How to Compost

Robin Greenfield posing barefoot in a garden.
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Composting is really simple and something that just about anyone can do. If you’ve had any worries about whether or not you can do it you can drop those right now. Composting can be done at your home, school, work, or just about anywhere. The earth even does most of the work for us. You just have to give it a little place to do the work.

This is a simple guide of how to start composting and how to make it work!

What is Composting?
Composting is recycling done by nature! Composting is the controlled natural decomposition of organic material, such as leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps. Microorganisms break down these materials into compost, or humus, the nutrient rich soil products that result from proper composting.

Why Compost?
Sending our waste to the landfill is an outdated way of thinking. The trash doesn’t break down there and releases methane gas into the environment, causing environmental damage. By composting organic materials ourselves we keep stuff out of the landfill, keep the gas guzzling trash trucks off the road, and turn our “waste” into a valuable product to enrich our gardens. We can literally turn our food and yard waste into the food that we have on our table just a few months later. Compost improves soil health, prevents erosion, conserves water by helping soil hold moisture, and reduces the need to buy commercial fertilizers. The list could go on and on about how composting helps us to live in harmony with the earth but I’ll let you see it for yourself when you start your own compost pile!

Where Can You Compost?
You can compost just about anywhere! It can be done in a big city on the balcony of an apartment or in a spacious backyard in a suburban setting. It can be done at school or work. It can be done at your neighbor or friend’s house, a community garden, or a vacant lot.

What do You Need to Get Started?
All you need is a little bit of space, a simple bin, and basic composting knowledge.

You’ll need about a three-foot square space for a compost pile. If you don’t have a space that big then you can do vermiculture or use a contained bin. Partially shady is ideal so the sun doesn’t dry out your compost pile.

Compost Bins
I recommend keeping things as simple as possible and constructing a very simple bin out of scrap materials. You can construct a great bin out of wooden pallets, chicken wire, or scrap wood. If space is an issue, then do vermicomposting or get a manufactured bin. You can buy one of these used on craigslist, or at nurseries or garden centers or online. But try your best to keep it simple and spend as little money as possible to start composting.

Here’s my simple compost bin that I made out of three pallets and a little bit of metal wire. It cost me about $1 to put together and an hour of my time:

Composting Robin Greenfield

Here is a simple bin that I made using hardware cloth:

Composting Basics
Composting is earth’s natural recycling process. The earth depends on us to put the ingredients in the right place, but after that, most of the work is done by nature. No matter how bad you screw up with composting, it’s still better than sending the stuff to a landfill where it might sit for decades without biodegrading.

There are four ingredients to composting: greens, browns, water, and air.

Greens include fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings, plants that are freshly killed like tree trimmings, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, and grains like bread.

Browns include dead leaves, twigs, newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, hay, and wood ashes. Make sure to shred up anything that is big and they will help to “bulk-up” and aerate the compost pile.

Water is really important. You want the pile to be kept moist like a wrung out kitchen sponge. Moisture is needed for the microorganisms to break everything down but if you have too much you might get a smelly pile.

Air is needed because aerobic bacteria need it to do their work. Without air, anaerobic bacteria will take over and cause odors. To get air into your pile, you can turn it with a shovel every week or so.

Another ingredient that takes care of itself is the compost critters. A compost pile has trillions of microorganisms living in it and they are responsible for breaking that banana peel or leaf down into soil. These organisms include bacteria and fungi. Don’t be grossed out though because they are inside your body too. One inch of your intestine has over one trillion bacteria. You’ll also find insects in your pile like worms and grubs. These help to break everything down into soil as well.

What Goes into Your Compost Pile?
A ratio of around 1:2 or 1:3 greens to browns will make a good compost pile. That means there should always be more browns than greens and never less. Too much food waste and too little leaves, cardboard, paper, etc. will make a smelly pile that attracts insects and rodents. Anything that is plant-based can go into the pile. For beginners, I would recommend not adding large amounts of meat, dairy, oil and grease. Small amounts are fine. Large amounts, even entire animals, can absolutely be done, but it’s more challenging. Also, keep dog and cat poop, fresh weeds with mature seeds, and treated wood products out of your compost.

Choose between Active Composting and Passive Composting
With active composting you have to start with a big pile or full bin of material. This will insulate the pile and allow it to heat up to between 120 and 150 degrees. With active composting you’ll turn it on a regular basis and add water as needed to maintain proper moisture and temperature. This method makes compost in as little as three months.

With passive composting you just add the greens and browns as they are generated. You only turn this pile and add water about once a month. It’s less labor intensive but it doesn’t heat up as much as active composting so it will take about a year for it to be done.

How to Tell When Your Compost is Ready?
When your pile has none of what you put in there is recognizable. You should only find a dark brown, crumbly soil material. And it should smell like earth! (Proper compost will never have a foul smell during the composting process either. I’ve amazed many of my city friends with how much better my compost smells than their garbage can.)

Using the Compost
You can mix it into your soil or use it as a top dressing. It can be used in your garden, in potted plants, and at the base of trees. Add it to any plants that you want to flourish!

My compost bin sits right next to my garden at my off the grid tiny house.

How to Compost with Robin Greenfield 2
With that little bit of information, you can successfully compost! It really is as simple as taking those ingredients and putting them into a pile. That will eventually turn into a rich organic material that can be added to your garden. I started composting without knowing hardly anything about it and I’ve made great compost every time. You can even just bury your food waste right in your garden and it will turn into soil. In the 21st century, we’ve managed to complicate a lot of the things that have no need to be complicated. Let earth do the work and you’ll be living a life that is better for the earth, your community, and yourself. The best experience is by actually doing it though so just get started today and it will all work itself out.

Here are some resources for detailed information on composting:

A Guide to Starting a Composting Program in Your School
A Teacher’s Guide to Compost Activities
Eartheasy Guide to Composting
How to Compost Human Waste (Humanure)

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