Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

How to Start Composting

There are so many things to think about when getting started in the garden. I’ve already talked about picking your plants and observing your site in order to select your location, but another crucial thing even the beginning gardener needs to think about is the health of the soil.

There’s a reason compost is also known as “black gold” to gardeners.

The soil is what feeds your plant! Without healthy, nutrient-rich soil, your plants will be scraggly and bear weak fruit, if they grow at all. If you want big, juicy tomatoes and crunchy carrots, you need to make sure you’re taking care of the soil. While you can do this by adding chemical fertilizer to poor soil every year, it’s far more important to work towards creating rich, healthy soil that will repay you for years to come. Finished compost is one of the best materials to add to your garden to make this a reality, and best of all, you can make your own for FREE!

I’ve composted on-and-off for the past four years. Sometimes I’ve paid a local company to do all the dirty work for me, sometimes I’ve done it all myself, and some years it was something in between. Here’s what I’ve learned from both ends of the compost heap:

Select location

Plenty of people will try to sell you a fancy, hand-cranked tumbler to put your compost in. They’ll promise beautiful compost in half the time, and even say it’s odor-free! (Of course, the tumblers themselves aren’t free.)

Sure, if you live in a fancy neighborhood where the mere sight of decomposing materials might be offensive to the hoity-toity next door, or if your yard is overrun with vermin like the Disney movie Ratatouille, maybe you do need a compost tumbler. For the rest of us though, a regular compost heap will do just fine.

You’ll want to locate it somewhere close enough to your garden that you can access it with relative ease and close enough to your kitchen that you’ll be motivated to add kitchen scraps to it. However, you’ll want to have it far enough away so on those days you don’t properly balance the moisture or your “browns” and “greens” (more on this in a second) and your pile might have a slight odor, you won’t be disturbed. As a bonus, you might place it somewhere sunny, for added heat to aid in the decomposing process. A prime location might be behind a shed or garage, against a fence, or on the edge of a tree line.

Collect Scraps

In our house, we usually do this by keeping an empty coffee can on the counter, but I’ve seen a variety of jars, tubs, and other containers do the job. The most important thing is to pick something with a lid that seals smells in and fruit flies out as much as possible. In addition to that, you don’t want it to be an eyesore on your kitchen counter, where you’ll need to leave it if you want to remember to use it.

Pictured: future compost in the form of a banana peel, onion peel, and wilted flowers from my baby shower.

Once your kitchen-sized container is full, you can go ahead and either dump it directly on your pile (as we do in the summertime) or use an intermediate step and fill up a larger bucket to reduce your trips to the pile. This is what we do in the winter when we don’t want to trek out through the snow piles every week.

Our five-gallon Home Depot bucket takes about a month for us to fill with kitchen scraps.

You should also feel free to collect other organic material to your pile that you have lying around your property: leaves, grass clippings, certain kinds of animal droppings, and other plant material.

Feed your pile

Here’s where it gets tricky.

You don’t want to just pile up random kitchen scraps and anything you find in your yard in a giant heap and expect that will turn into compost! Sure, given enough time almost anything will break down, but there are some things that take WAY too long to decompose, and some things might leave dangerous bacteria in your pile.

Here are the rules for how to feed your pile GOOD food:

These things NEVER go in your pile: cat, dog, or human waste, diseased plant material (not like a piece of bread that started molding, but like a tomato plant that caught the blight), fats and oils, dairy, meat (including bones), plant material like grass clippings that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides, and weeds or hay that might contain active seeds.

Cat/dog/human waste, diseased plant material, and materials treated with pesticides or herbicides are no good because they might introduce harmful bacteria or chemicals to your pile that could harm the plants you try to feed the finished compost to. We don’t want that!

Fats, oils, dairy, and meat are bad for the average pile because they take a while to breakdown and can attract critters like raccoons or worse to your pile.

Finally, weeds and hay should only be added to piles that get REALLY big and hot, because that will be the only way to kill off the seeds they carry. If you add them to your average pile, you might just be creating compost filled with weed seeds that create more problems than solutions for your garden down the road.

Here’s my pile, which lives behind the garage. It’s amazing how THIS (uh-gly) stuff turns into gorgeous, fragrant compost with just a little time and care.

These things go in your pile, but in proportion: “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials) and “browns” (carbon-rich materials). Every compost pile needs LOTS more carbon than nitrogen, though. If you can remember to always add a handful or two of “browns” every time you add a bit of “greens,” you should be fine.

Don’t be fooled with those color names, though- not all nitrogen rich materials are green, nor are carbon rich materials always brown. Some of your most common “greens” are fresh, wet materials, usually lawn clippings and kitchen scraps. “Browns” are often dry discards like shredded paper, wood shavings, cardboard, and dried leaves.

These things need to be incorporated into every pile: water and air! A pile that’s too dry won’t decompose at all, and a pile that’s too wet will start to stink like a landfill. Aim for a pile that’s moist, and amend with a sprinkle from the garden hose or the addition of dry leaves if it leans too far in one direction or the other.

As for air, this is what those fancy compost tumblers can actually be pretty good at. You should turn your pile once a season, and if it’s getting really big, it might be a good idea to stab it with a pitchfork a few times in between turnings, just to make sure the inner layers aren’t getting too dense and compact, which can stall or stop our friendly aerobic bacteria from decomposing efficiently. Airflow is why you don’t just throw everything in a sealed box; keeping the sides slatted (as I plan on doing this year with wooden pallets) or surrounded with chicken wire to contain your pile is fine, but don’t cut off the air circulation!

In conclusion, I know it can sound like a lot of work to start up and maintain your compost pile, but never fear! Once you start, composting will become such a habit that you’ll forget you ever had trouble! Keep a checklist (like the one above) near your kitchen bucket to remind you of the rules until you get the hang of it, make sure to add plenty of “browns” every time you add some “greens,” and water your pile when it gets dry. If you can do that, you’ll have a gorgeous pile of “black gold” to add free nutrients to feed your plants. What could be better than that?

Are you attempting a compost pile for the first time this year? Congrats! Let me know any questions you have in comments!

3 thoughts on “How to Start Composting

    1. Maybe a pile in your own yard isn’t feasible (I hear you! Soo many years in tiny apartments/shared living situations) but there are still options for you. First, if you live in a big city, many are starting to open up composting programs for around $10/month. Fill up the bucket every week, they take it, and every month/quarter/whatever, you can pick up fully finished compost! If you’re not so lucky to live in a place near an organization like that, you might actually be a good candidate for one of those hand crank composters. They can be small enough to sit on a deck or in a back alley. Lastly, if that isn’t appealing, you might try finding a community garden in your neighborhood or seeing if a local farmer with a little space available would be willing to work out a deal with you. It would be the least convenient, but you still might get compost at the end of the day! Good luck!!

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