How to Compost at Home

Types of Composting, Basic Steps, and Easy Tips

Male hand adding a biodegradable teabag to a compost heap

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Composting is a simple, reliable, and affordable way to use the organic material that comes out of our homes, from veggie scraps to lawn cuttings, shredded paper, and more. This material gets broken down quickly by bacteria and microorganisms and becomes a soil enricher — it's valuable stuff that's easy to make.

If you don't have compost pickup in your community, or if you would rather keep your household's compost for your own needs, read on to understand the basics and the various options you have for at-home composting.

Composting Shouldn't Be Difficult or Smelly

There are some myths and misconceptions about composting: that it's smelly or messy, that it's only for people with big backyards, that it's time-consuming, or that you need expensive, special equipment. These things just aren't true: most everyone can compost in a wide variety of home types and situations — including apartments — and it can be done for minimal cost.

What to Compost

  • Fruits and veggies, cooked or raw
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds and looseleaf tea
  • Cooked grains without meat, like pasta, rice, quinoa, or oats
  • Beans, lentils, hummus, bean dips
  • Nuts and seeds
  • 100% cotton or 100% wool material (any amount of polyester or nylon won't compost and will be left over)
  • Hair and fur
  • Fireplace ashes
  • Shredded paper, cardboard, and newspaper
  • Leaf clippings and dead houseplants
  • Yard waste of all kinds including branches, bark, leaves, flowers, grass clippings, and sawdust

Composting has benefits beyond the environmental payoffs. Once you start composting you'll be much more conscious of food waste, and it will also connect you to the food you eat and drive home how everything we eat is part of a natural cycle. In this way, it raises awareness and can be a valuable education tool, especially for kids, as they learn about how the world works.

Types of Composting

There are a few different ways you can compost. Which one will suit your home depends on your indoor vs. outdoor space, how much compost you produce, and how fast you want that "black gold" (a gardener's name for the humus, or rich soil that's produced by composting).

Outdoor Composting

full wooden compost bin

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If you have the space, composting in a shady part of your backyard or garden is very easy. As long as you don't compost things that shouldn't be (see list below) and provide even the most basic proper conditions for your compost, you won't have to worry about insects or rodents, and it won't smell bad.

You can compost using a bin designed for that purpose (with room for oxygen to enter and water to exit) but it's not required. You can also just make a pile in your compost spot. A tarp over it will keep it moist without having to add water as often and can camouflage the pile.

Once you've selected a good spot for your compost, your next decision is whether to go with hot or cold composting. Heat speeds up the breakdown of organic matter, but a cool compost will work, too, it will just take longer.

Regardless of your preferred method and location, you will need three main ingredients for your compost. These ingredients, along with some moisture, will feed the microorganisms that break down your compost:

  • Green stuff (like coffee grounds and veggie peels, etc.)
  • Brown stuff (dry leaves or shredded newspaper)
  • Water

Did You Know?

Food scraps and yard waste comprise more than 30% of what we currently toss. This material takes up space in landfills and creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. By composting, you are not only cutting down on waste and reducing methane, you are also creating rich material that can benefit your garden, lawn, or houseplants.

To begin your compost pile, you'll want some soil and plenty of brown material. Follow these steps to create your first layer:

You can continue layering with a ratio of about 2/3 brown to 1/3 green (you can just eye it out, it doesn't have to be perfect) in your overall mix.

Hot Composting

Some of the misconceptions about composting in general apply to the type of compost that generates heat. That's because it can be a bit tricky to balance nitrogen, carbon, air, and water. You want a ratio of about half-and-half brown (provides carbon) to green (provides nitrogen). You'll also want to keep the compost damp but not wet — a consistency similar to a damp sponge.

You'll need to aerate your compost to ensure enough oxygen is getting into the layers, so it will be necessary to turn those layers often — about once a week is a good guide, but frequency may vary depending on the air temperature and local conditions. You turn it by simply scooping the compost with a shovel or rake and mixing in the newer compost with the older material below until it's well-combined. If the compost looks wet and has an odor, it's not getting enough oxygen and you should turn it and add some brown material. If it looks dry, add green stuff and maybe a little water. This is a bit of a trial and error process and is highly dependent on your local conditions.

If you are doing the extra work that a hot compost takes, one way to monitor if you are getting to the hot compost stage is to use a thermometer to keep track (a cooking thermometer on a cord works best, though there are companies that specifically sell compost thermometers). The optimum temperature is between 135 F and 160 F. Over 160 degrees means that your beneficial organisms will die, so you want to keep it below that level. Or you can just stick your hand inside — hot composting is happening when the interior of the compost is obviously warmer than the outside. You'll get usable compost in one to three months, depending on local weather conditions.

