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Compost Q&A for Beginners

Things you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask

Fine Gardening - Issue 103
Over time, shredded leaves and grass clippings transform into nutrient-rich compost to fertilize your garden and build up the soil. 

For many gardeners, there isn’t anything more rewarding than turning garbage into gold. That’s what composting does: transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost or “black gold.” Besides being a natural fertilizer, compost is also an amazing soil-building material that helps retain moisture and reduce erosion.

This incredible process is a great way to recycle and transform organic materials into free fertilizer. The process couldn’t be easier. Yet for those of us who have never composted before, the very idea of it can seem intimidating. Recently, I’ve had several opportunities to answer questions from gardeners while teaching them how to compost. Here are answers to the questions I’ve heard most often.

Will my compost smell?

The odor of compost is a common concern, but it shouldn’t be. Good compost has an earthy aroma to it. If it has an offensive smell like ammonia or sulfur, it is not “cooking” properly. In order for compost to cook properly, you need a good mix of heat, moisture, and oxygen in your pile so that bacteria and microorganisms can do their job.

Bacteria begin the composting process. Aerobic bacteria need air to live, while anaerobic bacteria can survive without it. Both aid in the decay of organic material, but the aerobic bacteria are particularly helpful because they work faster than their anaerobic cousins and do not produce an odor while working. If your compost pile begins to smell, that usually means that your aerobic friends are not getting enough oxygen. The solution? Get a pitchfork and turn your pile.

Can I compost in winter?

Yes, you can compost throughout winter. Of course, with lower temperatures, the process will significantly slow down. During mild winter days, the microorganisms in compost will continue to eat. Just like us, though, they move a little slower on really cold days.

What types of things can I put in my compost pile?

Almost anything organic will break down into compost. Grass clippings, leaves, farm animal manure, kitchen peelings, coffee grounds, and eggshells are among the usual suspects found in a compost pile. However, many people overlook other everyday items.

One evening after a potluck dinner, I mentioned to a friend that I would put the leftover cabbage into my compost pile. She looked shocked and exclaimed, “But it’s cooked!” I replied, “Well, it may be cooked but it’s organic vegetable matter, and the bacteria and earthworms will not know the difference.”

Other items to include that may not be so obvious are newspaper, sawdust, bread, cooked pasta, and weeds (before they go to seed). Wood and wood products like paper or sawdust take longer to break down, but they eventually decompose. Also, most newspapers have moved to a vegetable-based ink, so there are no concerns about composting newsprint.

What types of things should I avoid putting in my compost pile?

There are a few items that should never go into a compost pile. Diseased plants (dead or alive) shouldn’t be composted because they can spread the disease further. If you have applied chemicals like herbicides or pesticides to your lawn, those grass clippings shouldn’t be composted either. Perennial weeds, like dandelions, should be discarded as well.

Does it matter in what order I add organic materials?

Most gardeners have heard about layering their compost: a layer of dry ingredients (usually leaves), then a layer of moist ingredients (grass clippings or kitchen peelings), and so on. In an ideal world, gardeners would layer their compost because they would have the time and the energy. Truth be told, Mother Nature and her workers have composted for millennia, and they have never layered. Admittedly, though, the process is faster if your ingredients are layered.

Should my compost pile be in the sun or in the shade?

You can put your compost pile in the sun or in the shade, but putting it in the sun will hasten the composting process. Sun helps increase the temperature, so the bacteria and fungi work faster. This also means that your pile will dry out faster, especially in warm southern climates. If you do place your pile in full sun, just remember to keep it moist as it heats up.

Do I have to turn the compost pile?

I once told a neighbor who asked me this question that she had to turn her compost pile. I learned later that she decided not to compost at all that season because she didn’t have time to turn it. I’ve since clarified that statement by adding that you have to turn your pile if you want to have compost fairly quickly; turning hastens the process. But you don’t have to do it. It’s possible that, without turning, the compost will begin to smell as the anaerobic bacteria start to do their thing.

Do I need to buy a compost bin?

No. Mother Nature has never used a compost bin, and she turns out the best compost around. However, homemade bins (out of wood or wire fencing) help you build and confine your pile. The plastic tumbling compost bins are also a nice luxury, if you can afford it. They make turning effortless, the compost is easily accessible, and, better yet, they speed up the process. With a tumbling bin, you can have compost ready in a few months, whereas leaving it to Mother Nature may take an entire gardening season. The choice is yours. Either way, I’m sure you’ll find composting to be easy and rewarding. There are many good reasons to begin composting, and it’s always gratifying for me to see how much my garden flourishes.

Previous: Get Serious About Compost: How to Make More, Better, Faster Next: Demystifying Compost: More Composting Questions Answered
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  2. BreanaM 04/23/2020

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  5. gregwhite526 11/24/2020

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  6. gregwhite526 01/20/2021

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  7. LandscapingStCath 08/06/2021

    Love these tips. We are always collecting our grass clippings from our landscaping st catharines clients! We give them the opportunity to use them for compost. If they don't want them, we take them!

  8. Rockingham_Concreting_Co 04/22/2024

    We have seen a great deal of composting in backyards all around Rockingham which is great, but we have seen a couple of Exposed Aggregate Rockingham patios and driveways where the compost has stained the concrete, so be mindful to sweep the compost of and wash it down asap, or invest in a good concrete sealer.

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