Compost 101

by Josh on July 14, 2007 · 8 comments

in Gardens

Who needs Miracle Grow? Compost is free, keeps waste out of landfills, and makes plants happy. Our master gardener friend gives her plants a diet of compost and manure and her vegetables and flowers look like they were grown next to a nuclear reactor.

Composting can seem complicated because there are a few different methods and many containers to choose from. But the recipe for success is actually pretty simple and foolproof, so there is no reason to delay. As long as you put compostable materials together, they will eventually break down. Tweaking your technique just speeds up the process.

For a rudimentary compost method, just start a pile of compostable materials somewhere in your yard. This is called cold composting.

Hot compost breaks down faster. For that, here are the basic steps:

1. Pick a bin that works for you. We use the Garden Gourmet Composter. Put it in a convenient, shady, and well-drained area.

2. Layer the bin with brown material, green material, then brown material again. (I’ll explain those terms below.) Always finish with a layer of brown on top. To really speed up the process, add a layer of black material, such as horse manure, cow manure, or soil.

3. Add water, just until damp, like a sponge.

4. Turn the bin (if it is the kind that turns) or mix the matter occasionally. You can do this once a week or every few days. The more you do it, the more air is circulated through the mixture, and the faster it will break down. We have been using the garden hound to aerate the top of our pile and it is working fabulously.

5. Enjoy your finished compost in about 6 months!

We try to compost everything we possibly can. Actually, Ms. Bungalow has gotten a little obsessed with finding junk she can feed the compost. Who knew that dryer lint can turn into fertilizer?

Knowing what to compost is the last important step. Avoid bones, meat, and fats, which will attract animals. You also might want to avoid weeds or diseased plants in case the compost isn’t hot enough to kill these things. Otherwise, toss in:


  • Coffee grounds and filter
  • Dried flowers (when you deadhead your garden or throw out your birthday boquet)
  • Human hair
  • Pet hair
  • Tea bags
  • Vegetable and fruit scraps
  • Egg shells


  • Dead leaves
  • Sticks (small or shredded)
  • Dead (but otherwise healthy) plants
  • Shredded newspaper
  • Shredded, unbleached cardboard
  • Dryer lint
  • Fireplace ashes

We used to be intimidated that we didn’t have the “right” ratio of brown and green material, but now we just keep brown materials handy (like a pile of leaves from last fall, a fireplace full of ash, or a bag of shredded newspaper) and when we throw some green scraps in the bin, we toss an equal amount of brown on top.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason July 14, 2007 at 11:54 pm

Interesting post. How do the seasonal temperature changes affect the composting you do?


Anna July 15, 2007 at 1:40 am

We’ve been composting for years now and what I really like about it is the fact that “everyone” benefits from it: We have great compost that really makes a difference in the garden and on the other hand, you can reduce your waste accumulation up to 40% in a really easy way.

Allow me one little addition to your post: Fireplace ashes should not exceed 3% of your composting material – otherwise you’d have too many mineral nutrients in your compost and would in the end over-fertilize your garden.


Josh July 15, 2007 at 8:48 am

@Jason: Although I haven’t stuck a thermometer in our compost in the middle of January (an interesting idea to try!) I understand that compost containers help keep a warmer internal temperature allowing the composting process to continue at a slower rate through our cold Minnesota winters. We keep adding to the compost bin over the winter and make our “withdrawals” in the spring.

@Anna: Thanks for the welcome tip about ash. We use our fireplace quite a bit and we only compost a fraction of our ashes. That 3% maximum is a helpful guide.

Reply July 17, 2007 at 6:07 pm

I built our composter, roughly to the size of the Garden Gourmet Composter and because my grass is growing so awesome, ive now filled up our composter in two months! Im now scratching my head what to do next time I need to cut the grass.


Josh July 17, 2007 at 8:55 pm

We don’t put much grass in our composter, but that’s because we have a push-reel mower that leaves the clippings on the yard. On the other hand, we eat lots of bananas and I’m sure our compost is unusually high in banana peels. Everyone has his/her own recipe.


Barbara July 25, 2009 at 6:38 am

This is some good info although I agree about the ash – in fact I find it safer not to use it at all. Manure from herbivores is great – hamsters in particular are a great source. Also if you have an aquarium, add any algae or plants you no longer want.


TonyT January 11, 2011 at 4:16 am

Is there a recomended distance from the residence? I, of course, would be swatted about the ears if my wife caught a wiff of a “rotten” odor.


Josh January 26, 2011 at 1:42 am

If you have the right mixture of green material (food scraps), brown material (dead leaves, shredded newspaper), moisture and air it shouldn’t really smell, Tony. You just need to be sure to keep animal products and oils out of your compost and turn the material every so often.


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