Composting 101

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Composting 101

Why compost?

When we garden, build a new house, or do anything to disturb the soil, we cause damage to a delicate ecosystem that takes years to regenerate. By composting, you’re doing your bit to restore the balance of nature while improving the health and growth of your own plants.

Whenever I think about compost, I consider the mighty forests of the Northwestern United States or the Great American Prairie out my back door. Unaided by human beings, both ecosystems survive on their own and grow in their particular manner through composted materials from fallen leaves, and grasses and other plants which die and then decay. Both ecosystems are extremely fertile and self-sustaining. Think of the forest floor, filled with ferns and other understory plants, soft and springy from decayed material, and you are seeing compost at work.


What does compost do for the soil?

Compost returns fertility, microscopic soil organisms, and aids in tilth, making garden soil a healthy environment full of life for your plants. It also saves gardeners money by recycling dead matter in the garden while providing energy and fertility the following spring. Compost reduces our reliance on fertilizers, both organic and chemical in nature. In my garden, I use shredded leaves in the fall which then break down into compost by spring, along with the plant material I pile into my, two Eco Bin™ Composters from Fiskars. I like how their black mesh blends into the landscape while aerating the pile of debris I place inside.


You can buy bagged compost in the store, but why do that when you have free organic matter at your fingertips?

Here’s how:

  • Layer brown matter: shredded fallen leaves and any dead, but not diseased foliage. Other excellent, brown items are coffee grounds, tea leaves, and eggshells.
  • Top this layer with green matter: vegetable scraps, pulled weeds without seed heads and garden and grass clippings not treated with chemicals.
  • Don’t add any diseased foliage like black-spotted rose leaves, or tomato leaves with blight or any other disease.
  • No food items with dairy or meat because these items smell as they decompose, and they encourage animal bandits like raccoons, rats and opossums.
  • Layer brown, green, brown, green and end with brown. A fine layer of soil on top will hold the matter in place in windy locations.Water each layer until it is damp, but not soaked, to increase heat in the pile. A balance of materials is essential to maintain a good compost pile.
  • The smaller the items in the pile, the faster they will decompose so chop up any twigs or thick leaves.
  • To make the pile rot faster, turn it with a fork once a week, or poke it in several places with a pole to aerate it. If doing hot composting, a temperature of 140F or 60C is a good, active pile. Temperatures hotter than 150F or 65C can kill off beneficial bacteria.
  • A large pile holds heat better than a smaller pile, but any pile is good in my opinion. Even without optimum heating, a compost pile will eventually decay and give you good organic matter for your soil.

For more extensive information about composting, consult Cornell University’s article, Compost Physics.