Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fertilizer Friday, Composting III - What to Compost

It's Friday, and that means a visit to Fertilizer Friday over at Tootsie Time.
Check out her blog party and see what other people have blooming in their gardens.

This is my third post in my series on Composting.

You can read the other posts here:
What is Compost?

Getting Started

OK, I have a fancy compost bin, what do I do now?

How do I make compost out of potato peels, grass clippings and a half eaten apple?

Who do I look like? McGuyver?

Well, it’s actually very easy!

Lets take a phrase I learned way back in my food service days and bring it to the Compost pit. FAT TOM. This is what is needed for bacteria to grow, and so, it is also what is needed for compost to break down.


In Hot Composting we manage each of those factors to provide the optimum environment for the bacteria, organisms, worms and various other whatnots to work their magic.

So, lets take them one at time.

We’ll start with Food.

If I were a microbe, a bacterium, a mold spore, a fungus, a worm, what would I like to eat? Well, for one thing they like just about anything people like.

So food for people is food for the compost pit, with a few exceptions:

Although they will eat meat, it isn’t a good idea to put it in your compost pit. Meat, fish and other animal matter can be returned to the soil, and can produce nutrients, but it needs to be treated differently. Meat in your compost pile will create odors, attract pests and under the wrong conditions could harbor parasites, and undesirable bacteria (think, salmonella, botulism, etc)

Dairy products, should not go into a compost pit for the same reasons, although the results are generally not quite as bad.

Animal proteins will compost at a different rate and temperature than vegetable proteins, and will generally upset the balance of your compost.

Beyond that, there are a few other things to keep out of the compost pile.

Most ashes are good for your compost, but do not put Coal Ash in the pile. Coal ash contains far too much Sulphur, and will likely damage your plants.

Although it may seem like a good idea, Dog and Cat Droppings do not belong in the compost bin. They can contain parasites. diseases and harmful bacteria that will not break down under regular compost conditions and can spread those to your garden, or to you when you are gardening. (Think, e-coli, toxoplasmosis, etc.)

Most plant trimmings and even weeds can be returned to the compost bin, but if you have a Diseased Plant it’s better not to take a chance. It would be a shame to spread blight, leaf spot or mosaic virus all over your garden next year when you think you are just spreading good healthy compost.

It’s never a good idea to just throw a piece of wood on the pile, but wood can be added, in small quantities if it is chipped or shredded. Remember though that Treated Wood or Plywood have no place on a compost pile. They have glues and chemicals in them that you just don’t want to eat in next years salad.

The same goes for Colored and Glossy Papers. A bit of color here and there is ok, but heavily colored papers have dyes that may or may not be safe. Many newspapers are printed now with a soy based ink, but they haven’t quite developed the ability to use indigo plants, berry bushes, and onion skins for their colors yet, so they still use synthetic dyes.

It probably goes without saying, because my readers are smarter than this, but Paint, Pesticides, Synthetic Chemicals, Plastic, Rubber, Glass, Metal, (including aluminum foil,) Styrofoam, and anything Non-organic shouldn’t go in your compost pile.

Ok, so now you know all the things that you DON’T use, what DO you use?

Everything else!

OK, that may be a bit vague, so lets break it down a bit.

You want to use a mixture of Carbon and Nitrogen. All organic matter is comprised of Carbon and Nitrogen. Without sounding like Bill Nye the Science Guy, or Mr. Wizard, or your seventh grade science teacher, you want to find a balance of the two.

Think of it as Vegetables and Carbs (no it isn’t a coincidence that carbon and carbohydrate both start with C-A-R-B) You need a balanced diet of both to have a healthy body, too much of one or the other and you have problems.

In the world of composting, things high in Carbon are generally referred to as Browns, and things high in Nitrogen are generally referred to as Greens. This has absolutely nothing to do with what color they are.

I can give you numbers and formulas and ratios that would make a math teacher giggle, and if anyone is truly interested there are plenty out there, but the numbers themselves are less important than the results.

There are many different opinions as to how much brown and how much green to use, some people say use a two to one ration while others say 50/50. The rationale here is that some people prefer to keep their compost slightly nitrogen heavy, that way it is always composting. They put the microbes on a low carb diet, so they are always hungry.

If a pile gets “too brown” it becomes inactive, and if it gets “too green” it starts to give off an unpleasant odor. Many people are willing to tolerate an odor, in exchange for a compost pile that is always active.

When you are first getting started, a good way to start a pile a is to put a 4-6" layer of browns down, then an equal layer of greens, then a layer of browns and another of greens and so on. This is often referred to as the Lasagna Method of composting. If you end up with browns on top, the top of the pile won’t compost but it will help contain odors. An alternative, and a good idea for several reasons, is to end with greens, but then cover the pile with a thin layer of garden soil.

This will introduce many of the microbes and organisms that are already in your healthy soil to the pile, acting as a compost starter. Of course you can buy compost starter too, if you would rather spend money than waste any good dirt.

What, you may ask, constitutes a Brown and what constitutes a Green?

Good question!

Browns may include such things as:

cardboard (shredded),
wood ashes,
peat moss,
pine needles
peanut shells,
breads and grains.

Dry Dead leaves are one of the very best. They break down quickly and form a rich dark compost. Some other browns that can be used in moderation are:

pine cones,
tree nut shells, (walnuts, hazelnuts, etc)
wood chips
corn cobs

These are all great sources of carbon, but can take a long time to break down. If you have a means of crushing them or mulching them before they go on your compost pile you will be much happier with the results.

