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

Mary Hance
Nashville Tennessean

Backyard composting is something almost anybody can — and probably should — do.

It is a great way to keep food scraps and yard waste out of the landfill; plus, you end up with some valuable (and free) soil additives to enrich your flower beds, garden or lawn.

The best set up, according to Jenn Harrman, who oversees Metro Public Works Waste Reduction Program, is to get a composter and simply start filling it.

Give it a stir now and then, add a little water to keep it moist and you are in business. 

"That is a little oversimplified, but anybody can do it," Harrman said. The biggest mistake that people make in composting, she said, is "adding too many food scraps and wet greens and not enough dry browns. This can attract flies and cause the compost pile to smell."

The right balance between food scraps and brown waste like twigs and leaves is crucial for the compost to break down properly, she said.

She said one of the easiest options  is "'passive composting," which brings together yard and food waste in a pile that will need an occasional turn to keep the oxygen flowing. "Keeping food scraps covered is a must for any compost pile," she said. 

The push to promote composting is part of the Public Works-led Nashville Zero Waste Master Plan, which is working to divert 90 percent of waste from the landfill through recycling, food waste reduction and recovery, and composting.

Jenn Harrman, who oversees Metro Public Works Waste Reduction Program,  is adding scraps to her home composter. She says backyard composting is easy enough that almost anybody could do it, and create free nutrient rich compost material to boost the soil in their garden or lawn.

Public Works offers a series of free webinars and virtual workshops on composting for Nashville residents. You can learn about composting, why it's good for the environment and your garden, and how to start at home. 

Each of the 45-minute webinars offers the chance to win a free Earth Machine Compost Bin. You can also purchase a bins for $50 from Public Works.

There are two upcoming webinars, "The Dirt on Composting," at noon Oct. 28 and Nov. 12. For details or to sign up, go to

You can also see the webinar at:

Here is the dirt

What is compost: Backyard compost is made from yard waste and food scraps that have naturally decomposed to create a soil amendment with lots of benefits for your yard and garden.

Why we should compost:  Composting is a great way to use things you would otherwise throw away.  Public Works estimates that 31.9 percent of what goes into area landfills is yard and food waste that could be composted. The product that you can make from the waste can be used to improve your soil and help your plants grow.

What should we compost: Food scraps, yard waste, shredded paper products, hair, and fireplace ash.

What should not be composted: meat, fish, bones and dairy (they attract rodents and pets). Also, don't include pet waste, invasive or diseased plants, charcoal grill ash or plastics, even ones that are rated compostable since they require a more specialized process than a backyard compost pile.

What is the proper mix in a composter: Start with one part nitrogen-rich greens, like vegetable or fruit scraps, tea leaves, coffee grounds, pet hair or fresh hedge trimmings, grass clippings or leaves. Balance with three or four parts of carbon-rich browns like dry leaves, twigs and branches, pine needles, wood chips, straw or hay, corn cobs, egg shells or shredded paper products. Compost needs to be moist so adding water can help the decomposition process.

Sun or shade for compost location?: "It does not matter if your bin/pile is in the shade or the sun. I recommend a little bit of shade rather than direct sun so you don’t burn your hand when you go to open your bin," Harrman said.

Potential problems include: Odor, ants, rodents and flies. Compost piles, if handled properly, will not smell or attract pests. To minimize potential problems, only put in vegetable and fruit scraps and not dairy or oils or cooked food. "And always cover food scraps with plenty of browns," Harrman said. 

How do you know when compost is done?  Harrman says the process can take anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on how actively you compost your materials. She said that when if is ready, it should smell "pleasant and earthy" and items in it should be fully decomposed. The mixture should no longer get hot after turning, but be more like air temperature.

Germination test:  Harrman recommends a germination test to see if it is ready: Fill two containers with moist compost and two containers with moist soil; then plant eight fast-germinating seeds, like radishes, in each container; cover containers to keep moist; check germination rate after 5-7 days. If there are significantly fewer seeds that germinated in the compost, then it needs more time.

Composting is becoming more popular: Although Public Works does not know how many Nashville residents compost, the department has sold or given away 3,000 backyard compost bins since spring, 2018. Its compost drop-off program through a partnership with The Compost Company, at four Metro Convenience Centers, collected more than 32,000 pounds of food scraps last year.

Reach Ms. Cheap at 615-259-8282 or Follow her on Facebook at, and at, and on Twitter @Ms_Cheap, and catch her every Thursday at 11 a.m. on WTVF-Channel 5’s “Talk of the Town.”