The Greens and The Browns: Compost Made Simple


Composting is a means of creating garden fertilizer from yard waste and kitchen scraps. You pile organic together and let nature, in the form of bacteria and other microorganisms, break down these ingredients into a soil-like product perfect for helping your garden grow.

The best time to start a compost pile was six months ago; the second best time is today. Although you can buy or build structures to hold your compost, simply combining the right ingredients and allowing nature to take its course will give you the same results. It just takes longer for the decomposition to occur.

The main ingredients needed for a successful compost pile are:

“Greens”: Fresh organic matter, including kitchen scraps, lawn trimmings, chopped weeds, prunings from plants, manures from livestock.

“Browns”: Dried organic material, including straw or hay, dead leaves, pine needles, sawdust, shredded newspaper and other non-glossy papers.

Moisture: The compost-creating microorganisms in your heap need water to survive. If your pile is too dry, decomposition will be greatly slowed. The heap should feel like a wrung out sponge when you pick up a handful and squeeze it. Depending on your climate, you may need to water regularly or to put a tarp over the pile to keep it from getting too wet, as too much water will suffocate microorganisms.

Oxygen: Stirring your compost heap mixes up the materials and introduces oxygen, needed by the creatures doing the actual decomposition. If your heap smells unpleasant, chances are it’s too compacted and needs to be stirred.

Materials to avoid include meat, fish and dairy products, which attract vermin, and pet or human feces, which can cause disease. You can, however, add some garden soil to the pile to help kick-start decomposition.

To build the pile, add roughly equal amounts of browns and greens in layers, or simply dump everything into one heap and stir the materials together. After your pile of materials reaches a certain size, you may want to start a second heap with new material, and leave the first heap to decompose.

How long it takes for your compost to work depends on a number of factors, including the pile size; how often you aerate it by mixing or turning; weather and temperature. Finished compost is brown or black and crumbly, free of easily-identifiable elements.