Home Composting Guide
Garbage in, money out
Watch Owen Bailey from the Sierra Club teach you how to compost at home.
Making compost from food waste and garden trimmings is fun, easy, and profitable. Even if you live in an apartment and don’t have room for a compost bin, you can make compost indoors.
It’s basically just organic material that gets broken down into soil by trillions and trillions of bacteria, earthworms, insects, and other organisms. If organic material didn’t decompose, our world would soon suffocate in dead plant material and the corpses of everything in the animal kingdom from mites to whales! Composting is nature’s way of recycling.
Almost any type of yard or food waste can be placed in your compost: banana peels, egg shells, vegetable trimmings, leftovers, and grass clippings. All you have to do is cover the material with a few inches of soil, moisten it a bit, and let nature make something out of nothing.
- Grab a bucket. You’ll need a small bucket with a lid for collecting food waste in your kitchen. If you want to go high end, stainless steel buckets with filters in the lid let air in but absorb odors.
- Get a bin. You can buy compost bins, tumblers, and other composting devices for anywhere from $30 to $1,000. Some of the simpler, cheaper models work as well as or better than the more complicated or expensive models. Unless you have a huge yard, bins are a must. They’ll keep things tidy and prevent flies and rodents from invading.
- Chop, chop. The finer the material you put in your bin, the faster it decomposes. Also, long stems make it hard to turn the material to air it out. If you have a garden shredder or chipper, use it to grind up plants, twigs, and branches. A sharp machete is great for chopping, if you don’t have a machine.
- Add water. A spray of water helps speed up the process if your raw material is dry. But too much water can make it so soggy that it won’t decompose as fast. So if your bin doesn’t have a cover, it’s best to cover it with plastic if there is heavy rain.
- And turn. This fast, effective process needs oxygen. Whatever system you use, make sure you keep the material well aerated. If the product smells bad, it’s not getting enough air. If you have regular bins, turn the waste each week. A pitchfork is handy for this purpose. If you get a tumbler-type bin, give it a good spin each time you feed it, or more often if the compost is clumping, clotting, stinking, or not brewing fast enough.
- Add a nitrogen kick. The process takes at least eight weeks, but if yours seems to be working too slowly, add blood meal from a garden shop. Green materials such as grass clippings also add nitrogen.
When shopping, look for
- A bin that fits your lifestyle.There are dozens of bins and tumblers on the market. They all work–but some take more effort on your part than others. You also need a model sized to fit the space you have available. Here’s a brief survey of your choices:
- Some are simple bins--basically boxes with enough holes to allow oxygen to make the refuse break down. With these, you need to turn the compost.
- Stacking bins are square or round modules that fit together to make a box of whatever height you need. You can break these down into several boxes to keep the finished product separate from the less finished.
- Separation screen bins are rectangular bins that allow the finished product to sift to the bottom for easy removal rather than requiring movement of more finished material to another box for finishing. Some tumblers also have this feature.
- Tumblers are closed cylindrical bins that stir up and aerate the material when you crank or spin them around. With these, you don’t have to do any turning. And you don’t have to worry about getting too much moisture from rain. Remember, though, that unless the tumbler has a mechanism to separate finished or unfinished compost you’ll have to wait until a batch of compost is finished before adding any more garbage or clippings.
- Worm bins might sound yucky, but earthworms are harmless creatures that can turn waste to compost in very short order. Worm composters ideal for apartment dwellers who want to make their own soil for flower pots and other containers. Our partner, the Shedd Aquarium, has great advice on how to start with worms. One important caution: The red wiggler earthworms sold for worm composting are non-native, and can harm northern forests. If you live near a forest in a northern state, don’t let your worms escape. If you use worm compost outside or are giving it to somebody who will, freeze it for a week to kill worms and eggs.
If you’re the least bit handy, you can make your own bins or worm composters or tumblers. All it takes for a tumbler, for example, is drilling lots of holes in a garbage can, securing the lid with bolts, twine, or bungee cords, and rolling it around frequently.
…to your yard
It is rich in organic matter. Adding it to your soil helps it retain water, reducing the need to irrigate. A healthier soil makes healthier plants, which require little or no fertilizer and pesticide.
…to your wallet
A typical household of four could make about 500 pounds of compost each year from its food and yard waste. Purchasing the same amount from a garden supplier would cost about $40.
…to the Earth
Of the 31 million tons of food waste Americans send to landfills each year, only 3% is recycled. More composting would reduce the amount of fuel it takes local governments to deal with this mountain of waste. It also also avoids the release of methane, a global warming gas emitted by organic matter decaying in the absence of oxygen in landfills. And it improves soil quality, reducing need for water, fertilizer, and pesticides.
- Failure to finish. Part of the art of the process is separating the fine, finished compost from the newer, unfinished, still-basically-garbage stuff. So if you only have one box, bin, tumbler, or other device, be sure it has a screen or other form of separation.
- Haste. Don’t get in a rush. The finished product is dark, fine, crumbly, and odorless–even earthily fragrant–like good soil. It really takes at least eight weeks, even if bin manufacturers claim their devices will produce it faster. Unfinished waste can damage or even kill plants.
- Using pet waste. Never! Cat and dog feces can contain very dangerous organisms. On the other hand, manure from rabbits, chickens, cows, and horses is fine, and will enrich the compost.
- Using fatty food, meat, or dairy products. Fats, meat, or dairy products can attract rodents and insects.
- Using material that’s too big. Twigs and branches more than an inch or so in diameter will take a long time to break down. If you have a shredder or chipper, use it.
The first order of business is to find the right site. If you have to run an obstacle course to reach your bin, you’re less likely to take garbage out and maintain the compost. Also, it’s best to put bins in full sun, especially in cold climates. It’s also handy to have it near a water faucet, because it may need to be moistened in dry weather. In cold locations, cover the heap with straw to keep it warmer.