How to compost: Your guide to get started without overthinking it

Danielle Dreilinger
Nashville Tennessean
  • Anyone can compost in their backyard.
  • Composting has benefits even if it never turns into "black gold."
  • It really isn't hard.

I first tried to compost in 2007, when I moved into an apartment with a bin in the yard. I knew that composting was The Right Thing to Do. And with a year-round farm share and a mostly vegetarian diet, I had no shortage of scraps to turn into soil.

Day after day, I trooped out with my stalks and peelings. Occasionally I tossed in a handful of dried leaves. Finally I pulled up the slat to find… a weird, dry crumble caked in cobwebs and fungus.

I had failed, I thought.

In fact, I hadn’t.

Because although I never got any usable soil to put on the garden I didn’t have, that composter never filled up. For three-plus years, it broke down my food scraps and kept them out of the landfill.

That, my friends, is compost success.

Putting compost on your plants and ground has lots of benefits. But you don’t need to create or use dirt to make composting worthwhile. You just need to let nature break down your trash.

When I moved to my current house, I bought pretty much the same composter — one of those big black towers. Eighteen months later, I am a crummy gardener whose herb seeds feed the squirrels more often than they germinate. I also have compost.

Composting is The Right Thing to Do. Here’s some data:

  • One third of Nashville residents’ waste could be composted, according to Metro government.
  • At current usage, Middle Point landfill, which serves much of Middle Tennessee, will be full in less than five years.
  • Worldwide, food loss and waste account for an estimated 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N. A good chunk of that can be prevented through composting.
  • If everyone in the U.S. composted, it would have the impact of taking 7.8 million cars off the road, according to Indiana University. I would rather keep my car than my cabbage cores.
Eventually, everything decomposes.

Don’t overthink it

You can read composting guides that require a graduate degree in biochemistry and contradict each other. You can buy a machine that advertises on a podcast or a vat of bran or a tub of worms.

But composting really isn’t that hard or that mysterious. Organic matter decomposes. It’s the ciiircle of liiiiiiiife….   

The following guidance comes from Metro Nashville’s “Dirt on Composting” booklet and staff, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation residential composting webpage and staff, the EPA, the City of Asheville, Cass Marketos’ newsletter “The Rot” and my own experience.

Is it the most perfect advice ever? No. But it’s working for me. And perfect is the enemy of starting a garden project.

What do I put my compost in?

A container, or nothing. You can buy an open-bottomed bin with a lid—some cities, including Nashville, sell them at a discount, or check the hardware store or Facebook Marketplace. You can make a wooden frame or a cylinder of wire mesh. You can put your compost in a black plastic garbage bag, with holes cut for air. You can pile it in a pit or just pile it on the ground. You can even compost in a single bag inside your house (which does require some special ingredients).

You’ll probably want to start with the lidded bin, especially if you’re concerned about rodents.

How do I compost?

Here is your fancy five-step process.

  • Throw in food scraps. Rotted celery, flat half-cans of beer, stale muffins, coffee filters, old spices that smell like cardboard, an apple slice or gummy bear that broke the five-second rule, moldy bread, eggshells. As I am a journalist, my compost bin is probably 15% coffee filters.
  • Throw in dried leaves, yard waste, wood chips, torn-up newspaper, sticks — ideally more of this than the veggie scraps. Dryer lint. Pet hair. REALLY.
  • Repeat as needed.
  • Occasionally douse with water, or leave the lid off during a rainstorm.
  • Occasionally use a rake, shovel or pitchfork to stir up the pile.

That’s it. Time and organisms do the rest.

More:To truly embrace sustainability, Nashville must look beyond recycling | Opinion

What about meat and fats?

Most composting guidance says don’t add meat scraps, dairy or fats. Some warn against eggs. Some even warn against vegetarian cooked food.

Here’s the thing. These items will break down. It doesn’t happen as quickly, they might smell and that smell might attract rodents or raccoons. Nashville Metro Water Systems spokeswoman Sonia Allman noted that pests “can potentially be a health code violation.”

But when I called Kiera Bulan with the City of Asheville and Robert Wadley with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, their advice was much more relaxed.

Plate scrapings are fine, they said. In fact, “I put everything in there except for big bones and straight-up cooking grease,” Wadley said.

His composter is next to his neighbors' fence, and they haven’t complained, he said.

I add all these items in small quantities — the bit of huevos rancheros no one ate, the shredded mozzarella that went bad. Two notes:

  1. I wouldn’t dump in 500 pounds of pasta, and NO ONE should try to backyard-compost their Thanksgiving turkey carcass. “When my freezer went bad, I chunked it in the garbage can,” Wadley said.
  2. I live neither in bear country nor a city that needs a Rat Czar.

To make four-legged visitors less likely, use a covered bin, and consider burying these scraps in the pile. Also, the smaller the pieces, the faster they will degrade.

I say experiment and see what works for you. At one point, a creature chewed through the air holes on one slat of my composter. I covered the hole with a yogurt lid. It hasn’t happened again, I don’t see rats around and some critter got a snack that kept my food scraps out of the landfill. Your mileage may vary.

But I live in a city

Same. If you have any outdoor space at all, you can compost. If you live in a high-rise, many cities have compost drop-off sites and paid pickup services. I personally find it more inconvenient and smelly to keep my scraps in the freezer or a pickup bin than to have a bin outside.

The weirdest thing I know about compost                 

You can pee on it.

What if …

  • It smells bad: Throw in more dead leaves and stir the pile.
  • It has bugs: Great! That’s supposed to happen.
  • I live in bear country: Consult Bearwise.
  • I think it’s the wrong pH: You are too advanced for this guide. Congratulate yourself, enjoy your homegrown herbs and dig into the biochem resources.   

A final word, from Asheville sustainability manager Kiera Bulan: “Letting food waste go back to the earth in your backyard (even if you have zero inclination to garden or make ‘compost’) is the best way for us to have an individual/household level positive impact on significant drivers of [greenhouse gas] emissions at landfills. It's easy to be overwhelmed in the face of a changing climate and lost as to what one can impact on a household level, but food waste reduction and food scrap recycling of the inevitable organic waste is a powerful place to start.” 

More:Ms. Cheap gives you the 'dirt' on backyard composting: Here's how to do it

Danielle Dreilinger is an American South storytelling reporter and the author of the book "The Secret History of Home Economics." You can reach her at ddreilinger@gannett.com or 919-236-3141.