Instead of watching your vegetable cuttings get trucked off to some distant landfill for all perpetuity, give your garden soil a zero-cost shot of high-powered, plant-loving nutrients by letting your kitchen waste degrade into rich, earthy compost.

Known as "gardener's gold," the dark soil-like material virtually eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, stimulates healthy root development, and promotes higher yields of fruit and vegetable crops, while improving soil texture, aeration, and water retention. Not only will you get to save on waste-disposal costs, but you'll also help conserve dwindling landfill space. (Yard trimmings and food residuals together constitute 23 percent of the U.S. waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)

Compost is what results after organic materials have been broken down by organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and worms. By tweaking conditions such as heat, moisture, air, and base materials, we can give Mother Nature a boost and hasten the process, while cranking up internal temperatures to squash pathogens and weed seeds. Here's a list of compost dos and don'ts, courtesy of the EPA. We also like the site Compost This for its growing database of responses to a multitude of compost quandaries.

What to compost:

Cardboard rolls

Clean paper

Coffee grounds and filters

Cotton rags

Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint


Fireplace ashes

Fruits and vegetables

Grass clippings

Hair and fur

Hay and straw



Nut shells


Shredded newspaper

Tea bags (remove string and staples)

Wood chips

Wool rags

Yard trimmings

What not to compost:

Black walnut tree leaves or twigs-releases substances that might be harmful to plants

Coal or charcoal ash-might contain substances harmful to plants

Dairy products (e.g., butter, egg yolks, milk, sour cream, yogurt)-create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies

Diseased or insect-ridden plants-diseases or insects might survive and be transferred back to other plants

Fats, grease, lard, or oils-create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies

Meat or fish bones and scraps-create odor problems and attract pests such as rodents and flies

Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)-might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses harmful to humans

Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides-might kill beneficial composting organisms

Difficulty level: Easy to moderate