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Backyard Composting Frequently Asked Questions

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

Version with graphics

Advancing into fall, lots of plant waste begins to pile up. Spent garden plants, leaves from trees, and other dead plant material are plentiful. Backyard composting is a great way to deal with these materials and provides excellent material to improve soils for future plant growth.

Backyard composting is not difficult. Keep in mind the essential ingredients of mixing the right plant material and maintaining both adequate oxygen and moisture. Follow a few simple rules and the compost project should be a success.

Each year we get questions on how to be successful composting. Here are just a few.

What kinds of materials can be composted? Yard and garden residues and other organic materials are suitable for composting. This includes leaves, grass clippings, straw and hay, sawdust, and finely chopped or shredded tree and shrub prunings. Do not put weeds that have gone to seed or diseased plant parts. The heat of the pile does not destroy the seeds or disease organisms.

Can kitchen scraps be added to a compost pile? Certain kitchen scraps can be added to the compost pile, such as fruit and vegetable trimmings, coffee grounds and eggshells. Do not add meat scraps, bones, grease, whole eggs or dairy products.

What is the optimum size for a compost pile? The best size of an enclosed compost pile is a 4'x4'x4' pile. Any smaller, it will dry out too fast; any larger and there will be poor air movement and it will be difficult to turn the pile.

Why doesn't a pile of leaves readily decompose? It is best to have a mixture of organic materials together in the compost pile. Dry leaves are a high-carbon organic material. The microbes doing the decomposing require a certain amount of nitrogen for their own metabolism and growth. Without a nitrogen source, the decomposition will be slow. Grass clippings are high in nitrogen and when mixed well with leaves will enhance decomposition.

How can I avoid problems with unpleasant odors from the compost pile? Odors can come from the addition of excessive amounts of wet plant materials like grass clippings, from over watering the pile or by not turning an actively decomposing pile periodically. A properly prepared and adequately turned compost pile will generate little if any odor.

How long does it take to get finished compost? Generally, a compost pile containing a good mixture of finely chopped materials, is turned regularly and kept moist, will be ready in 4 to 6 months. A pile or bin left unattended and material not shredded may take a year or longer to decompose. When the compost is finished, the pile will be about one third its original size and have a pleasant, earthy odor.

Compost is used as an organic amendment to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of soils. Over time, yearly additions of compost will create desirable soil structure making the soil easier to work. Start a compost pile today.

(This resource was last updated October 2005 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office