How to Start Composting: A Beginner’s Guide

Susannah Shmurak

by | Read time: 6 minutes

It happens to all of us. There’s a project or a new habit we want to take on, but month after month, we never quite get around to doing it, often because there’s too much to figure out before we can even start. Composting, however, doesn’t have to be one of those complicated projects.

Woman Pushing Food Scraps From Plate into Compost Bin |

Following is a list of helpful tips to start a home composting program with little effort and expense. Let’s make this year the year we stop sending valuable material to landfill and start reducing waste to ultimately replenish the earth (in the comfort of your own home!).

What is compost & why should I do it?

After learning our whole lives that food scraps go in the trash can, it can be challenging to view composting as a priority. But understanding how damaging this wasteful practice is and what a difference we can make by composting may just be the motivation we need to shift our perspective.

The EPA estimates that Americans send more than 146 million tons of trash to landfills each year, more than half of which is compostable. Why is this a big deal? In the sealed environment of a landfill, organic matter like food and yard waste breaks down anaerobically and produces methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in global warming potential.

In contrast, all that material could be working to improve the environment by providing free food for your plants and lessening your need for resource-intensive fertilizers. Compost not only feeds your garden, but also encourages microbial activity in the soil, making nutrients more available to plants while storing moisture and carbon.

Imagine all the good you can do for the planet and your vegetable garden by directing your kitchen scraps to your home compost instead of the landfill. Your compost will also turn all those fall leaves into food for your garden and save you the trouble of hauling them away.

You may have been told that composting is yucky or difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t let these myths about composting stand in your way!

How to start composting

First, choose the composting system that works best for you. Each composting option has its benefits and drawbacks. A subscription service that will pick up your compostable materials weekly is perhaps the easiest method. One drawback, at least in many areas, is that you’ll need to pay a monthly fee, and you likely won’t get free fertilizer for your garden.

For those interested in making what gardeners reverently call “black gold” without spending much money, a basic composter can be purchased or built quite easily, and the process of composting can be as simple as throwing food scraps and yard waste in and letting nature take its course.

Those more concerned about aesthetics and perfectly-made compost might prefer a compost tumbler or custom-built composter, but they may cost $100 to $400, depending on the type you choose.

Decide on your composting priorities. I want the most benefit for my garden with the least effort and expense, so I’ve always tossed our household compostables (food scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, tissues, compostable floss and yard waste) into a simple composter without any fuss. This method produces compost slowly, but it requires no work. If I cared more about getting compost quickly and didn’t mind the cost, I’d probably get a more visually-pleasing compost tumbler. Read over the options below, and choose what’s best for you.

4 ways to compost at home

Subscribe to a composting service: The number of services that do residential compost collection has grown significantly in recent years, and if there’s one that serves your neighborhood, it may prove the quickest way to shift your household to composting.

Of course, hauling compost from your home causes additional emissions unless your trash service picks up compost at the same time. An advantage of these services is that big composting operations can handle things that can’t go into home composts, like pizza boxes and meat scraps.

Composting services typically run $10 to 20 per month, more in large metropolitan areas, plus the cost of compostable bags, which are optional if you compost at home.

Some services will give or sell the finished compost back to customers who want to use it in their gardens.

Use a compost bin or pile: The no-fuss way to compost at home is with a simple pile or bin you throw food scraps and yard waste into. If you have a lot of space, you can go the traditional route and just create a heap of leaves and vegetable scraps. But most homeowners with average-sized yards want to contain their compost and choose some sort of compost bin, either purchased or homemade.

You can purchase a basic plastic composter for around $25 at most home improvement stores, or you can build a simple containment system by nailing pallets together. You’ll find numerous DIY ideas for compost bins on the internet, and many are quite attractive.

Whatever you decide on, be sure to choose a composter with a lid to keep out excess moisture and critters.

Because turning compost in a bin can be difficult, it’s likely your compost won’t get aerated effectively and will take longer to fully break down than if you turn it regularly. But as long as you’re patient, your scraps will eventually transform into a crumbly, rich compost that your plants will love.

Use a compost tumbler: You’ll get finished compost more quickly if you choose a compost tumbler, which allows compost to aerate without the effort of turning over your compost pile with a shovel. While a basic compost bin takes many months to produce finished compost, a tumbler can make garden gold in a matter of weeks. In cold climates, an insulated tumbler can keep the composting process going as the temperature drops, while it will halt in a bin until temperatures warm up again in spring.

However, compost tumblers typically can’t hold as much as a large bin, and the higher-quality ones can cost upwards of $400, though some models are under $100.

Try worm composting: If you live somewhere that you can’t set up an outdoor compost pile or would prefer indoor composting, you can use something called a vermicomposter or worm farm. These little setups can live under your kitchen sink, where worms will happily devour whatever scraps you give them and turn it into extremely nutritious plant food.

You can purchase a vermicomposter for about $25 to $100 or make one yourself with one of the many plans available online. Vermicomposters typically use a type of worm called red wigglers, which cost around $30.

Ready, set, compost!

Once you’ve decided on a composting system, check out our Beginner’s Guide to At-Home Composting to maximize success. The EPA also has a handy printable that includes a list of what you can and can’t compost. If you’ve chosen a worm farm, be sure to read up on your new house pets’ food preferences.

Whatever composting method you choose, give yourself a big pat on the back for helping to cut the amount of waste sent to the landfill this year and every year after!

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