Composting Basics

Lets face it, we all have food scraps, yard waste, and other garbage that could be compost... but how do you go about figuring out just what you can compost, and what you can't compost. Problem solved! 


This simple article covers the basics of composting. I've tried to make it easy to understand, without being over simplified. I hope you find this as helpful.  - Stephanie

Composting is really nothing more than creating an ideal environment for organic matter to decompose. It's going to decompose whether you decide to have a composting bin/heap/pile or not. The process of composting results in less garbage and waste from your home, as well as the added bonus of having a product that returns nutrients and improves the moisture-holding capacity of your soil. Best of all - it's free (mostly).

When to Compost

You should participate in your compost process year-around, but the climate will dictate when the composting process is most active. The same conditions that are optimal for growing plants is optimal for composting. This means, that in most environments, your compost will make it's greatest changes during late spring, summer, and early fall.

What to Compost

potato peels

You can compost any organic material, but there are some basic starters that should be included in every compost bin, these materials are commonly referred to as "feed stocks":

  • Leaves
  • Grass Clippings
  • Straw
  • Vegetable Scraps
  • Fruit Scraps
  • Coffee Ground
  • Livestock Manure
  • Sawdust
  • Shredded Paper

Other things that are not considered "feed stock" but that are also commonly composted include:

  • Wood Chips
  • Tea Bags
  • Telephone Books
  • Cardboard
  • Corn Cobs
  • Corn Stalks
  • Newspapers
  • Old Potting Soil
  • Pine Needles
  • Plant Stalks

There are also some things that should NEVER go into the compost bin:

  • Diseased Plants 
  • Dead Animals
  • Harmful/Poisonous Weeds/Plants
  • Meat Scraps
  • Dog & Cat Manure (livestock, yes! Dog/Cat, no!)

You should also avoid putting these things in to the compost:

  • Bread and Grains
  • Dairy Products
  • Cooking Oils
  • Greasy/Oily Foods
  • Weeds with Seed Heads

To have the best results from your compost bin, you want to have an equal amount of green/wet material (high in nitrogen) and brown/dry material (high in carbon). 

Elements of Composting

Air is another important element to a compost pile. THERE IS NEVER TOO MUCH AIR! There should be air EVERYWHERE in the compost pile. If you are using a compost bin, there should be plenty of holes to let in air, and it should be rolled, or tumbled regularly to make open up pockets and prevent the contents from settling and locking out air. If you have a compost pile, you can use a pitchfork, or similar to turn and mix the pile. Your pile should also have tunnels, and holes to allow air to reach the bottom of the pile. 

Moisture is very important to a compost pile. The moisture content should not be too high, nor too low. The ideal moisture content is between 40-60%. You can test to see if you have the right amount of moisture by grabbing a handful of compost material and giving it a good squeeze. If water comes streaming out, there is too much moisture -- if absolutely no water drips out, there is not enough moisture. A good squeeze on a handful of compost should give you a few drops of water.

Heat matters. The ideal temperature for composting is between 110 and 160 degrees F. This is where your climate will determine the effectiveness of your compost material. 

How to Start Your Own Compost Process

Step 1. Find/Create a level area that is well drained. It is most conveniently placed close to your garden.

Step 2. Decide how you want to compost - a pile? a bin? a heap?

compost bincompost bin2

Step 3. Build your pile using equal amounts of green/wet material (high in nitrogen) and brown/dry material (high in carbon). You can also add a bit of soil to get the pile off to a good start.

Step 4. Keep the pile moist -but not soggy. If you notice that your compost starts to have an unpleasant odor - it may be too wet and/or you may not have adequate aeration throughout the compost pile.

Step 5. Check your compost pile regularly for moisture content, temperature, and to make sure that it has proper aeration. 

Step 6. Turn the compost pile by moving material from the center to the outside, and from the outside to the center. The more frequently you mix/move/rotate the compost, the more quickly it will complete the composting cycle.

Step 7. Determine when the compost process is complete. Finished compost will have a sweet smell, and by cool and crumble when touched.