How to Compost

January 19, 2015
graphite slab with white pain that reads "compost" hanging on a rustic wooden fence.

Maybe you’re all on board with the idea of recycling cans and plastics to do your part for environmental sustainability, but stop short of composting your food waste because you feel although it’s a worthy activity, it’s also something that seems too overwhelming to try.

Fortunately, as you’ll soon see, composting can be a cinch, and can even help you save money on trash pickup services because, instead of dumping all your food waste into a garbage bin, you can compost a lot of it. So here’s everything you need to know about how to compost.Hopefully by the end your only question will be why you didn’t start doing it sooner.

Get the conditions right


Image credit:  U.S. Department of Agriculture

It’s probably comforting to know composting happens throughout nature without humans having to do a thing. When you help things along, that speeds up the process. Compost is created in environments that have air, water, nitrogen and carbon.

  • Air: Compost experts say air needs to be able to move freely throughout the pile. If the contents of your compost pile get matted together, it’ll be harder for air to enter. Facilitate the process by occasionally turning your pile with a rake or similar gardening tool. Besides helping give the compost pile a fluffier texture that has more exposure to air, your action moves different sections of the heap into the center of the pile. Air is important to help bacteria survive too, which helps with the decomposition of your pile.
  • Water: Figuring out the moisture content of your compost may feel like a delicate balancing act when you’re first starting out. If the substance is too saturated, it can cause the compost to become smelly and interferes with good airflow. However, if there’s not enough water, the rate of decomposition slows down and it becomes more difficult for the pile to heat up. Experts say if your pile feels like a sponge that has just been wrung out, that’s a good indication you’re doing well where water content is concerned.
  • Nitrogen: Nitrogen helps build microbes because it’s a source of proteins. You can add nitrogen to your compost heap with moist plant matter and animal manure. Even though these nitrogen-rich items are collectively called “greens” in the composting world, they come in all colors.
  • Carbon: Carbon is important, because microbes that break down organic matter use it for energy. Straw, corn stalks and leaves are usually good sources of carbon. Just as nitrogen-rich ingredients are called “greens,”  materials that have a lot of carbon are often called “browns.”

Getting the mixture just right


Image credit:  Jon Anderson

A compost pile will decompose at a faster rate when it has the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Ideally, that figure is 30:1. If that seems a little overwhelming, keep in mind that by themselves, grass clippings have a 20:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio. Achieving a good mix could be as simple as combining one part grass clippings to two parts dead leaves.

What happens if the mixture is wrong?
When a compost pile has too much carbon, it breaks down slowly since the microbe population can’t expand properly. On the other hand, if the compost pile is too rich in nitrogen, it tends to smell strongly. That’s because the excess nitrogen gets converted into an ammonia gas. Now you know a couple of the warning signs the makeup of your compost heap may need some tinkering. And as you’ve already learned, fixing the mixture isn’t hard to do.

Choose your desired level of effort
There are two types of compost piles. Cold compost piles are the easiest of the two, while hot compost piles require more effort. A cold compost pile is a great way to introduce yourself to composting because it’s the simplest one to create. Hopefully after your cold compost pile has been going successfully for a while, you’ll feel confident enough to do a hot compost version, which takes more legwork, but gives results much more quickly.

Creating your cold pile


Image credit:  Joi Ito

To get started, gather leaves, weeds and other types of yard waste into a pile. You may want to leave wood scraps out, because they break down slowly. Then wait from six months to two years for living things like earthworms and insects to start breaking down the material. Add new items to the top of the pile occasionally. If you’re not in the mood to wait so long, turn the pile from time to time and adjust its moisture level. You’ll know the compost is ready when you can no longer recognize the ingredients you originally put into it.

Honing a hot heap


Image credit:  andy carter

Although it takes more work to make a hot compost pile, it can give you great compost in just two months, so your labor pays off quickly. Once you have enough components to make up at least 27 cubic feet of volume, blend one part “green” ingredients with two parts “browns.” Make sure to carefully monitor the moisture level. Continue doing those things until you’ve built a pile that’s either 3′ x 3′ x 3′, or five feet at its base and three feet otherwise.

That environment causes microorganisms to start decomposing right away, and this type of pile is named as such because the microorganisms start to release heat. Eventually, temperatures inside your pile could climb to as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the time when the heat is rising, turn the pile every week and keep carefully checking moisture levels. Decomposition is finished when the temperature inside the pile is between 80-110 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll know it’s complete when the pile no longer heats, and like with a cold pile, you can no longer recognize the original ingredients.

Benefits of composting


Image credit:  szczel

If you need any more motivation, here are some irrefutable benefits of composting.

Many people don’t realize a quarter of all landfill waste comes from food. Even though that matter is biodegradable, landfills don’t contain enough oxygen for it to break down properly. Unfortunately, that lack of oxygen causes the organic matter to emit methane gas, which is 20 times more toxic than carbon dioxide, and very bad for the environment.

On the plus side for you, compost enriches your soil, allowing you to add the nutrient-rich matter to your gardens and help them thrive. Even if you live in a small apartment without a backyard, composting is still possible to do. That’s because composting bins are easy to find, and many of them are sized to fit on your porch.

By choosing to start composting, you’re not only doing something to help keep waste out of landfills, but turning what many people would consider garbage into an additive that boosts garden growth. Hopefully now composting doesn’t seem too much like a chore, and rather something you can’t wait to try.


Main image credit:  Kirsty Hall

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