Composting: Spoil Your Garden Rotten

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If you’ve taken last month’s Tip on landscaping to heart, you are well on your way to a beautiful, beneficial, and low-maintenance lawn and garden. Adding compost will be the icing on the proverbial cake.

All organic matter decomposes eventually. With a compost pile, you contain and manage this natural decomposition and harvest the end product.

Improve the soil

Compost improves soil’s structure, texture, aeration, and capacity to hold water. The increased organic matter provides an abundance of nutrients and microorganisms important for healthy plant growth. In short, compost is priceless. . . and it’s free!

Avoid waste-disposal fees

Even if you’re not an avid gardener, you may want to compost to reduce waste disposal. It is estimated that 1/5 to 1/3 of landfill space is taken up with organic materials, such as lawn clippings, sawdust, food waste, etc. These are perfect candidates for the compost heap. So this fall, rather than raking the leaves into bags which you then may have to pay to be hauled off, find a location on your property where they can turn into fertilizer.

Making compost happen

The microbes responsible for decomposition work much more efficiently if they are given a balanced diet. That means the right amounts of air, water, and heat. Under the right conditions, compost happens relatively quickly and with little odor.

Feeding the heap

Compostable materials are described as being browns or greens. Some materials are a balance of both.

Browns provide the carbon — the energy — to the mix. These are typically dry, bulky materials like paper, straw, dry leaves or woodchips.
Greens are wet and rich in nitrogen. Items such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and green leaves provide protein for microbes. Fresh shrub cuttings are balanced; they provide both carbon and nitrogen. A general rule of thumb is 1 green to 4 brown by volume, though opinions vary.
Some things you may not want to add to your compost pile are food scraps rich in fat, like meat and dairy, because they attract pests, are slow to decompose, and may cause odor. Also avoid any part of the black walnut tree, which is poisonous to plants and can carry through into the compost produced.

For more information about compost ingredients, visit the online Compost Guide and scroll down to the table describing nutrient content and safety precautions.

Particle size

Shredding, chopping or mashing larger items speeds decomposition. More surface area gives microbes more room to work.


The pile should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge. If the pile gets too soggy, add more browns and mix it up. If it is too dry, hose it down.


Healthy composting happens under aerobic conditions, so those microbes need oxygen. If the pile settles or becomes too moist, anaerobic decomposition will take place, which smells like rotten eggs and results in black slime instead of soil-like material. Maintaining a good browns to greens ratio and moisture level combined with mixing the ingredients of the pile and turning it occasionally will aerate the compost and speed decomposition. Another option is to insert pipes with holes drilled in them into the pile as it forms. This increases air flow and reduces the need for mixing.


The ideal pile is about 1 cubic yard (3 feet x 3feet x 3feet). This size lets the center of the pile reach temperatures high enough to kill off pathogens and weed seeds (104-131 degrees). If you opt for a loose pile, one that is five feet around the bottom and three feet high will hold about 1 cubic yard. Containing your pile in bins or mesh is not necessary, but does give a neater appearance. For do-it-yourself solutions use straw-bales, old pallets, or strong wire mesh (chicken wire isn’t strong enough) to build the appropriate sized container. Leave one side open for easy turning. For compost-pile building instructions, Washington State University offers a Backyard Composting guide. You can also purchase a wide variety of compost bins and tumblers online. Also, check with your municipality, as some offer free composting bins.

Compost tea

Many homeowners treat their lawns with chemical-based pesticides, fumigants, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. While they may kill the weeds or insects targeted, they also kill a range of the beneficial microorganisms that encourage plant growth.

A compost heap can offer you an alternative: Compost tea. Produced by leaching soluble nutrients and extracting bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes from compost, the tea contributes to increased plant growth, provides nutrients to plants and soil, provides beneficial organisms, and helps prevent disease. All of this without chemicals. To learn more about making compost tea, read the information provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.


If space is an issue or you just want to try something different, you can consider vermicomposting, which breaks down organic material with the assistance of worms. EarthWorm Digest has a searchable database with everything you need to know about letting worms turn your kitchen scraps into rich compost.

Looking for more?

Want get even more details about how composting can benefit you? Check out some of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s publications about compost and soil management.

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