Composting Basics

compost on saplings

The key to making healthy compost, as in living a healthy life, is balance. Healthy compost has a balance between the ingredients and the moisture and oxygen levels. The microbes that break down the ingredients need the right amount of each to do what they do best.
The ingredients of compost are often referred to as “greens” and “browns”. Greens are the naturally wet, nitrogen-rich plant materials including kitchen scraps of fruits, vegetables, eggs, coffee grounds, grains, pasta, bread, and garden weeds and clippings. Although one would think it should be “brown”, horse and cow manure are also considered greens because those animals eat plants. Browns are the much dryer, carbon-rich materials such as dried leaves, straw, pine needles, and shredded newspaper. The smaller the pieces of material the better, so chop or shred your food scraps, if you can, before adding them to your container or pile. This will encourage reduced moisture and better oxygen levels in your heap which will result in faster breakdown and production of compost. A good rule of thumb for proper moisture and oxygen levels, according to, is to maintain a ratio of 3 parts brown to 1 part green. However, composting, like cooking, is an inexact endeavor and some gardeners recommend a ratio of 2 to 1 or even 1 to 1 browns to greens. When you grab a handful of compost, it should be moist but not wet and dripping. Just add more greens if it’s too dry and more browns if it’s too wet. To add oxygen to your compost, turn it once every week or two using a pitchfork, shovel, or stick.
Follow these guidelines and you will produce moist, sweet-smelling compost. Otherwise you may end up with a soggy, smelly mess. Rotted food stinks only if it’s in an anaeorobic (living without air) state. If your compost pile starts to smell, it’s easily remedied by adding browns and turning the pile to add oxygen.
You will notice that there was no mention of meat, cheese, dairy, fish, or any animal products in the list of suitable compost ingredients. They can be composted, but it requires extra care. To avoid the risk of dreadful smells emanating from your compost pile and attracting scavengers, don’t add these foods, or do some poking around the Internet for advice.

By Linda Shaffer, PWA Member

Look for our next Talkin’ Trash column on adventures in composting in which we discuss making it and how to contain it.

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