Many people have asked me why I started composting. My general answer is that I was curious about it and thought it would be a nice science experiment for our kids. But I also wanted to make additional eco-friendly changes at home. Fortunately, we also had some big life changes in 2022 that helped make that happen.
The big life change was that we moved from California to Chicago. Fortunately, we found and bought an eco-friendly home with solar panels, zero VOC paint, and mini-split heating and cooling system. But one of my favorite environmentally friendly aspects of the house was its xeriscape yard.
Inspired by Xeriscape
For those who don’t know, a xeriscape yard is a landscaping practice that involves designing the yard and garden with drought-resistant plants. Because we get a fair amount of rain in Chicago, the yard was touted as a no-work, low-water situation. A win for us!
I should also probably mention that I do not have a green thumb. Before moving here, I knew nothing about horticulture. Historically, I have had difficulty keeping plants alive in my own house.
As the winter snow melted a few weeks after moving in, I was curious about how our new outdoor space would present itself. It wasn’t until we had our first annual yard cleanup to prepare the area for summer that I discovered our yard looked different every couple of weeks. New bright flowers bloomed in unexpected places, and some plants even changed their colors from one month to the next.
Now it’s July, and my luscious yard looks something like a jungle but in a manicured and purposeful way.
Visions of Composting
It was then that I suddenly had a gnawing urge to start composting. I envisioned nourishing our new outdoor space with healthy, home-grown nutritive soil. Visions of having my own organic home garden danced in my head. Also, I figured that teaching the science behind composting would help my children understand how to better care for mother earth.
Well, I’m several months down my composting rabbit hole, and I see that there is way more to learn than I could have ever known. (We also have an actual rabbit who has taken refuge in our bushy grasses and eaten every strawberry from our new garden- grrrr.)
Here is what I have learned about composting so far.
Composting For Beginners: The Basics
I figured composting was simple, and it mostly involved putting scrapes into a bin that magically turned into nutrient-rich dirt. Well, it turns out that there is way more science behind the process. The composting process typically takes several weeks or months to do its job under most circumstances.
There are four components to composting:
- Carbon: to provide energy for microbes to break down your scraps into compost
- Nitrogen: contains amino acids and protein to aid microbes
- Water: allows moisture to encourage the breakdown of organic material.
- Oxegen: An essential element for microbes to function
In compost lingo, carbon materials are known as the “browns,” and nitrogen materials are known as the “greens.”
Browns break down more slowly than greens and help oxygenate the compost by preventing the material from collapsing, which would also prevent the proper flow of oxygen inside the compost. The browns are the dry part of the process and should take up the bulk of the space in your compost by about 3-4 times the greens.
Greens provide the nitrogen factor needed in composting. Nitrogen helps to provide the heat necessary to support the bacteria to grow and increase in number.
What to Compost
Composting requires a 3:1 ratio of browns (carbon) to greens (carbon). Browns generally include materials such as:
- Dead leaves
- Paper – newspaper, brown bags, paper towels
- Saw dust
- Coffee filters
Greens generally include:
- Grass and plant clippings
- Vegetable food scrapes
- Fruit scrapes
Things that you do NOT want to add to your compost collection include:
- Fats, such as butter, grease, or cooking oil
- Milk products
- Pet or human waste
- Baked foods
- Highly acidic foods, such as citrus fruits and tomatoes
(Update Note: I got a Lomi kitchen composter in December of 2022. The rules are different with a Lomi composter than with outdoor composting. Read about my experience with Lomi composting in my kitchen!)
How to Start Collecting Food Scraps
Start gathering fruit and vegetable food scraps in a bin in your kitchen. Not everything is compostable, and adding non-compost items can do more harm than good to your compost.
Remember that your scraps start to decompose on their own before adding them to your compost bin. Consider getting an air-tight container or garbage pail for your kitchen so it doesn’t smell.
Cut Your Compost Into Small Pieces
Cut your food scrapes and brown materials into tiny pieces before adding them to your compost pile. I learned this the hard way after finding that large un-decomposed chunks still had not broken down after two months in my compost bin. I had to go in with gloved hands and manually break them down – a time-consuming and preventable process.
Don’t Forget to Turn Your Compost
Turn your compost every few days to ensure fresh oxygenation and assist with decomposition.
Additional recommended reading:
There Are Many Ways to Compost
I started with a large compost bin I bought on Amazon that I could manually turn. It fits nicely in the corner of our yard. Because I was new at composting, I wanted to start with a relatively inexpensive process, and that bin fit my budget at the time.
You will need to decide how you want to compost. There are many ways to compost, ranging from having a pile in your backyard to kitchen composters costing $400 or more that sit nicely on your kitchen counter.
If this is your first composting experience, it may make more sense to start with a less expensive method and decide what works best for you as you go.
Beginner Composting Tips
Hopefully, this article provided you with the essential information you need if you are considering starting a composting program in your home. But before you get started, remember a few basics:
- Decide on the type of composting that works best for you
- You need a three or 4:1 ratio of browns to greens
- Make sure you only add compostable materials to your bin
- Start by collecting your greens in a designated compost bin in your kitchen
- Cuts your scrapes into small pieces before adding them to your pile
- Turn your compost to make sure it gets proper oxygenation
As you gain confidence in your composting skills, you may eventually want to toy with additional methods. I’ve already asked my husband for a $400 kitchen counter composter for Christmas, which is a whopping six months away!
What can I say? I’m a Chicagoan now, and the winter temperatures give me no choice but to compost from the warm comfort of my kitchen until I can nourish my xeriscape jungle again come springtime.
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