Composting Garden Myths

10 Myths About Composting

A recent survey* showed that only 11% of American households regularly compost leftover biodegradable materials, yet 31% would be interested in doing so. And maybe it would be possible to convert a few of the people who feel no affinity towards composting (about 39% of the population) to composting.

Whether similar statistics apply elsewhere is unsure, but I think it’s fair to say that, pretty much everywhere, there are far more people who could be persuaded to compost than those who actually do. And one reason people don’t compost is that there are quite a few myths floating around that discourage them.

Let’s take a look at those myths and see what really holds true.

Myth 1: Composting is complicated

Complicated? Just toss any biodegradable material on the ground and it will rot. That’s composting. Yes, you can put it in a pile or inside a bin: that gives you access to the final product for use in your garden. But composting itself is dead simple.

There’s one simple little rule: always balance fresh, moist green materials, like kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, with about 2 times as much drier brown material (chopped fall leaves, sawdust, shredded paper, etc.). Many compost enthusiasts keep bags of dried chopped leaves collected in the fall to add to their compost bin throughout the rest of the year. 

Myth 2: Compost stinks

Actually, compost usually smells like a forest after a summer rain. Ill.:

In fact, most people never have a problem with foul odors. True, soggy compost, such as a huge pile of grass clippings, can smell, but if you aerate it (turn it over to mix in more oxygen) and add drier material (again, those chopped leaves come in very handy!), any smell is quickly eliminated. Happy, healthy compost actually smells nice, like a forest after a summer rain!

Myth 3: Compost attracts rodents

And yes, it might, if they have access to it. That’s why an enclosed composter is preferred in urban areas. Avoid adding meat or dairy products to the compost bin to further discourage vermine.

Myth 4: Compost will attract flies

Don’t add meat, milk products or animal feces and bury any fresh green materials under brown materials. That way, flies simply won’t be a problem. 

Myth 5: You need to add lime to compost to bring down the acidity

True enough, many materials added to compost are quite acid, but they lose that acidity as they break down. Finished compost is essentially neutral. And adding lime to compost can result in the production of stinky ammonia, not something you want.

Myth 6: You need to add worms to compost

Yes, there is such a thing as worm composting, but it’s usually done indoors, not in the garden. There is no absolute need for earthworms when composting outdoors. Ill.:

Actually, you don’t. Earthworms are among the most visible creatures that help in decomposition, but if conditions are right, they’ll find their way to your composter on their own: you don’t have to add them. But they aren’t absolutely necessary to the composting process. Most compost bins heat up far too much for earthworms to be at ease. They’re most likely be found at the bottom of the bin, where things are cooler.

Myth 7: You need a special bioactivator to get compost started

Such products are widely available … and totally unnecessary. Beneficial microorganisms will find their way to your compost bin all on their own. Already, fall leaves and chopped grass blades are covered in them, but if you’re unsure, just drop in a handful of soil from a garden, any garden. It will contain all the microorganisms commercial bioactivators do, plus many more. But even that isn’t necessary. Put compostable materials together and they will decompose, period!

Myth 8: Composting takes too much time

Yes, it certainly can take a lot of time: a year or more, depending on what you add to it (some things, like big chunks of wood and corn cobs, take even more than a year to decompose) and if you just let the ingredients sit there, but you can accelerate things by making sure you regularly turn the compost, a job that takes only half an hour about once every week or two. As you mix and remix the ingredients, you’ll be adding oxygen and that will boost decomposition. 

Two-bin system: keeping turning the compost on one side, but only add fresh materials to the other. Photo:

The ideal situation is to have two composters: the working bin you turn occasionally, but to which you no longer add fresh material. You’ll be amazed at how fast materials decompose when you stop adding fresh product! Then you have the “accumulator,” where you always put new stuff. Just keep adding more, remembering to add some dried chopped fall leaves occasionally. When the working bin is finished (everything has decomposed into rich, brown compost), empty it and use the compost in your garden, then switch. The old working bin then becomes the accumulation bin. Add fresh material there. Now, begin aerating the materials in the former accumulation bin, now the working bin. You’ll often harvest two bins of usable compost a year (even more in mild climates) from a two-bin system.

Myth 9: You can’t compost in winter

Composting actually does continue in winter, although at a much slower rate. Photo:

Well, that partly depends on your local climate, but true enough, frozen materials decompose very little, nor is there much garden waste to harvest when the ground is covered in snow. However, during the winter months, you can still be accumulating materials like kitchen scraps. If the compost pile isn’t accessible in winter because of snow buildup, store the collected materials outdoors in a container near your door. You can add them to the compost pile when the snow melts. I still call that composting!

Myth 10: Compost isn’t necessary in the garden: fertilizer does the job better

I beg to differ. Yes, fertilizer can add concentrated amounts of minerals and plants do need minerals for their growth, but soil needs organic material to maintain its structure and to keep beneficial microorganisms alive. Compost can help aerate heavy clay soils and help sandy ones hold on to water and minerals, allowing plants to grow better. Even if you add compost, you may still need to add fertilizer for certain cultures (especially vegetables, oh so greedy!), I won’t deny that, but you’ll need a lot less.

Composting: easy, useful, environmentally friendly. Shouldn’t you be doing it?

*Statista, 2017

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

6 comments on “10 Myths About Composting

  1. Thankyou for your articles.They are much appreciated. How about Foxgloves .Would they affect food crops?

  2. Can you explain what you do with the meat and dairy scraps? I always read that you’re not supposed to compost them, but it seems a waste to toss them in the regular garbage. Especially when the motivation for composting is partly avoiding land filling unneccesarily. Thanks!

    • The problem is simply that most home composers don’t heat enough to kill any pathogens that might develop. Municipal composers, if there is one where you live, can take meat and dairy. If not, you’re more or less stuck putting them in the trash.

  3. Katharine

    Please write an article about chopping those fall leaves up. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the options available in “choppers”…

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