Composting is not as scary as people think, and it's not smelly. I started composting a couple years ago when I moved back to California. At school we had a green waste that was at first a composter then later turned into pig feed over the years but it still was a green way to eliminate the food waste. Especially in a kitchen, there can be a lot of waste in the production of what we eat every day and moving home I knew I'd still be producing a lot of kitchen waste and wanted a greener way to deal with it.
First let's step back and talk about the two ways we get rid of food. Most people probably toss their food into the trash where it is shipped off to landfill. In this environment the organic material that we eat starts to break down naturally on the surface of the landfill but as more and more trash is collected it gets covered and compacted. Once the organic material is covered, the good bacteria that helps break it down can not survive without oxygen and a new bacteria comes in. This one doesn't use oxygen but produces a lot of methane and carbon dioxide. Both green house gases that are damaging to the atmosphere. If food waste was it's own country it would be the third largest emitter of green hose gases, behind China and the United States.**
Instead of sending organic materials like food waste to landfill we can compost it and allow the good bacteria or even worms to full break it down. I have seen a lot of places, cities, and companies move into this greener method and some cities even have laws going into place to help guide people into a better lifestyle. If you are interested in starting a composter at home it's super easy and you can follow what I do myself.
What you can Compost
Before we get started on how to get a composter together, let's talk about what you can compost. In terms of kitchen and yard waste there are two types: Green material and Brown Material. You need a nice mixture of both to keep the worms happy and your compost in the best shape for use in gardening. Typically it's about 2-3 times the amount of brown material to green material.
Green Materials are things that are rich in nitrogen. This is where a lot from the kitchen will fall into. Green materials include:
- coffee grounds and used tea leaves
- vegetable and fruit scrapes (no onions or garlic, save those for stock!)
- grass clippings
- egg shells
- trimmings from the garden
Brown Materials are things rich in carbon. These will help keep your compost working well and adding bulk. It will also help aerate the pile more. Brown materials include:
- egg cartons (not plastic or styrofoam ones)
- coffee filters
- fallen leaves and pine needles
There are a few other things that you can compost but I find them to be hard to compost using worms and need a hot compost pile full of active bacteria. They do exist in compost piles but are not that active and don't break things down as fast.
There are also a few things you really can't compost. Yes they are organic materials but they will be hard to break down and can easily get smelly. They will also be the ones that will attract other bugs and pests like rats. For that reason I leave them out of my compost. These items include:
- fat and oil
- animal proteins
- animal waste
- animal bones
- onion and garlic scrapes (these get smelly and attract pest, check out my other post about stock to see what you can do with these besides just throw away!)
How to Start Composting at Home
You will need:
- soil (I used old soil from pots and some fresh gardening soil that had good drainage)
- Green Material
- Brown Material
- Red Wiggler Worms (you can find them online or at bait shops. I have only found them at the fishing section of some Walmarts)
First you need to find a place to build your composter. I have a small 2 foot by 4 foot area on the side of the house that I use. It is gravel so it already came with a nice buffer for water drainage. I also already had some extra bricks in the back yard to mark off the space I was using but you don't have to do this. Personally it's more for show and to help contain everything so I don't spread it out too much.
So there's a place to compost, how are we going to do this? First you need worms. Red Wriggler Worms, they are the ones that compost. You can get them online and some places sell them. Where I live I found them at one place, Walmart. I hate shopping there but they do have the worms I needed. I started with about 100 worms. The more you need to compost the more you should have. As you compost and if you keep them happy they will stay as needed and have babies. If there gets to be too many, some will leave but they also will go away if you are not taking proper care of the pile as well. Typically I can see anywhere from 10-20 worms on top after turning the pile. If I see less I will get another cup of worms which is about 30 worms. I have had to get new worms a few times. The biggest turn off for the worms is dry piles. California has hot dry summers and keeping up day to day is rough. I'll talk more about watering the compost pile later on.
So worms in hand, you need to build a pile. I started with about 2 inches of soil from some pots in the yard just to have a base. Then I layered brown and green material. As I layered I would water what was dry so that it was damp but not dripping wet. Every few layers I would add a little sprinkle of soil to give the worms something to get around by. Once I had a good amount of waste in the pile I sprinkled the worms over and covered it with a thin layer of soil.
Once I had a pile together I gave it a good soaking of water to make sure everything was wet then let it stay for a couple weeks before I began adding to it and turning it regularly. This first couple weeks allows the worms to kind of get used to their new environment and let the process start going on it's own. After the time is up there will be daily work to do. During winter months it's less work but there is a little up keep. During the summer is when it's the most work.
Compost Maintenance and Care
So you have a compost pile, you are making kitchen waste, what do you need to do to keep this thing going. Composting is a small part time job that you add to your home schedule. It needs to be turned regularly to keep the various additions moving to be broken down. It will also need watering depending on weather and time of year.
My pile is in a spot that doesn't get a lot of sun so that it won't dry out as fast, but I am in California currently and our summers are dry AF and that makes it a little harder. I water my pile daily in the summer months to keep it damp and going, if I forget to water it just a couple days the top few inches dry out and there is not break down of anything in those parts. The bottom center of the pile will hang onto water for a long time but that limits the area the worms can be and if too many end up down there some will leave or die. On the other hand, during the winter my pile barely needs water. This also depends on the year since some years we get more rain and others we don't. Rule of thumb is always water if the top dries out.
You also want to turn your pile regularly with a shovel or pitch fork. This will help move the more active lower sections up and the less active parts on top down. The more you add and the more active it is during the warmer months you'll need to do this daily. I get by turning it every few days in the winter thought. On that note let's discuss winter. California and other areas that don't get below freezing need to take care of their compost year round. If the weather drops below freezing you need to cover your pile. At first with a tarp and if It keeps getting colder even a blanket. You don't want the warms to freeze! I have very little experience at this point on colder climates so as I learn more and experiment in different ares I live I will make adjustments.
A few times a year I also like to do a full flip where I move everything to one side and put all the stuff on top at the bottom and all the good broken down compost on top to nurture more activity. This is also they time I will take to add more brown material. Since I add mostly green material I need to actively add some brown once in a while so that it stays at the right ratio. I use a lot of eggs at home so all those cartons come in handy during these times.
And that's about it. I know this is a lot of information. It's not something you will remember and get right all the time. Refer back to this as much as you need to get going. At the end of the day, just remember that this is a natural process. Earth has been doing this for millions of years. Throw some dirt on it and let the nature take its course. If you ever have a question feel free to leave a comment or reach out on the contact page. Also leave any thoughts or things that you have tried at home!
* Disclaimer: this is my way of composting at home and has worked for me for over 2 years. There are many other forms of composting that also work and I hope to one day try them and get more information about them specifically but those can come later.