composting how-to

Feed the food that ultimately feeds you.

With the warm sun lingering longer outside our windows, I’m thinking about how the food scraps composting under my kitchen sink will soon turn my carrot, onion, radish and herb seedlings into delicious summer grub. I can’t raise chickens where I live, or catch rainwater in barrels, but I do keep a small indoor plant garden. And so I compost – a small (and manageable) way to live more sustainably and survive on what I can create for myself. When you learn to recycle organic matter for the well-being of your plants and vegetables, you’re not only lessening the amount of trash you take down to the street, but enriching the soil that ultimately feeds you.

You don’t need a backyard or a garden in order to grow your own food and compost. As an apartment composter (no yard, no outdoor space), here are my tips for setting up a clean system indoors that won’t upset your natural habitat – or your dinner guests.

compost bin

First things first: the bin. (Image by Jessica Spengler via Flickr)

The Compost Bin

First things first, you need a solid container as the home base for your compost, and it needs to fit somewhere (like under the sink) where the dog won’t try to eat it. A tall bucket (2 x 2 feet) works well. You can also use an old waste bin (that’s what I did), or wooden pallets that you nail together in a square. If the bucket has a lid, great; if it doesn’t, a towel will do just fine.

In order for your scraps to compost, the mixture will need balanced exposure to air and moisture. If your pile becomes too dry, it won’t break down; if it stays too wet, it turns to sludge. Ideally, your compost should be aerated from the top as well as the bottom, maintaining a level of moisture similar to a wet sponge. You can air it yourself by turning the pile once a week with a trowel and adding a cup of new dirt and water as needed, or you can drill holes in the top and the bottom of your bucket to ensure steady air flow (or you can do both, which will speed up the process even more). If you decide to drill holes, you’ll need a tray for the bottom of the bucket for catching dirt and runoff. A plastic lid slightly larger than the bucket itself, or a shallow bowl will do the trick.

Drill about three holes in the bottom of the container and the lid (if you are using a towel for a lid, you don’t need to make holes in it, it’s already loose enough). Line the bottom of the bucket with newspaper.

Starting Your Pile

Before you start adding things to the compost pile, you need to get the appropriate ratio of brown to green material just right. The combination of “green” (nitrogen-rich) scraps and “brown” (carbon-rich) scraps is what differentiates composting from just plain rotting. If you only put brown scraps into the bin, it will take forever to break down, and if you only put the green stuff in, the mixture will get very stinky and nasty as it decomposes, attracting lots of flies and bugs along the way.

The brown to green ratio should always be 3:1. For every one part green (like table scraps), you need three parts carbon-rich material (like newspaper pieces). 

After the newspaper is lining the bottom of your bin, add a layer of leaves, then potting soil or dirt. Follow up with some egg shells and rotten produce, and a layer of newspaper and coffee filters. As you add more organic scraps, continue in this manner, adding a new layer or two of “brown” matter for every layer of green. 

Compost detail

A happy, healthy compost (Image via Flickr by net_efekt)

What You Can Compost

All organic matter is fair game for your composter. That means anything that was once alive or is derived from a plant or animal. Some examples are: egg shells, leaves, dryer lint, twigs and bark, newspaper, shredded cardboard, coffee grounds and most table scraps. Don’t use meat, fish, dairy, oils, bones, diseased plants or manure from dogs, cats, pigs or humans.

Here’s a more complete list of the do’s and don’ts of what to compost. Read it carefully, it saves a lot of stress. 


The method of composting I’ve described here is somewhere between “cold” composting (for lazy people) and “hot” composting (for people who are checking in on their compost pile every week). If you’re doing it correctly, your compost pile should NOT stink or carry a smell at all. Also you should not open your compost bin and see the presence of flies or bugs. If you do, it’s because the ratio of green is slightly higher than it should be, or there is some exposed green matter in there. Make sure when you add a new heap of kitchen scraps to the pile, you cover it promptly with a full layer of brown materials. Keep some torn up newspaper, coffee grounds or potting soil next to your compost bin to make this step easier.

When it’s time to use your compost

If you’re checking in on your compost regularly, turning it and keeping the correct balance of nitrogen to carbon, your compost should be ready in a couple of months. When it is, you can scoop it out and add it to your planters freely, mixing it in with potting soil. Make sure you’re not adding big chunks of newspaper to small plant pots or window boxes, as roots will be unable to grow up through the newspaper and seeds will die. Otherwise, the carefully produced compost will be like a rich gourmet meal for your home grown plant babies, and you can expect a great return for your careful self-sufficient habits.

Do you have any tried-and-true composting tips? Any questions you have before getting started? Let us know in the comments section.

Cass Daubenspeck is a food and lifestyle writer living in Brooklyn. When she’s not testing recipes, blogging or feeding groups of friends, she runs the site Sunday Routine and works in the kitchens at Momofuku and Marlow & Sons. Most recently, she was head of communications for culinary startup The League of Kitchens. She lives for Sundays, cheese and Lillet Rose whenever possible. 

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One Comment

  1. alexredgrave
    Posted May 30, 2014 at 9:41 AM | Permalink

    Thanks Kelly! This is super useful.

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