Composting: A Beginner’s 5-Step Guide

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What happens to your food scraps when you scrape them into the garbage after a meal? They often meet a sad fate, one that contributes to climate change. Fortunately, there’s a better, free way to dispose of them that’s easy for even beginners to master — composting. 

Did you think you needed to have a homestead to take advantage of composting? Nonsense. Anyone can enrich their potting or gardening soil without spending a dime at the nursery, even urban apartment dwellers with a single ficus. 

Are you ready to do your part to go green and save money? Here’s your beginner’s five-step guide to composting that will get you started on the right foot. 

1. Understand Why Composting Matters

Why should you compost, anyway? Consider this: When organic waste enters landfills, the conditions aren’t right for it to break down as nature intended. As a result, decaying food scraps produce methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. 

However, the fertilizer you buy at the nursery comes from the same molecular components you casually toss. When treated properly, organic waste breaks down into elements like potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen, which your house and garden plants need to thrive. 

For example, read a bag of commercial fertilizer sometime. The first number represents the percentage of nitrogen, the second, phosphorus and the third, potassium. A 100-pound bag of flower and vegetable plant food labeled 4-6-4 contains 4 pounds of nitrogen, 6 pounds of phosphorus and 4 pounds of potassium. 

That bag probably also contains a label reading $19.99. Composting lets you keep that $20 in your wallet. Better yet, you’ve done the Earth a favor, and right now, she needs all the allies she can get. 

2. Learn What You Can and Can’t Compost

Now that you understand why you should compost, your next order of business is to educate yourself on how simple the process is. Start by mastering what belongs in your compost bin and what you should omit.

Fortunately, it’s a bit easier to remember what you should exclude. There are three main classes of things you should leave out of your compost:

  • Chemically treated products: This includes treated wood and substances like plastic and styrofoam. Metal and glass should also be avoided, but fortunately, the latter two are nearly infinitely recyclable. 
  • Meat and meat scraps: These products can cause unhealthy bacteria to grow when they break down. You can go zero waste if you know how to render these, but they shouldn’t go in your compost. 
  • Carnivorous animal poop: Sorry, but you can’t empty your kitty litter in the compost bin or unceremoniously scoop in your dog’s yard leavings. If you use untreated wood bedding, you can include waste from strictly vegetarian critters like guinea pigs.

Part of making the most of your compost involves becoming a savvier consumer. For example, look at the packaging on the products you buy and those you use to store leftovers. You can now find compost-friendly cling wrap and beeswax wraps that don’t contribute to plastic waste. Likewise, you can compost unbleached coffee filters and tea bags, but those processed using chemicals or plastic are no-gos. 

What can you compost? Here’s a handy list to hang on your fridge:

  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Grass clippings and lawn trimmings
  • Coffee grounds and unbleached filters
  • Unbagged tea leaves or those in compostable bags
  • Eggshells
  • Dried leaves
  • Plant stalks and twigs
  • Shredded paper and cardboard that’s not glossy or coated in wax, tape or glue
  • Untreated wood chips
  • Dirty paper towels 

Take heed if cleaning your bathroom results in your usual trusty rag spreading hair everywhere. Unbleached paper towels are best, but you can compost the dirty ones you use to wipe up those last stubborn bits. You still contribute to deforestation, but you cut your guilt somewhat. 

3. Get or Build the Perfect Compost Bin 

Your next hurdle is to get the perfect compost bin. Fortunately, this need not cost a dime if you’re handy. Many hardware stores give away the pallets their shipments come in on, and they’re perfect for your backyard build. Just add nails, chicken wire and a bit of elbow grease. 

DIY bins have several advantages. One major one is that you can make them as big as you like, which is handy if you have acreage. You can also create dual compartments for “green” compost like veggie scraps and lawn clippings and “brown” items like cardboard and twigs. 

However, you might prefer the convenience of a bin you can buy. You can dump your kitchen scraps inside and turn your compost with a simple handle twist. 

What if you’re an apartment dweller with a few houseplants? Seek a simple countertop model that eliminates odor while decreasing your carbon footprint. You can even empty it into a larger backyard container if your living situation changes. 

4. Create a Schedule for Turning Your Compost 

Remember how landfill conditions aren’t ideal for composting? That’s because oxygen is needed for the process to work, and it turns anaerobic when organic matter lies stagnant, crushed beneath countless tons of waste. 

You must inject oxygen into the process to create the ideal composting conditions. Those who purchase a turnable bin have little trouble — just crank the handle in passing as you head out to play catch with the kiddos or fire up the barbecue. 

However, those constructing DIY bins must turn their compost on a schedule. Fortunately, it’s not too time-consuming. You should use a rake or shovel to turn it every three to four days. Coordinate it with your other outdoor chores, like watering your garden, and it’s a snap to remember. 

5. Revel in the Joy of Gardening 

Once your compost matures, it’s time to revel in the joys of gardening. Before you dig your hands into that rich loam, you should check to ensure it’s ready.

1. How to Know Your Compost Is Mature

The easiest way to test if your compost is done is to scoop out a small amount and put it in an enclosed zip-close bag or sealed plastic container. Wait three days, then open the seal and give it a whiff. The microorganisms are still hard at work if you detect an ammonia or sour odor. Try another sample in a week until you can inhale without wrinkling your nose. 

2. How to Use Your Compost

Using your compost is fun and easy. Here are four ways to enhance your gardens:

  • Mix it with potting soil as plant food to revitalize your indoor plants. 
  • Rake your compost into garden and tree beds. 
  • Spread it atop your lawn to enrich the soil and green your grass. 
  • Donate it to a community garden project — a great way for urban dwellers to do more. 

A Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Maybe you don’t compost your food scraps because you think the process is too intimidating or doesn’t apply to your urban lifestyle. However, everyone benefits when organic waste stays out of landfills, even studio dwellers with a single bush on their balcony. 

This composting guide shows you how simple the process is and how to get started. You’ll save money on your gardening needs and feel good about your commitment to planet Earth.


Mia Barnes is a health and wellness writer with a passion for nutrition and mindful eating. Mia is also the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Body + Mind Magazine, an online healthy living publication. When not writing, you can find Mia reading mystery novels or practicing yoga.


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