A quick-start guide for beginners, composting basics including how to compost, what to compost, what not to compost, tips for collecting food waste & dealing with problems. Great for starting a garden!
Each year, our family enjoys having a vegetable garden. For most families, that means considering how much space you have versus what you want to grow, and strategic planting to ensure the plants get enough sun to produce a nice harvest.
Grocery-budget conscious families would consider what the most expensive produce to buy in their area is, and try to grow it instead.
My family is a little different, though. The first thing we do before any plants or seeds go into our garden is to tend to the compost pile.
Why should you compost?
Aside from the environmental benefits of composting, which breaks down organic materials and transforms them into rich, fertilizing soil… composting is also:
- Free! Think pricey, organic-rich soil that you’d have to pay big bucks for. When you invest a little time learning to compost, it’s all yours, for free!
- Fun for the kids! You’ll win the best mom or dad award when you let your kids sift through the finished and half-finished compost and see what creatures have made their homes there. It’s got all the makings of a winning science fair project!
- Composting reduces your household trash. You know the Crumbs family is serious about reducing trash, right? Instead of decomposing organic greens and brown materials sitting in the trash can for up to a week, the kitchen scraps can start decomposing right away in the compost pile.
- It’s hard to mess up. Your garden plants may wither and die, but compost is pretty much foolproof. You dump in your organic matter and forget about it, until it’s time to harvest the rich, crumbly results of your labor (or lack thereof!). That’s my kind of project!
What are the basic supplies that I need for composting?
You’ll need a pail for the kitchen to collect scraps, a composting bin (if you’re using one, but you don’t need one), or a spot in the yard for a pile.
What is a worm composter?
Some people choose to use the magic of earthworms (red wigglers specifically) to help speed up the composting process in a worm composting bin. It can be a store-bought one or just a big Tupperware bin.
This is done by adding kitchen scraps, green materials, dried leaves, etc., and allowing the worms to digest the organic material as it passes through their bodies while they move and wiggle around.
However, if you have a compost pile in the yard, earthworms will usually find their way to it naturally.
What is a composting tumbler?
A composting tumbler is a handy bin with a handle that you can turn by cranking the handle around. They are usually purchased from a garden supply shop or online like this one. These are especially helpful for people with limited space, and they tend not to smell or attract insects.
How do I start composting?
Getting started composting is SUPER easy. Once you’ve got your basic supplies, you’re ready to start.
- Pick a spot for your pail. I keep mine under my kitchen sink.
- Tell your family the plan. You might want to leave the pail out for a couple of weeks to help everyone remember not to throw away those apple cores and banana peels. After a while, it will become second nature for everyone.
- Pick a spot for your pile or composting bin. You want it to be close enough to the house that it’s not a big deal to carry the pail out every day. Ours is right next to our vegetable garden.
What can you compost?
- Kitchen waste – Mainly produce trimmings. Think onion skins, celery roots (if you’re not re-growing them or saving them for chicken stock), apple cores, banana peels, potato peels.
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags
- Grass clippings
- Dead leaves
- Garden waste
Don’t compost these things:
- Meat or bones (use these to make stock instead!)
- Leftovers that aren’t primarily plant material
- Tougher plant material from your garden like branches or stalks (it takes too long to break down)
- Garden waste that has been treated with pesticides or chemical fertilizer
- Weed seeds and roots – you might inadvertently spread them to your garden beds
- Diseased plant material
What is the method for composting?
Once you’re set-up, here is the method for composting…
- Start collecting compostable material and add it to your pile.
- Empty your pail into the pile (or bin) daily. It’s the perfect chore for the kiddos!
- Turn your compost pile. Every month or so, grab your pitchfork or a shovel and mix your pile up a bit. This helps speed up the decomposition process, heats up your pile, and keeps away any unwanted pests. Note: If you are using a bin, you’ll just turn it inside the bin.
