The ultimate guide to compost at home

Composting has blossomed in popularity over the last ten or twenty years with home gardeners, but surprisingly, it’s a process that was devised close to a hundred years ago. The finished compost heralds many benefits as a soil amendment, while the process itself is beneficial to the environment. Most people assume you need outdoor space to compost but the good news is that isn’t the case; composting is even doable indoors if you live in an apartment!

What is composting 

Really simply, composting is a natural process where yard waste and/or kitchen scraps are broken down by bacteria, fungi, and worms into organic material that is endearingly called “black gold.” The organic matter is then added to garden soil or soilless potting mixes to improve the structure, fertility, and water holding capacity.

Not only are there benefits to using it as a soil amendment, but the process itself also reduces the waste sent to landfills. In turn, it decreases the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to better air quality. This reduction in gas emissions is causing people to compost their waste indoors, even if they don’t have a need for the finished product (i.e. they don’t have a garden to add it to).

Home composting can initially seem like a daunting task. Once you gain a little knowledge of the science behind it and the steps involved, it’s easy to get started.

Types of composting systems

There are many different ways to compost waste. The different methods offer flexibility by allowing people to compost outdoors or have a system that is suitable for inside. 

  1. Piling is a simple, common outdoor process. Materials are literally heaped into a pile and turned periodically to aerate. Over time everything slowly breaks down into compost.

  2. Composting bins are either open or enclosed bins that contain everything in outdoor systems. Open bins are a partial structure; materials are confined but the partial structure allows for ventilation and aeration. Enclosed bins contain the sight of the pile and its smell with a lid.

  3. Tumblers are a specialized enclosed compost bin. Cylindrical in nature, composting tumblers have a handle allowing the homeowner to  “turn” or tumble the materials inside easily. Their size typically relegates them to outdoor use.

  4. Vermicomposting or worm composting, is a variation of composting that relies heavily on a type of worms called red wigglers to break down the materials. It can be done inside or outside. A specialized worm bin is often used and focuses mainly on compostable kitchen waste.

  5. Bokashi is another alternative to traditional composting methods where bran (or another medium) is inoculated with microorganisms that ferment waste material - not technically composting them - under anaerobic conditions. Originating from Japan, this simplified process allows people to break down a wider range of waste materials indoors with little to no offensive smell.

How does composting happen?

In order for composting to occur there needs to be four different components present:

  1. Organic waste
  2. Moisture
  3. Oxygen
  4. Microorganisms

In the presence of moisture and oxygen, two types of microorganisms (mesophiles and thermophiles) work in three stages to create compost. 

The 3 stages of composting

How long the entire process takes depends on how involved you are, the size of your pile/bin, and what you put into it. According to Daily Gardener, some experts believe that anything from a few weeks/months to even a couple of years is an acceptable length.

Stage 1: 

In the first stage organisms that live in lower temperatures (68 - 113℉), begin to break the material(s) into smaller pieces. This takes a couple of days and corresponds with an increase in the pile’s internal temperature.

Stage 2:

When the temperature is between 113 - 252℉, thermophiles drive the second stage of the process. At the higher temps, these microorganisms efficiently break down the proteins, fats, and complex carbs molecules. This second stage spans several days to months.

Stage 3:

As thermophilic microorganisms use up the available supply of materials the temperature of the pile starts to lower, allowing the mesophiles to resume control of the process again. During this final step, mesophiles finish breaking down the organic materials allowing it to mature into usable compost.

Understanding the materials in a compost pile/bin

For simplicity sake, most decomposable materials in compost piles can be classified as either brown or green materials, depending on their makeup. The processes behind decomposition occur when the two types of materials are in the proper balance. 

  • Brown materials are carbon-rich items that provide energy to the microorganisms in the pile and give compost its light, fluffy body. Typical brown items are more wood-based, or fibrous: dry leaves, branches, stems, sawdust, tree bark, shredded newspaper, corn stalks, wood ash, and pine needles.

  • Green materials are nitrogen-based waste materials. They provide amino acids and proteins needed for the bacteria and fungi to do their job. Manures, food scraps, coffee grounds, green leaves, and grass clippings are excellent nitrogen-rich green materials.

