Back Yard Composting

Home Composting and Reducing Wasted Food

photo of boy turning a compost pile

Introduction to Composting

Composting at home is relatively easy, even for those who may be unfamiliar with the process. All it takes is a little time, effort and patience.

After plants and animals die, they decompose naturally as bacteria and fungi go to work breaking down the remains. Once decayed, the original material is no longer recognizable and takes the form of a rich, dark, soil-like substance. When humans help this process along it is called composting and the product is called compost. We can help by piling up the materials and making sure there is enough air and water for the microorganisms to quickly break things down.

Why Compost?

  • Composting organic materials such as yard trimmings and food scraps reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or combustion facilities.
  • Adding compost to the soil provides valuable nutrients, improves soil structure, adds beneficial soil micro-organisms and attracts earthworms, suppresses certain plant diseases, reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient run-off.
  • Composting, like recycling, is an easy way to ensure a sustainable future while also giving your plants a boost!

Where to Compost?

  • You can compost in your backyard and in your home! Outdoor composting is as easy as building a compost pile or a bin and adding the right mix of ingredients. Although slightly more challenging, indoor composting is a great alternative for those who live in an urban area or an apartment.

How to Compost?

Outdoors: Compost Piles and Bins

  • Compost piles and bins come in many different shapes and sizes. There is no right one to make or buy, although some have advantages that will suit your specific needs. For instance, a family of six or more might use a three-bin system for their larger volume of waste, while a smaller household may choose to use one or two bins. While a gardener wanting compost fast may choose a rotating drum.
  • For a comprehensive list of compost bins, complete with pictures, their pros and cons, and instructions on how to build them, check out Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute guidance document on “Bin Designs.” (bottom of this page)
  • You can make a compost bin or a compost pile on your own, but if you’d rather buy a bin there are many kinds of options available. Check out your local hardware store or do some research on-line!

There are many ways to manage food scraps and yard waste at home. Here are some backyard basics:

  1. Composting: obtain a composting bin from your local hardware store or order one on-line (there are several different types & sizes to choose from). You can also build your own using pallets or scrap wood and wire mesh. Once you get your bin set up, mix 1 part food scraps (known as “Greens”) with 3 parts dried yard waste (known as “Browns”). This will eventually produce rich compost for your garden.
  2. Feed Your Chickens: This is probably the easiest and most entertaining way to manage your food scraps. Chickens love leftovers. If you do not have chickens, consider bringing your food scraps to someone who does.

Indoors: Vermicomposting

  • Through indoor vermicomposting worms, usually Red Wigglers, break down organic material. This kind of composting works well in urban environments or apartments. As the worms tunnel through the composting material, they create air channels allowing the air to get into the center of the bin. Red wigglers are attracted to food odors and eat the degrading food and microorganisms, which reduces potential odors coming from the bin.

Compost Ingredients

  • Food – A good working compost pile has a mixture of high nitrogen, moist materials called “greens” and drier, carbon-rich materials called “browns”.
    • Greens include food scraps (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and old bread), fresh grass clippings, fresh weeds and manure.
    • Browns include fallen leaves, dry weeds, shredded paper, wood chips and straw. Add greens and browns in layers.
    • Every time you add food scraps, cover them with browns or with partially degraded materials to deter unwanted creatures from your compost pile or bin.
  • Microorganisms – Bacteria and fungi do most of the work in a compost pile. They eat the food and turn it into compost. Having enough food, air and moisture will help the microorganisms to thrive.
  • Air – Compost microorganisms need oxygen! While not necessary, turning (or mixing) the pile twice a month will add more air and speed up breakdown.
  • Moisture – Composting works best with the right amount of moisture. If the pile is too wet, add some leaves, shredded newspaper or sawdust. If it’s too dry, add some water. How do you know if the pile is too dry or too wet? Take a handful of material from the center of the pile and squeeze it. Just a few drops should come out

What Can’t I Compost at Home?

  • NO meat, fish, poultry, bones, or fatty foods such as cheese and oils. These attract animals and do not compost well in a home system. If you manage your food scraps at home, you don’t have to include meat and bones; you can place those in the trash. Animals are less likely to bother compost piles that do not have meat and bones in it so if you are worried that your compost will attract animals, do not include meat and bones.
  • NO dairy products. They attract animals and do not compost well in a home system.
  • NO cat litter or dog feces. These materials may contain disease organisms that remain after composting.

How to Use Compost

  • Compost has many uses around the home. It is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly, and smells earthy. This usually takes 6 months to one year.
  • Gardens and Lawns- Mix it into the garden soil or sprinkle it on the lawn to improve moisture retention and soil texture and add beneficial microorganisms and nutrients.
  • Prior to adding compost to the lawn it is best to screen it with a ½ inch mesh or smaller.
  • Landscaping – Use it around garden beds, trees or shrubs as a mulch.
  • House Plants – Use 1/2 to 1/3 of your container volume instead of soil.

Trouble Shooting Your Compost Pile

Problem Cause Solution
The Pile Smells Too many “greens” Add more browns and turn the pile
Not enough air Turn the pile
Too much water Add dry browns and turn the pile

(Just a few drops should come out when you squeeze a handful of the partly degraded composting material.)

The Pile Isn’t Doing Anything Pile is too small Increase the size of the pile and add more material.
Too wet/not enough air Turn the pile, add more browns.
There are too many browns Add more greens and mix in.
The Pile Freezes in the Winter Pile too small and not insulated Increase the size of the pile and add more material. Add a layer of browns around the bin as insulation.
Flies are on top of the Pile Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Animals are Attracted to the Bin Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Bin is not Animal Resistant Use 1/2 inch hardware cloth around the bin.



Designs for Composting Systems


Easy guide to backyard composting