banana slug in compost

How do you start composting? Part 1: Composting for free

So you’ve heard how great it is to compost, and now you want to get in on the action! That’s awesome, because composting is one of the best ways you can improve your garden, and you will save money doing it.

Is this little dude allowed in your compost pile? Of course! This is nature at work! Someone has to eat all your leftovers and moist latte sleeves.

This is a big question, so I’m going to tackle it in three parts:

Part 1: Composting for Free (you’re here)

Part 2: Getting in the Habit

Part 3: Composting with Kids

One of the first questions people often ask me about getting started composting is “what do I need to buy?” And the simple answer is, NOTHING!!! You can absolutely compost for free. There are some options available for optimizing the amount of volume you produce, or reducing the amount of time it takes to produce it, but those are like in-app purchases for the already addicted. There’s no reason you can’t get started for free, today. And the free version, while sometimes less tidy, can be more fun and instructive for kids.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Composting should be easy to incorporate into your life, like coffee. A lot of people drink coffee every morning, right? Some people grind their own beans, or have fancy espresso machines. Some people like those little coffee pods. Some people like instant, and some people are deeply committed to their french press or little Bialetti espresso pot. There are a few different basic types of composting and lots of different composting gear out there, just like there’s lots of ways to get a good cup of coffee. By asking yourself a few questions, you can narrow down your composting personality pretty quickly, and then it’s just about developing habits that work for you.

Are you the next Farmer Jane, or Just Trying to Compost Goldfish?

As any mom can tell you, the natural order of things is to decompose. Leave laundry in a pile long enough, and it will remind you of this fact of nature (laundry counts as a “brown” by the way, but the half a cheese stick left in someone’s pocket is a “green.” I’m not sure if Goldfish are brown or green, but they definitely break down, in laundry or compost.)

At it’s most basic level, composting just boils down to putting organic material in a pile and letting it rot until it takes care of itself. Some day a laundry machine will be invented that does something similar, but until then, laundry will require way more turning and effort than compost. Just think of composting as the laundry that Nature forgot.

Nature has its own timeframe, and we’re often impatient with it. It also tends toward untidiness. So for those of us who don’t want to watch, bins or containment systems can be helpful. But there’s a lot of freedom to be had in letting things be!

If you’re trying to keep up with your hipster rooftop beekeeping neighbors, or you’re thinking about selling your tech company and starting a small organic farm, you may want a speedier, tidier solution, and be willing to pay for it. There’s also a big difference between making a little bit of compost to put on your patio or balcony plants and making enough compost for a vegetable garden the size of a suburban house. But if you’re just trying to set a good example for your kids, a visible open pile or a clear plastic worm bin are easy ways to get your kids excited about science and nature.

And unlike the eternal giftwrap-magazine-candybar-drive, you can get out of this one for free, so let’s get you started!

So How Does This “Free” Thing Work?

Put “browns” and “greens” in a pile. Make sure that there are a LOT more browns than greens–you want to be adding greens by the little kitchen compost-pail size, while you’re adding browns by the wheelbarrow size. If you have a tiny pile (small house or apartment) or a worm bin, greens should be measured by the handful compared to browns measured by the–well, most of the rest of the pile. Now, whenever you think about it, every few weeks or month, turn it over. If it’s a tiny pile on the ground, turn it with a little shovel or pitchfork. If it’s a worm bin, this is less important, since the worms do pretty much everything for you. But don’t stop your kids if they want to move things around or mess things up in there, it’s all good. As long as they’re sweet and appreciative to their hard-working little pets.

Otherwise, ignore your piles! See? Thats it! Harvest!

“Browns” and “Greens”?

If it’s organic (little “o”, as in, once living, not big O “Organic”!) and dry, it’s probably considered “brown”. If it’s organic and until fairly recently alive or part of a living plant, it’s probably considered “green.” There’s all kinds of yadda yadda about carbon and whatnot, but generally speaking if it’s gooey or smelly, or came out of the bottom of the produce drawer, apply that in *small* quantities to the larger pile of things that don’t stink, like leaves and twigs. I like to dig a little hole in the middle of the leaves and twigs, and dump the pailful into the nest, then cover it over with more leaves and twigs from the pile, to further prevent having to watch and, um, smell, nature’s naturalness. Lots of kids, of course, enjoy the gooey part.

Here’s a quick list of specific examples.


  • fall leaves/needles
  • Twigs, chipped tree branches/bark (the bigger the pieces, the longer they take to break down!)
  • Straw (don’t use hay, which often contains seeds, unless you want hay growing in your pile)
  • Sawdust, dryer lint, the hair from your brush
  • Corn stalks
  • UNCOATED, UNDYED Paper (newspaper, writing/printing paper, paper plates and napkins, coffee filters)–if you use paper from your shredder, don’t shred glassine windows, those little fake membership cards, brochures, etc.
  • Cotton fabric and corrugated cardboard (without any waxy/slick coatings)–although often I find that large pieces of this are better suited to sheet mulching to prevent weeds. The bigger these pieces are, the longer they take to break down!


  • Grass clippings (as long as you don’t put toxic crap on your grass, but if you’re spraying Round Up, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.)
  • Coffee grounds/tea bags
  • Vegetable and fruit scraps, or whatever it was you just found in the bottom of the produce drawer
  • garden trimmings (as long as they’re not from something diseased! Also, don’t use Camellia or Magnolia leaves, they can harbor diseases, and they take FOREVER to break down.)
  • weeds that haven’t set seed
  • Eggshells
A nice, simple diagram about “Browns” and “Greens”.

Isn’t Manure a Green?

Yes, smarty pants, manure is green. We’re trying to keep this simple, but for you smart kids in the front row, if it was recently pooped out of a grass eater or something that swam, it can go in your pile. If the pooper ate something other than grass and the occasional bug, IT DOES NOT BELONG IN YOUR PILE. Fish, chicken, rabbit, cow, deer, horse poop are ok. Dog, cat, raccoon, coyote, pig, small baby person etc. poop is not. Omnivores and carnivores carry diseases they can transmit to you.

If you’re lazy composting, some aged straw from your neighbor’s chicken pen in AWESOME fuel for your pile, it makes everything go faster.

Yes, peeing on the compost pile is allowed. It does speed things up, so if you’re potty training at home, it makes a fun alternative.

You clever kids in 4H can get fancy building your rabbit pens over your compost frame. But if the thought of poop in your pile stresses you out, just avoid it. You don’t need it, Nature still loves to rot, and she’ll do it with or without manure!

Anything I Shouldn’t Add?

Avoid meats and fats, dairy, and wood ashes. These things can be composted, they just complicate things a bit. If you already understand the pH of your soil, and the idea of running a super hot pile and getting fancy monitoring the temperature and pH of your pile sounds interesting to you, then compost anything you like! You’re the one who built the bunny cage over your pile, aren’t you?

If you drifted off a bit reading this, just remember not to put anything (or let your kids put anything) in the pile that isn’t organic (cigarette butts–does anyone still smoke? Really?–wrappers, plastic Batman figures) because you’ll just have to fish them out again later, like the trap on the washing machine. Although Batman’s cape *will* compost.

Any other questions? Thoughts? Comments? You know what to do.

Now skip to Part 2: Getting in the Habit.



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