How to Make a Compost Pile


Composting not only reduces trash in landfills, but it also improves your backyard at home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow.” That means bigger produce, prettier flowers and a healthier garden can come at no extra cost to you once you start saving your family’s scraps and turning them into “plant food.”

Follow our guide to composting so you can help improve the planet — and your own home garden — while reducing the amount of garbage you throw away. Experts from the Good Housekeeping Institute share their tips and tricks for making composting work no matter where you live.

Why should I compost?

Composting is an effective way to minimize the amount of garbage your family sends to the landfill. Not only does this reduce the methane gas produced by landfills, which is a major factor in global warming, but it can also help control trash can odor in your home. And the biggest payoff? You’ll be left with a rich fertilizer you can use in your own garden or donate to your favorite cause.

What can I compost?

Food scrap and yard waste may be the largest percent of your compost material — you can include a lot of items from your kitchen and garden. But other household items, like newspaper and hair, are also fine to add to the mix.

✔️ Food

  • Fruit and vegetable peels and scrap
  • Mushroom scraps
  • Eggshells
  • Bread, grains and pasta
  • Coffee grounds and some coffee filters
  • Loose teas and tea bags

    ✔️ Yard

    • Grass
    • Leaves
    • Wood ash
    • Sawdust

      ✔️ Other

      • Newspaper
      • Cardboard
      • Dryer lint
      • Hair
      • Nail clippings
      • Brown paper bags
      • Toothpicks
      • Matches
      • Cut flowers

        What can I not compost?

        While they are biodegradable, dairy or animal products (even animal bones) will start to smell and attract pests, so toss those in your old-school garbage can. The same goes for fats, oils and pet waste. Also, if you have a disease or insect ridden plant, don’t add it to the pile — it could contaminate your compost, making it unusable.

        ✔️ Food

        • Meat or animal bones
        • Dairy
        • Egg whites or yolks

          ✔️ Yard

          • Diseased leaves or plants
          • Coal ash

            ✔️ Other

            • Grease
            • Chemicals
            • Pet waste
            • Produce stickers
            • Plastic
            • Fats and oils

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              How can I compost outside?

              If you want to compost in your backyard, learn the dos and don’ts to set yourself up for success. Selen Nehrozoglu, a research assistant at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick, NJ, shared her helpful tips on how to manage your organic waste:

              1. Create a compost zone. If you plan to use a compost bin, make sure it’s convenient to access and that there is room for a lid to open. Nehrozoglu says it’s fine to use any sealable containers for both indoor and outdoor compost storage. “For indoor compost, containers with lids that twist shut have worked well in my experience,” she says. “They are easy to open and close while also keeping the scent contained.”

                If you want to start a compost pile, choose an open area—you need at least 3 square feet of space—and scatter some twigs or straw to ensure aeration and drainage. Use chicken wire or fencing to protect your pile from animals such as raccoons (or even the neighbor’s dog).

              2. Balance “green” and “brown” materials. Whether you opt for a bin or a pile, Nehrozoglu says a helpful ratio for compost composition is roughly two-thirds “brown matter” (sticks, dry leaves, or dirt) and one-third “green matter” (food scraps or fresh plant waste). Maintaining a balance is important is because “brown” materials are rich in carbon, feeding the organisms that break down the scraps, and “green” materials supply nitrogen — key for building the cell structure of your new soil.

                “As a general rule of thumb, I like to add enough brown matter to fully cover the food scraps,” she says. “I use a shovel to mix the materials together, chopping down any of the more bulky food scraps like melon peels. After mixing, I add a thin layer of brown matter on top.”

              3. Manage the moisture. If your pile doesn’t receive enough rain, you will need to add water with a watering can or hose. You could also opt to add wet scraps when moisture is needed. You’re going for damp, not soaking.

                If you live in a very rainy area, keep the pile covered (a loose tarp is fine) so it doesn’t get too wet, which can cause rot and destroy helpful microorganisms.

              4. Turn your compost. Your compost also needs oxygen. Without air, your pile will start to rot and smell, so you’ll need to rotate and stir the pile. With the right mixture of scrap, moisture and air, your compost should smell like nothing but earthy dirt. Nehrozoglu says that for manual mixing — use a pitchfork— you’ll ideally turn the scraps every two to four weeks.

                If you’re using a bin, you could opt for a tumbler, which spins to mix the compost. Some also include an internal rail that breaks up the compost to help with aeration. With a tumbling bin, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation. Most suggest spinning your bin every two to three days.

                When turning the compost, check for heat. The center of your pile or bin should feel warm; you want to maintain an internal temperature of 130˚F to 150˚F. When the compost is ready, it will stop generating heat and look uniform and crumbly, like soil.

                1. How can I compost inside?

                  How to compost at home

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                  Whether you’re in an apartment or a house without a backyard, you can set up a mini collection station right in your kitchen so you don’t have to trash food scraps. See below for a step-by-step guide from the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute:

                  1. Get a compost bin with a tight-fitting lid. Whether you opt for a plastic bin or a stainless steel version, make sure it comes with a lid. Some plastic versions may absorb smells, explains Laurie Jennings, GH Institute director, which is why she uses an old stainless steel ice bucket with a matching lid on her countertop to collect compostable material.
                  2. Line your compost bin with biodegradable bags. While it’s tempting to want to reuse plastic bags from the grocery store, these aren’t biodegradable and can defeat the purpose of your composting. Jennings swears by BioBag’s compostable bags (available in 3- and 13-gallon sizes) even after trying a number of more expensive brands.
                  3. Store full compost bags in your freezer. You’ll want to replace the bag regularly so weeks-old scraps don’t start to stink up your space. Once your bin is at capacity, secure the bag, and place it in the freezer (yes, really!). This will make scraps easier to transport, eliminate any odor, halt active decomposition and buy you some time if you can’t immediately get rid of them.
                  4. Find a local collection service or drop-off location. If you don’t have a garden in which to compost your scraps, see if your community offers collection services. Contact your local municipality or visit CompostNow‘s site which lists participating services around the country — some even provide at-home starter kits and regular curbside pickup. The rules all depend on where you live. If you bring your own waste to a transfer station, check with them too: Many have designated compost areas.

                    If you live in an apartment or in a city without collection, you likely have to put in a little extra effort to donate your compost, but it’s worth it, explains Birnur Aral, Ph.D., director of the Health, Beauty & Environmental Sciences Lab, who is a home-composter in a community that doesn’t have a collection program.

                    “Every few weeks I bring my scraps to my daughter’s college where they have built a composting bin,” she says. “In the summer, I bring bags to my local farmer’s market and give them to a neighbor who sells produce and uses the compost at her farm upstate.” It’s a little way to give back.

                    1. How can I use my compost?

                      Incorporate it into your garden beds or sprinkle it on top. Remember, compost is not a replacement for your soil, but rather acts as a natural fertilizer to nurture your soil and plants, so add it a couple of times a year for best results.

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