Close-up of woman's gloved hand in garden holding soil enriched with homemade compost

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You'll know your compost is ready to use when all the materials in it are broken down, and you are left with a nice, dark brown material that looks like soil, but is denser or thicker feeling. It should be dry, brown, and crumbly. You can apply several inches directly on top of your garden soil or sprinkle it over your lawn. You can also work it into your potting soil for houseplants.

Cold composting

Cold composting is the "lazy" version of hot composting. You can just throw your scraps into the pile, toss some garden clippings in it, and walk away. You don't have to worry about watering it, or keeping a precise balance between brown and green stuff (although if you are composting green stuff, you will need some brown stuff to cover it after you toss your scraps in, as exposed food will attract flies).

You don't really have to do anything at all — though you can turn and aerate your compost every week or so to ensure it's well-mixed. After you have filled your compost container and aerated it, just let it sit. Your black gold should be ready in about six months (longer if it's winter). You'll know it's ready when it looks like dark brown soil — very different to the food scraps and leaves you started with.

Indoor Options

The most common way to compost indoors or in an apartment is vermicomposting (see details below), but there are other options.

The first composting approach is to simply save your compostable material in a bucket (many people keep it in the freezer to avoid smells), and bring it to a local farmers market or community garden that accepts it. This usually requires you going to the location to drop your compost off, but if you go to the market to buy produce anyway, it's a pretty easy habit to get into.

Materials That Can't Be Composted

  • Pet waste (due to possible bacterial contamination)
  • Dairy products
  • Oils and fats
  • Diseased plants or plants treated with pesticides or herbicides
  • Meat or fish (or bones)
  • Black walnut leaves, twigs, or walnut fruits
  • Coal or charcoal

Another option for small spaces or apartments is a bokashi system. Bokashi is Japanese for "fermented organic matter." As the name suggests, this is a fermentation process, not a traditional type of compost, but the results are similar. You can put all the conventional compost materials into your bucket as well as fat, bones, meat, and dairy products.

Buckets specifically designed for bokashi raise the food scraps above the liquid, which ends up at the bottom of the composter and is emptied through a spigot. This liquid is called "bokashi tea," and is basically liquid fertilizer and great for some houseplants. You can purchase a bokashi bucket or you can make your own. Then, you will need to add an inoculant to push the fermentation process along. It's smart to buy your inoculant (bokashi bran) until you are familiar with the process.

One of the main advantages of the bokashi system is that it works quickly — in about 10 days. The main disadvantage is that the resulting material is a fermented matter, not compost, and must then be added to a traditional compost pile to fully finish degrading or be buried to slowly incorporate into the soil.

Finally, there are a couple of countertop composters and recyclers that promise humus-rich soil amendment in a matter of hours. One example is the FoodCycler, a somewhat pricy 1-cubic-foot-sized machine made by Vitamix that needs to be plugged in, but promises to use minimal energy. You can add all kinds of food to the box-sized container, including meat and bones. The system breaks food down to a tenth of its original volume and creates a fertilizer you can use for plants or a garden. It also has a carbon filtration system to eliminate odors.

Worm Composting

A vermicomposter with many red wiggler worms diving back under the surface

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Also called vermicomposting, this compost system relies on worms — they eat your food scraps and release nitrogen-rich castings that make great fertilizer. You will need a special set up for this type of composting, but kits abound online. You can also make one pretty easily with a couple plastic containers, some screening and newspaper, and some starter soil.

The type of worm you use is important. You can use earthworms, but you'll most likely have to order redworms — aka red wigglers — to do this work. The good news is that they're pretty inexpensive and available both online and at local garden stores. They need to be kept in proper conditions — the same as we like, 55 to 85 degrees and a little moist. These worms will produce both compost and more worms (about every two months they'll double in number), so you will only have to buy them once.

Vermicomposting is a great alternative for people living in apartments, since you can keep a relatively small system going under your sink or in a cupboard — worms like darkness anyway. When ready, vermicompost should be added to soil or potting soil at about 10% vermicompost to 90% soil.

View Article Sources
  1. Tong, Bingxin, et al. "Transformation of Nitrogen and Carbon During Composting of Manure Litter with Different Methods." Biosource Technology, vol. 293, 2019, pp. 122046, doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2019.122046

  2. "Compost Fundamentals: Compost Needs." Washington State University.

  3. "Vermicomposting for Beginners." Rodale Institute.