Everything You Need To Know About Composting

A Beginners Guide: Everything You Need To Know About Composting

Composting is an easy way to get rid of food scraps. According to an article written by the University of Illinois, composting may go back as far as the Ancient Roman era. Since then, it has become a world-wide method of recycling organic material.

Traces of composting were also found on ancient clay writings known as "cuneiform," in the form of drawings and contract books. These tablets also depicted the physical composter bins.

Throughout the article you're about to read, we'll go over the fundamentals of composting starting with its history and ending with how to create your compost bin. In between, there are fun facts and a fun feature about a unique bird who uses composting for survival.

The History Of Composting

After the Romans had died off, humans continued to compost. In North America, Native Americans and Europeans who settled on the continent reaped the benefits of composters. New England farmers often made their compost by making a recipe of 10 parts muck to 1 part fish, occasionally turning the compost piles until the fish completely disintegrated.

In 1905, a British agronomist named Sir Albert Howard went to India and returned home after 30 years of gardening experience, some of which included compost. The organic composting system that he came back with is now known as the Indore System.

Indore method of compsting

A short while later, J.I Rodale introduced the Indore System to modern Americans, and the practice took off.

Since then, composting has been industrialized, and machines have been created to do the work.

The Process Of Composting

Before we get into how to compost, we should talk about how composting works.

The process starts with bacteria that breaks down organic matter such as vegetable and fruit scraps. The bacteria turn scraps into carbon dioxide and heat. The heat that they produce is then used to jump start the rest of the composting process.

Simple bacteria start off the process, but as heat rises within the compost pile, so does the number of bacteria. Eventually, the collection is full of complex microorganisms, and the temperature will fall between 100 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

For outdoor compost bins, critters such as worms, slugs, and insects will also eat the decomposing scraps and then expel the finished compost back into the pile. These secretions improve the quality of the compost.

What To Put In A Compost Bin

According to the Cornell Waste Management Institute, anything that was previously living can be composted. Kitchen scraps like fruits and vegetables and yard waste such as fallen leaves and grass clippings make great compost. Livestock bedding like hay and straw can be composted after it has been soiled with animal waste (as long as the animal in question hasn’t consumed any chemicals), as the waste contains helpful bacteria.

Animal manure can also be composted, and so can household items like tea bags, paper, eggshells, and coffee grounds.

putting vegetable into compost

What Not To Put In A Compost Bin

Grass clippings and yard waste that have been treated with pesticides or chemicals should not be used in the compost bin. Weeds that have an abundance of seeds are good to avoid, as the seeds may not decompose.

Animal manure that may contain chemicals should be avoided because the chemicals may prevent the manure from decomposing. Meat scraps such as fish and poultry shouldn’t be composted, either, as they can give off odors and attract unwanted visitors to your compost pile.

Plants with growing root systems such as spider plants, crabgrass, and ivy might not decompose in the compost pile, either. Plants like this are often too hardy to be killed off just by composting.

Insects And Compost

An outdoor compost pile can contain a plethora of tiny creatures that help with the composting process.

Small, transparent worms known as "nematodes” are abundant in compost piles- one handful of decaying compost can contain upwards of several million worms, and one Apple is thought to contain up to 9 million! These worms, when under a microscope, appear to be as thick as a human hair.

Mites are also found in compost and are the second most abundant creature. Some mites can be seen with the naked eye, while others are too small.

Springtails are distinguished by their jumping capabilities and can be seen jumping when the compost pile is disturbed. They tend to eat the plants within the compost pile but are also known to eat nematodes.

insects used for composting

Earthworms are well known for living in compost. They tunnel through piles and allow the compost to receive fresh air, water, and nutrients. Earthworms are essential players in composting, as they eat nearly everything and have special chemicals in their gut that break down compost materials.

Slugs and snails handle plant matter that gets tossed in the compost. Millipedes also eat plant matter.

Sow bugs are plump-bodied bugs that eat decaying vegetation. They have gills on their underbodies that need to be kept moist, and they are very slow moving creatures.

Flies live their premature lives in compost piles as maggots, who by tunneling, provide aeration to compost heaps. As adults fly to aid in breaking down vegetation.

Centipedes thrive in compost piles but not because of the vegetation. They thrive off of eating the other inhabitants of the compost pile such as worms, beetles, and mites.

Compost Odor

As a rule of thumb, a compost pile should never smell. If it does, there is more likely a problem within the stack. Reasons that your compost may smell include the following.

Excess Moisture

If the pile is too wet, the bacteria that break down the waste can’t do their jobs, and the result is a decaying smell and rot.

Too Much Vegetation

Composting uses a lot of vegetation, but there can be too much in the compost pile. Having too much vegetation in your collection results in the excess greens being matted down, and decaying instead of decomposing. In addition to being smelly, this can lead to your pile becoming soggy.

huge pile of smelly compost

Meat And Dairy

Although meat technically can be composted, you should avoid composting it. Meat creates odors when it decays, and so does dairy. Often, meat and dairy will begin to deteriorate sooner than they decompose.

