Composting 101: How Your Family Can Get Started

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
By Michele Bennett Decoteau

Starting a compost pile is a great way to go green and involve your kids in gardening. Not only is compost great for gardens and the environment, but it is also amazing for your child’s brain, too!

Decomposition, the process of breaking down banana peels, coffee grounds, and eggshells into micronutrients that can be used by plants to grow, is part of the new Massachusetts science curriculum from kindergarten all the way up into middle school.

“Kids love composting and recycling, and can really appreciate composting when they watch the material in a worm compost bin transforming day by day,” says Amy Donovan, program director of Franklin County Solid Waste Management District in Greenfield. “They get to see decomposition before their very eyes. And with the new state science standards that kids are studying in school, hands-on composting can reinforce that lesson.”

Gardens love compost as an alternative to chemical fertilizer, kids learn science lessons, and it can help a family’s financial bottom line. What’s not to love about composting?

It is easy to get started and even easier to keep your compost pile happy. You want to start your compost in a somewhat shady location in your yard. You can either keep your compost in a purchased bin or build one yourself.

You can start a compost bin with a simple ring of wire fence or get fancy and make a three-bin system from wooden pallets.

“Pallets are the perfect material for recycling,” says Emma Sabella, program specialist for the Center for EcoTechnology in Northampton. “It is easy to get kids involved in composting. They love messy projects. It is harder to get parents involved. But they will see benefits, too, and not just for the environment. Composting reduces the waste and can help save money on trash hauling. I don’t have to buy as many stickers for my trash with composting.” Many communities charge for trash bags, stickers, or number of trash bins, and composting food waste helps reduce household waste.

Most purchased compost bins have a lid on one side and a way to scoop out the compost on the other, or they are rotatable with a handle you turn on one side. Many communities in Massachusetts have a compost bin distribution program in which residents can get sturdy, easy-to-use bins at low cost. Check out the list from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Whether you DIY or purchase a bin, make the bottom layer consist of materials that will be sturdy and let in air, such as stalks from dead garden flowers, corn husks, or even straw and leaves. This will get your pile breathing because, like most things, decomposers need oxygen to do their work.

Add layers of alternating brown and green material. Brown material consists of items like saw dust, wood chips, and fall leaves. Green materials are things like food waste, grass clippings, and manure or poop from horse, chickens, rabbits, and cows. Don’t add cat or dog waste, as these can contain bacteria harmful to your compost.

“Once you have your layers ready, add some finished compost, garden soil, or even woodland soil,” Donovan says. This will inoculate the soil, bringing in the microbes and worms to begin breaking down the waste.

Next comes the fun! “In Franklin County, most schools have a composting program,” Donovan says. “Two schools compost on site and have school gardens, but the others compost off-site. Schools compost about 75% to 85% of school lunch waste, including paper napkins, paper soup bowls, and all the food. This material goes to a compost farm.”

For a home gardener, just continue adding food waste, garden waste, and leaves or newspaper. If the pile looks a bit dry, add water. This is especially important if it hasn’t rained. Compost needs to be moist, but not soaking wet, to work well.

To keep the decomposition of your compost pile working, turn it over every so often — this depends on the kind of container you have. Even tipping it over, or opening it up and grabbing a shovel, will get you started. Move what is on top to the bottom and then replace it in the bin. This is a great time to scoop out the black compost and use it in the garden. If you prefer, you can screen the compost through a piece of large-holed screen or fence.

Don’t worry if you live in an apartment or don’t have space in your yard for a compost pile. Consider worm composting!

“This is a good way to compost in the winter, too,” Sabella says. “You can keep a bin in the basement or on the porch, really anywhere where it isn’t snowy or icy.”

Worm composting happens in a tote or bin. “Use red wrigglers, they are decomposers,” Donovan notes. “Worms are great for indoor composting. They need to be between 55 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. They eat raw fruits and veggies, coffee and the filter, tea, and they need egg shells for calcium.”

“Composting is good for family bonding,” Sabella says. “It is a good lesson to teach kids about reducing waste.”

Composting provides a great activity in which generations can learn from each other and have fun.

“When kids start early, they are more likely to continue composting the rest of their lives and influence their parents and siblings,” Donovan adds.

Michele Bennett Decoteau, is a writer and mom to a tween and a teen in central New England.In addition to writing on science,nature, and parenting topics, she is a hiker and beekeeper. You can find her at

Composting Fun

Nat Geo Composting Game: What can be recycled, composted and trashed?

Composting is Easy! Poster from the Green Team


Compost! Growing Gardens from your Garbage by Linda Glaser

Composting: Nature’s Recyclers (Amazing Science) by Robin Koontz

Magic School Bus Meets the Rot Squad: A Book about Decomposition by Joanna Cole