Backyard composting makes me feel really good. I use nourishing compostable materials to benefit my garden and know that I am making a difference in reducing the amount of trash in  our landfills.  Backyard composting may seem like a small joyful change, but if we all joined together to reduce our compostable trash, think of how much we can reduce the trash in our landfills and the amazing flowers and gardens we can produce for all to enjoy. Here is an easy guide to backyard composting to help you on your journey to live more sustainably.

Food scraps and yard waste make up more than 30 percent of what we throw away, and could be composted instead.

According to, “Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.” Peelings from vegetables and fruit, coffee grounds, leaves and grass — plus water — makes a wonderful concoction that replenishes the soil; it’s economical and so easy to do.

To learn more about how our trash is handled, read our blog, Let’s Start Really Thinking About Our Trash.

What is composting?

Composting is the process of recycling decomposing (rotting, decaying, disintegrated) matter back into soil — in other words breaking down dried leaves, grass, discarded plant-based and cellulose fiber materials into nutrient rich dirt.  Composting speeds up the process by helping to grow the bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms as well as earthworms and insects that do the decomposing work.  As Janine M. Benyus writes in The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States, “There are entire worlds to explore in every teaspoon of soil.”  Once the cycle is complete you will have what gardeners call “black gold.”

All that is required to transform compost into a nutrient-rich humus is nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. 

Composting is very beneficial in breaking down matter into a nutrient-rich soil that smells incredibly good. You may have noticed when taking a hike in the woods an earthy/woodsy smell; what you are smelling is the breakdown of organic material which becomes humus.  Seeds, root fragments, and plants thrive in this material.

The benefits of composting:
  • energy savings
  • pollution reduction
  • reduction of  the ultimate volume of waste requiring disposal in landfills and Waste to Energy (WTE) facilities
  • the fostering of an environmental ethic among citizens
  • increased carbon sequestration of natural resources
How composting started. 

According to Stu Campbell, decomposition is at least as old as the soil itself and long before people were around to observe it as it has been going on in every forest, meadow, swamp, bog, prairie, and grasslands around our planet.  He acknowledges poet Walt Whitman in stating, ‘The earth itself is something of a compost pile. It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.”  Citizens of old civilizations were the true discoveries of organic gardening writes Campbell.  “Only by trial and error were they able to learn what worked when it came to making synthetic manure. They didn’t have anyone to guide them or give them good advice because there was nobody around who knew very much.”

My experience with composting.

I have been composting since 1988 when my husband and I purchased our first home in Central New York.  We had about 1.25 acres of land with fields and forests beyond our property line.  We inherited an asparagus and strawberry patch on the property which really piqued my interest in gardening.  Composting is something that I did all year long but did not realize or quite understand how nutrient- rich and beneficial it was besides eliminating trash from our garbage that was disposed of and picked up by waste management on a weekly basis then emptied into a landfill.  In that same year of 1988, the New York State Legislature established our State Solid Waste Management Policy which enlightened me more about the benefits of reducing our own solid waste materials.

My backyard compost pile.

In my early days of home ownership, my backyard compost pile certainly did heat up and sadly enough the only ones to use that compost pile were the reptiles who loved to bask in the warmth on top of it.  I did not realize then that black gold, the by-product of all of those carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, was filled with so many beneficial nutrients and would have been such a great addition to my garden’s soil and to the vegetables, fruit, and herbs that I had planted.

One day, I was  invited to visit an organic farm,  and I was hooked.  I learned how to mix different types of soil amendments along with composting to boost my garden without the use of pesticides and herbicides.  As I planted several garden beds over the years, each time I would have to dig down into the shale rock and clay.  It was hard work but I enjoyed it.  Composting is a great way of organically helping to break up the clay matter as it helps to drain and aerate.  

The formula for a successful compost is to mix two parts green to one part brown material:

Nitrogen (N)-rich plants (green) such as grass clippings, fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and ground up rinsed egg shells, 

Carbon ©-rich plants (brown) such as small twigs, dried leaves, and shredded newspaper/brown paper bags

Potassium (K)-rich organic sources such as coffee grounds and  potash (which are wood ashes from leftover wood fires from a fireplace or stove); ashes from banana skins, lemon skins, cucumbers, and cocoa shells are also good sources.  I usually just chop them up and add without burning.  Potassium is also a component in fertilizer.

There are a couple of choices with these materials as you can layer them periodically or chop them up together with a lawn mower which will help the material decompose quicker.

You may find that you will need to adjust this formula if your compost is smelling or attracting flies.  If it is not decomposing quickly, simply add more green material.  If your compost looks mucky or has a bad odor, add more brown material. 

Never add bones, dog/cat waste, cooked kitchen scraps, dairy products, diseased plants, treated grass clippings, weeds with seeds, or meat to your compost pile. This spells disaster especially with meat and dairy products as they will attract animals like mice to your compost.

There are several ways to compost depending on how involved you want to be:
  • FoodCycler electric composter
  • At-home composting using the Bokashi composting, worm composting, garden compost, and chickens to use up all of our food scraps and eventually return those nutrients to the soil.
  • Compost rotary bins
  • Mixing municipal pick up and a compost bin at home
  • Composting on a small urban garden plot
  • Community compost pick up programs
I personally use several composting methods. 

I have a small stainless steel countertop container which is filled with kitchen plant-based scraps, ground coffee, and crushed egg shells mixed with a little water. Once it is filled, the scraps are taken to two to four pallet bins in the backyard, in a partially sunny area that is out of the way where the compost can heat up. The left side of the first pallet has the old compost ready to go into the garden while the second one has the newer material that needs to break down.  These are rotated as I use them.  I try to make sure that the compost is moist but not saturated — and aerated by tossing it occasionally with a pitch fork.  This “pile up” or “lasagna” method was how I first began composting without knowing it.  It takes a while to decompose when left on its own as it takes longer to heat up because of the size.

For Mother’s Day one year, I received a composting rotary bin from my son. Similar to a garbage barrel, this tumbler is really convenient as you can move it around, placing it in an area that is easily accessed. It’s as simple as adding collected raw materials into the bin and aerating them by placing the top and screw in place. Then you just turn the tumbler and the ingredients are mixed.

If your interest has piqued, I would highly recommend, Let It Rot, The Gardener’s Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell.  It is a delightful book on all aspects of composting.

An easy way to start composting is by using a service near you. Explore our  OPL Insight map to find composting services in a city near you.

OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer

This experience was shared by OPL Naturalist Yvonne Dwyer.

Learn more about Yvonne.