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Compost is a mixture of decaying organic matter such as leaves, grass and food scraps. 

Composting is the process of speeding up the natural decaying process.

The end product is called compost or humus, organic matter that is in a state that is usable by plants. A compost pile or bin enables one to control air, water, food, and temperature. Managing these factors enables you to speed up the slow, natural decay process. 

A decomposer is a microscopic organism such as a bacterium or fungus that feeds on or breaks down dead plant or animal matter. Centipedes, millipedes, beetles and earthworms will also work to break down organic matter.



In PA 34% of our landfill waste is food. According to the EPA the average person in the U.S. generates about 650 lbs. of compostables (food scraps) each year. Recycle compostables in your yard to reduce landfill waste and to gain the benefits of compost in your garden. Composting speeds up the natural decaying process which returns organics to our soil. Think of a compost pile as an ecosystem we control to provide air, water, food and warmth for decomposers. By managing these four factors we are able to accelerate the slow natural decay process. A teaspoon of good garden soil contains 100 million bacteria and 800 feet of fungal threads according to a study by Oregon State. Adding compost to your soil helps aerate heavy clay soil to promote root growth and provides slow-release micronutrients for overall plant growth. Compost helps retain soil moisture and attracts earthworms. Adding two inches of mature compost to your garden beds helps maintain an even soil temperature, cooler in summer and warmer in winter and a reduction in weeds.


Where to place your compost bin or piles:

  • Shady area will help prevent drying out in summer.
  • Avoid areas that will interfere with lawn & garden activities.
  • Adequate work area around pile for adding compostables and to be able to adequately turn pile with pitchfork.
  • Area for storage of greens & browns and finished compost.
  • Water available.
  • Good drainage.
  • Away from wells.
  • Near where finished compost will be used.
  • Accessible to your kitchen in all seasons.
  • Keep attractive



Gloves to protect your hands from punctures or scrapes.

Eye protectors to reduce chance of material getting into your eyes.

Pitchfork to make it easier to turn compost pile.

Bucket to collect compost material and to add water to pile as needed.

Pruning or lopping shears to cut up plant material.

Compost bin or area to place organic matter.



Briefly, except for meat, bones, poultry, dairy, mayonnaise, and animal fat cooking oils, all kitchen food scraps may be composted. There are many methods of composting ranging from very simple to complex. Take a Master Gardener Composting Class or read Online Resources below. 


Save your kitchen scraps for your compost bin or pile to help reduce landfill waste and to make soil nutrients for your garden. Keep a closed container next to your kitchen sink so you will remember to save your food scraps. Note the bucket in left corner of sink in photo above. Lid is resting beside bucket.


Keep a metal strainer in your kitchen sink drains to catch food scraps and avoid use of sink disposal. You can then easily tap contents into your counter compost container. A stainless steel strainer should last many years and may be washed in the dishwasher.


Use a permanent mesh coffee basket rather than paper liners to decrease paper use; available at supermarkets. Our basket is at least 4 yrs. old. To conserve water,  put the kitchen compost container under the faucet when rinsing out the coffee basket. The extra water added to your compost will help keep the proper moisture level in your pile, the consistency of a wrung out sponge. 


Save your coffee grounds for acid loving plants such as azalea, rhododendron, blueberry bushes.  Sprinkle grounds on soil around these plants to maintain/increase soil acidity. Keep container next to coffee pot so you will remember to save grounds. Coffee grounds may also be added to your compost bin.


To conserve water, put the kitchen compost container under the faucet when rinsing vegetables or a coffee basket. The extra water added to your compost will help keep the proper moisture level in your pile, the consistency of a wrung out sponge.


Save human and pet hair for your compost bin. When you pull the hair out of your brushes and combs just add the hair to your kitchen compost container. Save the hair on your drain trap after you shower in the same manner.


Make moisture content like a wrung-out sponge. If your closed bin contents are dry you can remove the lid when rain is expected to obtain needed moisture. If you have open piles form a depression in the center so rain will collect.  Adding water collected in a rain barrel will also work. You may need to turn the pile as you add water to obtain an even moisture content.


Grass clippings may be added to a compost pile if allowed to dry first or by turning the pile to prevent the clippings from clumping together. Limit grass clippings to one third of your compost pile to prevent overheating and odors. Consider Grasscycling. If performed correctly, returning grass to your lawn will reduce the labor of bagging grass and add nutrients to the lawn. To prevent the grass from clumping on the lawn mow the grass when dry using a sharp blade to remove no more than 1/3 of blade leaf at one mowing. For further details see the Grasscylcing resources under Online Resources below. 


If you are using a compost bin such as the Earth Machine you may find it easiest to lift off the entire bin, set it beside the pile, secure the bin to the ground with provided stakes, then pitch fork the old contents into the empty bin. Lock on the lid.


Simple composting aka cold or slow composting

Compost will still form in a pile that does not get hot but decay will be slower and it will take much longer, one to two years, to make finished compost.

Lack of air, too little or too much water, or too many browns in a pile could prevent a pile from heating.

Pathogens and weed seeds will survive.

Little effort is needed and organic waste is still kept out of landfills.

