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Compost Guide | Basics

Compost Guide

Composting Basics

Revised On: Nov. 25, 2023 - 8:20 a.m.

The following provides information about household compostting components and ratios for mixing those components, basic information about different types of compost containers/piles, and tips for selecting the right composting method for you.

For commercial composting, you will need to get notification approval | Learn More >

Compost Components

Basic components for creating compost are:

  • Nitrogen, aka "greens," help bacteria grow and reproduce — includes fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, lawn clippings, tea leaves, etc.
  • Carbon, aka "browns," serves as an energy source for bacteria, producing the heat vital for decomposition — includes plant matter that has turned brown (leaves, twigs, etc.), cardboard, newspaper, etc.
  • Oxygen is used up when bacteria oxidize carbon, so introducing more oxygen prevents anaerobic decomposition, which produces methane and slows decomposition. Since bokashi is an anaerobic process, it does not need oxygen.
  • Water is necessary for the bacteria to survive. Low moisture levels will slow decomposition, and too much moisture will limit oxygen necessary to prevent anaerobic decomposition.

Compost Ratios

It is important to find a balanced ratio in order to achieve a desired rate of decomposition and prevent undesirable odors or attracting pests. A good starting ratio is 4:1 browns to greens, and then you can adjust the ratio to the needs of your pile. If you have an established pile or use worms, you can typically increase your greens.

What do I do if the pile is decomposing too slowly, smells or is attracting pests? | Learn More >

Types of Containers/Piles

Automatic Composter: Available in a variety of sizes, typically cost around $200 and up, and take a lot of the work out of composting. Some automatic composters create a soil amendment in just three to five hours while others produce actual compost with built-in heating and aeration in as little as 2 weeks.

Bin: Typically plastic and range in size from 10 gallon to more than 100 gallon; good for both indoor and outdoor use. A basic compost bin can be made from a plastic storage tote.

Bokashi Bucket: Airtight container (typically 5 gallons) with a spigot or drainage holes at the bottom; well suited for composting in apartments.

Compost Pail: Small, made of metal, ceramic or plastic, and used to collect scraps for composting; perfect for keeping in the kitchen.

Hole/Trench: Used for composting meat, cooked foods, dairy, oils, etc.; scraps are buried between 8 and 18 inches into the ground (to prevent attracting scavengers while avoiding leaching into the water table).

Open Pile: Exists in the open, without a container.

Outdoor Compost Bin: Typically made from wood or mesh and often do not have lids; gaps throughout the side walls allow for easier aeration of large piles.

Tumbler: Basically a bin, usually around 40 to 80 gallons, that rotates on an axis to allow for easier aeration. More suited to an outdoor space, however, there are smaller tumblers at around a 20-gallon capacity that could fit indoors.

Worm Farm: Either tray-based, where you add food to the top of multiple stacked containers until full and then switch to the next, or continuous flow, where you add food to the top of a single container/bag.

Worm Tower: Typically a large-diameter PVC pipe with holes drilled throughout the lower half and buried halfway into the ground. Food scraps are put into the pipe from the top and covered with a lid to keep out scavengers. The holes allow for the worms to move in and out of the tower to eat the food scraps and deposit worm castings around the garden.

Choosing the Right Composting Method for You

Choosing the best composting method depends on your budget, space, whether you want to compost indoors or outdoors, and how you feel about worms or insects.

Free/Low-Price Options
  • If you have limited space, you can find free drop-offs by researching online or asking local famer's market/community garden. Then, collect scraps in a DIY bin for drop-off.
  • If you have an outdoor space and are ok with insects, you can place scraps in a hold/trench, open pile, worm tower or DIY bin.

Mid-Price Options ($40 – $100)
  • If you have limited space, you can pay for a compost service to pick up your scraps or try bokashi. 
  • If you have some indoor space and don't mind worms, try vermicompost.
  • If you have outdoor spaces, try a tumbler, hole/trench, a worm tower or open pile.

High-Price Options ($100+)
  • If you have the money and the space, consider an automatic composter (both indoor and outdoor models available), otherwise try a compost service.