The Basics of Composting

Gardeners, if you have not learned to compost for fertilization, fall is a perfect time to start. Why? To take advantage of all those fallen leaves, of course!

Why Compost?

Composting is an economical and environmentally-sound way to fertilize your soil. It makes for the richest growing soil available, as it is high in potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen.

You are basically duplicating Mother Nature’s plan for the lushest forests and natural gardens.

A gardener who composts is greatly helping the environment by reusing what is otherwise treated as “garbage” and merely rotting away in dumps and landfills.

It’s estimated that such waste material takes up about a third of the space in our community landfills. Why not put this material to good use and use it to grow our lawns and gardens?

Do You Need Special Equipment?

A shredder will come in handy for your projects. This will make your material smaller for easier storage as you go along, and there are inexpensive gas or electric shredders available, especially if you shop online.

If you do decide to get a machine, I’d recommend spending a little more on a product with a little more power than you think you will need (trust me – you will use it).

Then make sure you have lots of bags and bins to store your composted material. You will probably want a large pail in the kitchen specifically for organic waste. Make sure the pail has a tight lid to keep out animals and bugs.

You can also find great bargains on bins online. There are also tumblers for mixing your organic matter efficiently.

You will also find a compost thermometer handy to make sure your piles are decomposed efficiently.

What Material Can You Use?

Fall leaves are perfect for composting. Rake them and store them for later shredding, or shred them as you go along.

Nearly anything organic can be used. In the kitchen, it may take some time to condition your family but you will soon find it a habit to use the compost pile.

There you can save eggshells (crushed), corncobs (shred), peelings, rinds, peanut shells, and coffee grounds. Dairy and meat products can be used, but they are going to smell badly, so if you use them, you will want to bury them under everything else in your pail — and make sure you are using the lid!

You can put liquids like kitchen rinse water into the container, but you will want to make sure they are in the middle to encourage the other materials to rot.

For most residential sized compost piles, you should avoid any oil, fish, bones, or grease. They do not decompose efficiently and are more likely to cause an unpleasant smell than to help your garden.

That being said, in very large piles, fish and even bones will break down and are great for fertilization and also provide much needed calcium for the plants. So if you pile is very large, then go for it!

Other Common Household Materials

If you have household pets, you may be tempted to use their droppings, fur, or hair.

While manure from many barnyard animals can be great for fertilization, most household pets commonly are disease carriers even when the animal itself is not sick, and it is not wise to use their droppings in your mixture.

Hair is all right, but it has to be quite well scattered around and not left in clumps.

Dead houseplants can be used, but they must be handled carefully and this is somewhat impractical. You don’t want a diseased plant to end up near any kind of living plant that is a related specie.

In order to kill disease, the plant must be exposed to heat and left to decay for several months. Certain types of diseased plants that have been affected by very infectious pathogens, such tree limbs suffering from fire blight, should be burned immediately.

You can use the lint from your dryer in compost. You can use finely shredded newspaper in your material, but make sure to take out the slick color pages. If you have a lot, it’s better to take it for recycling.

Small amounts of fireplace or wood stove ashes can be added to you pile. Limit your ash usage to two gallons per 3x3x3 container.

Do not use charcoal ashes, as they will not decompose and the sulfur and iron contained in them can damage your plants.

Yard Waste

If you live in an area with a lot of pine trees, you’ll be relieved to know you can shred and use these! They rot slowly, so do make sure to chop or shred them as finely as you can.

Grass is a great source of nitrogen, so is highly desirable in your mixture, as long as it does not contain additives or pesticides.

If you want to use mowed grass in your mixture, make sure it is not grass that has been sprayed or treated, and that you have spread on your drive way or some other surface to dry for at least one day.

It should be sunbaked and have the consistency of straw before it’s ready to add to your pile. It should then be mixed with some brown composting material to keep it from clumping and smelling.

If you live near the ocean, you can use seaweed, and in fact it is known to be one of the best sources of nutrients for your soil. Just make sure you have rinsed the salt off thoroughly first.

If you are using weeds, hay, or old garden plants in your compost, you will want to make sure they are dried. If you have a smaller pile, don’t use weeds with large root systems or weeds that are going to seed.

This may go without saying, but some folks who have thoroughly aged their piles and haven’t gotten it to a high enough temperature have been known to inflict their own future gardens with reused weed material.

However, if your pile is large, kept moist, and allowed to have some air circulation, it will generally get hot enough to kill off the seeds.


Herbivore animal manure is excellent composting material. Unlike with your garden, you do not need to age the manure.  Just alternate the layers in a pile of leaves or straw.

This fresh manure will provide plenty of nitrogen for that will assist the helpful bacteria in breaking down the cellulose in the fiber and turning it into lignin. Lignin is one of the most important components of soil and is partially responsible for that “earthy” smell that we all love.

This material works similarly to peat moss in that it allows for good airflow and drainage in the soil yet retains moisture that pant roots can draw upon during drier periods.

Where to Place the Pile

You will want your pile on top of lawn or soil, so you can take advantage of the worm activity. Put it on even ground where there is plenty of sun for drying it out. You will want it sheltered from wind, and probably your neighbors!

There are large black bins available which allow for trapping solar heat and composting through winter months. Three sided shelters often also work well — you can use concrete blocks or fencing to build.

When to Compost

Composting schedules often differ due to regional weather conditions. If you suffer cold winters in your area, you are going to want to start your pile in the spring.

However, If you have a very large pile, it is possible to create warm enough conditions for the heat loving bacteria that beak down the  material to thrive in even northern climates.

Mixing the Material

The effectiveness of your pile is dependent on air circulation through it, and the temperature of it. It must be aerated. You can mix it with a large garden fork periodically, or you can simply place tree branches or tubes vertically into the pile.

Your compost pile should be between 104 and 131 degrees F. Optimally you should only turn the pile when it is below 104 or over 131 degrees. This will keep the heat uniform and will keep the pile decomposing most efficiently.

The process can take as long as a year or two, so you should be prepared to wait until decomposition is fully finished.

When and How to Use the Compost

You can tell that your compost is properly decomposed when you can see very few pieces of material. It should have a crumbly consistency and be dark brown in color.

If you trying to get a lawn established from scratch, you can use up to three inches of compost before you spread the seeds or lay the sod. You can plan on maintaining the lawn with a thin layer of one-quarter to half an inch spread annually.

Your normal time to be using the product is spring and summer during your ordinary gardening season.

In a garden, compost can be worked into the top six inches of soil before planting, or a layer up to an inch thick can be spread on top of an existing garden.

It will continue to decompose into the ground. It can also be used when planting individual plants and around your bushes and trees.

You can also side-dress it around existing plantings – the earthworms and other creepy crawlies will eventually get a good portion of it dung into the soil.

If you make the decision to compost, know that you are employing the most natural method of gardening available, and you are doing a great favor to the earth. Happy composting!

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Robert (@guest_10357)
3 years ago

I found your article clear and enthusiastic. Perhaps it would help your readers to mention some important scientific facts which are hinted at in your article, but not mentioned specifically. Issue (1). A critical aspect in making good compost is the [Carbon to Nitrogen] ratio usually written as C/N. This ratio, for the completed compost heap, should be around 25:1.We hardly ever hear this number mentioned when we read articles about home compost production. The reason for aiming for this particular number is that the microorganisms which process the composting materials prefer the C/N ratio at about the quoted level… Read more »

Clare Groom
Clare Groom(@clareg)
Reply to  Robert
3 years ago

Hi Robert, thank you for your feedback and taking the time to comment. This article is due to be updated and expanded to cover these issues in more detail.