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What Should You Add to a Compost Pile?

April 1, 2009

Flickr photos by normanack and shygantic

Flickr photos by normanack and shygantic

When you’ve decided on where to locate your new compost pile and which design to use, you have to decide on what materials to compost.   Whether you decided to build your own composting system or use a freestyle pile, you still use the same raw materials to reach your ultimate composting goal: nutrient rich, hummus-y soil.

Build it and the compost will come

  1. Water the ground if applicable.  In wet areas of the United States you may not have to do this.
  2. Use larger/bulky  browns for an elevated base that will give the pile airflow.
  3. Add some greens, then water.  Add a small layer of soil then just keep layering Brown/Green up to about 3 to 5 feet high.

What to use for a compost pile

You need to pile a whole bunch raw materials together so they can compost into nutrient-rich “waste” that will make your garden or containers flourish.  The great part is, there is lots to choose from, and the drawback is, there is lots to choose from.  So, keep it simple. Without getting into a chemistry lesson here, just balance the two colors:  2 parts green to 1 part brown no matter how big or small.

1.  Greens (high in nitrogen)

  • Grass Clippings – easy does it
  • Yard Trimmings – leave out diseased plant waste and twigs larger than 1 inch in diameter
  • Manure – no household pets like cats or dogs, they carry harmful bacteria
  • Food Scraps – meat and dairy excluded

2.  Browns (high in carbon)

  • Dried Leaves – shredded will speed up the process
  • Straw – watch out for straw that carries weed seeds, they will survive the composting process
  • Sawdust – untreated wood only
  • Bark – smaller pieces the better

Notes on food scraps

This is where fruit flies and distinct odors can become a nuisance.  Use a plastic container with a lid to reduce unwanted results.  I have made the mistake of using a container that is too large, where molds can multiply rapidly, and opening the container for deposits becomes a challenge with the stinky odors.  I recommend a smaller, lidded container.  Get in the habit of dumping it regularly, or dump immediately after collecting the food scraps, to help control unwanted indoor odors.  You can also refrigerate your scraps to slow down the decomposition process.

The composting controversy

There are items that are debatable as far as adding them to your compost bin.

  • Peat Moss is very useful for composting and many other uses but it has a very strong carbon footprint.  Peat Moss travels many miles to get to your store shelves.
  • Bones must be ground and used sparingly.  If used in large amounts or whole, bones not only attract animal pests but, they are slow to compost.  It’s best to leave bones out.
  • Fish is best used chopped up or ground and buried deeply in the soil.  Fish attract animal pests and create odors if tossed into a compost pile.
  • Eggshells are best used when ground up.
  • Fireplace ashes are highly alkaline.  Use ashes only from non-treated wood and not from coal or charcoal.  Since the alkalinity of wood ashes can raise the soil pH of acid loving plants, use sparingly, if at all.

There are many item that should NOT be used for compost.  They can seem obvious but I feel I should mention them.

  • Plastics, metals, ceramics and pressure treated lumber
  • Lime, items treated with herbicides or pesticides or diseased plants
  • Pet feces (dog, cat, bird)
  • Meat, milk, eggs, oils
  • Magazines because of inks and dyes

Add Air and Water to complete the composting journey

Air A compost pile needs air and to circulate that air you need to turn your compost.  Use a pitchfork,  shovel or even poke it with re bar or a stick.  You just need to get some air flowing so the organisms can breathe.

What to expect from turning

  • No Turning = Compost will take up to a year
  • Weekly Turning = Compost will take several months
  • Frequently (every 3 days) = Compost will take several weeks

Water Keep the pile damp. A handful of compost should feel like a wrung out sponge.

In an ideal world we would pre-shred all components of the compost pile before adding them, but since most of us don’t have the time or access to chippers, grinders and choppers, use the very basic components instead.  Also use compost items you can find locally, such as your yard, a neighbors yard, or a nearby community garden.  This will add simplicity to your compost pile.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Auntie Jo Jo permalink
    April 2, 2009 11:31 am

    Great post. I am in the process of researching this and am going to start composting soon. I wanted to get a compost bin but now I am leaning toward a compost worm tray (the tiered factory). Any suggestions?


    • April 2, 2009 6:06 pm

      Good for you Auntie Jo Jo! Allow yourself a learning curve. I constantly have to tell myself that I don’t have to do things perfectly the first time. Hence my motto, Fail Faster. Succeed Sooner.

      I have a great little book to recommend if you need a pocket guide. Sometimes I like having a book and not relying solely on the internet. Let me know what/how you decide to compost. We can swap notes!

      Best of Luck!

    • April 6, 2009 4:00 pm

      A compost worm tray is a great idea. Little less work. It can be a perfect solution if you don’t have the space for a conventional compost pile. The worms turn out great compost. We are going to publish on that topic soon. So stay tuned but of course there is a wealth of info on the net.

  2. February 18, 2010 9:32 am

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  3. Hot Compost|Composting Supplies permalink
    November 3, 2012 3:36 am

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  1. What To Know Before Starting Your First Compost Pile « Nest In Style

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