Composting 101: Hooray for the Black, Brown, and Green

By Jennifer Hattam

January 15, 2015

Get the basics on composting.

It's a bit of gardening wisdom that if you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants. And one of the best ways to feed your soil -- and reduce waste sent to landfills -- is with compost, which you can use as a mulch layer at the start of the season, or dig into existing garden beds to improve the soil throughout the year.

Although you can buy (or make) all sorts of snazzy compost bins, you can also brew up a batch in a regular old wooden box, a large pile, or even a hole in the ground. Here's how to get started:

  • First, know that a healthy compost pile requires a mix of dry, carbon-rich "brown" items (e.g. dry leaves and grasses, newspaper, dead plant clippings, wood branches, hay, straw, sawdust, and pine needles) and wet, nitrogen-rich "green" items (e.g. grass clippings, food scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, and fresh leaves).
  • Be sure not to put any meat scraps, fats, or animal or human waste into your compost.
  • Put branches and other large material at the bottom to allow air to come in at the base.
  • Alternate layers: six inches of brown materials, two to four inches of green materials, repeated as necessary. Your pile should be at least 3 feet square to generate enough heat, but no higher than 5 feet or the pressure of the materials' weight will push the air needed for decomposition out.
  • Keep the pile moist, but not soggy, by dampening each layer as you add it in.
  • Cover the pile with lots of dirt or the close lid if you're using a bin or box.
  • Check your compost every other week to aerate it (keep air coming in by turning it or mixing it up), moisten it, and monitor its progress.
  • Bury new food scraps inside the pile periodically to get the maximum microbial action going.
  • If your compost starts to smell bad, add more dry browns, mix them in, and fluff it up.
  • If nothing's happening, add water and wet greens as necessary, then fluff it up.
  • When your compost is black and earthy-smelling, it's done! Time for your garden to repeat the rewards.