The Delicate Science of Composting

In a previous issue, we talked about how we’re producing more kitchen scraps than we have in over 50 years… and how we can use those scraps to our advantage:

By composting. 

We even went through a list of all the things you can compost so that you don’t end up soiling your whole pile.

Composting can accomplish many things, and has long been heralded by homesteaders as one of the most important steps in achieving self-reliance. It takes the farm-to-table movement one leap further…

Using the products of organic waste to help foment the creation of new organic materials for consumption eliminates the risk of herbicides and pesticides, reduces your own carbon footprint, saves you money at the grocery store and the plant nursery, and prevents your scraps from rotting in a landfill, giving off noxious gas.

But the process isn’t as simple as tossing all of your once-living trash into a bin and letting it roast in the sun, eventually yielding dark, fluffy fertilizer.

This is a delicate dance done by the deliberate.

The first step is to understand what’s happening so that you can set it up right. 

What Happens in Composting

First, refer to the list in our previous article about organic waste that you can compost. 

Essentially, know that you’ll need organic waste, soil, water, and air in order to compost successfully.

Here’s what happens… 

The microbes and microorganisms in the soil start to eat away at the organic carbon-rich matter in the waste, breaking it down to its parts. In order for the microorganisms to do that, they need access to oxygen so that the process of aerobic respiration can do the work. The reason you need water is so that the microorganisms can multiply. 

So we know why we need what we need.

Here’s how you achieve it…


Composting can be stinky.

So it’s best if your compost pile can be downwind from your house – not so far away that it’s a chore to get to it, but not so close that you can smell it through an open window (or so that your neighbors can smell it.)

You also want to make sure that the sun isn’t baking down onto it – some sunlight is good, certainly, but you don’t want to dry out your compost pile. It’s meant to stay moist.

Same goes for wind – wind is okay, but too much will blow your compost pile around!


What are you going to compost in?

Well, the truth is, you can use just about anything! An old trash bin, the bare earth (known as passive composting), an out-of-use fire pit, chicken wire, or a wooden box.

It can be super complicated – like building a three-tiered system by which composting materials at different stages of decomposition are relocated to different tiers – or very simple – just turning over your compost regularly in one big pot.

You can buy one online, build one yourself, or use a big container you have on hand!


When you’ve got your composting materials ready, it’s important to layer them in methodically, instead of dumping it all in at once.

An ideal arrangement could look like this:

  1. Bottom layer: Sticks, wood chips, twigs
  2. Next layer: Green and dried leaves
  3. Next layer: Grass clippings
  4. Next layer: Straw or hay
  5. Next layer: Kitchen scraps
  6. Final layer: Brown leaves

In between each layer, grab a spray bottle filled with water and spritz liberally, not to soak, but to moisten. Toss soil into each layer as well! 

Another helpful guideline to follow while you’re layering is alternating carbon-rich materials with nitrogen-rich materials. 

Carbon-rich: cardboard, twigs, bread, sawdust, dried leaves, wood clippings, etc.

Nitrogen-rich: kitchen scraps, grass clippings, garden clippings, etc.

Carbon-rich materials let the air and water flow through the pile so that everything can break down at the same rate.

And once you’ve got your pile going, turn it every day!

You can use a stick, a shovel, spade, hoe, whatever you’ve got at your disposal.

But the more you turn it, the more you’re making sure that every component of your compost is getting equal access to the microorganisms in the soil, the water in the nitrogen-rich materials, and the oxygen in the air.

In hot weather?

You’ll probably have your materials completely composted in 2-3 months.

In cold, it could be 6.

If it smells rotten, it’s likely not decomposing. Check your layering! Check your location. Check your water content. Rearrange. Start over!

In the end, you’ll know you’re done by the look (fluffy and dark) and smell… it should be musky, woody, earthy… 

And then? Add it to your garden, to potted plants in your home, to the soil in your yard… Donate it to your community garden or save it to use, and start all over. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.