A simple rule of thumb is to make sure the compost pile has approximately 2/3 “brown” (i.e. carbon-based) materials and 1/3 “green” (nitrogen-based) materials. The ratio should always skew more towards carbon than nitrogen.

Composting in small spaces (like apartments)

Unfortunately, not everyone has space or the ability to build a compost pile or bin outside. Apartment dwellers, renters, and those living in urban high-rises may still want to reduce waste going into landfills and create compost for their container plants. Fortunately, with some creativity, they can still achieve this, even indoors!

Depending on your living situation, you can choose to compost your scraps in one of three ways:

  1. Collect your food scraps and dispose of them at a drop-off somewhere to be composted or arrange for a pick-up by a composting collection service.
  2. Collect your food scraps and compost them outside in a tumbler if you have access to a patio or balcony. A tumbler fully encloses the process, minimizing smell and mess.
  3. Collect your food scraps and compost them indoors. Vermicomposting and the bokashi method of composting are usable inside as both processes work best in a tightly sealed bucket or storage container, and have minimal smells compared to the other methods when the correct protocol is followed.

How to get started composting indoors

First off, if you want to get as close to zero waste as possible yet you don’t want to do the actual composting yourself you can often collect food scraps and then drop them off at a local farmers market, community garden, or a designated compost drop-off location. They will then do the actual composting.

If you opt to do the composting yourself, there are a couple of different methods you can choose from, depending on the space you have available and the process you want to follow.

Supplies for composting

Before you get started, decide if you are going to use a tumbler outside or if you will do it all indoors using worms to compost, or the bokashi method. After choosing the method you can then purchase the needed supplies for your given system.

Tumbler

  • Compost tumbler. Invest in a BPA-free polypropylene tumbler resistant to UV degradation. A dual-chamber tumbling composter allows you to have two separate batches of compost processing at various stages. Internal fins help to break up clumps and aeration holes provide ample oxygen.

Vermicomposting

  • Worm bin. Commercially made bins can be purchased that are designed for vermicomposting; they are equipped with a tight-fitting lid and sometimes have a spigot to drain any leachate that accumulates. You can also purchase a sturdy, plastic storage container from a local retailer to use.

  • Composting worms. Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) and redworms (Lumbricus rubellus) are the best varieties to choose from. They prefer a composting media over regular soil but need to be purchased from a retailer; they do not naturally occur in garden soils.

  • Bedding. Look for a pH-neutral organic material consisting of a high carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio. Common bedding materials are aged horse manure, shredded cardboard, shredded paper, compost, coconut coir, peat moss, leaves, yard waste, and straw,

  • Grit. A fine grit needs to be added to the compost bin to aid the worms in digestion since they have a gizzard similar to birds. An easy way to add this is to finely grind up eggshells.

Bokashi

  • Bokashi bucket. Really simply, a bokashi bucket is a five-gallon, BPA-free plastic pail with a tight-fitting lid and a spigot at the bottom to drain leachate out as the fermentation process occurs. You can purchase one already designed for bokashi composting or make your own.

  • Inoculated bran. This starter has been inoculated with the probiotic microorganisms that drive the fermentation process. As these bins are not turned like the others you need to add the inoculated mixture every time you add food scraps to your bucket.

  • Dinner plate. Place this over the top layer in your bucket to create a seal, keeping oxygen from getting into the materials. It should be almost the same diameter as your bokashi bucket for optimum results.

General Supplies

  • Scrap collection bin. Most systems work best if you only add scraps every few days. To contain everything for a few days (even letting is sit on your countertop!), opt for a stainless-steel collection container that has a charcoal filter in it to reduce odors. Stainless steel is easy to clean and resists rust and leaks. Food recyclers will mince scraps up into a fraction of their original volume, making it easier for microorganisms to begin the composting or fermenting process.

  • Compostable bags. To aid in clean up, line your scrap collection bin with a compostable bag made from the starches of plants. Simply pull the bag out every few days and dump your scraps into your tumbler, worm bin, or bokashi bucket.
  • Compost thermometer. Periodically check the internal temperature of your pile to make sure the composting process is at the correct temp. Stainless steel probes in at least 24-inch length resist rust and reach the center of your pile/bin easily. To simplify the process look for a model that clearly indicates “warm”, “active”, and “hot” temperature ranges.
  • Carbon additives. To keep the microorganisms happy, you may need to periodically add more carbon or “brown” ingredients to your bin. You can add shredded cardboard or a product such as horse bedding pellets to increase the carbon content.

