erosion, and [diminishing] the need for manufactured fertilizers and pesticides,” says OXO product engineer Tucker Jones. “We found through testing and within our focus groups, composting in the kitchen reduces odors, [as well], as one should be separating organic waste from common trash, preventing anaerobic decomposition which creates those unpleasant orders.”

Arguably, the most lauded benefit of composting is the effect it has on gardens. According to Sears, composting creates an extremely nutrient-dense alternative to fertilizer. When you add it to your pots and garden beds, she says that it will create healthier soil for your plants to thrive in. Additionally, it helps prevent water loss and soil erosion, so it can make caring for your garden less stressful and time-consuming in the long run.

How to start composting

Intrigued by the environmental impact and personal benefits of composting? It’s high time you learn how to start composting. Fortunately, it’s a rather simple process. “Composting is straightforward, requiring minimal effort and expertise to begin incorporating into your everyday routine,” Sears says.

To begin composting, you’ll need a bin to collect your food scraps and other organic materials. “Your compost bins can be simple, and there are plenty of ways to DIY your own if you don’t want to purchase one,” Sears says. (You can learn how to build a compost bin, here.)

Once you’ve selected your bin, it’s time to find a home for it. According to Sears, placing your compost bin in an area with direct sunlight is best, as the compost mixture will be activated by heat. “Make sure you have a shovel or another type of mixing device, as occasionally mixing your compost will help expedite the decomposition process,” she says.

It’s worth noting: Countertop compost bins exist, too. Since running outside to your compost bin every time you cook can quickly feel like a hassle, countertop compost bins help break down the process. Where some countertop compost bins (like the Simplehuman Compost Caddy, $44, and the OXO Easy-Clean Compost Bin, $23—which, BTW we’ve reviewed) are designed solely to hold food scraps until you have a chance to transfer them to a larger outdoor bin, others (such as the Lomi Composter, $627) are designed to speed up the decomposition process right on your countertop.

How to layer a compost bin

Remember how we mentioned that composting is broken down into brown and green scraps? This variety is necessary to adequately layer a bin. “Composts require four essential ingredients for success: nitrogen (greens), carbon (browns), oxygen, and water,” Sears says. “Understanding the best way to layer these ingredients will allow gardeners to create the most effective compost material for their gardens.”

With that in mind, Sears says that the first layer of compost should be stocked with coarse materials, like sticks and brands. These will help promote drainage, she says. “From there you can begin building the layers of greens and browns, which will be the bulk of the compost. The general rule of thumb for the ratio of greens to browns is one-third greens to two-third browns, as too many greens could make the compost soggy while too many browns dry it out.”

It’s important to note, though, that layering only matters if you’re composting at home. If you’re collecting food scraps or garden scraps and taking them to a drop-off compost program, they generally do the layering for you. Just be sure to keep your browns and greens separated to make it as simple as possible for them.

“If you are making your own compost at home, layering alternating brown and green materials in the compost bin or pile can help to balance the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio,” Jones says. “This ensures good aeration, which is important for the composting process because it allows air [to be] circulated. Layering also helps to control moisture levels and reduce odors.”

How long does it take for compost to compost?

How long it takes to compost a bin depends on the bin, what’s inside of it, and how often it’s mixed up. “Generally speaking, if you are starting with a good ratio of brown to green material and mixing frequently, you can have compost ready in two to three months,” Jones says. “If you plan on not intervening frequently, it can take up to one to two years to fully break down.”

Since readiness time varies so greatly between compost bins, Sears has a trick. “You’ll know your compost is ready to be used when it’s a dark brown material that easily crumbles in your hand, which can take anywhere from a few months to a couple years,” she says.

But keep in mind: This is specifically for classic outdoor compost bins powered by heat from the sun. High-tech countertop composters can create compost in mere hours. For example, the FoodCycler by Vitamix ($600) can break down food scraps overnight, transforming them into a fine dry powder that mixes well with soil.

What can I add to my compost to speed it up?

The trick to speeding up your composting process is to layer effectively and regularly mix up your batch. While adding more yard waste to your compost bin can help accelerate the process, taking it from a year of composting time down to just four to six months, Sears says that adding more nitrogen-rich materials (i.e. green food scraps) can also pick up the pace. “Though, these extra green materials can often cause a bit of a smell and must be carefully monitored, as too much green material puts the compost at risk to turn anaerobic,” she says.

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