First of all, let’s get this out of the way: You may not know it, but you already compost. The food waste in your garbage, the bits of tissue and cotton and hair in your bathroom trash bin, the bags of leaves you rake and gather every fall—all of that decomposes.
Over the last century, we’ve drawn a delicate curtain—more recently in the form of drawstring plastic trash bags, invented in 1984—between our world and the reality of that decomposition. In some ways, this is a good thing. In 1879, the New Orleans public dump was described as a “festering, rotten mess,” and at the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City was a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.” Improved sanitation has meant better living and less disease, but in fating all garbage to the trashcan, we do a disservice to the earth. In landfills, biodegradable materials are sealed off from oxygen, causing anaerobic decomposition that produces methane—a lot of it, which in turn drives climate change (landfill waste is responsible for nearly a fifth of domestic methane emissions). In putting all of our waste in the garbage, we also pass up an opportunity to do something easy, completely natural, rewarding, and free: Make soil.
I promise there is nothing hypertechnical about basic composting. I learned how to do it from a farmer whose technique was as simple as pushing all his plant and food waste in a pile with his backend loader and leaving it to sit for a few months. “That becomes soil?” I said with saucer-wide eyes,“Magic!”
“Magic?” He snorted, “No, that’s composting.”
When the season ended, I came home to New York City. I dug a hole in my yard roughly eighteen inches deep and as wide as the shovel’s blade. Down into the bottom foot went our food waste and spent garden plants. My roommate rebelliously contributed fish skins and bones, I added citrus peels, and we capped it off by pouring a flat beer on top of the mess. To keep rodents away, I covered everything with six inches’ worth of shredded newspaper and then closed the pile with a thick layer of soil. It was our hope that from this grave-like aperture life would emerge as loam, ready to apply to our garden.
In the interim, I furthered my education in decomposition by smelling it out. Biking through NYC, I came to recognize the acidic excretions produced by anaerobic bacteria by the hot, nostril-burning smell that wafted from tightly sealed garbage bags full of food waste. I stopped in Central Park to sniff tree stumps sprouting with mushrooms in order to memorize the scent of decay by saprophytic fungi. I lifted up handfuls of dirt from vegetable gardening beds and inhaled to get a sense of the “sweet” smell of healthy, finished soil. That’s what I wanted in my own compost.
Three months went by, and my roommate and I checked in on our buried backyard pile. It took us a few futile digs before we realized that our food waste was gone—it had well and truly become soil. Success had come quietly, steadily, and naturally. As I became familiar with the process, making compost felt like throwing a party. Sure, it was kind of messy around the edges, but with the right atmosphere (temperature and moisture levels) and food (organic material), your guests arrive. Throughout the process of decomposition, the atmosphere changes and various characters join and leave the pile. The sign of a successful party? Compost happens.
A lot of new composters fret unnecessarily about having the right type of bin or balancing the mysterious ledger of so-called “browns” and “greens.” But composting isn’t like the chemistry of baking pastry—it’s the inexact science of a good stir-fry. You don’t need as many bells and whistles as you think, just a sense of curiosity and patience. But regardless of the system you use, successful composting maintains a few basic principals: