Fifteen Questions And Answers About Composting


Do I need a bin to make compost?

No. The organic materials will gradually decompose without human intervention. But a container of some sort will make a pile look good; make a pile as easy to maintain as possible, and protect it from the weather and pests.

Where is the best place for a compost pile?

A sheltered spot is best, one that is not in direct summer sun if possible. Avoid trees and shrubs whose roots could reach the pile, and remember to consider convenience and appearance when choosing a location.

What is the “easiest” way to make compost from garden waste or kitchen waste?

Brown” or woody garden waste, such as prunings and fall leaves, can be shredded and used as mulch around plants and in walkways. Eventually, they will return to the soil. Kitchen scraps, as well as “green” garden waste such as vegetable tops and grass clippings, can be incorporated into the soil. Use soil incorporation on a larger scale only where you will not be planting for a few months.

Can I make compost in the winter?

Even research teams on the South Pole have successfully turned their waste into compost! You can conserve heat a little longer in the fall by covering the pile and insulating the container, perhaps with a bag of leaves. By increasing the amount of “green” material or using a composting gas pedal, you can maintain a higher temperature too. Continue to add materials to the compost over the winter; these materials may not seem to transform much, but the frozen materials will decompose quickly in the spring.

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What if the pile smells?

An earthy odour is normal and not harmful, but a well-made compost pile should not produce unpleasant odours. If it does, the problem may be caused by too much “green” material (ammonia smell) or too little air (rotten egg smell). Start by airing out the pile. If the smell persists, turn the pile over and reconstitute it with more “brown” material.

Do I need to wear gloves when handling the compost?

If you have not been composting with pet manure that contains bacteria harmful to humans, you really don’t need to wear gloves. The finished compost can be handled like garden soil.

How do I store kitchen scraps for compost?

Collect food scraps in a plastic container and put it in the refrigerator or freezer, if you have the space. Or have a tightly sealed container on hand, covering the added compostable food waste with enough peat or sawdust to limit odours.

Should I add ground limestone, soil or fertilizer?

A perfect compost pile can be built with nothing more sophisticated than leaves and grass clippings. Lime will maintain the pH balance of highly acidic materials, such as pine needles. However, ready-to-use compost is almost always naturally pH neutral. Some soil should be added if your compost is not in contact with the soil, because soil organisms do the decomposition. If you have a variety of ingredients, it is rarely necessary to add fertilizer.

What if the compost pile doesn’t warm up?

An inactive compost pile will probably not contain enough “green” material to start warming up. The key is to replenish the pile by using more materials with a high nitrogen content or by adding a “starter” such as manure “tea”. This will probably solve the problem, but also make sure the pile is as wet as a wrung-out sponge.

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How do I make compost if I have materials that are too high in nitrogen?

You can incorporate other “green” materials directly into the soil, store some of the materials in a freezer or sealed container, purchase peat moss to add to the materials, or as a last resort, sun-dry some of the materials to lower the nitrogen content. Your neighbor who is composting may be able to use some of this “green” material.

How should I compost if I have high carbon materials?

This problem often arises in the fall when leaf litter is abundant. If you have enough space, bag up some of this material and store it to use as a cover for food scraps that you will add over the winter, or for the spring and summer when “brown” material is harder to find. Leaf bags are often used as windbreaks for compost bins. You can also wet the leaves and store them in tightly sealed bags to begin decomposition. In the spring, add them to the compost. Mulching is another alternative, but be sure to shred the leaves, and again, your composting neighbor may be able to use your excess.

Finished Compost
When is the compost finished and safe to use?

When an active compost pile does not heat up again, and very little original material can be recognized (perhaps an eggshell or the old leaves), the compost can be used. It will be the rich brown color of good soil and will smell like forest floor humus.

Does it need to be sterilized or screened?

Compost does not need to be sterilized or screened if you are using it for the garden. To use it indoors, it should be passed through a colander or a quarter-inch screen and sterilized in an oven at 95°C (200°F) for one hour. You will probably want to sift the compost you use for the surface treatment as well.

Do I need to fertilize if I use compost?

The nutritional value of compost depends on the materials that make it up, which is a very good reason to include as much variety as possible in the pile. If you are trying to enrich a garden with severely depleted soil, or growing plants such as peonies that require a lot of nutrients, you may want to add commercially produced organic fertilizers. Soil testing may be a good idea. For most gardens and flower beds, however, compost is a concentrated source of balanced nutrients, and a source of the organic matter that the soil needs to store those nutrients.

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What if I make too much compost?

This is a difficult situation to imagine! The soil can use all the organic matter you can provide, and you can apply compost at any time of the year. Put it in flower beds, layer it in the vegetable garden, or spread it under a tree to feed the roots. You can spread the well-screened compost on the lawn, or sterilize it and mix it with potting soil for houseplants. You can store compost in a bag or in a holding pen, as long as it is well protected from rain, wind and sun.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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