Turn over a new leaf (and some old ones) this spring by starting a compost pile. It’s a gift that keeps on giving to your garden—and the Earth. Here's how and why you should compost.

By Gary Thompson
April 22, 2020
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Composting gives you superhero powers—you can help save the Earth without leaving your kitchen or backyard. But the process itself is simple: Pick a spot for a bin or pile and start adding “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials) and “browns” (carbon-rich materials). In time, nature breaks these down into a soil builder that helps your flowers, veggies and lawn grow.

Marty Baldwin

Why Compost?

Slice food waste Tons of leftovers end up in landfills and incinerators. Composting kitchen scraps instead of tossing them means there’s less food waste to haul away, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

Prune yard waste Yard waste is about 13 percent of the solid waste stream. Composting cuts your yard waste volume by 50 to 75 percent, saving landfill space—and saving you money on bags and collection fees.

Slow the flow Composting recycles nutrients into the soil, so there’s less need for chemical fertilizers. Compost also helps soil retain moisture, so you water less. And nutrients in compost are less likely to wash away when it rains.

What Can You Put in a Compost Pile?

Gather brown and green materials. And know what to leave out.
Marty Baldwin

Browns Brown materials include dried plant matter and leaves; shredded tree branches, cardboard or newspaper; hay or straw; and wood shavings.

Greens These include green leaves, fresh grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps, manure from herbivores, coffee grounds, tea leaves, eggshells, and pet hair or fur.

No-nos Skip manure from omnivores or carnivores (like dogs and cats); wood from walnut, black locust, or redwood trees; meat and bones; diseased plants; seeded weeds; and treated lumber.

The Recipe for Compost

Adjoining bins hold a "still cooking" pile and this garden-ready compost.
Marty Baldwin

Let nature do the cooking. All you do is provide a few simple ingredients—and stir occasionally.

Air Microbes need oxygen to do their job, so turn your pile with a pitchfork every few days (at least once a week) or insert an aerator tool.

Water Reach your hand into the pile and squeeze—it should feel damp. Too wet? Add more browns. Too dry? Add greens or spray the pile with water.

Heat When it’s fed the right mix of green and brown materials, water, and air, a compost heap starts to “cook,” heating internally to 130°–140°F.

Ready to Use

Black Gold When your compost pile look less like the original ingredients and more like dark, humus-rich soil, it’s ready to use. For best results, start building your pile by mixing three parts brown with one part green materials. It’s totally OK to eyeball the 3-to-1 ratio—no need to measure. In fact, you may find a slightly different mixture works better for your site.

Marty Baldwin

Compost Myths: Busted

So you’re still skeptical, even cynical about composting. We get it. This is for you.

Compost Smells Bad Not if you do it right. Unless you’re adding no-nos, your pile should smell like garden soil. If it does stink, it’s probably too green and wet. Mix in more browns and aerate more often.

It Attracts Pests If you mistakenly add meat, fish, fat, bones or dairy products to the pile, it will draw critters. Otherwise, a bin with a lid, slatted sides and hardware cloth (or a bin that is fully enclosed) deters all but the tiniest guests.

It’s Too Much Work There’s not much actual labor involved. If you’d rather not turn a pile with a shovel or pitchfork, buy a tumbler-type bin with an easy-to-turn handle.

It Takes Too Long The process does take from a few weeks to several months. Speed it up by stirring your pile more often to aerate it. Keeping smaller contents (like cut-up banana peels) in the pile helps too.

I Don’t Have A Yard Doesn’t matter. You can compost entirely in doors with a kitchen bin. If you can’t use the finished product in houseplants or containers, share with friends or neighbors who do have gardens. In some cities, you can drop off your uncomposted food scraps at farmers markets.

What About Winter? Don’t let the cold and snow stop you. Save up compostables in containers on a porch, deck or patio until there’s a break in the weather, then take them out to a backyard pile. By spring you’ll have a head start on gardening season.

Build or Buy

Buy a simple wood compost bin or make your own from wood slats or wood pallets screwed together. When choosing a spot for the bin, aim for partial shade. Full sun will dry out the compost pile, while too much shade can keep it from heating up properly.

Marty Baldwin

Editor Picks

Store a small kitchen compost bin under the sink or on the counter for easy access. Stylish versions abound, including this one, made from bamboo fiber. A replaceable charcoal filter cuts odor. $40. bamboozlehome.com

Keep the look of your outdoor bin natural, clean-lined and simple. Greenes Fence Cedar Composter Bin. $130. walmart.com