This is a section of a five-part series produced by FLOW to educate residents about backyard conservation.

A handful of humus.The farm-to-table food stream often ends up flowing to a landfill. 40% of food in the United States is never eaten. In 2010, $161 billion worth of food was wasted either by consumers or at the retail level. However, there are ways to mitigate this problem. To reduce your waste stream by up to 35% and thus reduce methane emissions from landfills, all you need to do is compost. With a reputation of being smelly and gross, composting actually can be rather simple, clean, and great for your garden when done right. Composting yard waste also prevents it from ending up in landfills or in our waterways where it reduces the oxygen in our water. Composting has huge impacts on the environment and is a secret weapon in growing beautiful gardens. 

All matter decomposes; composting just speeds up the process. The final result is a dense, dark, earthy soil called humus that can be used as a fertilizer to improve the soil quality in your garden. To quicken the journey from kitchen scraps and leaves to humus, compost needs four elements: nitrogen, carbon, moisture, and oxygen. Nitrogen comes from green materials like grass clippings and food scraps. However, if your compost lacks nitrogen, you can simply add a handful of general lawn fertilizer. Carbon is added to compost through brown materials like leaves and twigs. Rain or, if need be, sprinkling your compost with water adds moisture. Finally, oxygen comes from turning your compost or adding holes or gaps to the side of your compost bin. How these four elements come together can vary in different forms of composting. 

Composting can be as simple or as involved as you would like it to be depending on how much of a hurry you are in to use your compost. The simplest but slowest form is cold composting – simply collecting your yard waste and kitchen scraps in a pile or a bin. Cold composting requires less effort and time, but it takes longer to decompose and form usable humus. To prevent attracting pests or a pungent smell, bury your kitchen scraps in your compost pile. Diseased plants and weeds should not be composted if using this method because the temperatures are not high enough to kill them. In general, meat, pet waste, dairy products, oils, or yard trimmings that have been treated with pesticides should NOT be composted. 

Three compost bins of different styles

Photo by Kristen Malec

Hot composting demands more time and effort, but has faster results and can create usable humus in under a month. For the foundation of your compost, you can build a bin as simple as a trash can with holes for aeration or an enclosure made of wire mesh. Alternatively, you can buy a compost bin or not have a bin at all but rather a foundational layer of brick or prunings for air circulation. With your foundation in place, you can layer 2” to 4” of equal parts carbon and nitrogen materials or mix them together. Some composters like to add a few shovel-fulls of soil to get their compost started. With a minimum of a 3’ x 3’ x 3’ cube, your compost will begin to heat up, reaching temperatures of 110℉ to 160℉. When the compost begins to cool, you can begin to turn your compost, moving the compost from the center to the outside of the pile. If turned near-daily, your compost should be ready in under four weeks. If turned every other week, you should have compost in one to three months. 

These are the two main methods, but composting comes in all shapes and sizes. To compost without a backyard or in smaller spaces, vermicomposting is the solution. Vermicomposting uses worms to compost. For more information on vermicomposting, check out the EPA’s online instructions. 

The Compost Exchange Logo


Composting can take place beyond the backyard. Nearly 100 cities have made the switch to collect resident’s compost along with recycling and trash. There are also organizations that pickup residents’ compost, such as the Compost Exchange in Columbus. While it is still rare for cities to collect residents’ compost, many cities compost yard waste and bio-solids from waste treatment facilities. Columbus has been producing this type of compost called Com-Til for over twenty-five years. 

However your compost came to be, it is a sure way to make your own backyard more eco-friendly. And as a bonus, you can use your fertilizer in your garden and lawn. Be sure to check your local regulations on composting before getting started. For more information on composting, you can consult the Ohio EPA, the USDA’s Tip Sheet, or even FLOW’s very own backyard conservation booklet. Happy composting!