A Beginner’s Guide to Composting: Everything You Need to Know

Learn what you can compost and how to use it.

person composting food

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As we carry on with social distancing measures and do our best to slow the spread of COVID-19, the search for activities to keep ourselves entertained continues. If you’re getting sick of baking or running, try giving back to the environment by learning how to compost.

Compost is made up of organic materials, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, and can be added to the soil to help your plants grow. To get you started on your composting journey, we broke down the basics of composting and how to get started.

Why should I compost?

Food and yard waste makes up about 28% of what goes into landfills—when you reduce this amount of waste, you reduce the amount of methane gas that goes into the air. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Besides reducing waste and lowering greenhouse gas emissions, composting can greatly benefit your garden. When you use compost in your soil, it can improve the amount of moisture and keep out pests and plant diseases, while improving the amount of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Overall, it helps create a more enriched and nutrient-filled soil.

What kind of things can I compost?

You can compost the majority of food or yard waste you have. Compostable items include:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Tea bags
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Nut shells
  • Other non-animal and non-dairy food waste
  • Dust
  • Lint and hair
  • Cardboard and other paper products
  • Leaves
  • Grass trimmings
  • Houseplants
  • Other yard trimmings

Be sure that you’re not composting any dairy, meat, and fat or oils, as they can create bad odors and attract pests and rodents.

What kind of compost container can I use?

Now that you know what you can compost, figuring out what to put the compost in is the next step. There are two options when it comes to where you can compost, and it depends on how much backyard space you have.

If you want to compost outdoors, you’ll need to find a dry shady spot near a water source (like a hose) for your compost pile or bin. If you choose to use a bin, you’ll need to buy a special compost bin. These bins create the perfect moist environment with proper airflow to speed up the decomposition of materials.

Once you’ve found the right spot for your bin or pile, you’ll first need to add any brown or green materials you have. You’ll want to make sure they’re moistened and that any large materials are chopped or clipped into smaller pieces. Once that layer is created, you can continue to add any other compostable materials you have, but be sure to bury fruit and vegetable scraps under at least 10 inches of the other compost material. You can cover the materials with a tarp to retain moisture.

If you want to compost indoors, you can purchase an indoor composting bin, often found at gardening centers or hardware stores. You can add any compostable materials to that and keep it covered. To avoid any possible odor, we’d recommend keeping it on a porch if you have one, or in a place that’s covered, such as under the sink. If you’re composting properly, it should not smell.

How do I use my compost?

Once your compost on the bottom of the pile or bin is dark and rich in color, it’s ready to be used. There should be no large chunks in the compost and it should be a smooth texture overall.

When it’s ready, you can use the compost as mulch or mix it with top soil to use as planting soil. You can also sprinkle it on your lawn. You can use compost on pretty much anything you’re growing to help provide nutrients to the soil and plants.

Can I compost when I live in the city?

If you live in the city and have no access to an outdoor space, you can choose to do the indoor compost option. If you want to compost, but don’t have a lot of ways to use the final product, there are many local services that will provide you with a bucket and pick up the scraps to bring to a local composting facility.

Some options in and around Boston include:

Arlington and Boston also offer compost drop-off services, while Cambridge offers drop-off services in addition to curbside pickup, although the city is temporarily pausing its compost pickup program due to the pandemic.