Composting for Dummies (or Black Thumbs)

I am in no way a “Green Thumb”. We have plants in our house and outside that will attest to this. So don’t think that you have to be a gardener to have a compost pile. You could simply set your compost up as a way of getting rid of your kitchen scraps to keep them out of the landfill and nothing more. That’s totally reasonable. We’ve done it that way before.

If you’re looking for a super scientificky and thorough look at composting then….don’t read on! Find another article! If you just want the down-and-dirty idiots’ guide to composting, then here it is!

  1. Find a trash can or create a wooden bin

    We are currently using a trash can with the bottom cut out simply because this is what we have on hand, but we have used both. Frankly, I find the trash can to work better at keeping unwanted rodents out, but aesthetically, it’s crappy. At one point we had the trash can set up and created a sort of “crate” around it, just so it wasn’t an eye sore. Find what works for you. Don’t forget a nice tight-fitting lid.

    Read on to hear about how you can help keep rodents at bay.

  2. Find a location

    You’ll want to find a spot in your yard that is easily accessible from your kitchen, on dirt and ideally in partial shade. I do not recommend placing it in full sun or full shade as you need a nice balance of warmth for your goodies to decompose.

  3. Do a little digging

    Now you could just place this bottomless trash can right on ground, but I recommend digging down maybe 6 to 12 inches. This will help keep rodents out as well as give you faster access to those good organism that are going to enter into your compost and begin breaking it down (think wormies!).


4. Get composting

You’ll want to find a container to keep in your kitchen that has a tight-fitting lid, is easy to carry and clean out. You don’t want it to be too big, otherwise by the time it’s full and you have to take it out, it will be stink-y!

Before throwing your first layer of scraps into your compost, you’ll want to put in a layer of “brown” waste such as leaves, straw, shredded newspaper, etc. Throw in your scraps (also known as your “green” layer) and then maybe a few shovel-fulls of soil.

What To Compost:

Non-Animal food scraps (fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, etc)

Egg Shells

Coffee Grounds

Tea Bags

Breads, grains, pasta

Shredded paper or cardboard

Cow or horse manure

Leave or lawn clippings

Straw or Hay

What NOT to Compost:



Pet waste/kitty litter


Anything treated with pesticides


5. Keep it from gettin’ stinky

A well-managed compost pile shouldn’t be stinky. That sounds crazy, right? But it’s all about balance. You need a 50/50 wet to dry ratio more or less. You don’t want your pile to be too wet, nor too dry. Some say it should be “like a wrung out sponge”. Too dry and it will stop breaking down. Too wet and it will be incredibly stinky!

Each time you add scraps you can then layer it with some leaves, lawn clippings or strips of newspaper (remember that layer of “brown” we talked about earlier). This helps to maintain that balance.

If your pile stinks, it’s because it needs to dry out more. When we had chickens, every time we would put scraps in the compost we would grab a pitchfork of straw from the coop and throw it in there. Now we’ve started getting the newspaper more regularly and shred this into strips to layer on top of the scraps. You can also throw in a shovel full of soil every now and then. So look around your house or yard and figure out what compostable material you can use. You can always keep a pile of leaves next to the compost for this purpose.

If you want to speed up the composting process you can “aerate” your compost by mixing it up, say with a pitchfork, but if that’s too fussy for you, don’t bother. It will all break down eventually! Another trick to make it break down faster is to make sure you’re adding small scraps and not big items like an entire loaf of bread or that butternut squash that sat on your counter for a whole year before you decided to ditch it. Just cut those things up before throwing in!

6. Fill It Up!

If you’ve filled your bin, then you may need to start a second bin and allow the first to decompose from anywhere to a few weeks to a few months.


Now, if you don’t want to have TWO cans, what you can do is dump out your full can and place the scraps that have not yet broken down into your now empty bin while leaving the composted material at the bottom out.

7. When to Use Your Brown Gold (aka compost soil)

Your compost should be ready to use when it is a nice rich dark brown color and smells of earth (not like stinky compost!). It should crumble nicely in your hands.

Signs it is NOT ready:

You can still see food

It is still warm

You still have a lot of large clumps

8. How to Use It

Compost is very rich so you want to mix it with your soil before planting (so you don’t burn your plants) or you can place it around plants for fertilizing. Your plants are going to love it!

As I mentioned before, even if you don’t have a garden, you can just mix it into your soil or even just leave it in a pile. After all, it is so much better to have those scraps become unused soil on your property than methane-releasing food waste in the landfill! Read more on tips about how you can decrease your food waste in this blog post.

If you’ve thrown in a few things that didn’t really break down (i.e. that “compostable” silverware from the restaurant next door, avocado pits, or those lame stickers they put on fruits and veggies), then you can sift your compost using a mesh screen over a wheelbarrow and take those out.

Is there just no way that you can compost at home? No access to industrial composting? Here are a few suggestions:

Want more info on how to do it yourself? Check out these local demonstration sites. I’ve also created a Pinterest board with more info about composting including some nice infographics (made by individuals WAY more talented than yours truly at that kinda thing) for you to use as reference.

Bonus! Get a $40 rebate when you start composting if you live in the City of Santa Cruz through the Home Composting Rebate Program!

Please let us know if you have any questions or comments! Feel free to comment below too.


*as usual, these are completely our opinions. No affiliate links!