Composting 101

Composting doesn't need to be a hassle! Our guide explains what happens, and has easy-to follow tips so you can start making compost today.

So you know composting is good for the environment. But do we you really know what it means or what is involved? Composting is the breakdown of organic matter including paper, leaves, and food scraps, which results in dirt-like soil that is dark in color and extremely nutrient-rich. Compost will replenish depleted soil and can be used in flower and vegetable gardens and even your house plants, and it can dramatically reduce the amount of garbage your family puts on the curb every week. 


The process is much easier than you may think, but it still takes a bit of planning and preparation. We’ve done our research and spoken to members of the community and experts at gardening centers to create a simple beginner’s guide to get you started.


What can I compost?

Any organic matter can be composted. Some materials include cardboard egg crates, paper, newspaper, vegetable and fruit scraps, egg shells, tea bags, leaves, and small twigs. It’s best to break bigger items like egg crates and newspapers down into smaller pieces. Or, if your children didn’t quite finish their vegetables, you can use whole pieces, just cut them down! The smaller the pieces, the easier the decomposition process.


Any leaves and smaller twigs from outside are great as well, and can be collected and added to your compost. Eric Schmidt of Colonial Gardens in Phoenixville suggests that instead of putting grass clippings in with your compost, simply sweep the clippings right back into the grass. These clippings will decompose naturally and give right back to the grass.


You shouldn’t use meat bones and fatty foods in composting, since they don’t provide a great deal of nutrients and take a long time to break down. Grass or leaves treated with fertilizers would not be ideal either, as the chemicals, once broken down in compost, are not good for the soil.


For an in-depth list of compostable materials, click here.


What do I put my compost in and what needs to be done to maintain it?

There are many kinds of compost bins available for both indoors and outdoors. In order to break down, the compost materials need heat and air. Various compost containers are designed to do just that, with small openings that allow oxygen in while also keeping heat in. However, the compost pile itself does create a great deal of heat, so if you prefer to simply make a pile outside, just make sure it is guarded with some type of wire or wooden fencing — compost will attract pests like rats and raccoons (red worms in your compost are fine, and actually can help the breakdown process.)


As far as compost containers go, a compost tumbler is a great option. They are a bit of an investment, but they are built to last and ideal for families planning to compost long-term and for those who want to make a great deal of compost for a bigger area of land. Compost doesn’t just simply need a flow of oxygen, it also needs to be turned and aerated two to three times a month. Compost tumblers have a handle on the side or are easily turnable making this process quick and efficient. Compost bins for outside and inside are available as well. These are another great breathable option that keeps heat in, but you’ll need to do some aerating by hand with a pitchfork or similar tool. Simply turn and blend your compost two to three times a month.


Schmidt said that as long as you’re using the right materials, there is no way to fail at composting. This process is very natural, so if you forget to turn your compost one week, it’s still going to break down. The turning simply helps the process. You can even continue to compost in the winter, though the process may be slower. Come spring however, your new gardens will thank you for the nutrient rich soil!

I’ve got compost, now what?

Depending on the size of your pile and general environment, composting can take anywhere from six months to a year. Compost should be dark, with a dirt-like texture. Once your materials have turned into compost, they are ready to use in your gardens and plants. Many local gardeners love what compost has done for their vegetable gardens! You can sprinkle the compost right on top of your soil, or put a little bit in each hole when planting. If you find you still have bigger materials in your compost, but it is mainly broken down, you can use a screen to separate out the bigger materials.


If you don’t have a garden or large outdoor space to use the compost, but still want to give back to the environment, contact local gardens or your town borough — they’ll probably be happy to have it. There are also many compost drop-offs that simply take the compostable materials, which you can collect at home, and they’ll complete the composting process.


Quick Tips

  • Compost needs heat and air as well as aeration (turning).
  • Be patient: composting can take time, but it’s a natural process that will happen.
  • Keep pests out! They’re really the only thing that can mess up your compost.
  • The best way to compost grass clippings is just to put them right back into the grass.
  • No chemically treated materials.
  • No fatty foods.
  • Keep our handy cheat sheet close by, in case you need reminding (it’s just the right size to post on the fridge!).

Contributing Writer