Home Composting: The Right Stuff


With the gardening season picking up speed, it’s time to think about composting. And it’s not very complicated: any organic material will decompose when exposed to a little moisture and heat, either in a compost pile, a compost bin, or just spread around among your garden’s plants (surface composting).

However organic matter decomposes more quickly when there is about the same amount of carbon-rich materials (called brown materials) and nitrogen-rich materials (called green materials although they are not necessarily green). It is therefore useful to know whether a product is “brown” or “green” when you add it to the compost so you can add about equal amounts of its complement.

Brown Materials

  • Leaf compostfall leaves;
  • dead plants;
  • used potting soil (from houseplants, container gardens, etc.);
  • peat moss;
  • wood chips and sawdust (in modest amounts);
  • twigs;
  • pine needles;
  • nuts and shells;
  • wood ash (in limited quantities);
  • buckwheat hulls;
  • cardboard egg cartons;
  • coffee filters;
  • hay and straw;
  • paper (preferably shredded);
  • cotton / wool / silk scraps.

Green materials

  • 20150428Cgarden waste (tree and shrub prunings, vegetables, herbaceous plants, deadheaded flowers, etc.)
  • kitchen scraps (vegetable and fruit peelings, rotten fruit, etc.);
  • leaves, stems and flowers of weeds;
  • roots of annual weeds and perennial weeds without creeping rootstocks;
  • lawn clippings;
  • wilted cut flowers;
  • coffee grounds;
  • tea bags and herbal teas;
  • algae;
  • aquarium water (from fresh water aquariums only);
  • hair, nails;
  • animal fur;
  • manure (cow, horse, chicken, etc.);
  • feathers;
  • ground up eggshells;
  • pasta;
  • bread, rice and other cereals.

As green materials are usually far more abundant during the summer months than brown ones, many gardeners store up a good supply of bags of fall leaves, collected the previous autumn, to mix with green materials during summer and thus maintain a good balance. An alternative is to add add shredded newspaper.

Don’t Compost These

There are products that can theoretically be composted if you are doing so on a large scale (such as in commercial and municipal composting), but that it is better to avoid putting into the home compost pile/bin. There are two reasons for this. One is that small-scale composting doesn’t necessarily heat up enough to destroy all possibly harmful microbes or plant materials. The other is that some materials just decompose too slowly to be worth using. This is the case of the following products:

  • animal fat;
  • meat;
  • pet excrements;
  • bones;
  • weed seeds;
  • roots of weeds with creeping rootstalks (horsetail, goutweed, Japanese knotweed, quackgrass, etc.)
  • logs and large branches;
  • corncobs (unless ground up);
  • oyster shells (unless finely ground up).

So there you go! Composting isn’t complicated, is great for the environment, and provides great nutrients for your garden. What are you waiting for to start composting in your yard?

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.

4 comments on “Home Composting: The Right Stuff

  1. Mary L Discuillo

    Question. I have added worms to my compost pile (about 1000 ). I do grass clippings leaves food waste shredded paper. What I am not sure about is how often do I need to flip things and mix em up? I heard disturbing the worms isn’t a good idea but want to get my compost ready asap!! Help. Thx

  2. This is my new project at the farm. I never paid much attention on what I need to add before, but this is really helpful, thank you. By the way, you can also check out my blog

  3. Goodness! Because we maintain several acres of landscapes here, and take scrap from the big industrial kitchens here, the compost pile is huge. It is not practical for us to manage it though. We add material as we get it. Somehow, it comes out very good.

  4. We are in Sacramento, California. They have a “Green Waste” container we can put the “Uncompostables” in. They don’t want the organic waste put into the regular trash. (California state law).

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