How to Start A Compost at Home

Jess Ann Kirby shares how to start an at-home compost.

Illustration by Shore Creative

Approximately 95% of food scraps in the US are thrown away and end up in landfills. Composting is an easy way to divert those scraps, which when tossed into a landfill generates methane gas (harmful greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming), and turns them into something useful. I know many of you are interested in composting, and truthfully it’s really not as hard as it may seem. My goal is to get you started. There are many ways to compost, the amount of space you have and where you live will dictate the type of composting you can do. This post is mainly based on our experience composting in a suburban area with a yard. If you’re in an apartment in a city this won’t work for you, but I’ve included some resources and information for that as well.

Getting started

We use a compost bin with a locking lid (to keep animals out) that has ventilation to allow air to move through the composter and help speed up the composting process. Our bin also has no bottom, so the pile starts on the ground. This allows beneficial organisms and worms to aerate the compost.

Start with twigs or straw on the bottom layer which will help with drainage. You want to create a compost with layers alternating moist and dry materials, this will result in having to turn the pile less. Moist ingredients are things like food scraps and grass while dry ingredients include brown leaves, sawdust etc.

What You Need

Indoor Compost Bin (not required but nice to have on the kitchen counter or outside the door if your compost pile isn’t close to the house)
Outdoor Compost Bin (make sure you put it in an area that gets enough sun as you want your pile to be hot)
Pitchfork or Compost Aerator
Compost Starter (not required but can be beneficial)

What To Put in Your Compost

Vegetable peelings
Fruit waste
Teabags
Plant prunings
Grass cuttings
Coffee grounds and filters (unbleached is ideal)
Leaves
Sawdust (needs to be mixed or scattered thinly to avoid clumping. Sawdust must be clean-no machine or chain oil residues from cutting equipment).
Newspaper (shredding will aid in composting process)

What Not to Compost

Meat
Bones
Fish scraps
Perennial weeds or diseased plants
Pet manures (if you plan to use compost on food crops).
Banana and citrus peels (organic or not, peels may contain pesticide residues and generally shouldn’t be put into compost). We scrub our peels really well if planning to put them into our compost pile. I add banana peels directly to the soil underneath my roses rather than adding to the compost because we use it for food planting.

Some additional tips

Your compost pile needs to be moist but not soaked. If it needs it you can water occasionally but typically rain will do the job. We have our compost bin under a tree but it gets plenty of light and sun throughout the day.

It can help to turn your pile every once in a while with a pitchfork, though we rarely turn ours and it still turns out fine. Last year we added a lot of sawdust which helped create the perfect pile and required little turning up until right before we were ready to use it.

When your compost is ready will depend on a number of factors but typically anywhere from 2-4 months is a realistic timeline. Our compost was ready towards the end of the summer last year (we started in the spring), so this year we plan to save it for the end of growing season, when we will add it to our raised beds and then cover it with cardboard so we’ll have rich and nutrient soil for the following year.

Composting in a City

For those of you that want to compost but live in a city there are several options available. This list is not comprehensive but the best information I could find available. If you happen to live in a city and have additional suggestions or information please share in the comments!

Municipal composting: Many cities have programs similar to recycling where the sanitation department will provide a small bin to keep inside and a larger to keep outside which get picked up weekly. San Francisco has a mandatory composting program. Similar programs exist in PortlandSeattle, New York City. Washington, DC has a free food waste drop off program.

This is another list of compost collection programs in cities around the country.

Worm bins: These require a little more work but can be done indoors and don’t take up a lot of space. Here is a step by step guide for getting started.

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7 Comments

  1. Carolyn wrote:

    I have just started composting! Since I do not garden and have a black thumb, I wanted to reduce our trash but had no need for the composted soil. I live in Charlotte NC, and there’s a company that is similar to the city programs you describe above. As a member, you can always buy soil from them, but they also donate to community programs that teach and encourage healthy living. I love it!

    6.19.19 | Reply
  2. Christina wrote:

    If you live in Philadelphia, check out Circle Compost (https://www.circlecompost.com/). They give you a bin to put your compost items in and pick them up every other week!

    6.19.19 | Reply
  3. Julie wrote:

    The city of Boston has just launched a pilot program with five community compost bins open to the public:
    https://www.boston.gov/departments/environment/project-oscar.
    Bootstrap Compost is a company that will give you a five-gallon compost bucket, with pick-up service at your door, and soil in return! http://www.bootstrapcompost.com

    6.19.19 | Reply
    • Lia wrote:

      Thanks for posting this Julie! I just moved to Boston and was looking for a way to compost. I looked at the Project Oscar locations and there is one RIGHT by me, so you bet I will be dropping off my compost there!

      7.4.19 | Reply
  4. Sarah wrote:

    City of Denver has a composting program! They give you a small indoor bin and a large outdoor bin and they pick up weekly with your trash service. I believe it’s $30 every 3 months

    6.19.19 | Reply
  5. Shannon wrote:

    LOVE THIS POST! I am in San Francisco and your list of what to compost and what not is very helpful. Thank you for sharing <3 x Shannon • http://www.essellesse.com

    6.19.19 | Reply
  6. I live in the New York metropolitan area and I have been composting my food scraps for a few years in my backyard garden. I use a tumbling composter (the easiest and most efficient way to compost), a worm factory and a garden tower. If you want to compost with worms, a garden tower is the best solution. You don’t need to stress about their temperature and humidity, plus, it’s a great way to garden vertically. I collect all food scraps in a pretty pail on the kitchen counter. We are two people and typically I only have to empty the pail once a week.

    6.20.19 | Reply