wheel barrow full of compost


I’ll Meet You in the Garden with Shellie Wise

Compost is organic material (like shredded leaves or vegetable scraps) broken down by microscopic organisms? Composting allows gardeners to reuse the decomposed nutrients to improve the soil. It is also an excellent natural fertilizer for your plants.

There are two basic methods of composting – the cold method and the hot method - which are great for the home gardener. A third method, called passive no-turn composting, is another option for a community garden with limited resources. The cold method requires minimal work, but you won’t be able to reap the benefits until the following year. Toss your materials into a pile, mix it occasionally, and keep it moist like a wrung-out sponge. Hot composting results in usable humus in around 6-8 weeks. Keep your pile around 3 feet by 3 feet. Keep a balance between “brown” (carbon source) and “green” (nitrogen source) materials, turn the pile to provide oxygen, and keep it moist like a wrung-out sponge. Stick to a ratio of 2:1. That means you’ll have twice as much brown material as you do green material. Brown (carbon) sources include items like straw, shredded leaves, wood chips, or dried stalks, while green (nitrogen) sources include kitchen scraps, grass clippings, or seaweed.

To start a garden compost system, begin by deciding what you want it to look like based on your available space and where you’ll keep it. Do you want to buy it, make it, or use what nature provides? It could be an old garbage can with holes drilled in the bottom, a purchased tumbler, an uncontained pile, squares made from recycled wooden pallets, bins made from chicken wire, and so on.

Select your site. Place it where it’s easy to get to, so you’ll be most likely to use it. Having room for another bin and a nearby water source would be helpful but not mandatory.

Collect your “brown” material. It’s easier to collect these brown materials in a separate bin so they are always available when you need them. Smaller pieces will decompose quicker than larger ones, so chop up or shred anything bigger than your fist. Collect your “green” material. Do not add anything from the “no” column to your garden compost system.

~ ripped up cardboard rolls from toilet paper, paper towels & cereal boxes ~ vegetable peels, parts & seeds with stickers removed meat, poultry or fish
~ ripped up newspaper ~ eggshells lightly crushed dairy products
~ shredded leaves ~ fruit peels, parts & seeds with stickers removed oils or fats
~ straw ~ nuts, seeds & their shells but avoid black walnut bones
~ wood chips & sawdust from untreated wood ~ coffee grounds & non-synthetic filters animal waste
~ grass clippings -pesticide & herbicide free ~ teabags with staples removed cat litter
~ seaweed or lakeweed
~ shredded paper, napkins & paper towels but avoid carbon copies & glossy coated paper
diseased plants
~ bread, pita, tortilla, cracker, cookie, pretzel & granola products

~ rice, pasta & cereals straight from the box or cooked

~ houseplant & yard trimmings, dead plants or flowers

~ hair from pets or humans

If starting on the ground, build the pile by putting down a layer of newspaper or cardboard to help kill the grass. Next comes a layer of soil or finished compost to give us those microscopic organisms we’ll need. Add a thick layer of brown material, followed by a thinner layer of green materials. Try to keep the brown layer twice the size of the green layer. If materials are dry, it’s OK to add a little water to moisten everything like a wrung-out sponge. Stop there or keep building the layers – more browns, more greens, a little water. Finish with a little layer of soil to cover the greens and be ready for your next visit.

Turning the pile is optional and depends on your goals and your bin. Turning speeds up the process by incorporating more oxygen so the microbes can do their work. You’ll have finished compost quicker than if you don’t turn it in. You can turn the pile each week, once a month or not until the following spring. When you have generated more green material, just add your brown & green layers to the top of your working compost. If you’re using more than one bin, you can turn your first pile over to another bin and start a fresh pile.

The finished compost will look and smell like rich brown crumbly earth. There may be some pieces of brown material that haven’t completely decomposed, but they can be left in or picked out to add to a new pile. Use your compost as free balanced fertilizer for your lawn, individual plants, and your garden. Your compost adds macronutrients and micronutrients directly to the soil for use by your plants as they need them. It improves the tilth and structure of your soil which allows it to retain more water. That means less stress on your plants during dry spells and fewer watering chores for you. Your compost also supports the microbiotic life living in your soil. These microbes process the nutrients in your soil to make them useable by your plants and help suppress plant diseases.


Quick Start Guide to Compost (PDF)

Choose Your Compost Bin (PDF)

http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/smallscale.htmMultiple resources on backyard composting.

https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/11729Multiple resources on composting including a 36-page guide, two quick-reference posters, and designs for 10 different systems. All appropriate for use with children. For more information on outdoor gardening reach out to your local cooperative extension at http://warren.cce.cornell.edu

Last updated November 9, 2021