The Basics of Home Composting

Composting is a natural process. Organic materials such as leaves, grass, and vegetable scraps are broken down by microorganisms, forming a rich soil-like substance.

Key Elements

  • Organic materials – A good mix consists of three parts “browns” (materials such as dead leaves that are high in carbon) and one part “greens” (such as fresh grass clippings and garden prunings that are high in nitrogen).
  • Moisture – Composting materials should feel moist but not overly soggy.
  • Temperature – Compost should feel warm to the touch except in the cold winter months.
  • Air – When materials decompose without oxygen, they can create unpleasant odor. Turn compost regularly to ensure that air reaches the center of the pile.


Leaves Grass Old Compost
Dead Plants Green Weeds Soil
Straw Manure Cow Manure
Shredded Paper Alfalfa Chicken Manure
Shredded Twigs Clover Horse Manure
Pine Needles Kitchen Scraps(Non-Meat Non-Dairy Non-Fat) Commercially Compost Starters
Sawdust ( Untreated Wood) Pond Algae and Seaweed

Don’t Compost

  • Diseased plants or leaves
  • Plants that have gone to seed
  • Persistent weeds (poison ivy, multi-flora rose, bindweed, quackgrass, etc.)
  • Meat, dairy products and kitchen vegetables cooked with animal fats
  • Human or pet feces

Getting Started

A 4 x 4 x 4-foot area out of direct sunlight is ideal for your compost pile. Choose an easily accessible spot on a grass or soil base. Composting can begin any time of the year, but many people start in the fall when leaves are abundant. Mix the ingredients, adding water as needed. Materials should feel like a moist, wrung-out sponge.

The pile should be turned after a few weeks so that the outside materials are exchanged from the center of the pile. Turn compost piles about once a month, except in cold winter conditions. If more water is necessary, it can be added during turning.

Use compost as :

  • mulch or top dressing for planted areas
  • a soil amendment prior to top-planting or
  • a potting soil additive

Compost Troubleshooting


Too wet / Turn and add dry material; cover compost
Dry, appears dusty / Turn water; shade compost
Cool to the touch / Turn, add “greens”
Too warm to the touch / Turn, add soil or “browns”; water
Strong Odors / Turn, add soil and “browns”

 Using Compost

Compost is ready to be used when it looks dark and crumbly and none of the starting ingredients are visible. One way to test if your compost is finished is to seal a small sample in a plastic bag for 24 to 48 hours. If no strong odors are released when you open the bag, the compost is done.

As a soil amendment, compost increases water retention and adds nutrients. Work it into the top 6 to 8 inches of the soil. Compost also can be applied as a mulch directly around the base of trees and shrubs.