beginners guide to composting

The Beginner's Guide to Composting

Composting is a great way to reduce waste and create nutrient-rich soil for your garden. This beginner's guide will walk you through the process of how to compost, from choosing a composting method to troubleshooting common issues. Start composting today and reap the benefits!

Did you know that food scraps comprise over a fifth of all typical household garbage? The huge amount of food that enters the waste collection system is a big problem, as when food ends up in landfill sites it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. But while we can try to reduce food waste in many ways, producing some kitchen scraps is unavoidable. So, how do we get around this problem? By setting up a home composting system, of course!

Composting at home not only reduces landfill waste and lowers your carbon footprint but also has the added benefit of producing nutrient-rich compost that boosts your garden plants. Composting is the ultimate form of recycling, turning waste organic matter into rich, crumbly mulch, all for free!

So if you’re sick of constantly chucking vegetable peelings into your garbage bin, check out our complete guide to composting for beginners. You don’t need acres of land or a huge garden to learn how to compost, so let’s go! 

What is composting? 

Composting is a natural process where waste organic matter decomposes into a soil-like nutrient-rich humus, which can be used to boost plant growth and crop yields. In short, composting is how compost is made!

While the compost you buy in sacks from the garden center is produced on a huge scale in commercial composting systems, setting up a small-scale home composting project is far simpler than many people realize. All you need to do is provide the right conditions for kitchen scraps and garden waste to decompose and turn into a rich and crumbly soil conditioner. This can be as simple as a small countertop composter, or, if you have the space, a compost pile tucked away in a corner of your yard or garden.

Composting systems need a careful balance of materials, air, and moisture to work effectively, but this is not difficult to achieve. Get the balance right and those wonderful microorganisms will quickly start to work their magic, turning your green waste into a completely free garden resource!

how to compost

Types of composting systems

When figuring out how to divert your green waste from landfill sites, the first consideration is what type of composting system will work best for you. Let’s take a look at the options:

Municipal Composting

Municipal composting systems are large-scale operations where organic waste is collected from local communities. Not every area has a municipal composting facility, and those that are in operation often work in very different ways. For instance, some waste management departments offer curbside collections of kitchen and garden waste, while others require you to deliver it to a designated drop-off point.

If this facility is available in your area, it can be a great alternative to setting up a home composting system. To find out if your town provides any form of green waste municipal composting, contact your local waste management department. Of course, the downside of this option is that you don’t get the finished compost, but at least you can potentially reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by around a fifth.

Home Composting

There are two reasons why you might decide to set up a home composting system – there may be no municipal composting facility in your area, or you may be interested in producing compost to use in your garden. The good news is that home composting is doable regardless of where you live, even if you have no outdoor space!

1. Backyard Composting

Backyard compost piles are quick and easy to set up and can often be built using recycled or reclaimed materials. The first step is to pick the right location – ideally, an area of the yard in full or partial shade. Avoid placing compost piles or bins next to house walls, and make sure they are easy to access.

If possible, your composting system should be set up on bare ground to allow microorganisms from the soil below to move into your heap. However, compost piles on a concrete base can be kickstarted with the addition of a few spadefuls of garden soil.

Next, you need to decide if you’re going to make a compost pile – without sides – or a bin. Most people opt for a bin, as this helps to keep things tidy and speeds up the composting process. A simple three-sided bin is easy to construct out of pallets, or you can purchase a ready-made compost bin from your local garden store. If it is rapid results you are after, purchasing a compost tumbler can be a worthwhile investment.

When it comes to adding organic waste to your composting system, the key to success is getting the right balance of browns and greens. These terms don’t mean the color of the waste you are adding to the pile, but instead relate to the carbon and nitrogen content of the materials. In terms of volume, you should aim for a mix that is one-third ‘green’ (high nitrogen) and two-thirds ‘brown’ (high carbon). To learn more about which is which, check out the ‘What can you compost?’ section below.

2. Apartment Composting

For people with limited outdoor space, an indoor composting system can work well. This is particularly useful if you don’t have large volumes of garden waste to dispose of, as your kitchen scraps take up very little space when composted indoors.

To compost indoors, you will first need to purchase a specially designed system – the two fastest methods are worm composters or bokashi bins, both of which turn kitchen waste into compost in a matter of weeks. Whichever method you choose, make sure to select a unit with a sealed lid to reduce unpleasant odors in your living space. 

What can you compost?

how to compost

You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the range of items that can be composted! Not only is this a great way of recycling food scraps, but you can also cut down significantly on other items that are normally sent to landfill.

High-nitrogen ‘green’ compost ingredients include:

  • Kitchen scraps – fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and eggshells
  • Yard waste – grass clippings, plant trimmings, and weeds (without seeds)

High-carbon ‘brown’ compost materials include:

  • Dry leaves
  • Straw and hay
  • Shredded newspaper and brown cardboard
  • Woodshavings

When sorting through your kitchen waste, avoid adding meat, dairy products, or oily or greasy foods to your compost piles. Diseased plants should be burnt rather than composted, and any larger stems should be shredded to speed up the composting process.

Pet waste is a controversial topic when it comes to compost piles, and many people avoid adding it altogether. Waste from meat-eating animals such as cats and dogs should never be composted, as this can transmit diseases to humans. Some people are OK with composting manure from herbivores, like rabbits and chickens, but there is a risk that animal bedding may have been treated with herbicides which can contaminate your finished compost and harm your garden plants.

Troubleshooting Common Composting Issues

If you’ve followed all the guidelines above, it can be frustrating when things don’t quite go as planned. Let’s run through some common composting issues and how to fix them:

A. Foul odors

Compost heaps should not smell bad, so if you’re getting a foul odor, something is not quite right. This normally happens when the pile is waterlogged and compacted, or there are not enough high-carbon ‘browns’ in the mix. This is easily fixed by aerating the pile with a fork and mixing in some additional brown material such as shredded cardboard.

B. Pests in the compost pile

Unfortunately, food waste in the compost pile can attract vermin such as rats and mice. Make sure to bury food waste in the center of the heap rather than lay it on the top, and consider adding wire mesh to the top and bottom to keep pests at bay.

guide to composting worms

C. Slow decomposition

If things are going too slowly for your liking, you can kickstart your compost pile to speed things along. Slow decomposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can be frustrating when you want fast results. Make sure the moisture content of your pile is correct and add in some extra greens, turning the heap as you do so. Covering the heap with plastic or cardboard can help to trap heat and boost microbial activity.

D. Too wet or too dry compost 

Partially decomposed compost can often stall due to incorrect moisture levels. Compost should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge, so grab a handful and squeeze it. If it falls apart it is too dry, and if liquid pours out it is too soggy. Dry compost heaps are easily fixed with water from the hose and some extra green material, and wet heaps can be rejuvenated with the addition of some dry shredded cardboard.

How to Use Compost

When your compost looks, feels and smells like healthy soil, it is ready to use! Simply take a garden fork or spade and shovel the required amount out of your pile, returning any larger lumps that have not fully decomposed to the heap as you do so. It is not uncommon for some sections of the pile to need longer than others, particularly the top and the sides.

Homemade compost makes an ideal mulch for flower beds and vegetable gardens, helping to retain moisture and add vital nutrients to the soil. Simply add a thin layer to the soil surface, and microorganisms within the soil will do the rest. Alternatively, your finished compost can be used for potted plants, giving you a free alternative to store-bought potting mix.

How to compost

It is clear to see that home composting systems are far less complex than many people realize, and with just a little bit of effort, we can cut down our landfill waste and create a source of compost in the process. Producing a free resource out of a household waste product is the type of upcycling we can definitely get on board with!