The How, Why, What, and When of Composting

By Maureen Haseley-Jones, The English Lady

June 13, 2018

Many gardeners get confused the first time they consider compost. That confusion is due to the belief that that compost is the same thing as fertilizer. Allow me to dispel this belief and show you how, why, what and when compost is all about. Compost is an organic material, which serves a very different purpose than fertilizer in garden soil. 

First, compost makes an ideal home for the billions of soil microorganisms that digest roots, leaves and other vegetative matter; compost breaks them down into nutrients that plants can absorb easily through their roots.
Second, compost stores moisture and nutrients for plants to draw from them at will.
Third, compost provides aeration and structure to the soil.

You can buy or build a compost pile; if you happen to have an old plastic garbage bin that still has an airtight lid, this is ideal for compost. Make five or six holes in the bottom of the bin and set it up on a bricks or a wood frame with an old pan underneath to catch the nutrient rich “drippings”.

To keep your compost on the boil; your pile should be no more than three to four feet in height, any higher and it will be too wet or too dry. The pile’s temperature needs to be 130 to 155 degrees and with a few turnings of the pitchfork the contents will become compost in about 5 weeks. 
You can speed up the action in compost pile by turning it more frequently with a pitchfork. After you turn it make sure to create a saucer-like shape in the top to allow rain to soak in better.  You can add more water if you feel you need to. 

Ingredients – I recommend a formula that is roughly 25% high nitrogen material placed in layers from the bottom up, the high nitrogen material is the green material. Begin with a layer of sterile potting soil, early grass clippings, vegetable waste, manure and earth worms whose castings are loaded with minerals. This is the one time that fresh manure from the farm may be added. Never add fresh manure to your garden, as it will burn your plants.  
Added to this mixture needs to be 30% lower nitrogen like later grass clippings, disease free weeds, coffee or tea grounds. Then add 45% woody materials, which is the brown element of the pile, such as leaves and branch pruning from trees and shrubs.  

Do not add any animal fats, pet manure or diseased plants. 

To cook properly, your compost pile needs both the green and brown material. Brown material, particularly in summer, is harder to come by than the green. So in the heat of July, I make my own brown material; by laying an old tarp or drop cloth on the driveway and spread out wet grass clippings to dry in the sun, along with leaves and other brown disease free plant and weed debris from the garden. In no time the green material is brown and balance is restored to the pile. 

FREE COMPOST – If you are not able to make a compost pile you may want to check with your town’s sanitation department for free compost. If the town does not offer free compost, you should be able to find a town within driving distance that does offer it. 
If you follow the directions for your compost pile that I have laid out, the compost will be an excellent addition to the decomposed manure and natural brown mulch that you apply to your soil. The ratio of compost to manure on the soil is three parts decomposed or composted manure to one part compost. 

I want to wish you all good luck with making great compost – the results are well worth the effort. If you have gardening questions feel free to email me at

Maureen Haseley-Jones, published in Connecticut Magazine, Ink and The New York Times Sunday magazine; Member Old Lyme Conservation Commission.  Author of her soon-to-be-published first book. On Facebook: The English Lady Landscape and Home.