Composting 101

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Fall is the time of year when we are cleaning our landscape and putting our gardens to rest. When we complete these chores, we end up with a lot of waste on the curbside, in a burn pile, or on the way to the landfill. Instead of disposing of leaves, yard trimmings, and kitchen scraps, you can compost them in your backyard. Once the composting process is complete, you can use the finished product to increase the health of your soil and plants.

Materials that can be composted should be broken into two groups: browns and greens. Browns are carbon sources that provide energy to microbes, absorb moisture, and provide structure to your pile. Browns include by-products such as leaves, newspaper, straw, sawdust, cardboard, and small twigs. Greens are nitrogen sources that provide moisture and protein. Greens include grass clippings, vegetables and fruits, manure, coffee grounds, and tea leaves. Do not compost dog or cat feces, diapers, meat, bones, grease, charcoal ash, pine needles, or yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides.

Kitchen scraps “greens” ready for the compost pile. Photo: Chris Alberti CC BY - 2.0

Kitchen scraps “greens” ready for the compost pile. Photo: Chris Alberti CC BY – 2.0

To begin composting, select a shady site at least six feet from your home and near a water source. Build your pile three to five feet high and at least three feet in diameter. Use a mixture of browns to greens at a ratio of 2 browns to 1 green and water thoroughly. The decomposition process will slow down if there is too little or too much moisture. The compost will be within the right moisture range if a drop or two of water can be squeezed from a handful of material. Turn the piles with a digging fork or shovel once per week by moving the material from the outside to the center to add oxygen. It could take 6 months to 2 years to complete the composting process. Finished compost should have a dark, crumbly appearance and a pleasant earthy odor. The original materials should no longer be recognizable and the pile should have shrunk between 50 -70%. For more information on composting visit the Composting Chapter of the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook and the NC State Extension Composting Portal.