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A beginner's guide to composting at home

Turn trash scraps into soil gold

A brother and sister of color add food scraps to a large green compost bin Credit: Getty Images / Renata Angerami

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How to deal with green waste—food leftovers—is something that all Californians are having to consider in 2022 now that Senate Bill 1383, which requires that residents work toward reducing organic waste in landfills, i.e. they must compost, is in effect.

But, whether you live in California or not, composting is a practice that has steadily been gaining followers for years, and has especially blossomed during the pandemic.

David Ellerby, Reviewed's chief scientist and a biology PhD, says, “There’s no downside to composting. The raw materials are free, you help the environment, make your garden or houseplants healthier, spend less on compost or trash disposal, and, if you use worms to help, wind up with hundreds of low-maintenance pets.”

For those who are new to composting, it's hard to know where to start. The good news is that composting isn’t just for the garden-savvy. As long as you understand the basics, you can easily turn food and yard scraps into treasure.

What is compost?

At its core, composting is the process of breaking down organic material to create rich, valuable soil, called compost, which works to build depleted soil back into a thriving ecosystem. One obvious benefit is the impact on soil for gardening—the nutrient-packed soil will allow your flowers and produce thrive.

Composting also proves to be a sustainable waste solution, too. Composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, and other air quality pollutants. But how does this happen? You simply collect your household's organic waste, including eggshells, veggie peels, and more, and recycle them into a composting bin or system instead of tossing them into your garbage with stuff that's headed to the dump.

Michelle Balz, author of Composting for a New Generation, says, “About a third of the garbage that we create can be composted. Just by taking care of that by yourself, you’re reducing the amount of garbage that decomposes anaerobically [in the landfill], which means it’s creating methane, which is a strong greenhouse gas.”

How to compost

What you’ll need

Step 1: Choose your method

A person holds a small bowl of vegetable scraps over a compost bin
Credit: Getty Images / Daisy-Daisy

If you have a yard, outdoor composting can be the most efficient method.

First, evaluate whether indoor or outdoor composting will work better for you—this greatly depends on the kind of outdoor space you have. If you have a yard, outdoor composting can be the most efficient method. This allows for options like open composting, which works with the soil you already have in your backyard.

This isn’t to say that indoor composting isn’t a great option—in fact, it's ideal for anyone living in an apartment or those composting during colder winter months.

Vermicomposting—aka worm composting—is a popular type of indoor composting, which involves adding what’s known as red worms (or red wigglers) to your bin. Pros say these red worms can do wonders in helping break down your pile.

Balz says, “They’ll eat nearly half their body weight in food scraps.”

Step 2: Select the right bin

The key to good compost is adequate aeration and moisture. A compost bin or composter should be able to provide both. Air and moisture are key elements in keeping the creatures living in your compost happy, allowing them to help decompose the matter.

To start, you'll need to have a compost bin outside your home. For first-timers, there’s nothing wrong with going for something simple, like a traditional bin that sits right on the ground and can interact with the soil of your backyard.

If you’re open to a more advanced option, a batch composter can speed up the process and keep the mixture protected from the elements and pests. Keep in mind, you’ll need to check in with this type of bin frequently to ensure the soil remains moist.

So that you don't have to bring your food scraps outside every time you make a meal, you can use a special countertop compost bin, or simply stick with a stainless steel bowl, a bucket, or a small trash can to contain the scraps temporarily until you empty it into your outdoor composter. A big rule of thumb for inside is to make sure you have some sort of covering or lid for the bin to contain any odors and prevent a fruit fly infestation.

If vermicomposting sounds like something you want to take a crack at, you can secure a worm composter and some red wigglers for use inside your home.

If you’re ready to go all-in and have the time and energy to expend some DIY energy, try building your own compost bin. Large storage containers or trash cans are a great option for the outdoors—you just need to drill or puncture holes throughout the container to maintain that healthy aeration.

Step 3: Compile your materials

When it comes to the materials you can toss into your compost, you’ll want to have a healthy mix of “green” and “brown” organic matter. Green matter includes food waste that’s high in nitrogen, while brown matter includes outdoor scraps that are high in carbon.

Striking the balance of green and brown matter is what makes a successful compost pile. Balz says, “The biggest mistake that people make is that they don’t balance their food scraps [green matter] with brown material like leaves.”

There are also items that should never be composted, because they can attract pests and even introduce diseases into the soil.

Use:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Plant and grass clippings, including houseplants
  • Yard waste, including dry leaves and branches
  • Cardboard or paper without color
  • Nutshells
  • Hay and straw
  • Wood chips

Don’t use:

  • Meat, fish, or eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Oils or greases
  • Human or animal feces, including litter
  • Diseased plants
  • Coal or charcoal
  • Any yard waste treated with chemicals or pesticides

Step 4: Build and maintain your compost

A close up view of layered dirt and vegetable scraps
Credit: Getty Images / RyanJLane

When you're building a compost pile, create layers upon layers of brown and green matter for the best results.

When it comes time to build your compost bin from scratch, it's great to get started with brown matter first. This will create a solid base. Balz says, “Start with a foot or two of leaves in the bin—shredding them up and making them smaller will make them decompose faster.”

Next, layer on your green matter, including your food scraps, coffee grounds, and other waste that’s OK to add.

Continue to create layers upon layers of brown and green matter until you get a healthy pile going. Balz recommends burying your food scraps when layering to prevent attracting fruit flies and creating a strong odor.

As for keeping and caring for your compost, maintenance is pretty minimal. You’ll want to mix it up every few days to keep that aeration flowing throughout. Use any shovel or pitchfork to shake and blend it. While mixing, be sure to check on moisture levels as well—if the compost feels like it’s lacking moisture, feel free to carefully add water to the mix.

A final, finished compost product can take anywhere from a few months to one year to create. Be patient, and don’t be afraid to experiment until you get it right.

Balz says, “Any experienced gardener will tell you compost is worth its weight in gold. It is quite expensive [to buy], but you can make it yourself with the garbage you’re creating every day.”

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