If you add kitchen scraps to the pile bury the scraps below the surface with a few inches of coarse material to avoid pests and odors. If you have considerable kitchen scraps you may need to use a rodent- proof bin.

As noted below, composting will be more efficient if you cut up and mix your materials as you add them to the pile. If you are not going to turn the pile keep some larger sticks angled in the pile to help aerate it.


Key points to fast compost aka complex:

  • The pile should be about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide with good air circulation. Soil organisms need air in order to work efficiently. A 3 to 5 ft. size pile enables the material to heat adequately. A pile less than 3 ft high will not hold sufficient heat and greater than 5 ft. high would prevent adequate oxygen in the center of the pile. The pile may be any manageable length.
  • When air temps reach in the 40's turn your pile with a pitch fork at least weekly. Each time be sure to turn the outside of the pile to the inside to maintain an even temp. Piles with a temp of 120 degrees for about 7 days or 140 degrees for about 2 days should kill most pathogens (disease causing organisms) and weed seeds. Turning the pile also keeps it evenly aerated so organisms work efficiently. Do not turn the pile in colder weather because too much heat will escape and slow decomposition.
  • Compost decomposes most efficiently at a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1 C/N. Layer two parts brown to one part green for fast composting. Browns (carbon) include leaves, sticks, paper, straw. Greens (nitrogen) include fresh grass clippings, food scraps, manure. Blending the browns and greens together when you turn your pile enables the soil organisms to work efficiently.  Decomposers use carbon as an energy source and nitrogen for proteins to build their bodies.
  • Keep an even moisture content throughout your pile. When you squeeze compost in your hand it should feel like a wrung out sponge, just a drop or two of water coming out. Decomposers need even moisture in order to work.
  • Break or cut up compostables into 2 - 3 inch pieces. Smaller pieces compost faster since there is more surface area for the microorganisms to work. 


2 Parts Brown  vs.   1 Part Green
Browns  (Carbon)  Energy Source   Greens  (Nitrogen)  Protein Source
Leaves, sticks, paper, straw, corn stalks   Grass clippings, food scraps, manure (cow,horse, poultry, rabbit)
Decay very slowly    Decay rapidly
Coarse browns can keep pile aerated   Poor aeration - foul odors occur when excess nitrogen converts to an ammonia gas
Accumulate in the fall    Accumulate in spring and summer
Bind nitrogen in soil if not fully composted    Supply nitrogen for composting
May need to save until able to mix with greens    Best composting if mixed with browns


Keep cat, dog, and human waste out of compost piles to avoid attracting pests and to prevent spreading disease.


Household items made of paper may be composted

Nonglossy paper such as newsprint, corrugated cardboard boxes, paper egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, and paper towels may be composted. Avoid coated or treated paper to keep harmful chemicals out of your compost. The nonglossy paper items are considered browns, high carbon sources. Toilet and paper towel rolls may also be used as seed starting pots. Learn how at the common milkweed blog.



A properly maintained compost pile should be odor free. If you smell your pile thoroughly turn the contents, mixing the outside contents inward and vice versa and mixing browns and greens together. Turning provides oxygen which aerobic organisms need to function.  The lack of oxygen causes such odors as ammonia and vinegar, which are the byproducts of anaerobic activity.


Composting Classes

Contact your Penn State Cooperative Extension County office to find out when Master Gardeners offer classes during the growing season throughout the area.


Online Resources

Backyard Composting in PA - by Dr. Richard Stehouwer, PSU Environmental Soil Science Extension & Research, College of Agriculture.  To view slide show, in left column click on How is compost made? then in paragraph on right side click on Composting It's Recycling Naturally.


Composting at Home – OSU fact sheet 


Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County Composting Resources  - fact sheets, videos, etc.


Decomposer ID Guide - Daniel L. sketch.



CT DEP - composting video downloads.

Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home - trailer.

The Story of Stuff - online.



Grasscylcing - PROP FactSheet, Professional Recyclers of PA in cooperation with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Grasscycling - It's OK to "Let it Lay" -  PA Dept of Environmental Protection


Home Composting: A Guide for Home Gardeners – PSU Dept of Horticulture Fact Sheet, short, thorough. Includes info on how to add compost to potting and germination mixtures:

"Compost can be added to potting and germination mixtures as a substitute for peat moss. If compost is used in a germination mix, it

should be allowed to sit for an additional month or two so that microorganisms that could potentially attack seedling roots leave the pile or die. Compost should then be screened through hardware cloth with ½ inch squares if clumps are still present."


Making and Using Compost – U of Missouri, detailed info.


PROP - Professional Recyclers of PA


Yard Waste Management – VA Cooperative Extension, VA Polytechnic Institute, VA State University; concise material, scroll pages.


Book Resources

Teaming with Microbes: a Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web - Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, Timber Press 2006. In-depth soil info to enable you to provide ideal soil conditions for your plants. Two keys are composting and avoiding the use of chemicals. Excellent book.



Guide to Worm Composting - PSU College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension, concise.

Worms Eat My Garbage - detailed book by Mary Appelhof, the Worm Woman who lived in Kalamazoo, MI area; she died in 2005.

Questions??? Call your Garden Hotline.







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