Compost 101

Compost is decomposed organic material. For the home gardener the ideal products to use are most vegetable waste. I would not recommend adding any diseased plants because they may not get “cooked” enough to kill all the pathogens. The following is a list of both the “greens” and the “browns” needed in a healthy compost diet. I am not going to turn this into a science lesson but suffice it to say the more variety of organic material the more opportunity for the compost to have a larger source of nutrients that your garden needs. Just my opinion.

Making “Brown Gold”

If you get into composting you will find that people actually pay good money to become educated on compost. Another thing you will learn is that there a science to composting. Organic material “greens” mixed with organic material “browns” in certain ratios will turn that prized commodity “brown gold”.

Compost 101

I am not sure whether these ratios are based on volume or weight or what but I have found that the formula 3 parts “browns” to 1 part “greens” makes my compost pile happen. This formula is based on a very scientific measurement of 3 trash bags of leaves to 1 trash bag of grass clippings. My compost pile goes from outside temperature to about 150 degrees in 3 days so something must be working.

“Reinvent the Wheel” Compost

The more you read about composting the more you will find everyone has their own method so you are about to read one “this is the best way to do it because I also just reinvented the wheel” version of composting. Before I give you my super top secret, NSA doesn’t know, recipe I need to explain the two types of composting methods.

Cold Compost

The first is cold compost. The easiest way to think of this is to think of a forest floor. The trees drop their leaves and branches. They lie on the ground and slowly decay and provide a blanket to the soil to protect it. If you have time to allow this process to work it is great. Who am I say that our good Lord is wrong.

Where we run into problems is when we add different materials and different ratios of materials to the recipe. Almost anything will decompose over time.  Even leaves will decompose in about year or so with proper moisture. When we just leave grass clippings alone they will decompose only after turning into slimy, stinky mess. This is why our 3 to 1 ratio is important.

Hot Composting

Now let’s say we want compost in a couple of months instead of a year or more. We are going to have to invest in some sweat equity. This is called hot composting and it involves mixing the compost and adding water when necessary. The nice thing about this is you can do as little or as much work as you wish. What we are trying to do is create an environment where our organic material breaks down in a reasonable amount of time to be useable.

It has been shown by people much smarter than I, that a basic recipe of 3 to 1 will give us good compost. One of the ways we can help it along is by layering our greens and browns to provide the most food and energy to the microbes to work their magic. There is a composting program developed at the University of California at Berkeley aptly named the Berkeley Method which simply says

With the 18 day Berkeley method, the procedure is quite straightforward:

  1. Build compost heap approximately 3 feet x3 feet x3 feet
  2. 4days – no turning
  3. Then turn every 2nd day for 14 days

How Hot is Hot?

The compost pile should get to 150 degrees to 170 degrees by day 2 or 3. One of the reasons this works so quickly is that moisture and air are being replenished to keep the microbes happy. Yes it does involve work but at least I can see my labors reaching the goal.

Once you have figured out whether this method or your own version of it is what you want to do then you can start adding all sorts of composting goodies to your compost. I will add 10 gallons of rabbit manure or alpaca manure in layers.

Because it has been very cold I have not been turning the pile but once a week and it is still cooking away. I have added spent distillers grain with additional leaves. If you decide to add the grains you will definitely need to turn frequently because the pile will go anaerobic very quickly and really stink. If that happens add more leaves and keep it turned and you will back to sweet smelling compost within a week or so. Yes, manure from other plant eating animals should be composted .

Size Matters

Because I have such a small backyard I only have two bins made out of pallets approximately 43 inches by 43 inches each. I only use one bin at a time so that I have a place to turn the pile into. This still yields me over 1.6 yards of compost every three months.

Another way to help speed up this process is to make sure you chop up your leaves. The more surface area the faster the decomposition will take place.

Smoke it with a Pipe

One last trick I do is I got a 4″ perforated pipe from the mega store cut it in half and place them equidistant vertically to help provide air to the pile.

Did you hear about the music professor who went to Germany to visit Bach’s grave. As he got closer he thought he hear something that sounded like music only being played backwards. He asked the caretaker if he knew what that sound was?

The caregiver said yes, it was just Bach decomposing.

I have included a basic list of “Greens and “Browns”


  • Coffee grounds

  • Fruit and vegetable peels

  • Citrus rinds

  • Melon rinds

  • Coffee grounds

  • Tea leaves/tea bags

  • Old vegetables from the crisper

  • Houseplant trimmings

  • Weeds that haven’t gone to seed

  • Grass clippings

  • Fresh leaves

  • Deadheads from flowers

  • Dead plants (as long as they aren’t diseased)

  • Seaweed

  • Stale bread

  • Corn husks

  • Corn cobs chopped up

  • Broccoli stalks chopped up

  • Sod that you’ve removed to make new garden beds

  • Thinnings from the vegetable garden

  • Spent bulbs that you used for forcing indoors

  • Holiday greenery (from wreaths and swags, for example) — just be sure to cut the stems off of the wreath form or wires first)

  • Old, less flavorful packaged herbs and spices

  • Egg shells crushed


  • Shredded newspaper

  • Shredded office paper/school papers

  • Shredded, non-glossy junk mail

  • Torn up plain corrugated cardboard boxes (not with glossy coatings)

  • Straw

  • Bedding from hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits

  • Fall leaves

  • Chopped up twigs and small branches

  • Pine cones

  • Nut shells (avoid walnut shells as they can inhibit plant growth)

  • Used napkins

  • Toilet paper tubes, paper towel, or wrapping paper tubes (cardboard>

  • Fallen bird’s nests

  • Pine needles/pine straw

  • Paper coffee filters (used)

  • Pressed paper egg cartons, torn into small pieces

  • Sawdust (only from untreated wood)

  • Brown paper shopping bags, shredded/torn

  • Brown paper lunch bags, shredded/torn

  • Leftover peat or coir from seed starting

  • Coir liners for hanging baskets

  • Wood chips

  • Bedding from chickens

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