Composting 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Turning Waste into Nutrients

an image symbolizing composting

Welcome to the world of composting! In this comprehensive guide, we’ll take you on a journey from the humble beginnings of organic waste to the rich, nutrient-dense treasure trove that is compost. We’ll cover the benefits of composting, various methods to get started, and tips for making it work in your home. So, roll up your sleeves, grab a pitchfork (or a shovel), and let’s dive into the dirt!

The Circle of Compost Life

Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter, like food scraps and yard waste, into a nutrient-rich soil amendment known as compost. This decomposition is carried out by billions of microorganisms, fungi, and insects that munch away at your waste, turning it into a valuable resource for your garden. By composting, you’re not just making use of organic waste; you’re also participating in a wonderful, natural cycle that helps improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s perfect for a community garden, where you can connect with people and improve the environment at the same time!

Benefits of Composting

There’s a whole heap of reasons to start composting, and they’re not just for the earthworms! Here are some of the top benefits of composting:

Waste Reduction

By composting your kitchen scraps and yard waste, you’ll be reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. This helps decrease the production of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s emitted when organic waste decomposes in an anaerobic environment (like a landfill) It’s what a lot of organic farmers do as well.

Soil Health

Compost is teeming with essential nutrients that plants need to grow strong and healthy. Adding compost to your garden will improve soil structure, increase water retention, and provide a slow-release source of nutrients for your plants.

Save Money

By making your own compost, you can save money on store-bought fertilizers and soil amendments.

Pest and Disease Control

Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, and healthy plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases. By using compost in your garden, you’re creating a strong foundation for your plants to thrive.

Composting Methods

Ready to start composting? There’s a method to suit every gardener, whether you’re a busy urban dweller with limited space or a rural homesteader with acres to spare. Let’s explore some of the most popular composting methods.

Hot Composting

Pros: Fast decomposition, kills weed seeds and pathogens

Cons: Requires more effort and attention, may be challenging for beginners

Hot composting is a high-temperature, high-effort method that can produce finished compost in as little as six weeks. The key to hot composting is creating the perfect environment for thermophilic bacteria, which thrive in temperatures between 113 and 160°F (45-70°C). These bacteria break down organic matter quickly, generating heat in the process.

To achieve the desired heat, you’ll need to maintain a proper balance of carbon-rich materials (like dried leaves, straw, or sawdust) and nitrogen-rich materials (like food scraps, grass clippings, or manure). A general rule of thumb is to use a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio.

Hot composting requires a substantial amount of material to start with, ideally a minimum of 1 cubic yard (1 cubic meter) to hold the heat. It also requires regular turning, at least once a week, to ensure proper aeration and to prevent anaerobic conditions. If done correctly, hot composting can produce finished compost in a matter of weeks and is effective at killing weed seeds and harmful pathogens.

Cold Composting

Pros: Low-maintenance, suitable for beginners

Cons: Slower decomposition, may not kill weed seeds and pathogens

Cold composting is a more laid-back approach to composting, perfect for those who don’t have the time or energy to maintain a hot compost pile. With cold composting, you simply add organic materials to a pile or bin as they become available, without worrying too much about the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio or turning the pile regularly.

Cold composting takes longer than hot composting, with decomposition typically taking six months to two years. Because the pile doesn’t reach high temperatures, weed seeds and pathogens may survive the process. However, cold composting is an easy way for beginners to start composting with minimal effort.


Pros: Suitable for small spaces, efficient decomposition, produces nutrient-rich worm castings

Cons: Requires purchasing and maintaining worms, may not be suitable for outdoor use in extreme temperatures

Vermicomposting, or worm composting, is a fantastic method for those with limited space or who prefer to compost indoors. This method involves using worms, usually red wigglers (Eisenia fetida), to break down organic waste in a contained system.

Worms consume the organic matter and produce nutrient-rich worm castings (their poop), which can be used as an excellent soil amendment. Vermicomposting is relatively low-maintenance, but it does require purchasing and caring for the worms. It’s important to provide the right environment and a balanced diet for your worms to thrive.

Vermicomposting systems can be purchased or DIYed using plastic bins, wooden boxes, or even old bathtubs. They should be well-ventilated and have a drainage system to prevent the buildup of excess moisture. Worm composting can be done indoors or outdoors, but be mindful of temperature extremes, as worms are sensitive to heat and cold.


Pros: Suitable for small spaces, can process meats and dairy, produces nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer

Cons: Requires purchasing Bokashi bran, two-step process (fermentation followed by composting or burial)

Bokashi is a Japanese method of anaerobic composting that relies on the fermentation of organic waste. This method involves layering kitchen scraps with Bokashi bran, a mixture of microorganisms, molasses, and wheat bran, in an airtight container.

Bokashi can process a wider range of materials than traditional composting methods, including meats, dairy, and cooked foods. The fermentation process typically takes two to four weeks, after which the contents can be buried in the garden or added to a compost pile to finish breaking down.

In addition to the nutrient-rich solids, Bokashi also produces a liquid fertilizer known as “Bokashi tea,” which can be drained from the container and used to fertilize plants. Bokashi is a great option for those with limited space or who want to compost a wider range of materials.

an image of composting

Getting Started with Composting

Now that you’re familiar with the different composting methods, it’s time to choose the one that suits your needs and get started! Here’s what you’ll need to begin composting:

Choose a Location

Select a convenient location for your composting setup, ideally near your garden or kitchen for easy access. Keep in mind that compost piles or bins can attract insects and wildlife, so choose a spot that won’t bother your neighbors or disrupt your outdoor activities. If you’re composting indoors, find a well-ventilated area to prevent odors.

Gather Materials

Depending on the method you choose, you’ll need a compost bin or pile, carbon-rich materials, nitrogen-rich materials, and possibly worms or Bokashi bran. It’s essential to have a mix of both carbon and nitrogen materials to achieve the right balance for decomposition.

Start Composting

Begin by layering your carbon and nitrogen materials in your bin or pile, following the specific guidelines for the composting method you’ve chosen. Keep adding materials as they become available, and remember to turn your pile or maintain your worm population, depending on your chosen method.

Composting Tips and Tricks

Composting is more of an art than a science, so it may take some time to find the perfect balance for your setup. Here are some tips to help you get off to a great start:

Chop or Shred Materials

Breaking down materials into smaller pieces will speed up the decomposition process by providing more surface area for microorganisms to work on.

Keep it Moist

A compost pile should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If it’s too dry, decomposition will slow down; if it’s too wet, anaerobic conditions may develop. If your pile is too dry, add water or more nitrogen-rich materials. If it’s too wet, add more carbon-rich materials or turn the pile to increase aeration.

Monitor Temperature

For hot composting, use a compost thermometer to ensure your pile is reaching the right temperature. If the temperature is too low, try turning the pile, adding more nitrogen-rich materials, or increasing the size of the pile.

Turn Regularly

Aerating your compost pile by turning it regularly will help maintain the proper balance of oxygen and moisture, which is crucial for efficient decomposition.

Be Patient

Composting takes time, so be patient as your organic materials break down into nutrient-rich compost. Trust the process, and remember that your garden will thank you for it!

To Sum It All Up

Composting is an excellent way to transform waste into valuable nutrients for your garden while reducing landfill waste and greenhouse gas emissions. With a variety of methods to choose from, there’s a composting solution for everyone. So, give composting a try and join the ever-growing community of environmentally-conscious gardeners turning their waste into black gold!