Composting Basics

From Keep Loup Basin Beautiful

Here are some basics instructions to get you started with your own at-home, money-saving, waste-preventing compost system.

Compost is a mixture of organic (carbon based) waste and partially decomposed plant material.  It is a great fertilizer which also greatly improves soil structure and moisture retention.  In addition, when you compost your yard and kitchen scraps, you prevent them from ending up in a landfill and you keep these valuable nutrients cycling through the food system.

Even though all organic material will eventually decompose, some organic materials make better compost than others.  Here is a list to show you what kinds of things you should and shouldn’t add to your compost pile:

Okay! Not okay.
Fruits/veggies/beans Meat/bones
Tea bags/coffee grounds and filters Dairy products
Egg shells Weeds with seeds
Non-shiny paper, shredded Shiny or wax-coated paper
Grass clippings Oil/fat
Leaves/wood chips Sugary desserts/candy
Herbivore manure (horses, cows) Pet feces (dog, cat)

You need to keep a good carbon to nitrogen ratio in your compost pile.  If you have too much carbon, your pile will be dry, take a very long time to decompose, and the finished product will not be as nutritious for your plants.   If you have too much nitrogen, your pile can become anaerobic, slimy, and smelly.

To make this easy, we will categorize materials into “browns” and “greens.”  The “browns” are high-carbon materials like wood chips, straw, hay, dry leaves, etc.  The “greens” are high nitrogen materials like kitchen scraps, manure, and green leaves or grass clippings.  You want to have a 3 to 1 ratio of browns to greens in your compost system.

Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you like.  There are many commercially produced compost bins for sale, including worm bins and tumblers, but all you really need is a small space in the corner of your yard or garden.  I have made a nice compost bin by wiring four wooden pallets together in a square or by turning a length of chicken wire into a cylinder.  Whatever container you choose, it must have adequate oxygen flow (so it needs to have holes in the side), an open bottom, and you must be able to mix it and get it out and onto your garden when it’s ready.

Choose a spot for your compost pile or bin that is close enough so you that you will remember to actually use it and far enough that it doesn’t offend anyone in case your nitrogen ratio gets too high.  Ideally it should be protected from the wind so it doesn’t dry out too fast, and has some exposure to sunlight to keep it warm and speed up decomposition.

The best way to get a pile going is to layer the browns and greens.  Start with a 4-6 inch layer of browns (leaves, straw, wood chips), then add a 3-4 inch layer of greens (manure, kitchen scraps).  If you have it, add a one inch layer of finished compost to help jumpstart the biological processes.  Repeat until you are out of materials.  Add your kitchen scraps to this pile and whenever it seems to be getting too high in greens, add more browns to balance it out.  Turn or mix the pile once a week to make sure the bacteria that are doing the decomposition don’t run out of oxygen.  Add water if it seems to be getting too dry.


Problems Solutions
Wet and smelly compost pile Turn it to improve air flow; add more browns.
The center is dry and contains tough, woody materials Turn it, add water, add more greens, chop up or shred   the woody materials.
The pile is damp and warm right in the middle, but   nowhere else The pile is not big enough yet for good   decomposition.  Collect more browns and   greens, mix together; add water.
The pile is damp and sweet-smelling, but will not heat   up Not enough nitrogen to get the bacteria going.  Mix in fresh grass clippings or nitrogen   fertilizer.
The pile has an ammonia odor Too much nitrogen.    Add more browns like straw, wood chips or sawdust.
Pests (raccoons, rats and insects) are getting in your   pile Remove meat and fatty foods from pile. Cover pile with   layer of soil. Turn the pile to increase temperature.

Once turned, the pile should heat up to around 120oF.  This is a sign that your bacteria are doing their job and rapidly breaking down the organic material.  After about 6 weeks, let your pile rest to finish decomposing.  You can start a new pile either outside or in a corner of your current bin.

The finished compost should be dark brown, crumbly, and have a good, earthy smell.  You can add it directly to your garden or lawn.  Because it is made by natural processes, you never have to worry about compost burning your plants like some chemical fertilizers do.

The United States generated over 36 million tons of food waste in 2011 and only 4% of that was diverted from landfills by composting.  I think we can do better.  Thank you for doing your part to Keep Loup Basin Beautiful!


Updated 11/11/2013 by Keep Loup Basin Beautiful