(Linda Zhou for Radiant Life)

Composting for Beginners

In gardening, composting is important and beneficial to the plants and flowers you grow, to the environment, as you are reducing your waste footprint, and to society at large, as composting dates back at least 12,000 years. There are things you should compost and things you shouldn’t —and learning the difference is important.

The benefits of composting include reducing certain food wastes that would end up in landfills, fertilizing and improving your garden soil, growing healthier flowers and more nutritious foods, and potentially saving money in the process.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that “in 2018, 2.6 million tons of food (4.1 percent of wasted food) was composted.” The agency further states that in 2018, “Americans recovered over 69 million tons of MSW [municipal solid waste] through recycling, and almost 25 million tons through composting.”

Compost begins with not discarding your kitchen scraps. (Lenka Dzurendova/Unsplash)

What Is Composting, and Why Should You Do It?

Composting is simply taking fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps, and things like coffee grounds and tea leaves, and putting them in a pile in your yard, or in a composting barrel. You can add grass clippings and dead leaves, then let nature get to work breaking down the materials you’ve added to your compost pile.

As the scraps break down, compost becomes nutrient-rich, inviting insects, worms, and beneficial bacteria to live and grow, which further breaks down the materials and enriches your compost pile. In time, you’ll have a fertilizer-like product you can add to your vegetable and flower beds that will improve the soil, add nutrients to your foods, and keep your garden beds producing year after year.

However, compost is not fertilizer. The simplest way to distinguish between compost and fertilizer is to remember this: Compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.

Whatever you add to your compost pile will become the nutrients your garden will use to grow healthier foods. Instead of buying a bag of carrots or a few tomatoes—produce that might have been sprayed with pesticides, or sat on a truck for a week as it made its way to your store—now you can pick and prepare your food the same day. There is no loss of nutrition or taste, and you know what went into each vegetable (and more importantly, what did not go into it).

What Can Be Composted?

Now that we know what composting is and why it’s a good idea, let’s talk about what we should and shouldn’t include in our compost piles. Most of the fruit and vegetable scraps in your kitchen can be composted. Things that you shouldn’t add to your compost pile include meat (cooked or raw), dairy and cheese products, fat, grease, and oil of any kind, and cooked foods such as rice and bread.

Here is a small list of items that can be easily incorporated into your compost pile. All vegetable and fruit waste, even moldy pieces—cores, peels, pits, rinds, and skins—can be composted.

  • Coffee grounds and filters
  • Loose-leaf tea and tea bags
  • Corn husks
  • Eggshells that have been rinsed and crushed
  • Expired spices
  • Flowers from bouquets
  • Juicer pulp
  • Shredded, ink-free unbleached paper and cardboard
  • Healthy household plant clippings and leaves
Rinsed egg shells are among the things you can safely add to your compost pile. (Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash)

Starting a Compost Pile: Do’s and Don’ts

You only need a few tools to start your compost pile. If you want to increase your chances of having a successful pile, you can buy a few things that can help move it along.

For starters, buy a small container that you can keep in your kitchen to hold food scraps; this will encourage you to sort your compostable garbage and reduce the frequency of your compost pile visits. It can be any small container, but its size will partly determine how often you empty it out onto your pile. Many products offer various features, but you don’t need anything fancy to get started—just a container with a lid in which you can deposit your scraps until you move them outside.

If you want to have usable compost sooner, one option is to add a compost activator, which speeds up the decomposition process by adding nitrogen to your pile.

A successful compost pile is a careful balance of dry, brown items containing carbon, such as dead leaves, and wet, green matter containing nitrogen, such as food scraps. An equal one-to-one ratio of these materials works best. Make sure to regularly mix your compost pile, so that air can get in and help the decomposition process.

You can also break down your waste materials ahead of time to help things along, by blending your scraps or chopping them into smaller bits before adding them to your compost pile, as doing so will also speed the transformation from waste to compost.

A compost pile is a valuable resource for a beginning gardener. It takes a bit of time and the development of new habits, but the benefits are truly numerous. You can actively reduce the amount of waste going into landfills while recycling your own garbage in the best possible way—by composting it and putting it right back into your garden to nourish your flowers and veggies and grow healthy food for years to come.