Composting 101: It’s Way Easier (and less gross) Than You Think

By: Kathleen M. Reddy-Guidry

You instantly begin to reduce your carbon footprint when you start an outdoor compost. It reduces waste, reduces carbon emissions, and is good for the land. Compost is decomposed organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen waste. It delivers many essential nutrients for plant growth and is used as a natural fertilizer. Compost also improves soil structure – it allows for soil to hold the right amount of moisture, nutrients and air. Composting is a simple and green action you can do right now at home.

“But it smells!”  No, it really doesn’t. This is a huge misconception and probably what derails a lot of people. A well-maintained bin that contains the right amount of green, brown and wet doesn’t smell. Full disclosure, sometimes I forget about taking care of mine, and it still doesn’t smell.

“I don’t have enough time.”  Yes, you do. If you can take your garbage out to the trash can, you can take your bin of scraps to your compost bin. It’s not time consuming, and you get a great return on investment of your time. Setting up your composter the first time, will take a little effort but after that you’re good.

“I’m not a gardener, there’s no point. I won’t have a use for it.” Not so! Compost isn’t just “dirt.” It is organic feed for your garden or yard. You can use it on your grass, shrubs, trees or flower beds – even your potted plants. Plus, you are doing your part to reduce landfill waste. And, if any gardening friends or neighbors hear you are giving away compost, they will make a beeline for your door. Compost is gardening gold.

There are many types of outdoor composters from which to choose for your specific needs which we can tackle at another time. For ease, I’ll tell you how we started ours. A few years ago, I purchased a stationary composter from a local nature center sale. I was very excited to finally live in a home where I could have one outside. A compost bin should not be too close to your house, but also close to where you will use the finished product. Our composter is in a partly sunny area. The natural process of decomposition generates heat, being in a sunny spot will accelerate the process and you’ll get compost quicker. You don’t want to give your sunniest spot to it, that should be for your sun-worshipping vegetable gardens and plants.

Our composter is a stationary open bottom bin. It is secured to the ground with twist pegs you screw into the flat dirt. The open bottom allows for Mother Nature to supply all the “workers” who will do your dirt-y work! It has a twist-locking lid that is easy to take off, dump in your scraps and give the compost a turn with a pitchfork. It is ventilated horizontally and vertically and has my favorite feature of a bottom door which slides up to retrieve the organically rich compost.

The 2 rules of composting. There are really only two things you need to know when you are composting at home:

1.  To be or not to be (what you should and should not put in the home composter): The safe things to put in are fruits and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, leaves, nutshells, tea and tea bags (see a more comprehensive list below). What is more important to know is what not to put in: protein (meat, fish, egg, poultry or dairy products), fats (grease, lard, fats and oils), pet waste (dog or cat feces), and yard trimmings treated with pesticides. If you stick to only what is on the good list, you are fine. 

2.  The ratio of green, brown and wet: Ratio? You mean, math? Yes, but this is where you can kind of wing it if you adhere to Rule One. The overall balance should be 2:1 (green to brown), or 2/3 green, 1/3 brown. The green (or Nitrogen-rich) ingredients like your kitchen scraps, fresh leaves, and grass clippings fall into this category. The brown (or Carbon-rich) ingredients include dried leaves, dried grass clippings, hay/straw, and cardboard. The wet ingredient makes its way into your compost via the water contained within the greens.

These are the very basics to get you started. Once you start it is very easy to do, and very easy to teach. My daughter started learning what to put in the garbage and what to put in the kitchen compost pail at age 3. It’s a great teaching tool to show them how nature recycles, and how we can help it along with our composter. I learned a lot more as I went along, too. There is a ton of information out there and that can be overwhelming to some. People tend to overcomplicate simple things. When you start slinging scientific jargon and ratios around, well that just can turn someone away from something very easy to do. Believe me, the science is important. I hold a geology and environmental science degree – I love the science, the chemical formulas, and can get levels deep in it. But Mother Nature is not out there with test tubes and a lab coat. She’s just doing it. You can, too. It’s easy as 1, 2, 3.

1.  Collect your kitchen scraps (a.k.a. the greens) in a small container or pail. Yes, some of the “greens” are brown like coffee grounds and tea bags, but if it comes out of the kitchen and has been a food item (eat or drink) it’s green.

2.  Take pail out to your composter, open it up and dump it in there. Yes, it’s not pretty in there, but nature is hard at work. 

3.  Before closing, toss and churn the compost inside with a pitchfork to circulate the materials. This aerates everything inside and facilitates the decomposition process. Then top it off with a layer of brown (dried leaves, dried grass). If you have really churned it up, you’ll get some of the rich brown compost up top and that can suffice as your brown.

What was startling to me was how much less garbage we had once we started composting. It decreased by at least a third, if not close to a half at times. I am still truly amazed at how everything I dump into my composter becomes this nutrient-dense, dark nourishing material. It’s like the turning of water into wine of my garden! Composting transforms waste into a valuable addition for the soil, saves space in landfills, uses less energy incinerating garbage, saves money on trash disposal, teaches kids to be better environmental citizens, and actually helps slow climate change. Composting at home is easy for everyone. Kids can discover, learn and have fun finding earthworms in the finished product! You will help the environment and your community, and that makes you feel good inside – and we need more of that!

What to Compost & What NOT to Compost

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