Setting up a tumbler

This system is the easiest of the three to get started, but alas, only works if you have an outdoor space to keep it. From start to finish you can have usable compost within about a month if the conditions are hot 

  1. After assembly, load the tumbler with green waste material and kitchen scraps. Most tumbler instructions recommend loading it with approximately 75% green materials such as grass clippings and 25% kitchen scraps, foregoing the common brown to green material ratio in traditional piles or bins.
  2. Add in a scoop full of “starter” material that contains the beneficial microbes driving the process. They can be found in garden soil, a commercial activator, or finished compost.
  3. Turn it every couple of days.

Setting up a worm bin

It’s best if you can set up the bin, bedding, and food a couple of days ahead of adding worms. This gives the moisture level in the bin time to equilibrate.

  1. Cover the bottom with a layer of shredded newspaper or other bedding, fluffing it up to minimize compaction.
  2. Add food scraps in a fairly even, shallow layer across the bedding, at a rate of about one pound of waste per pound of worms.
  3. Add another layer of dry, shredded bedding making sure to cover the food waste completely.
  4. Cover the bin and let it sit for 48-hours if possible. Occasionally check the moisture level of the bedding. If the bedding is dry after a day or two add a small amount of water;  if any liquid is pooling within the bin add a bit more bedding. 
  5. When the bedding is sufficiently moist, pull back the top layer, and add your worms at a rate of 1/2 – 1 1/2 pounds of worms per square foot of container space. Then cover with the top layer of bedding.
  6. Tightly close the lid and place the bin out of direct sunlight where the temperature ranges between 50 and 80℉.

Worm bin maintenance

Once the worm bin is up and running, perform the following basic steps to keep the worms happy and working efficiently.

  • Feed your worms weekly. Healthy worms consume approximately half their weight in food daily, making it necessary to continuously replenish their food.
  • Add fresh bedding every time you feed your worms. This absorbs excess moisture and minimizes odors.
  • Keep the food and bedding consistently moist; similar to the moisture in a damp sponge.
  • Store the bin in a dark location except when adding food or bedding to keep worm activity at its highest.

Setting up a bokashi composter

Remember that bokashi actually ferments your waste, instead of composting it like the other methods. When the process is completed the food particles will still look similar in appearance to their original state. 

  1. Add a few spoonfuls of your inoculated starter/bran to the bottom of the bucket. If there isn’t a spigot to drain the liquid leachate out, add a couple of inches of shredded newspaper or cardboard to the bottom.
  2. Add a two-inch layer of food scraps, in pieces that are no bigger than 1-inch in size. Use either a food recycler or dice them up using a chef’s knife.
  3. Sprinkle a few more spoonfuls of bran on top of the food scraps and then press everything down with a potato masher or meat tenderizer to remove any air pockets.
  4. Place your plate on top to create an air barrier and tightly close the lid.
  5. Every few days drain off the accumulated liquid. This can be diluted at a 100 to 1 ratio with water and used to water your plants or simply discarded down the drain. 
  6. Add another layer of food scraps, a couple of spoonfuls of bran, and cover again with the plate.
  7. Once the bucket is full allow it to sit sealed and undisturbed for about 2 weeks to allow fermentation. 
  8. At this point, the fermented product can be added to a compost bin or tumbler for finishing, buried in the garden to cure, or disposed of similarly to your collected food scraps if you aren’t composting.

Materials to add to your compost bin:

  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Tea bags
  • Newspapers or paper towels

Materials to avoid in your compost bin:

  • Meat and bones*
  • Dairy products*
  • Fats and oils
  • Nutshells
  • Highly acidic or irritating items (citrus, onions, hot peppers)*
  • Pet waste or solid waste

*These should be avoided if you have a worm bin but can be included if you are following the bokashi method.

How to avoid smell and mess

When done correctly, regardless of the method employed, your compost pile/bin shouldn’t stink. You can avoid or minimize offensive odors by:

  • Providing proper aeration in a tumbler or vermicomposting bin.
  • Adding enough brown material to achieve the optimum ratio of materials.
  • Maintaining a proper moisture level for the microorganisms.
  • Only adding materials that are suitable for your composting method.

