Remember in The Lion King, when Mufasa teaches Simba about the circle of life? Well, it’s not just a cartoon movie plot: The circle of life is a real thing — and it takes place via a process called composting. (Who knew Disney movies could teach us something so useful?)
Humans have been composting for thousands of years to improve the health of our soil, food, and planet.
Now you (and your garden or lawn) can also reap the benefits of composting, thanks to this handy dandy guide to the circle of life.
Composting is basically nature’s own waste management process, in which nutrients are recycled back into an ecosystem.
When organic materials, such as leaves, logs, fruits, and dead animals — basically, anything that was once living — are combined and left to sit for a while, they decompose into rich, fertile soil (aka “compost”).
When you want to create compost with your kitchen waste and lawn scraps, you can mimic natural composting on an accelerated time frame. (We’ll get to the how-to in a sec.)
That’s cool and all, but why should you compost? Let’s break this thing down. (See what we did there?)
- Composting combats food waste by keeping it out of landfills and waterways.
- Compost enriches soil with nutrients, helps boost plant immunity, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers in gardens and lawns.
- Compost encourages the presence of beneficial bacteria and fungi (which break down organic matter into soil).
- Bacteria, fungi, and insects in compost make the soil healthier and may even improve the nutritional value of the food that grows in it.
- Anyone can compost, whether it’s in the backyard or under the kitchen sink (yes, even in tiny apartments).
- Don’t have a garden or yard? Donate your compost! Check with your local recycling center to inquire about pickup, or call around to local farms to ask if they’d like the fruits of your labor — chances are, they’ll say yes.
All compost requires four primary ingredients: air, moisture, carbon (which we’ll refer to as “browns”), and nitrogen (which we’ll refer to as “greens”):
- Browns consist of plant-based materials such as dead leaves, branches, twigs, newspaper, and unbleached brown napkins. (Ya know, brown stuff.)
- Greens consist of materials such as grass clippings, fruit and vegetable scraps, and coffee grounds. In general, you’ll want to add slightly more browns than greens.
If you run out of browns, ask neighbors to donate their extra leaves, twigs, or newspapers. If you live in a city, it’s easy to find browns — just raid the free newspaper dispensers.
Here are some examples of what to include (and what not to include) while composting:
|OK for composting
|NOT OK for composting
|cardboard, uncoated paper, and newspaper
|coal or ash from charcoal
|coffee grounds and tea bags (pull off any metal)
|dairy products and eggs
|fats, oils, meat scraps, and fish scraps
|fireplace ashes and sawdust from natural wood
|leaves or clippings from black walnut trees
|fruits and veggies
|pet poop or dirty litter
|hair and pet fur
|plants with diseases, insects, or pesticides
|straw and hay
|yard clippings, leaves, plants, and wood chips
In order for decomposers (bacteria, fungi, and insects) to do their thing, compost also needs air and moisture (more on this later).
Decomposition is an energy-intensive process, and aerobic bacteria produce heat as a side effect. Expect the compost to get very warm — even hotter than 100°F (38°C) in the center of a pile!
There are two ways to compost outside: In a pile (just like it sounds) or in a composting bin (basically a pile in a container).
If you’re only planning to compost leaves, grass clippings, and other nonfood materials, a pile should be just fine.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends opting for a bin if you’re planning to compost food waste, too (to prevent rodents and other pesky pests).
To compost in a pile:
- Start by selecting a dry, shady spot near a water source, such as a spigot. Ideally, the area will be about 3 feet wide by 3 feet tall, though it’s possible to have larger or smaller piles.
Try to keep the compost away from garden beds (in case it attracts pests, who might want to eat the food in your garden!).
- If you like, give the pile some structure with chicken wire, snow fencing, or by nailing scrap wood together to make a box.
- Next, start adding browns and greens, in equal parts. (Be sure to chop up larger sticks and shred big pieces of newspaper before adding them.)
- If the first materials you add are dry, moisten them as you go by lightly spraying the mixture with water until it’s damp, but not soaked.
- Once things have started decomposing (you’ll be able to tell because they’ll start to change shape and color), mix in grass clippings, more greens, and fruit and vegetable scraps.
Try to bury the food scraps under other decomposing material.
- Every time you add materials to the pile (or at least once a week), “fluff” the pile by turning it with a pitchfork. This will promote aeration, which is essential to the decomposition process.
- If you like, you can lay a tarp across the top of the compost to keep in moisture.
To compost in a bin:
The process for using a bin is virtually identical to composting in a pile, only it takes place (you guessed it) in a bin.
Bins can be purchased at retail stores or online. They come in a variety of styles, so do your research to see which best suits your space and needs.
If your compost pile or bin is outside, it’s useful to set up a little bin inside (on the kitchen counter or under the sink will work well). Add compostable kitchen scraps to this bin until it’s full, and then dump the contents in the bigger compost pile to save on trips outside.
If you have the space in your house or apartment, it’s easy to compost indoors. If managed correctly, your indoor bin shouldn’t attract pests or give off a funky stink.
To make your own indoor bin:
- Start by choosing two rubber or plastic garbage cans. The larger one should fit in the area of your home where you’d like to compost, and the smaller one should fit inside the larger one.
- Drill four to six holes — each about half an inch in diameter — in the smaller can’s bottom and sides.
- Put a brick in the bottom of the larger can, and add a layer of wood chips, sawdust, or soil around the brick. (It should reach the top of the brick but doesn’t need to go above it.)
- Put the smaller can inside the larger can on top of the brick.
- Add browns and greens to the smaller can, following the same procedure described above for outdoor composts. To help keep smells at bay, add more browns than greens, and bury food scraps in the existing compost.
Fluff the compost weekly and check to make sure the materials remain moist. (If things look pretty dry, sprinkle some water into the can.)
- When you’re not adding scraps to the smaller can, keep a lid on top of the larger can. (The smaller can doesn’t need its lid.)
Vermicomposting is another option for indoor composting. This process uses a special kind of earthworm to produce compost in a small space.
Feed fruit and vegetable scraps to the hungry little worms (known as “red wigglers”), and watch the miracle of compost happen.
For more info on vermicomposting, check out this resource.
Compost is ready to sprinkle on your garden or lawn when the material is dark and rich in color and you can’t identify remnants of food or yard waste. (If you can still clearly see apple peels from that pie you made last Christmas, it needs more time.)
That said, if the compost looks mostly ready, but there are still a few chunks of material, use a screen to sift out the chunks and add them back to the pile before using the garden-ready compost.
Apply your rich, dark compost to lawns and gardens to give the soil a hearty dose of nutrients. This will ensure that the soil stays healthy and grows healthy crops for years to come.
But remember to be patient: This can be a lengthy process, especially for outdoor composts, which are affected by a variety of factors (including weather, pests, compost composition, etc.).
Outdoor compost can take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to be garden-ready, while indoor bins can produce viable compost in just 2 to 5 weeks. For anyone new to composting, there’s bound to be a period of trial and error — don’t get discouraged!
For help with troubleshooting issues (such as bad smells, slow decomposition, lack of heat in the pile, etc.), check out these guides from the Environmental Protection Agency and Natural Resources Defense Council.
When you can’t perk up wilted spinach or find a use for lemon rinds, isn’t it nice to know there’s a way you can give ’em a new life? Composting repurposes food that would otherwise go to waste, growing new plants that will feed you and others in the future.
It really is the circle of life. (Excuse us while we go sing like Elton John.)