Compost: The Dirty Details

By: Nadya Hall & Phyllis Bock

What is compost?

Compost is made of decayed organic material and can be used to enrich soil in gardens, potted plants, and landscaping. ‘Organic material’ is a fairly broad category, but in this context it typically means food scraps and yard waste. Food scraps (along with grass clippings and coffee grounds) are called ‘greens’, which add nitrogen and cause a compost pile to heat up. Yard trimmings like dead leaves, branches, and twigs are alternatively called the ‘browns’, which add carbon and feed the organisms that break the materials down over time. These, together with a bit of air and water, make up a compost pile.

Why should I compost?

Compostable materials make up at least one-third of the trash we send to landfills and incinerators. Unlike a compost pile, landfills lack the elements to efficiently break down organic materials. Instead they produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas roughly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Incinerators, like Westchester’s own Wheelabrator facility, are significantly less harmful and can even produce energy from our waste. Still, incinerators function at the end of a material’s life cycle, whereas composting diverts these materials out of the waste stream altogether. Diverting nearly thirty percent of our household trash also means l fewer garbage bags, less kitchen odors, and less fuel spent picking up trash.

How do I compost?

1. Find a dry, shady space.  Find an area convenient to your kitchen!  Placing the compost far away from the kitchen means you will be less likely to add to it.  If done correctly no smells or animals will bother it or you!  The ideal size for your compost area is 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep by 3 feet tall (1 cubic yard). You can buy a bin*, use chicken wire, or choose an area of ground for your compost heap. Be mindful of the potential to attract wildlife.

2.  In the Kitchen.  A closed countertop container in which to collect trimmings from meal prep reduces trips to the composter.  It could be as simple as a tightly sealed plastic storage bin, or a snazzy porcelain or stainless** container with a handle and charcoal insert that keeps odors down, that you add to until full, and then carry outdoors to add into your compost bin.  

Fruit and vegetable scraps, houseplant trimmings, coffee grounds, tea bags, eggshells, nuts and seeds – are all greens from your kitchen that can be composted.  Browns from your kitchen which can be composted include coffee filters, stale bread, paper towels and napkins.  Chopping up big items like watermelon rinds and crushing eggshells helps to move the decomposition process along. 

3. Add browns and greens.  Mix in your browns and greens in layers. A ratio of about two-thirds greens to one-third browns is a good place to start.  Aside from kitchen browns and greens – yard waste can also be added.  Plant trimmings, flowers, remains from vegetable gardens, and small amounts of grass clippings are all greens that can be added to the compost.  Browns from the yard include dried grass, leaves, small twigs and branches. 

4. Keep the compost moist.  Your compost needs water to breakdown the organic material. It should be moist, like a wrung-out sponge, but not soaked.

5. Mix compost to add air.  Turning the compost with a pitchfork or shovel will aerate the pile. This helps the materials break down quicker. (It also keeps any smells to a minimum!)

6. Watch it break down.  As the compost pile sits over time it will warm up and may even emit steam. That means it’s working!

7. Add the finished compost to your garden.  When your compost is ready, it will have shrunk to about half its original size and should look like dark, rich topsoil. No food waste should be visible. Now it’s ready to be spread over your garden, potted plants, and yard!

Will my compost pile smell really bad?

No! To keep your home compost pile from emitting any odors, it’s all about balance. A well-balanced pile will not smell. If something does smell, try troubleshooting with these tips:

· Check the scraps – meat, dairy, oils and pet waste do not belong in home compost since they slow down the composting process and produce odors that attract flies and maggots.

· Check the greens – A good ratio of greens to browns is usually somewhere around 2:1. If there’s excess nitrogen it can cause your pile to smell, so layer in addition browns until it resolves. Find out more about Carbon-Nitrogen ratios here []

· Check the moisture – Like a wet dog, a soggy compost pile can be unsightly and smelly. If you’ve had a recent heavy rain, add some dry brown material and turn the pile to add air.

· Check the air – A soggy pile is compacted and non aerated and can start to smell. Add air by turning the pile and supplying space makers like dry leaves to keep the air flowing.





Nadya Hall – Is the Community Environmentalist at Teatown and has her Masters in environmental policy from Pace University.  She is passionate about the conservation of wildlife and wild places through science, advocacy and environmental education.

Phyllis Bock is the Education Director at Teatown, and the co-chair of the Yorktown Conservation Board.

Yorktown100 is a 100% volunteer group of neighbors working to reduce our carbon footprint by 5% a year through various programs.   Contact us if you would like to learn more, or would like to join.  We welcome new members!  Visit us at or check out our Facebook page for upcoming open meetings.

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