Greens on the other hand will be such things as

garden refuse,
tea and coffee grounds,
and food scraps

I don’t want to get into numbers, because they make my eyes glaze over, but just because something is classified a green, or a brown, doesn’t mean they will all act the same. Seaweed for example is a green, but it is very high in carbon, a tiny bit more and it would be a brown. All leaves (except fresh oak leaves) are classified as browns, regardless of their color, but some act more like a green than a brown. An substance is either a green, or a brown, based on the ration of Carbon to Nitrogen in the substance.

Then there are things like Dryer lint, which can be added to your compost pile, that are a mystery. Cotton is a brown, wool is a green, Do you wash more jeans or more sweaters? You could give yourself a mild tumor trying to calculate the percentage of brown to green in your dryer lint, then trying to factor it into a compost ratio. So I don’t do numbers, per se.

The real test is to put it into your pile and then watch what happens.

If your pile isn’t breaking down, add more greens, if it is slimy, smelly and soupy, add more browns. The perfect combination will be the one that creates the temperature you need, without creating odor. Since every pile is different, everybody’s food scraps, leaves and other miscellaneous stuff are different, it will be a trial and error process until you find the balance that works for you.

A final personal anecdote.

Our compost has a multi stop journey.
It starts in a Folgers Can at the kitchen sink.

Each night, I empty that can into a Rubbermaid tub that sits right outside our door. Then, once a week, that tub gets carted to the compost bin and dumped there.

Since about Christmas time I have been visiting the local pet store a couple of times a week, and picking up their used bedding from when they clean out the small animal cages. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters mostly. It is a mixture of pine shavings, recycled paper, and a bit of straw. It is also liberally dosed with rabbit, guinea pig and hamster droppings. So it is in itself a blend of browns and greens. It is a bit brown heavy, so it was composting very slowly until spring when we started to mow the lawn and add the grass clippings to the pile.

What a difference! In just a few short weeks, with added greens and rainfall, as well as hot sunny days, our pile has turned from a big pile of stuff to a medium sized pile of compost. One or two more turnings and it will be ready to go!

So, now you know how to feed your compost pile. Next time we will discuss the importance of some of the other factors and how to regulate them so you have a healthy compost pile.

And now a couple of pics from our Garden this week, to make sure I don't break any Fertilizer Friday Rules.

The toadstools seem to be thriving, it's been such a wet year.

The mystery flowers have enjoyed the rain and the recent sunshine to show off their beauty. Maybe I'll just make up new names for all of them. Something exotic sounding...

The Chamomile is doing well, I'm still not quite sure how to use it. This is the first year for it, we planted it at the end of last season, so it is time to start researching.

And an overall view from the front of our flowerbed shows a nice fingerprint smudge on the camera lens...

I'm such a pro photographer, I think I should just hire Diann to take all my blog pics, she does so much better pictures than I do.

~{@ @}~ ~{@ @}~ ~{@ @}~ ~{@ @}~
Be sure and join me each Tuesday for Tuesday Trivia Tie-in, where readers are invited to share trivia and show off their treasures.
Read all about it here


  1. Wow so much to learn but you do make it much easier. I think I will print these out and then review them when ready. So you use tea bags and coffee filters in there since they will break down. I think I've got it??? I will start small.

  2. You've got it Linda! The paper will break down just fine and that way you don't have to try to separate it out.

    I did that the first year, scraped them all, even rinsed them to get every crumb. Now I know better.

    Small is good, my first compost pile was inside a 5 gallon bucket.

  3. Looks like verbena purple with white center and verbena solid white. Nice. Still struggling with being consistent composting...sigh

  4. Great garden and wonderful information. There is nothing like compost on a garden. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Okay, I really needed this info!! I've been thinking of trying a compost pile, but reluctant because I don't want to attract unwanted critters... we already have an abundance of deer, rabbits, raccoons, ground hogs.... you name it, but if I keep down the smell they shouldn't be interested ? I'm going to give it a try.

  6. Ah, humble compost. One year, after a particularly rousing session shredding cancelled checks and old bills, I emptied the contents of the shredder into the compost pile. It balanced out the grass clippings, and the pile was better for it.

  7. Troy, This is a very good series. Even though I already compost, I am still learning more as I read your information! Good job. Your last mystery flower is tradescantia, aka spiderwort (the fuschia colored flower). Great post!

  8. Great article on composting - kudos!
    Do you blend up your kitchen scraps in water or do you just throw them on?
    Thanks again! Paula from Idaho

  9. Great information on composting! I tend to do my own thing in gardening my brain can't handle all the ratios and proportions...I tend to throw it together and hope for the best. I've always wondered about having enough greens...and now to find out that coffee grounds are a "green"... we produce coffee grounds by the ton around here! :-
    ) Today my post was on making manure tea if you care to drop by my blog.
    Have a great weekend!

  10. I thought only dry leaves can be used as brown matter. Great list; that's what I was looking for.

  11. Great information. Thanks for sharing the easy tips. Like Sharon I also didn't know that Coffee grounds are green. Will it be OK if it is not organic coffee?

  12. Great information. Thanks for sharing the easy tips. Like Sharon I also didn't know that Coffee grounds are green. Will it be OK if it is not organic coffee?