How To Remedy Compost Odor

To Fix a Wet Compost Pile:

  • Turn the compost - Turning the compost will aerate it and allow it to dry out, and will also supply bacteria with oxygen to get them working again.
  • Add "browns" - Browns are carbon-rich materials like straw and shredded newspaper. Mix a brown in thoroughly, and the pile should dry up.
  • Cover the pile - If the moisture problem is due to rain or poor weather, cover the compost pile up and allow it to dry.

To Remedy Too Many Greens:

  • Add browns the same way as above, making sure to mix well.

General Composting Rules

Here are some rules you should follow to get the best out of your compost bin:​

Mix Green And Brown

To create a successful compost pile, mix “greens” (moist vegetation) and “browns” (dry bedding). A harmonious combination of the two should balance each other out and help the pile avoid turning soggy or stinky.

Mixing greens and browns for composting

Smaller Is Better

This doesn't mean fewer materials - it means preparing the largest materials before composting them. Composting goes more smoothly if the pieces of compost are smaller before going into the bin. Chop, shred and cut large pieces before adding them.

Smaller pieces make it easier for worms and insects to digest the material, speeding up the process.


Turn the compost on a regular basis. This allows for proper aeration which is essential to composting and maintaining the appropriate moisture levels within the compost bin.

Monitor Moisture

An overly wet compost bin won’t get the job done, but neither will an overly dry one. For the compost bin to work to its full potential, the moisture level within it must be to certain standards. The compost shouldn’t be soggy, and it shouldn’t be bone dry.

Damp is usually the best option.

Finished Compost Is Earthy Compost

Finished compost appears to be a dark brown color and crumbly. There should be no smell, and the compost should not be overly wet.

Compost Shouldn’t Smell Like Anything

Finished compost shouldn’t smell like anything- especially decay or rot. A finished compost that has been done properly will have little to no smell. If it does smell, it should smell of dirt.

A Bird That Creates Compost

The Australian Brush-turkey builds its compost piles to incubate its eggs. The piles that they create heat up to about 92 degrees Fahrenheit. The bird's compost nest generates 20 times more heat than an adult brush-turkey's body does, therefore, can incubate more eggs.

Around the winter solstice, male brush-turkeys will begin to prepare nests for females. He may create a new mound, or tend to an old one.

Pair of brush turkeys

The birds don’t simply make the nest and then leave it, however. They initially tend to the compost nest by mixing in or removing the necessary materials. After the temperature of the nest has been regulated, the nest needs very little tending and can be left for weeks at a time without tune ups.

Once the turkeys mate, it’s up to the male to take care of the nest.

The male brush-turkey takes care of the nest, monitoring and adjusting the temperature as he sees fit. He does this by inserting his beak into the compost pile to gauge the temperature. Compost nests are re-used every year.

The largest compost nests are found on Kangaroo Island, in Southern Australia. The average nest size here is 12.7 meters in height and 6,800 kg in weight.

Indoor Composting

Indoor composting is also called vermicomposting and is perfect for composting in small spaces such as under the sink or in a spare bedroom. Most indoor composting systems utilize worms. Indoor systems aren't meant to handle yard waste, as they aren't big enough.

Worm Method

Earthworms aren’t sufficient for indoor systems. Instead, invest in redworms. Redworms will eat nearly every kitchen scrap, as long as you’re sure to bury them beneath the soil of the compost bin.

Redworms can be purchased online. They may also be found by checking a local fishing and hunting store, as they are a popular bait choice.

redworms that can be used for composting

Bokashi Method

Bokashi means “fermented organic matter” in Japanese.

The Bokashi method of composting turns scraps into fertilizer through fermentation. This process doesn't involve the use of air and instead relies on a particular group of microorganisms. This process ferments organic matter and results in fertilizer.

Types Of DIY Compost Bins

Here's a short explanation of the three types of DIY composters:

Trash Can Compost Bin

The trash can compost bin is primarily used for indoor composting but can be taken outside. It uses worms to get the job done.

To start with this method, find three large metal trash bins. Drill approximately 50 holes into two of the containers (including the lid).

Fill the first can with your compost worms, and about 12 inches of wet bedding. Slowly add kitchen waste to the top of the bin, and cover the food waste with another thin layer of compost bedding.

DIY Trash can composter

Once the worms have digested most of this compost, repeat the process.

Once your bin is full, transfer the top 4-8 inches of material into your second garbage bin (with holes). Repeat the process in your second bin.

Allow the first container to sit dormant for a month or so, to allow the worms to digest any remaining material. After this month, you will be left with 20-30 gallons of worm waste that can then be used as soil.

Rubbermaid Compost Bin

Rubbermaid composting also relies on worms. To get started, all you need is a large Rubbermaid storage container, shredded newspaper, worms, and garden soil. Bins as small as 12 gallons and as large as 40 gallons can be used.

