Composting 101: How to Turn Garden Waste into Black Gold

Beer in the Compost

Starting a Compost Pile

Compost is decomposing organic matter. It is created by biological processes in which soil-inhabiting organisms break down plant and bio matter, biological decomposition of organic wastes by bacteria, fungi, worms, and other organisms occurring under controlled aerobic conditions. When decomposition is complete, the compost has turned to a dark brown, powdery material called humus.

1. Find a shaded ,well-drained location

2. Begin with an initial layer of brown material, such as leaves., Then add a layer of “green” material, such as grass clippings. Alternate these layers of materials as they are available. Use of Compost Activator is highly advisable.

What to Compost / What not to Compost

Use Yard Wastes such as leaves, grass clippings, trees, plant/shrub trimmings- properly mulched to the correct particle size, wood chips/sawdust- properly mulched to the correct particle size, garden trimmings- properly mulched to the correct particle size, Kitchen Wastes such as coffee grounds, tea bags, raw vegetable scraps, fruit skins/cores/rinds, corn husks . Basically any vegetable matter from your home or garden . Animal manure, dried – not raw, is beneficial to the compost

Alternating layers of Compost MaterialOther Item you CAN use

Wood Ash – In moderation and not from treated wood

Eggshells – Don’t use eggshells in worm composters, but in a standard compost piles they can be used.

Fish Heads and Guts – are ok to use in moderation, the odor of the fish can attract unwanted vermin such as Raccoons and rodents – be sure to mix it in well – deep in the pile covered with plenty of composting material. Larger fish heads should be mashed and buried. Fish decomposes faster than meats but once again it should be a fine particle size for best results.

Items listed as “Don’t Use” do not as readily break down, they emit foul odors and attract unwanted varmints . Do not compost sawdust or chips from painted, or treated or wood, used kitty litter. Avoid using plant material from diseased or infested plants, as this may carry on the next generation of the infecting pest/parasite to your next crop.

Do not use Plants that have gone to seed or are spread by runners, unless they are thoroughly chipped/mulched to a point that would render the seed or runners impotent.

Compost Starters / Activators

The objective of maintaining a compost pile is to obtain rich fertile compost as quickly as possible and in the desired quantities.

To get quick fertile compost you need an equal blend of brown to green materials which theoretically will create a desirable carbon to nitrogen ratio – which will promote the desired microbial activity necessary to break down the ingredients in your compost pile rapidly and efficiently. The microbial activity is the activity of bacteria and fungi that keep the pile working quickly.

Compost starters. although not essential , are helpful in most situations. Compost starters contain the necessary microorganisms in larger than natural quantities to speed things along. A good compost starter also contains a high concentration of nitrogen additives.

Excessive use of pesticides will cause your garden soil to become less active than is natural, the pesticides are also killing off many beneficial microorganisms.

Maintaing the Compost Pile


Keep the pile fairly moist. If you have a thermometer available, you can test the temperature of the pile. When it begins to cool, it is time to turn and water the pile.

Turning the compost pile

Keep the compost pile from settling and allow air to enter.
The compost pile should be periodically turned or mixed to incorporate oxygen. Heat is generated by the microbes during the decomposition process. Turning also shifts material from the outer (cooler) part of the pile to the center (hotter). The frequency of turning depends upon the materials being composted, the compost temperature and the moisture conditions, but generally should be done on a weekly basis in warm weather. Turning should definitely be done if the temperature in the center of the pile reaches 140 F or if odors are present.


Composting is designed to function in the range of 95°F – 160°F. Temperature is a function of compost pile size, oxygen and moisture content. A pile must should be large enough to provide an insulating effect for the interior of the pile. Temperature is a vital factor affecting biological activity, and composting is dependent on this activity. Each type of organism has an optimum temperature range. Composting is designed to function in the range of 95°F – 160°F. The most effective range for composting seems to be 122°F – 130°F. Higher temperatures of 131°F – 140°F may be desirable to destroy weed seeds or plant pathogens. At temperatures above 149°F many of the organisms involved in composting become inactive or die.

Nitrogen Level

Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of organic material

Microbial activity is affected by the Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of organic material {C/N = Carbon/Nitrogen}. Materials high in carbon relative to nitrogen , such as straw and sawdust, will decompose very slowly unless a source of nitrogen is added. Materials with a low C/N ratio are good sources of nitrogen and include manure, inorganic fertilizer, vegetable table scraps and grass clippings. The optimum C/N ratio for rapid composting is about 30/1 or less. The approximate C/N ratio for materials commonly used in backyard composts ranges from about 15 to 600.

Compost pH

Compost ph is important primarily because you can utilize it to track the process of decomposition. Compost microorganisms operate best under neutral to acidic conditions, with pH’s in the range of 5.5 to 8.

During the initial stages of decomposition, organic acids are formed. The acidic conditions are favorable for growth of fungi and breakdown of lignin and cellulose.

As composting proceeds, the organic acids become neutralized, and mature compost generally has a pH between 6 and 8.