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What to include (or not include) when making compost

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Fall will begin on September 22, and soon the leaves on our deciduous trees and bushes will turn beautiful colors and fall all over the yard. It's a lovely sight, but the leaves can smother your lawn. Why not put the leaves to good use and start a compost pile? It's an easy process, and if you include the right ingredients and don't mind waiting, the compost pile will turn into beautiful compost by late spring.

If you build your compost bin well, it should not have any issues with unpleasant smells. Keep the following in mind when you build your compost bin.

  • Pick a location with good drainage. You don't want your compost to sit in water when the rains come.
  • Whether you choose to use a commercial compost bin or build your own, it's important to allow the pile to be at least 3' x 3' x3'. The compost must be able to hold moisture, heat and oxygen to break down the ingredients. If the bin is too shallow or not wide enough, the heat and moisture may escape.
  • Layer ingredients to maximize their effectiveness. By alternating brown leaves with the tomato plant waste, you allow the two ingredients to help decompose each other. Start with a layer of newspaper, maybe a 1/4" deep, to suppress weeds and grass. Then add alternative layers of leaves, green yard waste, organic fertilizer and soil. Limit the amount of grass cuttings, as they will pack tightly together, reducing the oxygen in the compost bin and cause the compost to smell.
  • Water thoroughly, allowing the water to soak the compost thoroughly.
  • Cover the compost to help retain the heat and keep excessive rain out.

Do you need to turn the compost? That depends on how fast you need the compost and how much you are willing to be inconvenienced by the work, bugs and decomposing matter. Unless you find that the compost starts to develop an odor because it became too wet, lost oxygen and became anaerobic, you can leave it alone and let the ingredients decompose at their own pace.

See the attached list for ingredients to build your compost pile. If your compost pile does turn sour due to excessive rains or other issues, see my earlier article "What is that stench in my compost bin and how do I get rid of it?"

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Compost Bins
Compost Bins Mary Moore

Compost Bins

Whether you start with a commercial compost bin or build your own, a compost bin is a relatively easy addition to your garden.  There are many ingredients that you can use from your garden and kitchen which will break down into rich compost for your garden.

Leaves Mary Moore


Dried and green leaves are key ingredients for a compost pile.  In the fall, your trees (and your neighbor's trees and your friend's trees) will drop leaves all over the place.  Gather them up, layer them with the next few ingredients in this list and include as many as you can get into your compost bin.  Some leaf blowers will also mulch your leaves so you can fit more into the compost bins.

Vegetables and kitchen waste
Vegetables and kitchen waste Mary Moore

Vegetables and kitchen waste

Green ingredients, such as left over vegetables or peelings from vegetables and fruits, add nitrogen and moisture to the compost bin.  Other good ingredients from your kitchen include eggshells (not the eggs, just the shells) and, in limited quantities, coffee grinds.  If your dried herbs are older and no longer have fragrance, they can be added as well. 

Do not add meat, fats or animal proteins into the compost bin.  They will attract rodents and small animals, and will smell. 

Fertilizer Mary Moore


Aged chicken, horse or cow manure can be added to the compost bin to encourage breakdown of the ingredients and to enrich the compost.  Do not add cat, dog or human manure to the compost mix as parasites and diseases can spread when you add the soil to your garden. 

You can also add organic fertilizer or compost starter to help the compost ingredients break down. 

Plant matter
Plant matter Mary Moore

Plant matter

When you trim your plants or remove annuals, add them to the compost pile as well.  Like kitchen scraps, they will add nitrogen to the compost bin and help to decompose the brown matter.

Weed seeds
Weed seeds Mary Moore

Weed seeds

Avoid adding any sort of weed seeds or invasive weeds to your compost bin.  Even if they go dormant over the winter, they can grow again in the spring, take root in your compost and invade your garden.  Allow the city to compost weed at Compost Central.  Their compost piles are built to be so large and hot that they can kill many of the weeds. 

Invasive herbs
Invasive herbs Mary Moore

Invasive herbs

Avoid putting invasive herbs in your compost bin.  Mint and oregano are great to grow in containers, but don't add the cuttings or seeds to your compost bin.  Once established in your garden, invasive herbs are very tough to control because they reproduce from roots or seeds.  Their roots run deep and spread quickly.