Composting Garden Myths

Garden Myth: You Shouldn’t Put Citrus Peels in the Compost

By Larry Hodgson

This is an old myth dating back at least to when I started seriously composting 40 some odd years ago. 

We were told at the time you shouldn’t put citrus peels or indeed any part of a citrus fruit (orange, lemon, lime, tangerine, mandarine, etc.) in the compost bin because the peel contained “natural chemicals” that would repress earthworms or microbes. Or were too acid and that would have the same result. Or that citrus parts take too long to decompose. Or that the resulting compost would be too acid. Or that citrus are chemically treated for better conservation and that will “poison” the compost. Or … there were plenty of other reasons given.

That information still continues to circulate today, even on some government websites encouraging home composting. Fortunately, more and more information sources are updating their information.

Compost bin with kitchen waste.
Citrus rinds have just as much a place in the compost bin as any other kitchen waste. Photo: congerdesign, pixabay.com

Because citrus peel, seeds, flesh, leaves, etc. are all perfectly fine additives for any compost bin. True enough, if you put only citrus in the bin, it will take longer to decompose. And it’s always best to cut whole fruits or big pieces of rind into small pieces: small pieces of almost anything decompose faster, as that gives microbes more surface to work on.

Ideally, you’d do as you would with any other product added to the compost pile: that is, since citrus are considered “greens,” you’d balance them out with an equal or greater quantity of “browns.” If you do that, you’ll be amazed at how quickly anything that even looks like a citrus disappears from the bin.

Earthworms are said not to like citrus … but they usually don’t enter the decomposition process until fairly late and by then the citrus part will have been decomposed enough by bacteria, fungi and other compost denizens that worms will have no problem with them.

Earthworms in a human hand.
Worms don’t seem to really mind orange peels … in reasonable quantities. Photo: Shanegenziuk, Wikimedia Commons

I used to put orange peels in my worm compost bin (still said to be a no-no on many worm composting sites) and yet they ate them quickly, in just a few days. The worms didn’t seem bothered at all. Of course, that was in moderation: the peels of one or two oranges a week. If I had put in nothing but orange peels into the bin, that might be a problem: worms do like variety!

As for the “excessive acidity” thing, we put plenty of acidic products in compost bins (tomatoes, for example) and there has never been a problem with them. Just about anything you compost will seesaw from acid to alkaline and back again at various stages of its decomposition, depending on which microbes are digesting them at the moment, most mellowing into a very acceptable pH range of 6 to 7 by the end of the process. And citrus residues are no different.

But what about the chemical treatments given to citrus? If you’re not buying organic citrus, sure, they’ve been treated! But then pretty much all store-bought fruits (grapes, apples, strawberries, cherries, etc.) are too. Just rinse your fruits beforehand. Even if you don’t rinse, microbes are amazing things and will decompose almost anything, even those chemicals. Ideally, buy organic products (for all sorts of reasons), but if you don’t … just don’t worry about it. It’s always environmentally more sound to compost refuse even if it might still contain chemical residues than to bury it in some landfill site!

So, don’t hesitate to put (preferably chopped) citrus waste into the compost bin. It’s just a decomposable plant residue like any other!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

8 comments on “Garden Myth: You Shouldn’t Put Citrus Peels in the Compost

  1. In the 1970s I ready a State article on raising worms for sale & fishing. It said not to use pine tree sawdust because it was high in acid & this would stop many “eggs” to not hatch. No sure if this is true or has anything to do with what you are speaking of. I do agree with this article.

    • It’s only slightly acidic and you can use it in compost, preferably with plenty of green materials, as otherwise is it slow to decompose.

  2. A surprise to me–we have both winter and summer fruiting citrus and our garden’s compost pile is always full of rapidly vanishing peels or fruit gone bad. They seems to be a great substitute for high N grass clippings (good since we have no lawn). Never any problems–and plenty of worms in the compost.

  3. Gee, I used to grow citrus (trees), and this is a new one for me. I was unfamiliar with they myth, although I am aware that too much citrus debris piled too high may rot like too much slimy lawn debris. It needs to get some lighter debris mixed in with it. We used to burn it just to make it go away, but that was an icky process also. Of course, this was mostly pruning scraps, rather than fruit. Such debris that is not fruit parts is not likely a concern in your region.

  4. This is good to know, thank you! I chucked a load of citrus in my compost, then wondered if it was okay…but didn’t feel tempted by the idea of diving in it to root it back out! It did make the compost bin smell nicer. Chanel Number grapefruit.

  5. I’ve been looking online for Vernonia lettermannii seeds. I’m not too familiar with this plant but from investigating that it can grow to 5- 10 feet tall. I would be interested in a smaller version which I think may be the butterfly type. I can’t find seed or plants anywhere online in Canada. Can you help me by letting me know if there are any Canadian sites?
    I was hesitant to order in the US in case the seed couldn’t be shipped to Canada. I do live near the US border, so if it ever reopens to us, I may be able to find across the border. Thanks for your help.

    • Seed can normally be sent across the border without any problem, but if you want a more compact version, that would be ‘Iron Butterfly’ and it doesn’t come true from seed. This cultivar is available in Canada (I can see several local nurseries offering it), but I couldn’t find a mail-order source.

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