- Harvest your finished compost. Over time, the material at the bottom of your pile (or bin) will start to look like the nicest, richest soil you’ve ever seen. When you don’t see any more recognizable scraps, the compost is ready to be used.
- Harvest your compost from the bottom of your pile (or bin) once or twice a year. Whatever isn’t yet ready just goes back into the pile to continue breaking down.
- Spread your finished compost on your garden beds or use it in container gardens.
Note: You probably don’t want to bring your fresh compost into the house since it should be home to many, many little critters.
What are the potential problems with composting?
- Smell. Before we started composting, my husband was concerned it would be a smelly, fly-attracting affair. But that was never really a problem. If your pile starts to stink, just give it a quick turn and add some grass clippings or leaves if available.
- Insects. We have a large lawn so I keep a separate pile of grass clippings and toss in a handful or two over the top of any kitchen scraps that are attracting bugs. Wash out your pail when it gets icky (about every other day for us).
- Not Enough Space. Composting only requires 9 square feet of space, or less if you choose a smaller space-saving bin. And since it’s just about the easiest garden task you can undertake, it’s an excellent use of your yard space.
- Animals. Depending on where you live, raccoons or rodents may be attracted to your pile. We haven’t had problems, but if you anticipate them, you can either get an animal-resistant bin or turn your pile more regularly (a hot pile isn’t as attractive to animals).
- Messy. Some people think composting is messy, but it’s really no worse than taking out the trash. Plus, you don’t have that food rotting in the trash can waiting for trash day.
How long does it take to compost?
Different organic materials take different lengths of time to transform into compost. Food scraps are quicker than twigs or sticks. Paper from coffee filters or tea bags take longer than organic materials. The bottom of the pile or bin will transform first, so this is why it is important to turn the pile monthly.
Is composting easy?
Yes! As an accompaniment to gardening, it’s a very worthwhile routine that is fun for the whole family!
I am in charge of composting for our community garden. All the leftovers from the plots have been turned into starting piles. Leaves,green,brown,dirt repeat. I also get coffee grounds from Starbucks to add to the piles. Here in Denver the piles do not get very hot in the winter months. Can I just turn them anyway. We have 10 piles 3 ft by 6 ft by 3ft tall. How much coffees grounds would be too much?
Brittany @ Team Crumbs
Yes, you can turn them. You can use whatever you have on hand for your composting. There are no exact measurements. Hope this helps! 🙂
I have been composting for over 40 years. In 1984, I gave a presentation in my college class based on composting, and they all stared at me like I was an alien! I often wonder how many of them are now finally getting into the swing of this more responsible, and now finally popular way to improve your garden and reduce waste. I have recently downsized to a very small garden, and am waiting for delivery of my brand new tumbler! The smaller garden requires a more compact solution than the large 3 bin system. There are solutions out there now to fit any size garden, and it is great! Thanks!
SJ - Team Crumbs
You are most welcome Peggy!
hello! i have a possibly dumb question – the worm composter that you link to on amazon (3 or 4 black, plastic tiers) – – is this for INSIDE of the home? i’m a little freaked out about bringing a bunch of worms into the house but i am VERY new to this…! thanks so much!
SJ - Team Crumbs
Hi Cara! Not a dumb question. 🙂 It can be either. But know that if you start it outside, you won’t want to bring it inside because outside it will attract flies. The main reason for keeping one inside is so that you can control the temp because worms don’t like it below 50 degrees F. If you live in a climate with 4 seasons, you can keep it in a garage or basement. The main concern with worm bins is the smell but if you keep enough dirt to cover the composting food you should be fine.
Debbie R Pine
Hi. I’m about to embark on a vegetable garden. I already collect scraps I put in my weekly green bin including egg shells. Are egg shells ok to put in the outside composting bin I’m about to use?
SJ - Team Crumbs
Egg shells are a great way to add calcium to your compost. However, you need to rinse them out immediately after cracking them open and let them air dry before putting them into your compost. This will prevent any diseases and bacteria from ruining your compost pile.