Where to dispose of scraps or finished compost

This probably sounds like a strange section, considering most people compost to add the finished product to their garden soil or container plants. Not everyone who composts though does so for the finished product; some people choose to compost simply to reduce their waste.

If you choose to go the DIY route and make your own compost the best option is to add it as a soil amendment to your garden soil, your houseplants, or any other container plants you are growing. Adding compost will help the soil retain water more efficiently and provides plant essential nutrients, decreasing the amount of fertilizer your plants need.

Lastly, if you don’t have a yard or container plants, don’t worry! There are a couple of ways to get rid of your finished compost if you can’t use it yourself.

  • Offer it to your neighbors who garden or have container plants. 
  • Community gardens often take donations of finished compost for their plots. 
  • Schools offering vocational tech programs in horticulture may take donations for their student projects.

All of these services will vary depending on your location; contact local entities directly to check availability and guidelines.

Best products for apartment composting

If you’re contemplating your own apartment composting adventure, it can be daunting scrolling through pages and pages of online products. Trying to decide on the best supplies to purchase can be tiresome for even an experienced composter. So I’ve put together some of the best products available online to get you started!

FCMP Outdoor Tumbling Composter

The FCMP outdoor composting tumbler is the best tumbler available, and a great product for beginners. Two separate chambers allow you to have compost in one side “curing” or finishing, while you continously add kitchen scraps to the second chamber. This provides a constant supply of usable compost. 

A large opening and removable doors make it easy to add materials and remove the finished compost. The BPA-free plastic container holds up to five cubic feet of scraps/compost and won’t leach chemicals into the finished product. UV inhibited, the tumbler will not break down from being ouside where it is subjected to UV exposure from the sun.

The tumbling design allows the user to quickly and easy mix the compost. Simply turn it five to six times every couple of days when new scraps are added.

Who should purchase this?

FCMP’s outdoor composting tumbler is best suited for apartment dwellers or homeowners who have a patio or balcony space where they want to do their composting. The compact design works well for smaller families or individuals who don’t have a large amount of kitchen waste.

Pros:

  • BPS-free plastic is UV inhibited to prevent degradation from sunlight.
  • Dual chambers allows you to have one side finishing and the other active accepting new scraps.
  • Deep fins break up clumps within the composter and mix a lot of oxygen into the materials.

Cons:

  • Assembly instructions aren’t very user-friendly.
  • Bin is not one solid piece, allowing liquid to escape at the seams where it is screwed together.

All Seasons Bokashi Compost Starter and Soil Innoculant

Compost starter is a required product when following the bokashi method, and All Seasons Bokashi Compost Starter and Soil Innoculant is the best product on the market.

One of the most important concepts with composting is putting the microorganisms at work in contact with a constant supply of fresh “food”, or waste in this case. Tumblers are spun to mix the internal materials, and the worms in worm bins constantly move to find new food to consume, but bokashi containers are left undisturbed. To make sure the food waste is broken down you have to add a layer of starter every time food scraps are added.

It is a mix of high-quality wheat bran, rice bran, molasses, and SCD probiotics. Unlike other starters that may contain a single strain of probiotics, SCD’s proprietary process blends numerous strains of naturally-occuring, non-GMO microorganisms. This blend of probiotics works together in a synergistic fashion to increase resiliency of the microorganisms and break down materials more quickly than leading competitors.

All Seasons bokashi starter also promotes the growth of other beneficial microorganisms to achieve a healthy microbial balance within your bokashi bucket. It can also be added to composting tumblers or worm bins when they are set up to jumpstart the decomposition process. 

Who should purchase this?

A quality bokashi starter such as the All Seasons product is a must-buy product for anyone opting to compost inside their home using the bokashi method. It is also useful as a starter product when composting via tumblers or worm bins to add beneficial microbes to the bin.

Pros:

  • 100% natural product, that is safe to use around kids or pets.
  • SCD probiotics are a proprietary blend of naturally occurring, non-GMO microorganisms.

Cons:

  • More expensive than competitors products.
  • Doesn’t control fruit flies as well as starters containing all rice bran.

Epica Stainless Steel Compost Bin

When composting, it’s best to hold onto your food scraps for a couple of days before adding to a worm bin or bokashi container. Yet most people don’t have a great solution for storing scraps that doesn’t begin to smell or attract insects after a short amount of time. This is where the Epica Stainless Steel bin - the best available - comes in to be a lifesaver.

