Four of the Most Common Composting Myths, Debunked
Experts share why it's easier than you think to turn scraps into soil-enriching gold.
Breaking down organic waste, as opposed to dumping it in your trash, is a real win-win: You keep it out of landfills (where a whopping 40 percent of food in the United States winds up), and you create natural fertilizer for nourishing a garden or rejuvenating a trampled yard. But getting started with composting can be tough because it feels messy and time-consuming from the outset. We've spoken to two experts on the subject—senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Darby Hoover, and farm director at the Rodale Institute, Rick Carr—to get to the bottom of four common composting misconceptions.
Myth: You need a bin, drum, or other container to compost.
Though it may help speed up the process and make your pile a bit more pleasing to the eye, you don't actually have to use a vessel to compost. As Carr puts it, "Compost happens." All organic matter decomposes, no matter what you do or don't do with it. A simple way to delineate a spot for your heap is to fasten chicken wire with zip ties into a three-foot-diameter hoop, explains Hoover. Add "greens" (fresh food waste, like carrot tops and coffee grounds) and "browns" (dry yard trimmings, paper scraps, and dead leaves) at one-to-two ratio for optimal break-down.
Myth: Composting smells and attracts pests.
If you stack waste strategically, you'll avoid both. "Practice lasagna layering," Carr says, "by making a nest of leafy browns, adding greens to the divot in the center, and then covering it with another layer of browns." This ensures that all the potentially smelly food waste is contained in the center of the pile, instead of exposed on the edges, where it might tempt hungry critters. Hoover also suggests steering clear of animal products; although they'll eventually break down, they can generate some foul odors along the way.
Myth: Lots of sun is necessary for composting.
While some heat can speed up the process, it's not actually required for things to get going. Aerobic conditions—meaning oxygen is able to flow freely throughout the pile—are what allow nematodes and worms to feed on the pile's nutrients, producing the necessary heat for composting to happen and killing pathogens in the process, Hoover explains: "If the sun is always shining on your pile, it could actually dry it out too much, and you'll need to add moisture." Ideally, the whole thing stays about as wet as a wrung-out sponge. (On the contrary, if your stack is in an area that gets a lot of rain, add browns and turn the pile regularly to ensure that contents don't create an impervious clump or stifle air flow.)
Myth: Composting takes at least a year.
If you turn your pile weekly (again, to get air circulating) and maintain the one-to-two ratio of greens to browns, you could see results in as soon as a couple of months. To fast-track the timeline, only toss in waste that's about the size of a finger or smaller (for example, you'd cut a watermelon rind into pieces before adding). And when you layer wet scraps, like corn husks or coffee grounds, spread them out to prevent clumping.