I would like to compost but run into several issues. I am very challenged with my mobility. I have a little compost container for my kitchen counter that takes relatively long to fill. And where should I put it outside? My house literally sits on a hill so the ground around it slopes and it is impossible for me to navigate. Are there some smaller containers that would not stink and are not an eyesore so I could put the scraps in them and then place them on the deck?
SJ - Team Crumbs
Hi Renate, We recommend using a small metal bucket designed for composting. I got mine from Thrive Market at https://dontwastethecrumbs.com/go/thrivemarket/.
Hi Renate. SimpleHuman makes a rectangular, metal, countertop composting container that I enjoy using. It’s not cheap but very easy to use. It looks good on the sink, and comes with compostable liners for the interior bucket, making it super easy to transfer the contents to my outside bin.
We don’t have a garden or outside space but would like to compost. Any ideas where we could empty our buckets?
SJ - Team Crumbs
If you’re in a town with a farmer’s market, check with the vendors there to see if any accept compost donations. That’s the easiest because when you shop you can also drop it off. Otherwise, call your local health food store and see if any of their farmer’s nearby accept them. You could also look into worm composting which you could do indoors!
Do you have to put any dirt in the composter before adding the kitchen waste, leaves, etc.?
SJ - Team Crumbs
Hi Esther! It depends on what your purpose for it is. If you plan to drop off your compost to someone else like a local farmer or vendor then no. But if you are doing worm composting then they need dirt to thrive. If you are making it in your own yard, adding dirt will prevent it from smelling. Best of luck!
What is the buried milk jug for in the picture from the post?
Karen @ Team Crumbs
The buried milk jug is a homemade drip watering system. Holes are poked into the sides of the jug, and you just fill it at the spout which is sticking up from the ground. Plant root systems get a steady and slow watering this way. 🙂
I love the idea of recycling and turning trash into treasure. For a long time as a kid, my dad would throw food waste into our garden. It seemed that every year the garden would get stronger and grow larger yields. Composting should be something the entire nation should be discussing. I’m all in! Thanks, Tiffany.
Could you tell me what your compost “bin” is made from? I’m using an old trash can but I like the looks of the ventilation and ease of getting at the compost from the bottom.
We put red worms in our raised beds .also did some composting last winter. We have lots of tomatoes already. We live in Las Vegas. I put the tomatoes in couple of months ago. We also have lattice work travails over the raised beds with trailing flowers to help protect the tomatoes and pepper so they get the heat but not the direct son. It really hot here at times.
I’ve been composting for quite a few years and love it. I put paper towels, dryer lint, tissues and toilet paper/paper towel spools in my compost. I read years ago that you could include these in composting. Our garbage is the smallest container to go to the curb.
That’s awesome Debbie!
You can compost more than plant based left overs. You can compost everything you eat. You mention saw dust in your list, don’t unless you are sure the wood is untreated. A great way to collect your compost is to have the base of your pile on a 45 degree slope, a piece of plywood will do. The finished product will slide out by itself. Much better that disturbing the natural layers.
That’s a neat idea Stephane – thank you!
We’ve been composting for 3 summers now and LOVE it! We used raised beds to garden and we mix our own Mel’s Mix (master gardener and square foot gardening expert, Mel Bartholomew designed it…1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite) and it grows veggies like magic! We love the fact that we are sending SO much less waste to landfills to lie in an anaerobic state for years. We keep a 5 gallon covered bucket in our kitchen and empty it about 3 times each week. We compost such things as tp inner rolls, etc…..even the hair from our brushes. lol Eggs shells are a great addition, too. It’s so much fun!
Be very careful with vermiculite, a lot of it contains asbestos,look it up. And egg shells is one of the only things that do not compost, no bug or worm will touch them.
Great ideas Michele!
We just started a compost pile this summer too, along with our garden. It’s amazing how much stuff you can actually put out there. One of my oldest’s chores is now to empty the compost bowl on the counter every day.