The Art of Composting at Home

With 80 billions pounds of food discarded every year, the United States is the global leader in food waste. Food is the major component making up our landfills, comprising 22% of material waste, much of that being produce and dairy items. Food and garden waste makes up 28% of what the average four-person household throws away, all of which goes straight into our landfills, generating greenhouse gases and costing billions of dollars annual to process. Of that 22% of food waste that ends up in landfills across the nation, a mere 6% is composted. Luckily, composting at home is simple!

Composting at home is an easy way to reduce the level of green waste being thrown away. Many local municipalities in Silicon Valley and beyond now encourage homeowners to place waste scraps in their green bins along with yard clippings. This organic matter is kept out of landfills and is composted but you can do the same at home just as easily.

In 1996, San Francisco instituted a large-scale composting program. Four years later, it had reduced its landfill by 50% and by 2012, 80% of the city’s landfill had been diverted thanks to this widely adapted composting initiative.

Compost, also called “black gold” by farmers, is created by combining food and other organic matter to create a natural fertilizer. By repurposing food scraps and yard clipping into nutrient-dense Compost, you can improve soil health in your garden and reduce the amount of methane emitted into the atmosphere.

Getting started with composting at home is easy! And for those who planted backyard gardens, this is a fantastic way to provide your vegetables with the nutrients they need. (And, as you pull out plants or rotted produce, they too, can be repurposed to feed the next generation of garden!)

There are two primary types of backyard composting, cold and hot. Cold composting requires minimal effort and maintenance but takes one to two years before yielding its rich end result. Hot composting is faster, taking between four weeks and 12 months, but requires more time and attention.

Four key ingredients are necessary to create healthy compost.

  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon
  • Air
  • Water

Nitrogen-filled items, also referred to as “greens” in the composting world include:

  • Grass clippings
  • Food scraps/waste
  • Coffee grounds

Carbon-rich materials, or “browns” are:

  • Dried leaves
  • Paper
  • Twigs
  • Small branches

The ideal mixture of nitrogen to carbon is 2 to 4 parts “brown” to one part “green.” Air is introduced by using small pieces, layering brown and green components, and turning or blending the compost materials. Food waste typically introduces enough moisture but if the mix begins to dry, additional water should be added so that the compost is damp but not wet.

Outdoor containers for composting at home can be closed or open. Closed bins have a removable lid but an open bottom that is set directly on the soil and vents or holes for ample air flow. Open bins are best for yard waste as food waste will attract pests.

Three-foot cubes are a great size container for the typical household. They easily allow the composting materials to be turned with a pitchfork or shovel. Tumbler bins are sealed “barrels” that are mounted and can be turned with a handle to aerate the mixture. No matter the type of container you choose, it should be placed in a dry, shaded location.

You can also do what is called trench composting or “dig and dump” composting, which entails digging a 12 to 18-inch deep hole near a plant or other location, adding in the brown and green materials, and burying it. This is a cold process and takes about a year to transform into rich fertilizer. It also cannot be harvested, meaning wherever you place the compost is where it will remain. Container composters allow the rich resulting soil to be used in a variety of locations.

Wondering what can be added to your home compost bin?

  • Cardboard-uncoated and cut into small pieces
  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Eggshells
  • Wood ash (not chemically-treated fire logs)
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Grass (nothing chemically treated)
  • Hair and fur
  • Hay and straw
  • Houseplants (nothing chemically treated)
  • Leaves
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Nut shells
  • Shredded paper, napkins, and paper towels
  • Sawdust
  • Tea bags
  • Wood chips
  • Yard trimmings (all pieces no larger than your finger)

Avoid adding in dairy, eggs, meat, fish along with grease and fats as all will attract unwanted pests and cause equally undesirable odors. (These can be placed in your green waste bin.)

You can tell when your compost is mature and ready to harvest when it has a crumbly, smooth texture, and smells like rich earth after a rain. It will be dark in color and there will be no recognizable scraps of the original material. The pile will be about 1/3 the size of the original. The material will also be within 10 degrees of the outside ambient temperature.

Once your compost has matured, you can use it in a variety of ways. Compost is perfect for adding nutrients or creating soil retention by:

  • Mulching garden beds and planting areas
  • Adding to potting soil
  • Working into soil of garden beds
  • Adding to lawns
  • Adding to potted plants
  • Layer around fruit trees
  • Include or mix into backyard vegetable gardens

Using compost in your garden provides your plants with much needed nutrients and also increases water retention. Not only will you save water, you will experience higher yields in your summer garden since your tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and other plants are being properly nourished.

To store food scraps inside until you are ready to add them into your outdoor composting bin, use a compost keeper. This small container can be made of stainless steel, plastic, ceramic, or even bamboo. It is vented and has a charcoal insert to keep odors at bay. You can even use “bio bags,” biodegradable inserts that are easily removable and help keep your container clean.

If you like high tech gadgets, the makers of VitaMix have a new generation of composters—the FoodCycler FC-50. Taking up only one square foot of counter or cabinet space, this is the epitome of instant gratification composting. Simply add in your food scraps and the powerful grinding mechanism pulverizes the food waste. You can then add directly to your soil or add to your outdoor compost bin with your yard waste

However you’re composting at home, be it by simply placing food waste in your green bin weekly, choosing a cold or hot backyard composting method, or going high tech with the FoodCycler, Mother Earth and your garden will love you for it!

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