The Hows and Whys of Composting

— Written By

The Hows and Whys of Composting

Written By Lucy Banks, Guilford County (NC) Extension Master Gardener Volunteer

The most important thing to remember about composting is that anyone can do it and everyone should do it. Many people, probably most of them gardeners, already compost as part of their daily routine. But many others do not because they do not know why they should or how to do it.

Why should everyone compost? On a global level, it is good for the environment. Composting is like recycling for organic products. Instead of throwing your vegetable and fruit scraps in the garbage, you recycle them as compost, thus reducing the amount of garbage sent to landfills. Not only does it reduce waste that has to be picked up by garbage services and processed, but composting also completes a beneficial cycle of use and return, or renew. By returning unused parts of plant material to the soil through composting, we are renewing what we have previously used, or taken from. On a personal level, it improves your soil and anything that you are trying to grow in your soil.  If your conscience is telling you to recycle your cans and glass, your paper and aluminum, it should also be telling you to recycle your organic waste as compost. You will feel good about it and it will help all your gardening endeavors.

The question of how to compost is a bit more complicated. Many people are intimidated by the idea that they have to build a compost pile a certain way to make it hot enough. There are those who live in apartments who might have only potted plants and are unsure how to compost on a small scale. Others may worry about the possibility of odor from a compost pile or attracting rodents. All are valid concerns. There is a wealth of information in books, magazines, and online that gives details on how to build a compost pile, using the correct ratio of carbon and nitrogen-providing materials to generate the appropriate amount of heat. The downside is that all the do’s and don’ts may end up persuading folks not to compost because it sounds too complicated. Relax. It does not have to be hard.

Plant material – from the yard and from the kitchen – will decompose over time, even if you do not build your compost pile the “right” way. Yes, it will decompose faster and provide you with a useable end product in less time if you are able to provide the ideal amounts of “green” and “brown” materials in your pile, add a little soil, water it, and turn it. But if you do not have access to the right materials, you can still compost what you do have. Hot piles break down faster; cold piles still do the job. To make creating a hot pile easier, there are now many compost containers/bins on the market that will keep your materials enclosed, which aids in the heating and breaking down process, as well as eliminating any untidiness. Many of these have a system for turning the compost materials and/or an additional door to remove the “done” machine in use

An alternative to purchasing a compost bin is to make your own from a garbage can with a tight lid. You will need to punch holes in the can to allow air flow. The advantage is that it is inexpensive and you can simply roll it on the ground to “turn” your compost. The disadvantage is the small size.

If space and aesthetics are not issues, you can easily create a compost pile in your own yard. Choose a location handy to your garden and with plenty of sun.  Your pile will be neater and decompose faster if it is contained within an enclosure of some type. A mixture of leaves and other “brown” materials with a smaller amount of grass clippings and other “green” materials is ideal. However, what you put in your compost pile will depend on what your yard and garden and kitchen generate. When I lived in New England, I had an over-abundance of leaves, compared to every other type of organic waste. Here in Piedmont NC, I live in an open area with no leaves at all, so my compost has different ingredients and a different look to it. I also collect leaves from others who rake and bag them! Regardless of what you put into your compost pile, sprinkle a little soil on top of each layer of material, plan to turn it regularly, and water it when dry. An efficient system if you have a large yard/garden is to have three composting piles or bins at once – one for starter materials, one for actively decaying compost, and one for finished product.

If you are in an apartment or other small space and do not have much material to compost beyond kitchen scraps, you might consider vermiculture, or composting with worms. You can make (or purchase) your own composting container but you will probably have to buy the worms. There are step-by-step instructions on various websites, including the North Carolina Extension Service website (   Vermicomposting is also popular with teachers because it is self-contained, easy to do, kid-friendly, and not smelly.

Are you making lunch or cooking dinner tonight? Start saving those potato peels and apple cores, even your coffee grounds and tea bags, and start composting today!

Sources and Resources:

Edward Smith. ( 2009). The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Second Edition. Storey Publishing.

Eliot Coleman. (1992). Four-Season Harvest. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Eliot Coleman. (1995). The New Organic Grower, Second Edition. Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Barbara Damrosch (2008). The Garden Primer, Second Edition. Workman Publishing Company, Inc.

Organic Gardening, Feb/Mar 2014, “Composting is Awesome!” by Nancy Matsumoto, p 56

Organic Gardening, Apr/May 2014, “Vermicomposting” by Beth Huxta, p64

Written By

Photo of Karen NeillKaren NeillCounty Extension Director & Extension Agent, Agriculture - Urban Horticulture (336) 641-2400 karen_neill@ncsu.eduGuilford County, North Carolina
Updated on Nov 2, 2015
Was the information on this page helpful? Yes check No close
This page can also be accessed from: