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How to Compost

Learning how to compost is a great way to get started on homesteading with no money, and even while living in the city. Composting can be an important practice if you want to live a sustainable lifestyle and produce minimal waste. Read on to learn how to compost, no matter where you live. 

Reduce, reuse, recycle–as the saying goes. Shop locally and at zero waste markets to reduce your consumption. Thrift or use hand-me-downs to reuse. Paper and plastic products can be recycled. Yet, things like food waste, leaves, and coffee grounds can be composted.  

compost pile spilled out on pavement

What is Composting? 

Composting is a way to repurpose food scraps and organic materials through breaking them down and using them as nutrients for soil. For home composting, most folks use a simple bin, stored in their kitchen or backyard, and dump non-recyclable trash into it–things like eggshells, leftovers, and overly-ripe produce. All organic material decomposes naturally, so composting is a way to work with creation’s natural rhythm and maximize the benefits of fertilizer. 

Composting Benefits 

Reducing waste benefits the environment on many levels. Composting is just one way to reduce waste. Rather than tossing things like old banana peels and coffee filters into the trash, use them as fuel for your garden. When learning how to compost, many people will see their weekly amount of waste plummet. Plus, when spring rolls around, there’s no need to buy fertilizer and compost when you’ve been building up your own compost all winter.

compost pile with green scoop and bucket of yellow leaves

How to Maintain a Healthy Compost

To maintain a compost bin, you’ll want to balance two types of ingredients: carbon-rich ingredients and nitrogen-rich ingredients. Carbon-rich ingredients are dry, “brown” ingredients–like fall leaves, twigs, straw, or even shredded paper. The carbon-rich ingredients will make up the majority of your compost. The other ingredients will be nitrogen-rich, “green” ingredients like coffee grounds, manure, and foods craps. Although these sorts of food scraps are what many people think of when they think of composting, these only make up a small portion of the final product. In general for longform, cold composting, you’ll want a ratio of 20 part carbon-rich ingredients to 1 part nitrogen-rich ingredients. For an expedited process, you’ll heat up 2 parts carbon and one part nitrogen through a hot compost method.

Picking a Composting Method

There are different ways to learn how to compost. Two popular methods are hot composting and cold composting. However, cold composting is the most beginner-friendly option.

Hot Composting

Hot composting is the fastest composting method. If spring gardening is coming up quickly, learn the hot composting method to use your scraps as fuel for your garden. You’ll need a good amount of space, ideally 25 square feet and up to five feet tall. (If you live in an urban area without yard access, consider partnering with a friend or family member who has a spacious yard.)

You’ll use two parts carbon and one part nitrogen for this method. You can still save food waste and lawn trim, but you’ll mix it up with double the amount of carbon rich (brown things)–dead leaves, wood chips, or shredded paper. This 3:1 ratio will allow the compost to heat much quickly and destroy diseases in the fertilizer and heat to produce soil-ready compost within a few weeks.

Cold Composting

Cold composting takes a bit longer, but if you’ve got a few months of fall and winter ahead of you, cold composting is a great option.

The general principle behind cold composting is what most of us have in mind when we think of composting: you add waste to a pile, layering “brown” and “green” materials and then you wait, wait, wait, and wait. To fully come together as a soil-ready compost, you’ll be waiting for several years, depending on your exact ingredients. (Remember: for both methods, having a compost thermometer is a great way to track your soil’s progress.)

compost bucket with lid

Picking a Compost Bin

To get started with composting, all you need is some sort of bin with a lid that either has holes in its lid, or can easily have holes drilled into the lid. (The holes provide necessary circulation to the composted material.) If you have a simple trash can, you can get started with composting. That being said, we love the Bamboozle composter. It’s a great size for countertops in small apartments, and more than gets the job done. (If you live in a city that offers weekly compost pickup, you can’t go wrong with this option.)

However, if you have the luxury of a patio or balcony, an outdoor composter is space-efficient and a good way to maintain an odor-free kitchen. Plus, you’ll be able to make way more compost, and even share it with friends and family.

compost pile with green scoop

Finding a Place to Compost

If you’re wondering where you’ll put your compost bin, don’t fret! Although living in a city can limit your ability to embrace some elements of homesteading, composting isn’t one of them. Whether you need the compost for your own garden or are just hoping to be more intentional with how you deal with your waste, there are many ways to put your compost to use. 

If you don’t have a garden of your own, try ShareWaste. Sharewaste is a way to connect people who are composting their food scraps with those who have use for compost. Many cities have composting sites where you can simply take your compost. Check out this directory to a number of composting sites in the United States. 

yellow leaves held by hand in white pot

What to Compost

Although it can feel overwhelming to learn all of the things to compost and things to avoid composting, once you learn to compost those grocery items you go through each week, it’s a cinch to get in a composting routine. Here are a few key items to start composting: 

  • vegetable scraps
  • paper tea bags
  • raked leaves
  • shredded, non-wax, non-colored paper or cardboard
  • cooked food waste
  • coffee grounds
  • dead plants, yard waste
  • egg shells (ground) 

What to Avoid Composting

  • meat and fish, cooked or raw
  • dairy
  • citrus peels
  • grease
  • eggs
  • dairy products
hand holding a green scoop of mulch over a mulch pile

How to Compost, in 3 Easy Steps

Step 1: Invest in compost bins or build some yourself.

This part is easy! Invest in some big composting bins, like these. If you live in a small space, you can use a small compost bin, you’ll just have to empty it frequently.

Step 2: Maintain your compost.

This is the bulk of the work. Add food waste to your compost bin on a regular basis. If you’re growing your own compost, you’ll dump a layer of brown, carbon-rich material into your larger, (preferably) outdoor bins. Once your kitchen scrap bin is full, you’ll add this nitrogen-rich blend on top of your brown layer. Then, you’ll add a generous helping of carbon rich (brown material) on top of this. You’ll keep adding the layers until the bins are full. The ratio of brown, carbon-rich material to green, nitrogen-rich material (food scraps) is 20:1. It’s important to keep brown layers on top to keep flies and pests away. Also, add a sprinkling of water to each layer to keep your compost hot and moist.

As the compost begins decomposing, it will heat up naturally (to above 100 degrees)! Use a thermometer to make sure it holds heat. Once it begins to cool down, use a pitchfork to rotate your compost. You can either stir it like a jumbo pot, or use other bins to move it around. Using additional bins is the best way to break it up and continue the process. Continue this process of rotation until the compost has a soil-like, rich consistency.

Step 3: Use your compost in your garden or give it to a local collecting site.

Once your compost has come together, you can use it in your garden as fertile soil! Congratulations! However, if you don’t have a garden of your own or any other use for your compost, simply donate your food scraps to some one else, either through a community initiative or a social media platform. The important thing is to learn how to compost and get started in any capacity you can to cut back on food waste and create a more balanced world.

Happy composting!

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