Composting for Newbies

by Amanda Streets

“Let’s start composting!” As if it’s as simple as all that… What if I told you it really was as easy as 1… 2… 3…? Making a pile of food scraps and whatnot in your yard ON PURPOSE can seem a little intimidating but I assure you, it’s really quite intuitive once you get started and it’s not too fussy if you follow some basic guidelines. I’ll help you get off on the right foot so you actually learn how to compost and avoid making a stinky mess. Are you ready?

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Knowledge is power. Knowing a little bit about the magical process of composting will help you wrap your head around your new project.

There are two main inputs going into your compost:

Brown material (carbon) is anything that came from a tree such as mulch, small sticks, shredded white paper and brown cardboard, or dried leaves.

Green material (nitrogen) are your plant-based kitchen scraps like fruits and veggies, grains, coffee grounds and filters, tea and tea bags, grass clippings, green leaves and dead potted plants.

The composting process is really a bunch of different organisms such as fungus, bacteria, and earthworms eating and breaking down your food scraps and yard waste. Just like any animal, they need food, air and water to survive. The green and brown materials are their food; water is added as needed to keep the compost moist; and air is provide when you aerate the pile by turning it.

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Gather your materials. Always start a new compost project by gathering your browns. Grab a few bags of leaves from a neighbor, empty the paper shredder at your office, wet and rip up your Amazon boxes… whatever form of carbon rich materials you choose, get them first. 

In the meantime, you can begin to save your green materials by placing them in a container in your fridge or freezer.  You can put them in an upcycled plastic container with a lid or a Ziploc bag. By the time you’ve gathered your browns, you’ll have saved a bunch of food scraps.

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You’re ready to start composting! Well, almost. You need to decide what type of composting system is right for you. Now, you’re not married to this system. It’s okay if you pick a cheap and simple way to get started then change it up later. That’s not important. The important part is that you got started composting. You can tweak your methods as you learn more. 

Once you’ve gathered your browns, put several inches of them as the bottom layer in your pile. They will form a big sponge in the bottom of your compost system. Add your food scraps and use an equal amount of browns to cover them like a blanket. This is really important. You should never be able to see your food scraps. This attracts flies and critters, and it can get smelly. It’s easiest to save a few days worth of food scraps to add all at once rather than little bits here and there.

Turn your compost every week or two with a shovel or spin the tumbler around a few times. Add water if it feels dry. It should feel like a damp, but not dripping wet, sponge. Once it looks like soil and smells like soil and there are no visible food scraps left, take a small bit of the compost, make sure it’s moist and place it in a Ziploc bag. If it molds after a few days, it is not done. If it doesn’t go ahead and use the compost.

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Questions?

Will my compost smell?

No, it shouldn’t be smelly. If you do detect an unpleasant odor, add more browns. You can either just add a few inches to the top or mix some brown material in and top with a few inches too.

Will my compost attract insects or rodents?

If you are following these guidelines and always covering up the food waste with ample browns you shouldn’t have any rodents. The brown prevents any smells and absorbs the liquid from the food waste.

You may get insects since many insects are decomposers, meaning that their main function is to help break down your compost into a soil like texture. Common composting insects are cockroaches (they won’t come in your house, don’t worry), soldier flies and their larva (see photo below) and millipedes which are technically not insects but arthropods. They, along with the fungus, bacteria and earthworms do the real work of composting. 

I’m going out of town for a month. Will my compost be okay?

Yes, your compost is going to be fine. Just make sure there’s enough brown material on top. Check the moisture (it should feel like a damp sponge) before you go and add water if needed.

How often should I turn my compost?

Every week or two is enough. You don’t need to be on a schedule with it. If you notice it’s really dry, it may be a good time to add more greens and browns, water it and turn it at the same time. That way you can make sure it’s consistently moist throughout.

Where should I place my compost pile?

Wherever it works best for you. It will need more water in the sun, but may break down faster. The important part of placing your compost system is access to water. One year I moved my compost pile behind my shed to hide it. Not only was it out of sight, out of mind, it was dry. My hose didn’t reach and I definitely didn’t carry buckets of water to it frequently enough to make up for this Florida heat. 

Published by Pinellas Community Composting Alliance

Pinellas Community Composting Alliance was formed as an education and advocacy group to promote community composting in our Tampa Bay area. We do this by holding classes, helping to establish community compost drop off stations, and working with others to help create a more sustainable local food system.

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