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Home Composting

Introduction to Composting

Composting at home is easy; all it takes is a little time, effort and patience. After plants and animals die, they decompose naturally as bacteria and fungi go to work breaking down the remains. Once decayed, the original material is no longer recognizable and takes the form of a rich, dark, soil-like substance. When humans help this process along it is called composting and the product is called compost.

Why Composting is Important

photo of boy turning a compost pile

Composting organic materials such as yard trimmings and food scraps reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or combustion facilities. Preventing organics from landfills reduces the production of methane, a power greenhouse gas.

Adding compost to the soil:

  • provides valuable nutrients;
  • improves soil structure;
  • adds beneficial soil micro-organisms;
  • suppresses certain plant diseases
  • reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides; and
  • helps prevent soil erosion and nutrient run-off.

How to Compost at Home

For good composting, the bacteria and fungi that do most of the work must have four things to thrive, which are captured in this simple rhyme:

Making compost takes some care; add greens, browns, water and air.

  • Greens are your nitrogen source and include food scraps (such as fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, tea bags and old bread), fresh grass clippings, fresh weeds and manure.
  • Browns are your carbon source and include fallen leaves, dry weeds, shredded paper, wood chips and straw. Browns provide structure for the pile, allowing air to flow more freely.
  • Air - Compost microorganisms need oxygen! While not necessary, turning (or mixing) the pile twice a month will add more air and speed up breakdown.
  • Water - Composting works best with the right amount of moisture. If the pile is too wet, add some leaves, shredded newspaper or sawdust. If it's too dry, add some water.

If you can't compost outside, go inside with a worm bin (link leaves DEC website) otherwise known as vermicomposting. As worms work through the composting material in a worm bin, they create tunnels that help air to circulate throughout the bin. Red wigglers, the best kind of earthworm for a worm bin, are attracted to food odors, and eat the degrading food and microorganisms, which really reduces odors in the bin!

DEC's composting pamphlet (437 KB, PDF) can help you start composting!

What You Can Compost at Home

  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Coffee grounds
  • Indoor plant trimmings
  • Yard trimmings
  • Leaves

What You Can't Compost at Home

  • NO meat, fish, poultry, bones, or fatty foods such as cheese and oils. These attract animals and do not compost well in a home system.
  • NO dairy products. They attract animals and do not compost well in a home system.
  • NO cat litter or dog feces. These materials may contain disease organisms that remain after composting.
  • NO plants that spread through stems (rhizomes) or roots (e.g. ivy, grass).

How to Use Compost

  • Compost has many uses around the home. It is ready to use when it is dark and crumbly, and smells earthy. This usually takes 6 months to one year.
  • Gardens and Lawns: Mix it into the garden soil or sprinkle it on the lawn to improve moisture retention and soil texture, and to add beneficial microorganisms and nutrients.
  • Prior to adding compost to the lawn it is best to screen it with a ½ inch mesh or smaller.
  • Landscaping: Use it around garden beds, trees or shrubs as a mulch.
  • House Plants: Use 1/2 to 1/3 of your container volume instead of soil.

Trouble Shooting Your Compost Pile

Watch DEC's Gary Feinland discuss trouble shooting your backyard compost pile.

Problem Cause Solution
The Pile Smells Too many "greens" Add more browns and turn the pile
Not enough air Turn the pile
Too much water Add dry browns and turn the pile

(Just a few drops should come out when you squeeze a handful of the partly degraded composting material.)
The Pile Isn't Doing Anything Pile is too small Increase the size of the pile and add more material.
Too wet/not enough air Turn the pile, add more browns.
There are too many browns Add more greens and mix in.
The Pile Freezes in the Winter Pile too small and not insulated Increase the size of the pile and add more material. Add a layer of browns around the bin as insulation.
Flies are on top of the Pile Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Animals are Attracted to the Bin Food is not buried Bury food three inches under browns or composting material.
Bin is not Animal Resistant Use 1/2 inch hardware cloth around the bin.

Food Scraps Drop Off Programs & Residential Services

Local community composting programs are gaining in popularity across New York State. Communities are diverting food scraps from the waste stream and supplying participants with fresh, local compost! Look for a food scraps drop off program in your area or residential food scraps pick up service.

Map of NYS Food Scraps Drop Off Programs & Residential Food Scraps Collection Services

Additional Resources for composting in your community

Large Scale Composting

Many residents do not have the time or space to compost large quantities of organic materials, such as fallen leaves. Some municipalities operate compost facilities that accept leaves, grass and branches. These facilities divert materials that would otherwise take up space in landfills. In addition, many municipalities now ban leaves from landfill disposal. Since burning leaves is prohibited in New York State, sending leaves to a compost facility is one of the few options still available to residents. Find out what's happening in your area. If no program exists, urge your community leaders to put one in place.

Leave it on the Lawn

Even better than composting grass clippings and leaves, mulch/mow them into the lawn. This can save homeowners time and can improve lawn health. For more information go to "Leave it on the Lawn" or visit Love 'Em And Leave 'Em (links in the right column) an initiative of Westchester County to reduce organic yard waste.

Celebrate New York State Compost Awareness Week

New York State joins the international community in celebrating Compost Awareness Week each year in early May. Mark your calendars for May 2 - 8, 2021 to celebrate Compost Awareness Week. This years theme, Grow, Eat...Compost...Repeat! empowers us to recognize and promote the importance of composting, the circular movement of organics and the use of compost in growing healthier food, supporting healthier soils and, ultimately, creating a more just and sustainable world. Learn more about NYS Compost Awareness Week.

The annual International Compost Awareness Week Poster competition will start September 1, 2020 and run until November 2nd, 2020. The poster contest winner will have their poster reproduced and distributed to thousands nationwide. It will be the official 2021 International Compost Awareness Week poster and featured on the CCREF and US Composting Council website. Learn more about ICAW 2021 Poster Contest.

More about Home Composting :

  • Reducing Wasted Food from Households - Americans waste about 25 percent of the food we purchase. We waste food by not preparing it before it goes bad and by not eating all the food we do prepare.