Composting 101


Composting is the process of recycling various organic materials (like food scraps, coffee grounds, and soiled paper products) into a nutrient-rich soil conditioner: compost. This is done by combining “greens”, “browns”, air, and water which decomposes over a period of months, creating a valuable soil amendment. In a backyard compost bin, you can collect all of your yard waste, or “browns” (grass clippings, fallen leaves, etc.) and your food scraps or “greens”. By composting you can increase your soil quality and reduce your carbon footprint!

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), organic material makes up 31% of household waste. Landfilling organic material, instead of composting it, creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 26 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This happens when organics are sealed into an anaerobic environment (without air) and slowly decompose. The waste product of anaerobic decomposers is methane. US landfills create so much methane that, if landfills were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas producing country in the world, behind only the US and China! This is why it is important to compost organics!

Composting is easy and anyone can do it! All you need is…

  1. A compost bin- make your own or buy one!
  2. Throw your food scraps and yard waste in your bin
  3. Water your compost pile every once in a while
  4. Turn or mix the pile with a shovel occasionally

First, some do-it-yourself bin designs if you feel like building your own.

There are pro’s and con’s to each design but depending on your handy-skills, budget, and living situation, there is a bin for you!

If store-bought is more your style, here are some options:

  1. Outdoor compost bin
  2. Indoor compost bin
  3. Worm compost bin

What to Compost

Greens (higher in nitrogen)Browns (higher in carbon)
Vegetable scrapsDry leaves
Fruit peels/rindsNewspaper
Coffee groundsPaper towels/napkins
Egg shellsSawdust

What to avoid in your compost pile

  • Meat, bones, fish or dairy products
  • Grease or oil
  • Weed or grass seeds
  • Pest or disease infected or infested plant material

Compost Troubleshooting

SymptomProblemSolution
Pile is wet and smells like rancid butter, vinegar or rotten eggs.Not enough air or too much nitrogen or too wet.Turn pile and add straw or wood chips. Improve drainage.
Pile does not heat up.Pile is too small or too dry.Make pile larger or provide insulation; add water while turning.
Pile is damp and sweet smelling, but will not heat up.Not enough nitrogen.Add nitrogen: mix in grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds.
Pile is attracting animals.Pile contains meat or dairy products or food scraps are not covered well.Enclose pile in 1/4” hardware cloth; cover food with brown materials: wood chips / leaves.

Using your compost

  • In a new landscape, flower bed or garden; mix up to 2” of finished compost into the top 6’ of soil.
  • For yearly lawn maintenance, apply 1/4” -1/2” of screened compost as a top dressing in early spring.
  • In established beds, apply up to 1⁄2” of compost once a year as a top- dressing in addition to your favorite natural mulch, maintaining 2”-4” of total mulch layer.
  • Utilize a 50/50 mix of sifted compost and sand to fill in low spots or bare spots in your landscape to improve drainage and reduce erosion.
  • For those who garden in pots, compost can be a useful component of your potting mix. (A mix of equal parts compost, topsoil and sand works well for most plants.)

Be sure to keep your compost pile moist and aerated!

Happy composting!

Visit the MPCA’s site for more info!
Also see our page on Food Waste


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