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More composting tips
Rip Winkel

Compost is the single most important supplement you can give your garden in the form of mulch and/or soil amendment. It could be something you might seriously consider using in place of synthetically made fertilizers. By incorporating compost into soil, improvement can be had in soil structure, texture, aeration and even in water-holding capacity of sandy soils. In contrast, compost can open up clay soils, allowing for better water percolation. Its addition can even enhance soil fertility thereby prompting healthy root development in plants. The topper, however, is that compost made at home is inexpensive. You can make it without spending a cent, whether in a pile or in a pit.

The organic matter that compost comprises of provides food for microorganisms, which in turn keeps the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. These microorganisms break down organic waste, turning it into a nutrient rich medium for your garden. Many microorganisms found in compost are adapted to the high temperatures characteristically found in the decomposing process. They require an adequate mixture of oxygen and moisture to successfully do the job. Too much water will cause reduction in the needed oxygen, where not enough water can also drastically slow microorganisms from conducting their activity. Ideally, the medium should resemble a well wrung sponge. 

To outline the best procedure for composting, there are a few important points to take into account. First, build your compost pile with those materials high in carbon and nitrogen, also known as “browns and greens”. The carbon-rich “brown” material consists of items like branches, stems, dried leaves, peels, bits of wood, bark dust or sawdust pellets, shredded brown paper bags, corn stalks, dryer lint, conifer needles, straw, peat moss, and/or wood ash. Browns give compost its light, fluffy body. Greens on the other hand consist of nitrogen or protein-rich material like herbivore manures, food scraps, coffee grounds, green lawn clippings, lawn and garden weeds (without seeds), and green leaves. These items provide raw materials for making enzymes. 

A healthy compost pile should have more carbon than nitrogen. A simple rule of thumb is to use one-third green and two-thirds brown materials. The bulkiness of the brown materials allows oxygen to penetrate and nourish the organisms that reside there. Too much nitrogen makes for a dense, smelly, slowly decomposing anaerobic mass, not unlike what happens when a thick layer of fresh grass clippings goes undisturbed. Good composting hygiene means covering fresh nitrogen-rich material with carbon-rich material, which often exudes a fresh, wonderful smell. When in doubt, add more carbon!

Want to start your own compost pile? Start by following this link,, to a video called “Choosing a Bin” provided by Kansas Healthy Yards. If you are wondering how long composting will take, follow this link,, to another video provided by Kansas Healthy Yards. For more information about how composting works, follow this link, , to the “Building Better Soils for Better Crops” chapter called Making Compost. 

Next week we will cover the dos and don’ts of what goes into your compost pile and how to use your compost when it’s ready.

Rip Winkel is the Horticulture agent in the Cottonwood District for K-State Research and Extension. Contact him by email at or call either 785-682-9430 or 620-793-1910.