The Do's and Don'ts of Composting

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Linda Naeve
Extension Program Specialist
Value Added Agriculture Program

compost binThis is the time of year when our yards and gardens require maintenance work that generates a lot of residue in the way of dead plants, leaves, branches and twigs. There are a couple of options to getting rid of this waste – burn it or compost it. Depending on where you live, burning isn’t the best solution due to community ordinances and the risks associated with burning. Also, the plant material may be too wet or green to effectively burn. The other option is to start a compost pile and let Mother Nature do the work for you. A compost pile, however, is not just an organic trash heap. There are certain things that should be done to make it an effective tool to produce usable compost in a relatively short period of time. Fall is a good time to start the pile because we have a good supply of materials to feed the pile. Below are a few do’s and “don’ts to follow when starting and maintaining a compost pile. For more information on composting, download ISU Extension publication PM 663, Composting Yard Waste.


  • Add yard and garden residues and other organic materials to the compost pile, including leaves, grass clippings, straw and hay, sawdust, and finely chopped or shred tree and shrub prunings.
  • Build the compost piles in layers with 6 to 8” layers of plant material with a one inch layer of soil or previously made compost in between.
  • Add a combination of green and brown plant material. The green provides the nitrogen and the brown adds the carbon. Both are necessary for the microbes that break down the organic material.
  • Shred or cut large items before adding them to the compost pile, such as branches and twigs, newspaper, etc. Smaller particles decompose faster.
  • Add food scraps from produce items, such as apple cores, banana and orange peels, melon rinds, etc. You can also put coffee grounds and eggshells on your compost pile.
  • Turn the pile over occasionally or turn into another bin to mix; this aerates the material for more rapid decomposition.
  • Add water occasionally if it doesn’t rain so the pile is damp, but not soggy.
  • Have patience. It will take two to four months for plant material in a compost pile to decompose if it is turned regularly. Otherwise it may take six months or more.
  • Use the compost as a soil amendment to your garden to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of your soil.


  • DON’T make the compost pile too big or too small. The best enclosed backyard compost pile is between 3’ × 3’ × 3’ to 5’ × 5’ × 5’.
  • DON’T add meat scraps, bones, grease, whole eggs, or dairy products to the compost pile because they decompose slowly, cause odors, and can attract rodents.
  • DON’T add pet feces or spent cat liter to the compost pile.
  • DON’T add diseased plant material or weeds that have gone to seed. Disease organisms and weed seeds will not be destroyed if the temperature in the pile does not reach 150o to 160oF.
  • DON’T consider compost a substitute for fertilizer in your garden, but rather a supplement. The nutrient release from compost is often too slow to supply all the nutrients necessary for good plant growth.
Date of Publication: 
September, 2015