Composting: Your questions answered

Spring is nearly here! If you want the richest, bloomiest yard to welcome the season, compost will make your gardening dreams come true. It's free, organic, doesn't contain fertilizer chemicals that can hurt waterways, and is a sustainable tool to fight against food waste.

When I began composting 15 years ago, it was out of necessity. The soil in Los Angeles was as dusty and dry as a package of hot cocoa mix, and in a place where it barely rained, this native Virginian needed some greenery.

studio city property

Compost took my sandy, desert-like back yard and turned it into a green oasis. Above is a photo I took of my yard during a rare hail storm. Beside the lemon tree is a fence overtaken with nasturtium (a peppery plant I used in salads), and a lush lawn where I grew grapes, figs, apples and a native succulent garden. 

To be fair, Virginia has its own problems. While nearly anything can grow in loamy soil that resembles crumbled chocolate cake (pardon all the food metaphors - I'm hungry) there are thick, stubborn ribbons of Virginia red clay running through the state (pictured below). It can be a graveyard for vegetation, so breaking up the soil with compost (and a little sand, to improve the clay's drainage) will transform your yard. 

red Virginia clay

Whether it's a droopy aloe in your window, or your flower garden outside, composting makes your home explode with life.

I want to compost. Where do I start?

First, you need a container to catch all the scraps from your kitchen. Ladles & Linens has a fresh air compost bin, and some locations still may have the countertop pail with compostable bags to line it. 

compost bin

I use one of those small, silver flip top trash cans often seen in bathrooms, and just tuck it into the corner of my kitchen. We pull out the plastic bucket inside whenever it's full. Instead of lining the plastic bucket with a compostable trash bag, we flip the plastic inner bucket upside down in the yard. The ants and other bugs feast on the drippy insides, an the sun dries it out. They next day, our plastic bucket is clean and dry. Nature did all the work!

If you use a metal container, you'll need something plastic-lined to prevent rust and leakage, and something with a lid to keep bugs from finding it.

Does compost smell?

Not if you're doing it right! Whether it's in your home or out in the yard's compost bin, it has a neutral smell, due to the fact that there are no fats that go rancid, meat that rots or dairy that curdles.


Does composting really make a difference?

Once you start composting, you'll marvel about how less often you toss out your regular trash, especially if you cook from scratch. Not to mention, it reduces food waste and prevents landfills from getting overrun. Composting would save a half pound per day per person across the country from entering a landfill. 

What foods are a compost no-no?

Here's what not to put in your compost bin: meat, sugary processed foods like candy and cupcakes, dairy and fats (oil, butter, etc), and processed wheat products (bread, pasta, etc.). While it's true that fish parts contain incredible soil nutrients, it's just not worth it for home composting. It stinks! But if you can get away with just composting clean fish bones, go crazy.

hand holding scraps of compostable foods

What foods can I compost?

Everything else is game! Discarded pieces of vegetables, fruit, rice, coffee grinds and egg shells (pure calcium), are great for the soil. Your bin will fill up faster than you think, especially if you don't eat a lot of processed foods. 

You can also toss in pieces of newspaper, leaves, grass cuttings, paper egg cartons and everyday items labeled "compostable." You can tell a lot about someone based on their compost pile. It would appear that we subsist on garlic and coffee!

outdoor compost bin

Where do I put my compost once my indoor container is filled up?

In California, I went low-key. Out of sight, out of mind. I dug a hole in the ground, covered it with a dark trash can lid, and stirred it every once in a while with a shovel. Earthworms naturally found their way in, and I should mention how important they are. They aerate the soil with their tunnels, and help break down compost faster with their digestion. That's right; worm poop rules.

I now have a bin that sits on the ground, with little holes for bugs to get in. If you have a fancy above-ground compost barrel that spins (pictured below), be sure to add earthworms to it to help break the foods down.

woman putting compost in a bin

How will you know if your compost is ready to be sprinkled around your plants?

The weight of the compost bears down on the bottom of my bin, so I open a little door that slides up vertically from the ground, slide my shovel in, and pull out a rich, dark brown matter - that's your compost. Our garlic peels, coffee grinds and banana peels have become a pleasing sludge. No worries if your avocado seed or compostable spoon aren't fully broken down. It's common to see bits and pieces poking out. It will break down naturally. Go ahead and use it liberally. 

Compost naturally heats up when it breaks down, and most compost bins are black to attract heat and speed up the process. But the more you mix, and add earthworms, the faster the breakdown will be. 

compost garden

Now you can watch flower beds and gardens have new life breathed into them. Oh, and you also just started like, 1,000 new tomato plants. From California to Virginia, I've never seen a compost pile that didn't go wild with tomato seeds.  In fact, I don't even buy tomato plants any more. Every spring, I just shovel compost onto a sunny spot by a fence, and watch them explode. Along with other things that sprout, like cantaloupe, pumpkins and watermelon.

It's pretty wild. 



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