Food & Nutrition

How to Start Composting

As someone who's constantly cooking, leftover food scraps are kind of my arch nemesis. Even when I try to creatively use up my bits and ends—in things like carrot top pesto or broccoli stem noodles—I still end up wasting more than I care to admit. A few years ago, I was feeling so guilty about all the perfectly good organic material ending up in my trash can that I decided to take action. I joined the compost squad at my local community garden on a whim to personally ensure my leftovers didn't find their way to a landfill.

I can't honestly say that I loved composting right from the jump—it was smelly and dirty and I definitely almost puked more than once—but watching the food I hadn't had a chance to use gradually turn into nutritious soil was so rewarding. Instead of feeling guilty for creating waste, I was proud to watch my scraps make their way through the circle of life. Sure, they hadn't fed me, but now they could feed all the plants in my community garden, and hopefully feed someone else someday.

I know I said that my experience with composting was a bit smelly and dirty in the beginning, but it totally doesn't have to be that way. Now that I'm not such a novice, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to keep things in order. Here, you'll find everything you need to know to start composting for the first time, from expert tips and what I've learned from doing it myself.

In case you don't already know, composting is a process that turns food scraps into useable soil.

Microorganisms work together to break down organic materials (like leftover stems, fruit peels, and egg shells) to create a rich soil that provides lots of nutrients to all sorts of different plants. Doing it can help you greatly reduce the amount of food waste you're creating.

Before you start composting, familiarize yourself with the foods you can and can't traditionally compost.

In general, avoid adding any meat, dairy, bones, or pet feces to your compost as these scraps can attract pests like rats or insects, says Thania Avelar, education coordinator at the South Coast Botanic Garden in California. On the other hand, all fruits and vegetables are fair game and you can safely incorporate any of them into your compost without having to worry. Full eggs are a no-no, but eggshells are OK because they're an excellent source of calcium for the compost. The same goes for shellfish like mussels and clams—use the shells, ditch the meat. You can add processed foods, like bread or rice, but only in small amounts, otherwise your scraps won't decompose properly.

You'll also need to add dry carbon sources to your scraps, which are known as browns in the composting community.

If your compost becomes too wet, it won't decompose as efficiently. Of course, if you're only adding fruits and veggies, things are going to get slimy real fast. That's why you need to add dry, carbon sources, also known as browns, throughout the process. Browns include things like brown paper bags, newspapers, egg cartons, leaves, and coffee grounds, and you should add about two handfuls for every handful of fruit and veggie scraps, says Rebecca Louie, creator of the blog Compostess and author of Compost City. However, you will want to avoid adding anything that's bleached (like paper towels) or waxy (like milk cartons).

Remember that composting can be as simple as adding leftover coffee grounds or veggie scraps to your household plants.

According to Louie, you can totally start composting without making it a whole project. She says if you live in an apartment with houseplants or window herb boxes, you can get started by simply burying your food scraps in them. Or, if you're a heavy coffee drinker, sprinkle your leftover grounds over your plants. That way, she says "you're fortifying the soil with organic materials" without having to do much work at all.

If you want to take it to the next level, there are a few easy ways to make it happen.

"A person who is going to start composting should identify their goals," says Louie. Start small by burying your scraps in your house plants and window boxes and work your way up from there.

Start by evaluating your space. You don't need an outdoor area to compost, but you will need to buy some equipment.

If this sounds like your situation, your first option is to seek out a compost drop-off zone or a community garden with a compost program like I did. Luckily, Louie says there are often many compost drop-off programs in densely populated areas like cities, where you're less likely to have a backyard in the first place. (Use this guide to find a drop-off or pickup zone in your area). Once you've figured that out, all you have to do is use a small plastic bucket with a lid to gather your scraps. Be sure to add browns to your bucket as necessary and try to drop the compost off weekly. Compost needs air to properly decompose, and it can become slimy and stinky if you keep it in a sealed container for too long.

Alternatively, you can keep your compost bin in the freezer and your scraps won't start to decompose until you bring it to your nearby drop-off zone. If you know you're going to be lazy about dropping it off, this might be the best way to guarantee your apartment doesn't end up stinking.

If you can't find a compost drop-off near you, consider bringing some worms in your house.

Though it may sound kind of gross, Louie says that investing in a worm composter was one of the best decisions she made. The type of worms they use are called Red Wigglers, and she says they're safe to bring inside because they don't burrow and travel like the worms you'd find in your backyard. All you need to do is invest in the worms (which you can buy here) and a home to keep them in (which you can buy here) and the worms will do the composting for you. And the system is sold with instructions that will guide you through the process of setting it up, so you really don't have to do much work at all. Just be sure to store your worms between 40 and 80 degrees, because they may die at higher or lower temperatures.

If you do have an outdoor space, you can do all the composting right in your own backyard.

The simplest way to compost in your backyard is to make a basic compost bin yourself. To do it, drill holes into the bottom of a large plastic bin (this will help the compost aerate). Then, stand it straight up and coat the bottom with a layer of browns (leaves work great in this situation). And finally, you can start adding your scraps! Just be sure to stir the mixture every few days with a rake or a shovel—this will enable it to aerate and fully decompose faster.

If you don't want to make a bin, you can buy one. (This one comes highly recommended).

Or, try a tumbler, which is a contraption that reportedly takes less time to fully compost your scraps. Unlike with other composting methods, you can compost anything in a tumbler because it's closed off from the outside world, which means you can safely add things like meat, bones, pet feces, and other scraps that are normally off limits without having to worry about pests. It's also a great option if you aren't big on physical labor, because you can turn it by hand and it will stir the scraps for you, so you don't have to do it yourself with a shovel or a rake. You can buy one here.

Once you've started composting, it can take anywhere from four weeks to six months (and possibly longer) to fully compost your food scraps.

Composting can either be a really long process or a really short one depending on a few factors. The hotter the compost is and the more frequently it's stirred, the faster it will break down, which means that it'll take a lot longer to do during the winter when the temps are lower. As long as you make sure to add the right proportion of browns to scraps, and stir the mixture frequently, you will eventually have beautiful, nutritious, homemade compost to use in all your plants.

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