The Basics of Composting

The Basics of Composting
9 minute read

It’s springtime, and you’ve decided you wanna try your hand at composting. The truth is, it’s been on your radar for a while. But you’ve never been ready to take the plunge. And you likely have a lotta questions about the composting process, the different methods of composting, and how to start composting at home. Annnnd you wanna make sure that you have the basics of composting down before you begin. I get it. I felt exactly the same when I wanted to start composting at home.

If you’re a total beginner, let’s first make sure you understand what the process entails…

Composting occurs when organic matter like food scraps, leaves, and twigs naturally break down into fertilizer. Honestly, composting is just a fancy way of saying that something is rotting or decomposing.

The cool thing about composting is that it can supercharge soil, which is crucial for growing healthy food for everyone on this planet.

The connection between food waste and climate change

In 2018, food accounted for 22% of the municipal solid waste (MSW) created in the US. And right behind that, were yard trimmings (like leaves, twigs, and small branches), which accounted for 12% of the total waste (EPA).

If we combine these two categories (22% + 12% = 34%), we now have the largest category in our trash system, and it’s all compostable! Let’s say that again: over ⅓ of our trash is compostable!

Image of a person throwing food in the trash

If we composted all of that waste instead of tossing it into a landfill where it can’t properly break down, we’d reduce our national trash footprint by ⅓. And you and I both know we don’t need any more landfills!

You see, when organic matter (like all those food scraps we put in our trash) goes to the landfill, it produces methane as it starts to break down. This is because the organic matter doesn’t have enough oxygen to naturally break down in a landfill, which produces all that methane.

“In 2019, methane accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.”


The quote above is pretty startling. It basically means that the organic matter we put in our trash bins is contributing to climate change. And it shows that there’s a direct link between not composting and climate change. Buuuttt we can do something about it!

The Benefits of Composting:

There are many composting benefits to think about, including its ability to:

  • reduce methane emissions in the fight against climate change
  • reduce the size of our landfills (who wants more stinky landfills anyway?)
  • repair soil, which:
    • cleans the air we breathe and the water we use for just about everything
    • grows all of the crops that feed our planet of 8 billion people
    • supports wildlife and biodiversity

Right now, there are just too many greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and we humans keep putting more of it out there. So we need to remove as many manmade greenhouse gasses as possible to bring the world back to its natural state.

Composting for Beginners

There are 2 crucial ingredients to complete the basic composting process:
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen

You add Carbon to your compost by using “Browns”

Things like dried out leaves, paper bags, cardboard, twigs, sawdust, and newspaper are all considered “browns.” Browns have both carbon and nitrogen, but they are mostly carbon.

You add Nitrogen to your compost by using “Greens”

Things like fruits and vegetables, green leaves, and grass clippings are all considered “greens.” Greens have both nitrogen and carbon, but they are mostly nitrogen.

Image of two people putting food scraps into a kitchen compost bin as they cook

Some experts believe that the ideal Carbon to Nitrogen Ratio (or C:N Ratio) is 24:1. That’s 24 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen. Others believe that the perfect ratio is 30:1. The truth is, composting comes down to more than just how much carbon and nitrogen you put in. Factors like temperature, exposure to moisture, and the size of the materials play a role in how fast and effective your compost breaks down.

You also need 3 key elements for composting:
  • Heat
  • Moisture
  • Oxygen

Heat naturally builds up when browns and greens come together. The bigger the compost, the more heat it generates and the faster the organic matter breaks down.

Moisture comes from your greens, which still have natural liquid in them. E.g. freshly cut grass can feel moist to the touch, even after it’s been cut.

Oxygen comes from natural air pockets in the compost. In addition to that, extra oxygen is added to the compost every time it’s mixed. You see, most composting methods require you to frequently mix your browns and greens together. This process, called “aeration”, ensures that oxygen makes its way through the entire compost.

Basic Composting Instructions:

The basics of composting are pretty simple. All you do is mix together the browns and greens. That’s it!

Ok, so there’s a bit more to it than that…

First, gather all your food scraps and yard waste.

For each handful or container of browns you put in the compost, you put an equal amount of greens. So basically, you put 1 part of browns to 1 part of greens.

Now I know that earlier I said the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio is between 24:1 and 30:1, but every piece of organic matter has its own C:N ratio. So instead of doing some crazy composting math for every item you put into the compost, put 1 part carbon to one part nitrogen and you can tweak it as needed. Based on how your compost starts to react, you’ll know if you need more greens or browns in your mixture.

If your compost is too hot or smelly, you’ve got too many greens (aka nitrogen). And if it’s very dry or not heating up at all, then you’ve got too many browns (aka carbon).

