How to start composting (since you’re stuck at home anyway)

How to start composting

My haul this year from my bin

Lots of people have already embraced composting as an eco-friendly solution. For the rest of you, no time is better than the present to start (since you’re stuck at home anyway). Here’s a handy guide on how to start composting, the no-fuss, fail-proof way.

It’s easy! Lets get started.

Step 1 – Determine a container for your compost

Depending on your living situation, you need a container that fits your lifestyle. If you live in a small apartment, try some of these amazing ideas for composting in small spaces.

If you have outdoor space, you have a lot of options.

A container can simply be a store bought bin. One of the most popular versions that I see the most is this one, which is similar what I use. It’s an open bottom bin that has enough room to compost quite a bit of scraps. You’ll notice that it has a door that lifts up from the ground. That way as your compost becomes “done” you can access the stuff you put in first that is most done and on the bottom.

open bottom compost bin

If you have a large yard, you can consider trench composting, where you dig into the earth or build an open bin. I am very jealous of trench and open bin composters because that’s where you can have a very large volume. Here in Brooklyn, I fear annoying my neighbors if I were to go completely hard core in a relatively small space!

You can also get a tumbler bin for smaller backyard spaces. Tumbler bins are very popular as they naturally turn and mix. The drawback is that they have a relatively small capacity. Of course, you could just get a second one (and a third and a fourth). 🙂

My recommendation is that you get the biggest bin that is reasonable for your space, as once you get started, you’ll want to compost more and more! Just get started and then you’ll learn how to start composting.

Step 2 – Collect your scraps, or “greens”

People are often wonder what kind of scraps should go and shouldn’t go in a compost bin. It’s pretty simple – any kitchen scraps you have besides meat and cheese are what’s typically composted. Coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, vegetable scraps, dinner leftovers, anything and everything can go in the bin.

Some people don’t like to put starches in their compost bins, but I find that leftover bread or pasta composts just fine, but does benefit from a balanced bin and also warmer weather. I’ve added a lot of grains or pasta and they can get a little “gluey” in the bin as they decompose. But then you just need to incorporate it a little better among your other greens and browns by mixing.

Some people purchase kitchen containers for their scraps in the kitchen before they add them to the bin and there are many types available. They make scrap collection neat and tidy. But you can also keep it simple. For example, I have a kitchen bucket but honestly I don’t use it – I just put the scraps on a plate or in a bowl and take it to the outdoor bin often.

Some people do compost meat and cheese. These are the more bold, intrepid composters who I envy. Be aware that meat and cheese can attract vermin, though.

In the composting world, all of these these are considered “greens”, or, nitrogen-rich items. Other things that are also considered greens are freshly cut grass and other green yard waste. I made the mistake of thinking my freshly cut grass was a brown when I first started out and ended up with a smelly, nitrogen heavy bin. Easy to fix, though!

Step 3 – Add your carbon, or “browns”

The key to good compost is the balance between nitrogen-rich items (greens) and carbon-rich items (browns). You don’t need to overthink it. It’s really a process of trial and error. Don’t let yourself get hung up on how to know. Just test and add. Test and add.

There are many sources of carbon you can use. These include shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, dry leaves, and wood chips. My preferred carbons are dry leaves and wood chips as I find they tend to balance out the greens better. I find the bin processes faster with the addition of these types of carbon.

carbon in a compost bin

Carbon layering with dried leaves

For a supply of carbon, you can certainly use cardboard boxes which are readily available for anyone who does online shopping. You want to make sure that cardboard is shredded finely enough. To do this, many people buy a shredder. Otherwise you can end up with soggy chunks of cardboard that don’t integrate and therefore don’t combine with the greens to activate the decomposition process.

For newspaper, you want to make sure you are adding enough to your bin as newspaper is very thin. I made the rookie mistake of using newspaper solely for my carbon at first but it did not balance out my greens, and my bin turned sludgy. You don’t need to worry about the color in newsprint as it is mostly soy based now. Steer clear of shiny, treated paper though.

