Compost is a simple way to add nutrient-rich organic matter to your soil.

April 16, 2013
Photo: Oxmoor House

Whereas fertilizer feeds the plants, compost feeds the soil, promoting the health of microbes that aid in plant growth. In addition, the organic matter in compost helps clay soils become lighter and more porous, and it helps sandy soil hold more moisture. No matter what kind of soil you have, compost makes it better. You can buy compost, but homemade is best.


Composting may sound intimidating, but it’s easy. A mounded pile of leaves, branches, and other trimmings in a corner of your yard will eventually decompose without any work required, yielding a rich soil amendment. This process can take up to a year to produce results, but can be sped up by creating optimum conditions for the helpful organisms responsible for decay. You’ll need the right mix of air, water, and materials rich in nitrogen and carbon. Sound complicated? It’s not.

Anything that was once a plant can be composted. Your kitchen and yard will provide plenty of material. You’ll need about twice as much by volume of brown matter as green matter. Brown matter comes from trees and is high in carbon. It includes dry leaves, hay, sawdust, wood chips, and woody trimmings. Green matter is fresher, wetter, and high in nitrogen. Generally, it comes from garden and kitchen waste, such as grass, food scraps, and animal manure (but not dog or cat droppings). Avoid plants that are diseased or infested with insects, weeds with seeds, or hardy weeds that could survive composting. To speed the process, shred or chop large materials. The summer season is rife with green matter, so be sure to layer in plenty of browns to keep the compost from getting soggy. If you lack brown matter, use shredded newspaper.


  • Browns: Leaves, twigs, pine needles, shredded newspaper or cardboard, straw, sawdust, and/or cornstalks
  • Greens: Fresh grass clippings and weeds, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea, fruit peels and trimmings, and/or vegetable trimmings

Avoid: Meats, bones, dairy products, oils and greasy waste, and pet droppings


There are a number of composting options to suit your space and needs: freestanding piles; homemade structures; or plastic compost bins, tumblers, or barrels sold at garden centers.

To create an open-air pile, begin by layering materials until the pile is 3 to 5 feet tall and wide—anything larger may not allow enough air to penetrate to the center. Apply water between each layer, but don’t add so much that the pile becomes soggy or saturated. Once you’ve finished layering, sprinkle the pile with topsoil or previously composted material, which will infuse it with the microorganisms needed to start the decomposition process. The pile will heat up in just a few days. If left unattended, the pile will decompose slowly on its own. Turning it regularly introduces oxygen to the interior, which will speed the process. As you add new scraps, completely cover them within the pile.

If you don’t have room for a compost pile, you can leave one garden bed unplanted each season and bury buckets of scraps from the kitchen every day or two. The earthworms will have a feast. After two weeks you’ll find little left but the eggshells, which take a bit longer to break down. Just keep it covered in mulch to keep weeds down.

If most of your compost materials come from your kitchen or if you don’t have the yard space, an enclosed container is a good option and will keep animals at bay. Layer as you would in an open-air pile, and turn it regularly.

Good compost has an earthy smell. If your compost smells rotten, it’s a sign there’s too much water or too many greens. Turn it more often, reduce the amount of greens you add, or apply more brown ingredients to balance the pile.