Once you’ve got the right ratio of browns and greens in your compost, the organic matter will start to break down into that nutrient-dense compost we’re after. And as long as you stick to the basics of composting I’ve laid out, you’ll be well on your way to having all the fresh compost you could ask for.

Image of a backyard compost bin

It’s really that simple! Well, kind of! The composting process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to a year depending on:

  • Which method you use
  • How accurate your Carbon to Nitrogen ratio is
  • The size of your compost (the bigger it is, the faster it happens)
  • How much heat/moisture/oxygen you have
  • How large or small each piece of organic matter is. e.g. a giant branch will take longer to break down than a small twig

Based on how your compost reacts, you’ll know if you need more greens or browns in your mixture.

A weird list of things you can compost at home:
  • hair
  • nail clippings
  • pet hair
  • coffee filters
  • paper towels
  • food containers made out of paper
  • egg cartons made out of paper
  • snotty tissues
  • cotton q-tips
  • cardboard boxes
Things to avoid putting in your compost at home:
  • eggs (the shells are ok! But avoid the yolks/whites)
  • produce stickers (they won’t break down)
  • meat and dairy (they can entice pests)
  • weeds (they can cause weeds to grow wherever you use your compost)
  • oil (or oil-soaked paper towels)
  • pet waste 💩 (this can create bacteria)
  • glossy paper or paper that has colors printed on it
  • compostable plastic, e.g. a compostable fork (that requires a different method of composting)

The Different Methods of Composting:

There are so many methods of composting, and each one has its own pros and cons. Here’s a quick look at the most common methods:

Backyard Composting:

A man-made trench, pile, or enclosure that is used for composting outdoors. It can be as simple as a pile of browns and greens enclosed with chicken wire or even a simple enclosure made out of scrap wood or cement blocks. Backyard composting is probably the easiest way to compost since it doesn’t require a whole lot of materials.

Using a Compost Tumbler:

A compost tumbler is an enclosed container (made out of metal or plastic) that sits on a stand for easy rotation. Because tumblers are enclosed, they are usually pest-proof, which gives new composters some much-needed peace of mind. Tumblers often have more than one compartment to enable you to process multiple batches of compost at once.

Bokashi Composting:

This method uses fermentation (enzymes) to convert organic matter into compost. The benefit of bokashi composting is that it enables you to process a wider variety of organic matter compared to other home composting options. For example, with Bokashi, you can process things like meat and dairy without worrying about pests or odors.

Vermicomposting (also known as Worm Composting 🪱):

This method uses worms to digest organic matter into finished compost. Essentially, the worms eat the organic matter, digest it, and poop it out 💩. Worm poop = compost! This method is great for people who live in small apartments or those who don’t have access to an outdoor space.

Image of a hands holding some red wiggler composting worms

What is the best method of composting?

That’s a great question and the answer is: it’s different for everyone! You see, each method of composting requires different things. So the real question is: what is the best method of composting for you? Because the answer will be different for you compared to someone who has access to different things.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding which home composting method is best for you:
  • Do you have access to an outdoor space? (this narrows down the types of composting you can do)
  • How do you feel about handling worms? (this decides whether vermicomposting is for you)
  • Would it be better to build or buy your composting vessel?
  • Do you have a local compost collection service in your area?
  • If you have an outdoor space, what level of enclosure would you need to keep animals and pests out?
Image of a woman putting food scraps into a backyard composting bin

Debunking Common Composting Myths:

  • It doesn’t smell
  • It doesn’t attract pests
  • You don’t have to be perfect to get the job done
  • The process takes a while but doesn’t require a lot of prep time

Enough chit-chat! It’s time to compost!!

Take a look around your home and backyard and decide which composting methods are possible for you. Keep in mind that you don’t have to purchase a compost bin. You can build your own! And remember, you can compost even if you live in a small apartment. You just have to get a lil creative (and be ok with worms!) 😛

So go out there and get composting!!!

Conclusion: the basics of composting are…pretty basic!

When you think of putting all of your leftovers into a container to essentially rot for a few months, you probably think it’s gonna be gross. But as long as you give the organic matter enough heat, moisture, and oxygen to break down, and you have a good ratio of browns to greens, there won’t be any funny smells or pests. I promise! The basics of composting are simple and once you get started, you’ll realize just how easy it is. I’m hopeful that this quick intro to composting will get you started on your composting journey.

At the end of the day, the more people we have composting, the better chance we have of preventing all that methane from entering the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter which method you do, as long as you give it a try!

Which method of composting will you choose for starting your home compost?

Image of a bucket of food scraps falling onto a wooden surface
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