For wood chips, if you have the room, and a tree or trees that drop branches from time to time, you can buy a wood chipper which is a fun item to have anyway. Just be sure you also invest in safety gear, protective googles and gloves.

Step 4 – Mix occasionally

People have different opinions about when and how to mix their bins. I take a rather loose approach and try to mix my bin about once a week. I generally layer my carbons and greens and then use a corkscrew type tool to bring the bottom contents up to the surface, and create integrated materials.

If you have a tumbler, you just need to crank it, and if you have a large pit or open bin, some people use a shovel or a pitchfork. Other people don’t think you need to worry about turning your bin very often at all. Again, it’s very much trial or error. Just try one thing, and then try another, and you’ll settle on the right approach. You really can’t go wrong.


Smelly compost

If your compost smells bad, it means you have too many greens and not enough browns. This is simple to fix! Just keep adding browns and mixing until the smell goes away. Your bin should smell like a forest-y, not rotten or sour.

Sludgy compost

If your compost is slimy or muddy then the same fate has befallen you as that of the smelly bin – you must add more browns! Add and mix.


I’ve never had ants in my bin but I hear it can be due to the bin being too dry. Don’t be afraid to add water to your bin.

Nothing happening

If you’ve been adding green and browns and nothing seems to be happening – the stuff in your bin is just sitting there, not breaking down, then you might be too heavy on the carbons. As a rule of thumb, if nothing or little is happening, you’ve got too much carbon. If bad things are happening, you’ve got too many greens!

My terrible mistakes

If you want to read about my gruesome composting disasters over the years, there’s one here that involves run away worms and one here that is a tale of a terrible, terrible smell. But hey, I didn’t let these setbacks stop me. Sure, you’ll have some hiccups, but it’s really a process of trial.

As they say, you won’t fail until you quit!

How weather plays into it

For rapid composting to happen, you need to have a certain temperature. It’s very difficult to generate compost in the dead of winter unless you are in a warm climate or the southern hemisphere! Temperature is a catalyst for the composting process. I find that for meaningful processing of compost to happen, daytime temperatures need to be in the 60s or higher. So, now is an optimal time to start.

You’ll find that if you live in a warm climate, or even in the northern US in the middle of summer, you’ll have very fast processing of compost! I find in July that my compost will process within four weeks from start to finish. If you were to do the same amount of processing earlier, when temperatures are lower, it might take twice as long.

How to know when it’s “done”

Finished compost should smell like a forest floor and if you put it in a zip lock bag for three days, should not smell sour when you open it. Another way to tell whether it is done is if it looks like brownie mix, rich, dark and crumbly.

Finished compost

When I opened the bottom hatch on my compost bin this spring, I found nicely finished, “brownie mix” compost ready to harvest

What should you do with your compost?

Compost is nutrient-rich and is considered a soil amendment. It can be used as fertilizer, so you can put it right on top of plants as a top dressing. You can also mix it with potting soil to use when you pot plants. You can sprinkle it over your garden, and use it as a top dressing for grass seed that you plant, mixed with soil. Top dressing potted plants with compost can help keep enough moisture around the plant in the hot summer.

If you don’t have enough uses for your own compost, give some to a neighbor, or donate to others. If you live in a city, consider top dressing the soil around a city tree.

The holy grail

For composting fanatics, we like to post pictures of our steaming bins on composting facebook groups – a compost bin that is really cranking with the right combo of greens to browns, well mixed, can achieve core temperatures of 140 degrees or higher. There is hardly a more satisfying thing than to turn your bin and see the steam coming off the center! Composting porn for us addicts.

hot composting

Photo by woodleywonderworks “hot composting at 150 degrees”


Do it! It’s fun. And addicting. If you make a mistake, don’t sweat it. It’s not hard to learn how to start composting. I have made some major mistakes, and then some even worse ones. But like anything, you learn, and then end up with beautiful, black gold. From scraps! It’s truly like a magic act.