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.

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