Compost Creatively - How To Compost At Home

After being at home because of the coronavirus, it probably feels like you have cooking more than you have ever cooked in your whole life.

And even though you may be meal planning and trying to reduce wasting food, there are certain things you are just not going to eat. For example, banana and orange peels or pineapple tops.

The good news? There is a solution for your home food waste that doesn't involve landfills: Compositing! (And an added bonus, keeping food out of landfills can help fight climate change.)

Whether you're in a suburban home or in a tiny apartment, it doesn't matter; here are steps you need to help teach you how to turn your food waste into beautiful earthy compost in five simple steps.

The food scraps you can and can't include in your home compost.


1. Select your food scraps.

Start with your fruits and vegetables — the skin of a sweet potato, the top of your strawberry, or your banana peels. You can eve use tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells, or old flowers!

However, meat and dairy products are asking for trouble. Leonard Diggs, the director of operations at the Pie Ranch Farm in Pescadero, California, says you have to ask yourself, "Do you attract rodents? Do you attract animals to your pile? Meat products are likely to do that."

Other things that may attract pests include cooked food, oily or buttery things and bones.

Another important piece to note is the products that say "compostable" on them — like "compostable bags" and "compostable wipes." This means that these items are compostable in industrial facilities, but they don't really work for home composting.

2. Store those food scraps.

When you're composting, your kitchen scraps should be part of a deliberate layering process that will speed up decomposition. There is a method for adding to the pile (see step 4!), so you will need to store your scraps in a container so you can add to them bit by bit.

"It doesn't have to be, you know, all the things that you find online that are really cute little ceramic containers," says Diggs. He says it "can just be an old milk carton. When you make the first chop of the butt of that asparagus, boom, it could go right in there."

You can also store the food scraps in a bag in your freezer or even the back of the fridge. That is one easy way that you can avoid odors and insects in your kitchen and home.

3. Choose a place to make your compost.

For this next step, you need to think about the space you are living in. 

If you don't have a backyard and you still want a more traditional composting experience, you can take your food scraps to a compost pile that you share with neighbors or at a community garden.

If you decide that you want to break down your food scraps in your own apartment, there are still various options. Jeffrey Neal, the head of the Loop Closing, a composting business in Washington, D.C., is a big fan of worms. He says you don't need a big container for "vermicomposting" — a 5 gallon box will do. Or if want to, you can even go bigger.

"There are times when I made [my worm box] an ottoman so I could relax with my feet up on them! You can use it like a piece of furniture."

Neal also mentions another idea for those with small spaces is fermenting your food scraps using a Japanese method called Bokashi. "All you need is a container you can seal and Bokashi mix, a colony of bacteria on grain." (Here's some more info on how to use worms and Bokashi.)

Of course, you can always decide to give your food scraps to someone else to compost, which is totally fine. Some cities and towns will pick up your food scraps directly from your home. You can also reach out to your local grocery stores, restaurants or farmers markets to see if they have any programs to take food scraps for composting.

If you do have some outdoor space, your compost bin doesn't have to be complicated. "I think keeping it simple," Diggs says. An old trash bin, an old wooden chest — you can work with what you have available.

You can also buy a bin online or Digg says, "You could just create the pile naked!" This would mean you would just have a heap of compost — but don't make sure not to put it against a wall as it could get stained.

When composting at home, you need the right mix of "greens" and "browns" — what counts as green material and brown material is showed in this illustration.

4. Make the compost mix.

In the world of composting you will always hear about "the greens and browns" — being the two main ingredients for your mix.

"Greens" are typically food scraps, like fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, or, if you have a yard, grass clippings. These "greens" add nitrogen which is a needed element for microbial growth. Microorganisms are the true heroes of this process, they do the heavy lifting of decomposition.

"Browns" are more carbon rich, such as egg cartons, newspapers, dried leaves, and pine needles. The "browns" helps to break down the paper products before putting them in your pile.

One good thing to remember is that green materials are usually wet while the brown materials are usually dry. When you are layering, you will want the dry browns at the bottom and the wet greens near the top.

Diggs says the browns are the key elements because they allow for water and air, something that is called aeration. Aeration will allow the microorganisms to do their job. "If one hundred percent of it is water, then nothing is going on. The microorganisms can't work. You got this soggy, smelly pile," Diggs says, "So drainage makes a difference."

A helpful analogy is to think of while tending to your compost, it to think of tending a fire. Similar to a fire where you need to set up the wood in order to get the air flowing, in your compost you will have to do a similar thing. You will need to be creating spaces to order to give oxygen to those microbes.

And it really is layering — first browns then greens, and repeat. Depending on your space and amount of food scraps, your layers will differ, but try to keep the layers to an inch or two. To keep flies and odors away, you can also put a little bit of browns on the very top. 

As for the ratio of "browns" to "greens," you often hear three or four parts of browns to one part greens. Sometimes two to one. In the end, you always want more browns than greens — that's because you need the dry to soak up the wet.

5. Wait and Aerate

How long do you have to wait for decomposition? "If it's hot, you could get there in two months pretty easy, " Diggs says, "If it's cold made, you could be there in six months. And for every component to break down, it might be a year."

You will want to turn or rotate the pile, perhaps with a stick or spade, to keep things moving. Again, remember the fire analogy — you have to make sure the air is flowing, that it's wet but not too soggy.

As for how much you turn it, you will probably have to turn it less if you have the right ratio of greens to browns. When you start out, you might be turning the compost once every seven to 10 days.

Typically the more compost you have, the faster it will go.

In the end, Neill says that "the nose knows" when your compost is ready. "Bad compost smells, well, bad," he says, "It's like what a smelly trash can or dumpster smells like ... Basically, it smells like a landfill."

If it smells bad, it will probably mean that it's not decomposing — your pile might be too wet or you might need to adjust your ratios of greens and browns.

Diggs says he loves smelling finished compost,"You know, it just smells so ... Oh, gosh. Woody, earthy, but also a sweet smell. Or sometimes a sour smell. And the feel! How fluffy it is!"

When you've got that fluffy, earthy compost, put it in your garden, or in a plant on your windowsill. Or you can even donate it to your local community garden!


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