Drill holes in the sides and top of your container. Add 6-16 inches (depending on the size of your container) of wet shredded newspaper to the bin. Mix in a few handfuls of garden soil to get the process going.

DIY Rubbermaid composter

Add the worms and cover the bin. Move the container to its desired location and allow the worms to settle into their new habitat for a few hours before adding food scraps.

When it’s time to add food waste, add it slowly and in small amounts, taking care to bury them beneath at least 1 inch of bedding.

After a few days, mix the contents of the bin together. Spritz and dry spots of bedding with water now, as well.

The bin is now set up and can be added to on a regular basis.

Anaerobic Compost Bag

This method relies on different bacteria than the previous compost bins do. The term "anaerobic" in its name means "without oxygen."

This method requires very little set up.

To start, fill a garbage bag one-third of the way full of soil. Fill the next third with kitchen scraps, and the last third with shredded newspaper. Moisten the compost contents, but don’t allow them to become soggy.

DIY Anaerobic compost bag

Tie the bag closed, leaving no room for air. Roll the bag around to prime it, and place it in a warm spot. A warm spot is preferred, but not a necessity.

Roll the compost bag once a week, and within 6-8 weeks, the compost should be ready to use as soil. Before using it as fertilizer, mix it with additional soil and allow the mixture to sit for a few weeks.

Compost Tumblers

To tumble compost means to turn the compost while it is inside of an enclosed container. Tumblers come in a variety of different, sizes and shapes. They also come at a range of costs, the most expensive being upwards of $500 USD.

There are three types of compost tumblers.


These tumblers usually come in the form of a drum-shaped bin fixed to a stationary frame. The drum is typically raised off of the ground by several feet. There is a small pole sticking through the center of the drum, with a hand-crank sticking out of one end.

Inside of the drum, the pole has paddles that when the crank is turned, mixes the contents of the tumbler.


Center-axle tumblers resemble oversized pill capsules, and can be opened from either end. They have a solid axle running through their center and sit vertically on their axis.

Once full, this tumbler is used by turning the drum end-over-end. As the contents are flipped, it is aerated. These tumblers tend to range from $150- $200 USD.

Envirocycle Composting Tumbler Bin with footing

Base Rolling

One of the least expensive tumblers, the base rolling tumbler is a horizontal drum that sits on rollers. Materials are added, and the drum is rotated on the rollers by a human's hands and feet.

Sphere Shaped

Sphere-shaped tumblers are primitive. To use them, one must fill the plastic sphere-shaped tumbler with the material, and then roll it around outside. However, this type of tumbler isn't completely round, so it doesn't always run smoothly.

This type of tumbler is the least expensive tumbler that is on the market, ranging from $75-$100 USD.

Composting Services In North America

With so much attention being paid to the environment, some cities have introduced composting services. Similar to curbside recycling services, these services are to encourage composting and make it easy for everyone to compost.

There are currently 30 states within the United States that have composting services. Also, 3 of Canada's provinces have introduced this type of program.

British Columbia, one of the areas that have adopted this idea, has a curbside recycling program that the composting program resembles. In both cases, homeowners are given a plastic bin to fill with designated materials.

curbside compost collection

When the bins are full, they are emptied by city works and returned to their owners.

This type of compost service doesn’t only serve homes, but also businesses, restaurants, bars, and special events.

Compost services are popping up all over the world in an attempt to cut down on food waste and help the environment.

Where To Use Compost

After the compost is created, it can be utilized in a variety of places.

Vegetable Garden

The new soil, whether it has been turned into fertilizer or not, is rich in nutrients that growing plants need. Spreading compost into a garden is one of the best ways to encourage growth. To use it in the garden, spread 1 to 5 centimeters of compost over the backyard.

Flower Boxes

Flowers can use compost soil to grow the same way as gardens can. To allow flowers the benefits of compost, spread 1.5 centimeters of compost over the soil.


Lawns are great candidates for compost use. Lawns go through a lot in a year, so the added benefits of compost can be easily noticed. Sprinkle a layer of compost on the lawn while reseeding.

For general lawn maintenance, aerate the soil and then use a rake or other garden tool with teeth to mix compost into the soil.

Compost Tea

Compost tea is similar to manure tea - both of which are teas that aren’t suitable for drinking but are ideal for crops. Compost tea can be used to nurse new seedlings or young plants. To make the tea, follow these steps.

getting compost tea from composter

Fill a burlap sack or pillowcase with compost, and secure the first end. Place the bag in a tub of water and allow it to "steep" the same way as regular tea would. Allow it to steep for a few days.

The water will wash nutrients out of the compost and into the water, turning the water a light brown color. The finished tea can then be poured over plants for a hefty dose of nutrients or stored in a watering can or sealed container for a later date.

Potting Mix

To create a beneficial potting mix, mix compost in with regular potting mix. Use this mixture in flower beds, planters, and in gardens.

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