Tips Misc-Composting

Composting is the natural process of recycling organic matter into a valuable fertilizer that can enrich soil and plants.  If it grows, eventually it decomposes.  Through the art of composting we speed up that process to produce a richer, more fertile soil that many agriculturists refer to as ‘Black Gold’.

Why Compost?
  • Improves soil structure and increases soil aeration, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers
  • Improves water retention, reducing water use
  • Helps reduce soil erosion by preventing soil compaction & runoff
  • Stimulates root development
  • Reduces personal food waste by recycling foods back into the natural environment
  • Proper composting helps reduces landfill waste & methane gas (a greenhouse gas)
  • Saves $$$$
Composting Basic Ingredients

All composting requires three basic ingredients are carbon, nitrogen and water:

  • Browns – Carbon acts as a food source for decomposers, helping to keep them alive while they break down waste. Typical browns you can add to a compost pile include dead leaves, twigs, cardboard, paper, sawdust and straw.
  • Greens – These are your nitrogen rich materials, including items like grass clippings¹, vegetable and fruit waste, and coffee grounds.
  • Water

¹ Only use grass clippings if you’re 100% sure no herbicides were applied to your lawn.  These could hurt the plants where you lay your compost later.

Do not compost meat scraps, fish parts, foods with grease or fats, bones, dairy products, diseased or infected plants, weeds with seeds, or material with soapy residues. 

Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio

Having the right amount of browns, greens and water is important for compost development.  The best carbon to nitrogen ratio is 25-30 parts carbon for 1 part of nitrogen.  However, we’re all not scientists capable of measuring the chemicals in our compost pile, instead we can go by volume.  As carbons tend to be more voluminous than nitrogen material, we can strive for 3 to 4 parts Brown to 1 part Green to achieve a good carbon-nitrogen level.  Inadequate Browns can result in a more alkaline compost which many plants will not appreciate.  Adding sulfur to an alkaline based heap can help balance your pile’s pH.

Water & Aeration

Decomposing will take place without any intervention, but getting the right amount of air and water will speed up your composting cycle.  If your compost pile is too dry, hit it with the hose for just a few seconds.  Turning your compost pile weekly (monthly during winter) will aerate it, helping to speed up the process.  

Too dry a pile will slow the composting process down.  Too wet can cause an anaerobic environment, which not only slows the process down, but generates bad odors.  If you’re pile is very smelly, reduce the water and add more browns.  Compost piles greater than 64 cubic ft (4x4x4) can easily compress and require more frequent turning to maintain proper aeration.  Larger piles can become anaerobic, creating a smelly pile.


The ideal compost location is a dry and shady spot. Avoid placing your pile under eaves or places with poor drainage. This may cause the compost to get too soggy.  If you have to place in a sunny spot you’ll have to monitor the pile for dryness and possibly adding water to minimize the cycle time.

Starting Your Compost Pile

Start by adding alternating layers of greens and browns, topping the pile with a layer of browns. Lightly wet the material if needed as you layer.  Chop up larger pieces of garden or plant scraps before adding to your pile. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the decomposition process. 

If possible, aerate your pile about once per week by turning it over with a garden fork or compost turning tool.

Continue to add layers of greens and browns as time goes on, keeping that 3-4 parts brown to 1 part green ratio as you go.

Cap your compost pile at a height you can easily handle.  Anything more than 3 feet high can become difficult to turn manually.

Compost Bin Aerator
Container Options
Closed Bins

The closed bin (especially if black) promotes a higher internal temperature to help speed up the composting process.  These may require more frequent watering.  Closed bins are readily available at your garden centers and mail order houses. 

The tumbler styles, typically a little more expensive, are easier to aerate just by spinning it.  Whereas the typical pre-made closed bins are more difficult to aerate and may require a special aerating tool.

Open Bins

Open bins typically require less maintenance and are better suited to composting yard waste (food waste may attract animals). An open bin can be made from delivery pallets, wood planks or even chicken wire. Something to allow you to stack and contain your compost pile. You can even just pile materials on the ground without an enclosure. With an open bin, you have easier access to the composting material. The primary disadvantage is that it may be easily accessed by animals.

If space allows, consider an open two-bin composting arrangement (with a few inch gap between them).  This allows one bin to continue decaying for a second year while the other collects new material. The lower portion of the first bin will be perfect for the garden in the Fall of the second year, while any top material can be lifted over to the second bin.

Kitchen Compost Bins
When is my Compost Ready

Compost needs stop decomposing before it can be used. Still decomposing compost can damage your plants by burning roots and attract rodents and other pests to your yard.  Ready compost can be identified by:

  • Texture – crumbly & smooth with no decomposing scraps
  • Smell – smells like a forest, rich soil.  If it has any trace of an ammonia odor then it isn’t ready.
  • Color – dark brown, almost black.
Compost Use

Once ready, you can use your compost to:

  • Add to potting soil
  • Mix into veggie beds
  • Spread it on your lawn
  • Top your house plants
  • Mix into garden beds
  • Use as a mulch
Black Gold - ready Compost


There are a lot of excellent resources on the web and also material from past presentations at our monthly club meetings.  Here are some of the best: