Composting is Easier than you Think

First, let me start by repeating it here – composting is way easier than you think!

If you’ve ever tried to learn how to compost you may have found it overwhelming! I know I did – until I fully wrapped my head around what was going on. Here’s why. Everyone seems to have a different theory as to what you need to make good compost. Heck – even for our article on the science of compost, we tried to make a big table showing all the things you need for a good compost pile – from moisture, to temperature, to the proper Carbon to Nitrogen ratio. I worry that giving all this information might be counter productive, so here is where I think it’s important to stop and think about the basics.

Why are you composting?

Most of the time the answer is either that you want to be responsible and make sure our food waste doesn’t fill a landfill. Alternatively you may want to make sure you’re able to turn all your organic material back into rich soil for your garden.

Ok, so let’s start with those two answers. Both just mean you want to turn your organic material back into soil. The good news is that all organic material will turn back into soil through decomposition if you leave it outside. Pile up a bunch of leaves or a pile of bananas and it’ll eventually decompose. The point is, it’s super simple and you can start there. Just put it in a pile and you’re golden. You’ve hit stage one.

Now, I feel like getting some extra knowledge will help you troubleshoot – because likely you’re going to want to speed up the process.

Speeding up your composting

To speed up your compost you’ll want to make sure you have a pile that has a good ration of carbon heavy stuff (browns) like leaves, cardboard, paper, and sticks with nitrogen heavy stuff (greens) like food scraps. Why the mix?

If you just have browns – like a stack of cardboard, it may just stay like a big stack of cardboard. The organisms that are going to break everything down – from fungi to bacteria, they need some nitrogen to speed up the process.

If you just have greens – like food scraps, it might end up a big stinky mess. It may start to attract a lot of rodents, flies or other unwanted guests. Plus, it may start breaking down so quickly that all the oxygen is used up and goes into anaerobic fermentation. The byproduct of all that is stinky.

That’s why you want to aim for a mix and why people have all sorts of “recipes.” In theory you want more carbon (browns) than nitrogen rich items (greens). But, if I started to explain that the ideal ration is 30:1 or started into the ratio present in every item you would add to your compost I may defeat the purpose of this article. In fact, we already explained that here if you want to look into the science. The last ingredient is turning your pile.

Why Turn Your Compost Pile?

Again – remember that your pile will break down eventually. Turning the pile does a couple things.

  1. Turning the pile makes sure the middle of the pile has oxygen. The organisms that are breaking things down there need that.
  2. Mixing it up also takes the material on the edges and starts mixing it into the middle, where the break-down happens.

If you don’t turn the pile, it’ll go slower. You also run the risk of the process turning anaerobic – which is a slower breakdown process.

Here is a video we did with the zoo about how they do composting. I hope you can see how all of what I just wrote about relates to the processes that they use there as well.


More about Compost

The Science of Compost: Basic to Advanced

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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