Composting Basics

Composting Basics

Composting can be a great way to reduce home waste disposal problems by recycling them into organic matter that then can be used in gardens, landscape, and flower beds. When mixed with soil, compost increases the organic matter content, improves drainage, and adds nutrients to the soil.  Compost can also be used as a mulch to conserve moisture, control weeds, and reduce erosion.

First, what is composting? Composting is an efficient way of breaking down organic materials into an end product that is beneficial to soil and plants.  Adding yard and garden waste directly to the soil before it is composted is undesirable because the uncomposted material would compete with plant roots for nitrogen as the material starts to breakdown.  Composted material added to the soil will reduce the competition for nitrogen because the material is already broken down.  Composting allows materials such as leaves and grass clippings to go through a microbial process and be converted into more usable organic material.

When having a compost pile, there are factors that will influence the microbial activity that is necessary for the composting process. Aeration is an important factor in compost piles.  Oxygen is need by microbes, so that they can do their job in breaking down material.  Compost piles should be turned once or twice a month to provide the necessary oxygen.  A compost pile with foul odors is a sign that oxygen is not present.  Turning the compost piles will also speed up the decomposition of material.  A compost pile that is well mixed will reach higher temperatures and help destroy weed seeds and pathogens.

Adequate moisture is essential for microbial activity in a compost pile. Water compost piles when rainfall is limiting.  Enough water should be added to completely moisten the pile, but avoid overwatering.  Water so that the compost pile is damp but not soggy.

The size of material being added to a compost pile will influence the time it takes for compost to be ready to use. Smaller material will break down faster than larger material.  For large brush and sticks, use a shredder to reduce the size of material before putting it in the compost pile.

Many organic materials are suitable for composting. Yard waste such as leaves, grass clippings, straw and nonwoody plant trimming can be composted.  Grass clippings can also be composted.  Kitchen waste such as vegetable scrapes, coffee grounds, and eggshells can be added to a compost pile.  Remember to keep a mixture of materials and not all of just one type so you keep a good carbon to nitrogen ratio and the material will break down faster.  Some materials to avoid in a compost pile would be any pet feces, meat, bones, grease, whole eggs, or dairy products.  These materials should not be added to a compost pile because they cause disease or attract rodents.

Having a backyard compost pile is a great way to recycle yard waste and kitchen waste to form a good organic material that can then be incorporated into the soil of gardens and landscape beds. There are many composting structures available and you can even build your own.

Jessica Strickland is an agriculture extension agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.


Composting is an efficient way of breaking down organic materials into an end product that is beneficial to soil and plants.
Photo credit: NC State Extension