Waste Not

attempting to waste less and live more deliberately

Composting: Part 1 – Basic Principles

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Why did we choose composting as a Tiny Habit?

While rummaging through our garbage several weeks ago we found ourselves elbow deep in rotting food, it was pretty gross. After picking through moldy peach pits and banana peels, I knew right away that food waste was something I quickly wanted to remove from our trash life!

I grew up in a composting family, so I knew the value of food scraps in creating nutrient-rich compost. However, I was unaware of the harm my food scraps were causing in landfills. I assumed that rotting is rotting, it doesn’t really make a difference if it happened in a compost pile or a landfill, I was wrong.

According to the EPA, in 2011 alone more than 36 million tons of food waste was generated and only 4 percent was diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting. This means that all that slimy rotting that was taking place in my small garbage can is taking place on a much larger scale in landfills all across our beautiful country.  Did you know that when food rots in a landfill it puts off a significant source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas? The EPA believes that methane is 20 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide (CO2). That’s reason enough for me!

Some pioneering companies are working with this methane producing process to create energy through a process called anaerobic digestion; you can read about that here and here.  While this is an interesting avenue to explore, I don’t think this should take the responsibility off our shoulders to limit the very large amount of waste we send to the landfills. Plus, composting at home supplies your garden with free fertilizer and soil amendment!


I’m not going to lie, composting intimidates me. I realize it’s nothing to be afraid of, just a perfectly naturally decomposition process. However, when I hear worlds like ratio, nitrogen, carbon, and vermiculture, I get a little nervous.  When I was a little girl, I added a tablespoon rather than the called for teaspoon of salt to a batch of cookie dough, this may have contributed to my fear of measurements and ratios. Time to get over it ☺

ms compost (1)

If Martha Stewart can compost like a boss, so can I!

The Basics

Compost is the product of decomposed organic matter.  Here are several components that when working together create the perfect environment for decomposition and transformation.

Balance – Your compost pile should have a good mix of Carbon (Browns) and Nitrogen (Greens) arranged in alternating layers. The suggested ratio is 25-30 parts carbon to every one part nitrogen, 25-30:1. “Browns” include items such as straw, dead leaves, and wood chips. These are typically thought of as dry materials. “Greens” include items such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and coffee grounds, typically thought of as wet materials. Love THIS compost ratio explanation!

This part can become very technical; if that’s your thing, embrace it, you can use THIS site as a guide. If this is not so much your thing, you can loosely embrace the 25-30:1 principal and feel it out. If you feel your pile is too heavy, maybe seeming a bit soggy, this should indicate to you that you have too many “greens” in your pile and you should add some more “browns”.  If your pile seems dry, you have too many “browns” and not enough “greens” and this will slow the composting process. Unless you really want to, you don’t need to stand next to your compost pile meticulously calculating every bit of carbon and nitrogen you have included. Like most things in life, once you strike the right balance, you’ll know.

Bite Size – Like digestion, your system will work better with small bites. Before adding new material to your compost, give it a good chop.  If you have kids this might be a fun project!  Supply them with gloves and a large child-safe cutting knife then send them out back! Not only will the decomposers appreciate it, your kids will build great memories of helping out, enjoying the outdoors, and feeding the compost pile!

Moisture – Every now and then give it a shower with a hose or watering can. The idea here is moist, not drenched. When choosing a spot for your pile, choose a spot out of direct sunlight to prevent drying.

Ventilation – If you find you have a soaking, soupy, stinky mess on your hands, add some “browns” to re-balance your pile and give it a few turns with a pitch fork. This will help incorporate some fresh air to your pile.

Size Matters – 3x3x3 ft. is ideal! Small piles tend to dry out; large piles tend to trap too much moisture.  (If you don’t have room for a pile this size, don’t worry! There are composting methods for you that I plan to cover in Composting Part 2.)

Pests – To reduce unwanted pests make sure you are feeding your pile correctly.  If you put a big juicy steak in your compost pile (DON’T DO THIS!) chances are you are going to attract some undesirable creepy crawlies and perhaps a few raccoons. Use THIS list as a guide when deciphering what to add and what to keep out of your compost pile. If you run into something you are unsure about, look online. Better yet, call a family member, I’ll bet you can find one who knows the answer!


“Leftover steak for me? You shouldn’t have.”

This is a very basic introduction to composting and I hope it inspires you to dig deeper! For a more complete outline of composting visit THIS wonderful guide. In Composting Part 2, we will explore various methods of composting to suit every lifestyle and need. In Part 3, we will share our method of composting and other steps we are taking to reduce food waste.  Do hope you’ll join!

Ever been intimidated when trying something new?  How did you get over it?

♥ ali


One thought on “Composting: Part 1 – Basic Principles

  1. Pingback: Event Lessons from the Compost Pile | makingthistory

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