How to compost: A beginner's guide to composting basics

April 22, 2020

Learn how to reduce waste and supercharge your garden with our guide to composting basics!


A woman practicing composting basics.

If you've ever kept track of how many food scraps you throw away each day, you know that it can be a lot! But all of those banana peels, avocado skins, and grape stems are filled with valuable nutrients. That's where composting comes in handy! While composting is a great way to reduce waste, it can be an involved process and figuring out where to begin can be tough. With our beginner's guide to composting basics, we'll help you turn kitchen waste into garden gold!

What are the benefits of composting?

Composting reduces waste


In the US, we produce about 210 million tons of trash each year. Around 24% of that is compostable food and kitchen waste and each day, we throw out about 1.3 lbs of food scraps. When trapped in a landfill, lawn waste and food waste produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Composting makes great plant food


Apart from reducing the waste we send to landfills, composting is a great way to give your garden that extra kick! Compost is filled with nutrients that plants love, such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

When you add compost to your garden soil, you're also introducing billions of helpful microscopic organisms. They help aerate your soil and break down certain organic materials, which makes nutrients more readily available for your plants.

Finally, compost is preferable to chemical fertilizers, which can have unwanted side effects for your local environment.

How does composting work?


Composting replicates the natural process of decay. It utilizes microorganisms to break down organic matter into nutrient-dense soil you can then use to fertilize your garden.

Healthy compost requires adequate air, moisture, and a mix of carbon and nitrogen. To ensure that your compost has a healthy balance of these, a combination of "green waste" and "brown waste" is required and the entire pile periodically turned to introduce air and regulate moisture.

Material added to your compost is broken down into two parts: green waste and brown waste. Green waste contributes nitrogen to the mix and consists of vegetable scraps and kitchen waste. Brown waste supplies carbon, and includes dry leaves, wood clippings, and twigs.

While worms aren't necessarily required for compost, they make the process much faster. They gobble up the food scraps and organic material and produce compost as a result.

The time it takes to go from scraps to compost can vary significantly; it can take anywhere from three weeks to two years depending on the method you use. When it's ready, it should be crumbly, dark, and have a sweet, earthy smell. 

When it's ready, you can use it as mulch, spread it on your lawn, add it to your garden, or use it to make your own potting soil! 

Most popular ways to compost


While there are many ways to set up a compost system, there are two general methods that are commonly used. The method you choose will depend on how much space you have, the time you have to maintain it, and the quantity and type of waste you plan on using.

Open pile composting


An open pile, or open air composting, is by far the cheapest method. It's exactly what it sounds like - you simply clear a place in your yard and begin adding the materials. You may consider putting up a fence or chicken wire around it to prevent pests from disrupting your compost, but it certainly isn't required.

Open piles require extra effort in the form of frequent turning in order to keep the mixture active and introduce air into it. This is usually done with a pitchfork or shovel, and is generally done every three to four days.

This might be the best method for you if you have the space to set it up, if you have plenty of kitchen scraps, or if you plan on composting a lot of yard waste on a regular basis.

Compost tumbler


A compost tumbler is an enclosed bin with a crank handle that allows you to easily spin or tumble your compost, which allows you to keep the mixture properly aerated.

Enclosed bins, like tumblers, are also great because they can prevent pests from snatching scraps out of your compost. For this reason, you can add certain kitchen scraps to your compost that you wouldn't otherwise be able to (more on that in a minute).

If you're short on space or simply don't feel like getting out a pitchfork and turning the pile every couple of days, this may be the method for you.

What goes into compost?


While the types of waste you are able to add to your compost can vary based on the method, there are some general guidelines you can follow.

What you SHOULD put in compost


Kitchen waste. Kitchen waste includes a variety of helpful composting materials. For example, vegetable scraps, fruit scraps, and egg shells are all incredibly helpful for the composting process.

Coffee grounds are also a great addition, and you can even add them directly to your plants soil without needing to compost them first!

Lawn waste. Rather than bagging up all of your leaves and lawn clippings to take to the dump, putting lawn waste into your compost is a great way to keep it healthy. Dry leaves, small twigs, and grass supply many of the nutrients that a compost pile needs.

Horse, cow, rabbit droppings. If you own livestock, their droppings can be a great addition, too. Because they mainly eat grass, hay, and other types of plants, their waste is filled with helpful nutrients and organic matter.

Untreated wood, sawdust, and shavings. If you're into woodworking or otherwise have a supply of wood chips, sawdust, or wood shavings, you can add that to your compost mix as long as it isn't treated with any chemicals.

Plain white paper, newspaper. Yesterday's news is today's compost! Your compost pile can break down paper and turn it into valuable fertilizer for your garden.

What you SHOULDN'T put in compost


Meat and dairy. While you can compost meat and dairy products, it isn't recommended if you're going with the open composting method. It can attract pests, like raccoons, possums, and even coyotes.

Pet (cat dog) and human waste. While waste from your barnyard animals can be helpful, waste from your household pets can actually be harmful. Waste from pets and humans can contain harmful bacteria and even parasites that you simply don't want in and around your garden.

Oils and grease. Your compost pile is a delicate balance of factors and oils and grease can disrupt the moisture if added. It can also attract pests, which is never good for you or your neighbors.

Glossy coated paper. Paper that is treated with a high-gloss finish, such as magazines and wrapping paper, shouldn't be added to your compost pile. They won't break down properly and the chemicals used on them can disrupt the microorganisms within. This also includes stickers commonly found on fruits and vegetables, so make sure to take those off before adding them in!

Treated wood. Because most treated wood products are designed to prevent decomposition, shavings and sawdust that have some sort of chemical applied to them should be avoided.

Larger branches. While smaller twigs are perfect, larger branches and sticks simply take too long to break down in the composting process. If you have the ability, run these through a chipper before adding them to your pile.

Weeds. While weeds definitely contain the same sorts of nutrients found within vegetable and fruit scraps, you really don't want them growing inside your compost. If they begin growing inside your compost, their roots can cause it to clump, making it difficult to turn. Besides, you don't want pesky weeds growing and taking nutrients away from your mixture!

Diseased plants. If you're doing yard work and find that some of your plants, or weeds, have fungi or other diseases, you should avoid adding those to your compost. When you eventually add your compost to your garden soil, these sorts of diseases can potentially pass on to your healthy plants.

Lots of highly acidic fruits. Citric fruits, like oranges, have a lot of acids in them, which can disrupt the balance inside your compost and make it diffcult for the microorganisms to thrive. While small amounts of citric fruits and tomatoes aren't too bad, you should avoid regularly adding them to your mixture.

Baked goods. Like meat and dairy, baked goods attract animals. Additionally, many baked goods hold a lot of moisture, which can throw off the balance in your mixture. 

Garden tools used for the basics of composting.

Speaking of reducing waste, don't waste another second looking for property insurance. Simply get a quote from one of Germania's trusted agents

Read more: Now that you've got some quality compost, it's time to put it to work! Learn how you can start your very own indoor vegetable garden!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.