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Composting 101

What exactly is composting?

Composting is a natural process that recycles organic matter into valuable fertilizer that enriches soil and plants through heat, nutrient mix, oxygen, and moisture. You can compost food scraps, leaves, or anything that grows and eventually decomposes. 

Why should I be composting?

Though it may seem tedious to incorporate composting into your day-to-day life, composting is surprisingly easy. Composting is incredibly rewarding to the global environment, your community and even your personal life. Here are a few benefits of composting. 

  • Reduces Food Waste in Landfills: Each American contributes approximately 219 pounds of the 30-40% US food supply sent to landfills, making food the largest contributor to take up space inside landfills. Unfortunately, up to 95% of the food sent to landfills could have been composted. The food is unable to decompose properly in landfills, creating a potent greenhouse gas that is 50% methane and 50% carbon dioxide. This directly contributes to the rising issue of global warming. 
  • Conserves Irreplaceable Natural Resource: Freshwater is one of Earth’s most valuable natural resources. Agriculture accounts for approximately 80% of America’s freshwater usage. But from food waste alone, over 45 trillion gallons of this irreplaceable, natural resource are wasted. 1% increase in compost helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.
  • Enriches Soil: Commercial fertilizer is incomparable to compost. No fertilizer can provide the full spectrum of nutrients that compost provides – even the organic ones. It improves the soil structure to easily hold the correct amount of moisture, nutrients and air, along with suppresses plant disease and pests, and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. 
  • Simplifies Your Life: Organic waste makes up 25%-50% of personal waste. By composting, less organic matter fills up your trash cans which means that you won’t have to deal with the hassle of taking the trash out and putting a new bag in as often. Not to mention that you don’t have to put up with the disgusting smell of food rotting away inside your home. 
  • Saves You Money: By composting not only will you have to spend less money on items like trash bags and fertilizer, you could even save money monthly by reducing your trash bills. With less waste you can request a smaller container for a lower rate! While it may seem costly in the beginning, composting is an investment. 

How can I start composting?

The beauty of composting is that there are plenty of methods to choose one so the key is to pick one that best accommodates your lifestyle. 

If you don’t have enough space at home look up your local composting facility. All you have to do is drop it off!

If you are looking for at-home options the best way to decide on a method is to consider these factors:

  • Where you live/availability of space
  • How much organic waste you produce
  • What kind of organic waste you produce (kitchen and/or yard waste)
  • Amount of time you want to spend on the process

The Least Labor-Intensive Methods

Layer Composting

Layer composting is often used with the square, stationary bins sold in stores. Just add scraps and cuttings to the top of the bin. Each layer will slowly break down and fresh compost dirt will come out the bottom on a more or less continuous basis. 

Compost Bins/Piles/Tumblers

Though these are roughly the same idea, bins can be a time-saver when composting, whereas piles can be almost unlimited in size. Both have the same concept – adding material to the compost “heap,” whether it be in a bin or a pile, and occasionally stirring to distribute the compost. This causes the central core of the compost to heat up and do its composting magic. Most compost bins or tumblers are built to have the compost enclosed and stirred by turning it over with a pitchfork or by turning the bin itself. Compost piles are usually contained in some kind of enclosure, though they can be just heaped into a pile. These are also stirred, usually with a pitchfork. The stirring mixes the air which adds oxygen into the mix. This moves the processed material out and fresh carbon and nitrogen into the center.

Compost Recipe

Organic matter turns into compost through the work of microorganisms, soil fauna, enzymes and fungi. By creating the best environment for these organisms to work, this will accelerate the decomposition process – sometimes as soon as two weeks. All compostable materials contain carbon with varying amounts of nitrogen. The key to the best results is to have the best ratio of carbon to nitrogen with the right amount of water and air. The ideal ratio is 25 to 30 parts of carbon per 1 part of nitrogen. 


Fresh organic material (often referred to as greens) has a higher nitrogen-to-carbon ratio. Having plenty of greens ensures that decomposers can grow and reproduce quickly. 


Brown plant material (often referred to as browns) has a higher proportion of carbon which acts as a food source for decomposers. Typical browns are dead leaves, branches, twigs and paper.

Oxygen & Water

Maintaining the right amount of air and water will ensure a faster composting process. Don’t worry, decomposition will still occur but at a slower pace. Optimal airflow is achieved when you layer small materials that are no bigger than a finger and regularly turn/mix the pile. Ideally, your compost pile should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. 

Sample Recipes


  • 1 part fresh grass clippings
  • 1 part dry leaves
  • 1 part good garden soil

Spread in 3-inch-deep layers to a height of 3 to 4 feet. 


  • 2 parts dry leaves
  • 1 part fresh grass clippings
  • 1 part food scraps

Spread in 4-inch layers, add water if needed. 

If you would like to share images of your composting journey, please send us pictures at earth@ku.edu. We would love to share your garden adventures with other students and staff.

You can also send us any garden/plant questions and we will do a Q&A to answer your inquiries!

Yours in conservation, 

Liz Kim