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Over the Garden Fence

Fall is a good time to start composting

As autumn progresses, gardeners begin wondering what to do with all the plant parts that need to be pruned off, and later, all the leaves that will fall. A great alternative to those landscape waste bags is to recycle right in your own yard and benefit from all that free organic matter.

Composting is not something that takes a lot of time when you consider all the time you spend filling landscape waste bags. Just like any simple, good recipe, the ingredients for composting are few: browns, greens, a generous amount of garden soil, and water until moist; briskly stir and wait until done.

Compost structure

There’s always a spot in the yard to set up a compost bin or pile. Consider that dark corner that doesn’t grow things so well or that spot behind the garage or garden shed. The simplest method is to create a compost pile. It will need to be big enough to retain moisture and maintain a constant temperature. The base of the compost pile should be at least 4 feet square which will allow the pile to grow to about 3 feet in height. If you have the room, a bigger base will mean a more even temperature over a larger area, which will speed up decomposition. There are many variations on the traditional compost pile. You can purchase a composting bin or build a more substantial structure using pallets, cinder blocks, lumber, whatever is low cost and visually acceptable.

 Compost recipe

The “greens” can be grass clippings where there has not been herbicide used in several weeks, tops of annuals and perennials, shredded or clipped green plant stems and trimmed tree and shrub branches that are not too woody. The greens provide the nitrogen. “Browns” include fall leaves you have raked up or bagged with the mower, dried leaves from your perennials like daylily foliage, for example. You may have some trimmings that have been sitting around that are now browned and they can be used too. The browns contribute the carbon in the composting process. (Avoid adding weed seeds, whether green or brown.)

Other ingredients to “flavor” your compost can be fresh vegetable waste from the kitchen, coffee grounds, and for a bit of color, try rinsed and crumbled eggshells.

Compost mixing

If building the compost pile or filling a bin for the first time, mix the greens, the browns, and other materials as you go. This is where you add garden soil. The soil contains all those bacteria and other microorganisms that will be doing the breakdown of the plant parts into what we call organic matter. The organisms use that nitrogen to grow with increasing their numbers and feeding on all the organic matter turning it into compost as we know it. Like any other living organism, these bacteria need a constant supply of moisture, and that is why we water the compost pile when we build it and continue to check and water accordingly.

It is that constant temperature and supply of moisture that will quickly turn our yard waste into compost that we can then return to the garden beds. In the vegetable garden, just turn it in as you prepare the garden soil. In more permanent beds, use it as a mulch layer and it will disappear into the soil in time or you can work it in as you cultivate the beds.


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About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.