By Irene Alderson

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of a series on food waste. Read about the issues with food waste and curbside composting. You can also read our series on food choices and climate change: part 1, part 2 and part 3.

First, a disclaimer: This isn’t a how-to article. Rather, this is a how-NOT-to article…a personal account of the pitfalls a novice encounters on the path to perfect composting.

(For great information on backyard composting, visit this Minnesota Pollution Control Agency webpage.)

It’s compact and discreet, but you may have to move this compost bin to turn the contents.

Pitfall #1: Not visualizing the possibilities

Before you begin backyard composting, look at your available yard space, composting options, and how much composting material you’ll generate.

I started with a bin purchased from Eureka Recycling. It’s a fine bin and has lasted many years, but it’s difficult to turn the compost within the cylinder. The only recourse was to lift up the entire bin (it has no bottom), put it in a new spot, and redistribute the contents. I’ve undertaken this messy job only to disturb a host of curious (and very alarmed) creatures.

If I had it to do over again—and had the room—I would put up two side-by-side open bins, and thus have one pile cooking and another pile in progress. One thing I did do right: I located my bin close to the house for easy access during winter.

Torn-up egg cartons make a good brown.

Pitfall #2: Too heavy on the green

Compost works best when there’s a balance of greens (nitrogen-rich vegetable scraps, grass clippings, garden trimmings) and browns (carbon-heavy leaves, chopped or shredded wood, shredded cardboard).

In summer, when you’re swimming in fresh veggies and hacking down weeds daily, it’s tempting to load your bin with green stuff and skimp on the brown—thus starving the bacteria and fungi of the carbon-derived energy they need. (Hmmm…is this why my bin isn’t doing so well?)

If it’s not falling-leaves time and you’re short on browns, you can use shredded newspaper or cardboard egg cartons cut in small pieces. By the way, don’t put mature weeds in your bin, otherwise you might have unwanted seeds infiltrating your nice, rich compost.

Some food scraps, such as avocado pits, stubbornly resist backyard composting.

Pitfall #3: Literally, the pits

If you have commercial composting available to you, there are some things better suited to bagging up and leaving to the pros. Obviously, you don’t put meat, bones, dairy, or oil into your backyard bin, or you may attract the wrong crowd.

Additionally, some food scraps that could go into your backyard bin take forever to break down, unless you take the time to smash them up a bit. Avocado pits and peels, corn cobs, pineapple tops, and even egg shells can make your compost pretty lumpy.

Fun fact: You can put pet hair, a great source of nitrogen, in both commercial and backyard composting.

Yes, pet hair is compostable.

Pitfall #4:  Shameful neglect

To be honest, this is where I’m at. In a burst of enthusiasm, you get your compost bin going and it’s a beautiful, decaying heap. Then your interest lags, spiders weave webs over the top, you let it dry out and forget to turn it—and never use the finished compost.

Forgive yourself, resolve to do better, and get yourself back on the right path. After all, nature does the heavy lifting.

Also see:

“Backyard Composting Basics: A Cheatsheet” by Rick Carr. Check out the “lasagna layering” info.

“The Do’s and Don’ts of Backyard Composting” by Ramon Gonzalez. A good, quick read.

Irene Alderson tries to live in harmony with nature, surprisingly abundant in the urban setting of Minneapolis. She feels that even small actions, like composting, recycling and avoiding waste, are meaningful and important contributions to the bigger picture.