The 1.3 gallon sized container measures 7.16” in diameter and 11” high. It is capable of holding a few days worth of kitchen scraps yet is small enough to set on your countertop. A one piece molded design resists rusts and leaks and is durable enough to last a lifetime.

An airtight lid and activated charcoal filter work with one another to trap and control odors. Both the container and the filter can be cleaned with soap and water.

Who should purchase this?

Epica’s stainless steel compost bin is perfect for the homeowner looking to contain kitchen scraps for a few days in a design-friendly container. The stainless steel construction neatly stores waste without needing to hide it in a cabinet or out of view of others.

Pros:

  • One piece stainless steel design is easy to clean.
  • Airtight lid and activated charcoal filter keep odors contained.
  • Aesthetically pleasing design.

Cons:

  • Some negative reviews regarding the difficulty when changing the filter.
  • Holes on the lid allow fruit flies into the bin.

Food Cycler Platinum Indoor Food Recycler and Kitchen Compost Container

If you want to quickly compost indoors, the Food Cycler Platinum Indoor Food Recycler and Kitchen Compost Container is the best addition to your composting system!

Food recyclers take your food scraps and within a short amount of time turn them into a nutrient-rich soil amendment through a fully automated process. After completion you can add this product directly to your garden (although keep in mind it isn’t compost yet) or put it in your composting bin to let the microorganisms or worms turn it into black gold.

Simply add your scraps to the Food Cycler and turn the machine on. There’s no need for enzymes, pellets, or other additives. Agitators in the dishwasher-safe container break down all food scraps into small particles, while heating it to sterilize and begin decomposing the product. When the process is done the unit shuts off on its own.

A specially designed activated-carbon filter contains the offensive smells to keep your kitchen free of lingering odors. With a newly added filter monitoring system the Food Cycler tells you when to change the filter taking the guesswork out of maintenance.

Who should purchase this?

If you are looking to speed up the indoor composting process while keeping offensive odors to a minimum, the Food Cycler is your best option. It minces waste into small particles while gently heating the contents to sterilize your scraps all at the push of a button.

Pros:

  • Automated agitation process reduces waste up to 90% of original volume.
  • Sterilizes material simultaneously.
  • Filter monitoring system tells you when to change filters.

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Hard to clean, especially when waste dries completely.

UNNI Compostable Trash Bags

Made from plant starches UNNI’s compostable trash bags are highly degradable making them the perfect, and best solution for lining your compost containers. They contain no polyethelyne and in turn, are BPA-free.

Certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute, North America’s leading certifier of compostable products and packaging and carrying the European OK Compost Home seal from Vincotte these bags are compostable in backyard or other home composting systems.

The 16.5-inch by 16.3-inch 0.71mil bags can hold 2.6-gallons or 9.84 liters of food waste and have a stable shelf life of 12 months.

Who should purchase this?

Compostable trash bags are an excellent purchase for anyone using a composting or scrap container to hold waste temporarily. Acting as a biodegradable liner for your container, they keep your container clean, negating the need to wash it every time you add scraps to your tumbler, vermicomposting bin, or bokashi bucket.

Pros:

  • Highest biobased content of compostable bags.
  • US BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) certified to biodegrade efficiently, and European OK Compost Home certified for use in personal backyard compost piles/bins.
  • Bags pull easily out of the box, similar to tissues.

Cons:

  • Bags can begin to break down from the liquid in your waste, if left too long in a compost container.

Conclusion

Composting is an efficient, environmentally sustainable way of reducing your kitchen and yard waste, turning it into a beneficial soil amendment. The practice has been implemented by avid gardeners for decades and is now gaining popularity across the board. Even people in small apartments with no outdoor space can reduce the amount of waste they add to landfills by composting their kitchen scraps in a variety of ways. So go ahead, try your hand at apartment composting!



Amanda Shiffler

Amanda Shiffler

Most comfortable with soil under her fingernails, Amanda has an enthusiasm for gardening, agriculture, and all things plant related. With an M.S. degree in agriculture and over a decade of experience gardening, she combines her plant knowledge and knack for writing to share what she knows and loves.

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