Compost green brown ratio


Coffee Grounds Compost

Change your Garden or Change the World

From here it looks like coffee grounds compost can not only give your garden a boost, it can change the world.

People like me who love coffee and drink it daily can easily acquire a big bowl of coffee grounds. But the real gold is probably at your local coffee shop. There, a small shop can easily fill a five gallon bucket with grounds everyday. If these get tossed in the landfill it is really a shame. They are just too darn valuable to waste like that.

Used coffee grounds have about 2% nitrogen. Their C/N, carbon nitrogen ratio, is 20, or about 20 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. While coffee as a drink is acidic, the spent coffee grounds are not. The water leaches out the acidity leaving the grounds a neutral 6.5 to 6.8 pH. Coffee grounds compost makes an excellent addition to your garden.

What Can You Do with Used Coffee Grounds

  • Composting Coffee Grounds in your compost pile or bin
  • Feed your Worms Coffee Grounds
  • Mulch with Coffee Grounds
  • Grow Gourmet Mushrooms with Coffee Grounds
  • Start a Business with Coffee Grounds
  • Change the World with Coffee Grounds

Composting Coffee Grounds

When you make coffee grounds compost you need to think of the coffee grounds as a compost green. Their C/N ratio of 20 qualifies them as a good nitrogen source for your compost even though they are actually brown in color.

Compost coffee grounds with the coffee filters. The filters, being paper, qualify as a brown, or carbon source for the compost. Don’t worry too much about bleached paper filters. Compost organisms are easily up to the task of breaking down any tiny amounts of bleach residue that may be on the filters.

You’ll also want to add other things to the compost – most browns such as leaves or shredded paper, and some additional varied vegetable waste. Aim for no more than 25% of your compost being coffee grounds.

Coffee grounds have the same C/N as some manures. Both manure and coffee grounds will heat up your compost pile, however, with coffee grounds it seems the heat has staying power. One report says that temperatures of 130 to 150 F were maintained for about two days with manure and about two weeks with the coffee grounds.

If you’re a lazy composter – as I often am – you can just toss your grounds on top of the soil. Over the course of a month or so they will break down in the same way sheet composting works.

Feed Your Worms Coffee Grounds

I’ve often wondered whether the coffee mad worms of Men in Black were inspired by the food preferences of someone’s worm bin. Worms do seem to love the coffee.

Just give them a balanced diet – and make sure they have enough bedding and you’ll have awesome worm castings, coffee grounds compost, in short order.

Mulch with Coffee Grounds

This is kind of like sheet composting when you just lay a layer of coffee grounds as mulch for your plants. There may be some problems, not with acidity, but possibly with the caffeine residues in the spent grounds. These caffeine residues break down completely in compost. A thin layer will be fine, as soon the soil organisms will get to work and essentially compost the coffee.

Some people have tried mixing uncomposted coffee grounds directly into the soil so that the coffee is about 25% of the mix. This may cause your plants to suffer for a while until the soil organisms get to work and break the coffee down. No big deal in the big picture as within a couple of months all will heal.

So, if you are mulching – use only thin layers of coffee at a time.

Grow Your Own Gourmet Mushrooms on Used Coffee Grounds

I was entranced by the possibility of composting coffee grounds while growing an edible, gourmet crop. I ordered an oyster mushroom growing kit from Fungi Perfecti and today it looks like the mycelium has colonized the coffee grounds my friend Paula gave me from the coffee shop she manages, Collossi’s. My bucket now shows a film of white mycelium. When they start to fruit I’ll update with a photo.

Start a Business – BTTR Ventures

BTTR is the business begun by two young business school grads from University of California – Berkeley. In a nutshell the two men collect around three thousand pounds of used coffee grounds a week from the town coffee shops. They then seed them with Oyster mushroom spore and grow a crop of gourmet mushrooms. Once the crop is harvested the coffee grounds are fully composted and ready to be used in local parks and on area farms.

Change the World – Breaking New Grounds in Louisville KY

For Gary Heine and Mike Mays of Louisville Kentucky changing the world started with business. They were looking for a way to make a living while making a contribution.

They started what is now a small chain of coffee shops, roasting fair trade coffee beans and serving fair trade coffee. Heine Brothers Coffee holds that just by drinking a cup of fair trade coffee you help farmers in coffee growing lands earn living wages and grow coffee in a sustainable way.

In and of itself this is a great thing. But these men wanted to take it to the limit and so started worm composting and later regular composting of the mountains of used coffee grounds and filters they were starting to generate. More food waste was added to balance the piles, more partners were joining the work.

Naturally this led to growing food and to an organization called Breaking New Grounds. Community gardens and food are the ultimate results so far and it all started with two guys and a cup of coffee.

Check out part 1 and 2 of this You Tube Video.

Return from Coffee Grounds Compost page to The Compost Gardener home

Composting With Coffee Grounds

Now that spring has arrived, and the days are starting to get warmer, it’s time to think about your spring and summer garden. Learning to compost with used coffee grounds is one way to get a jump-start on the gardening season.

What is compost?

Compost is essentially decomposed organic matter. It can be made up of several types of materials, including leaves, grass clippings, vegetable scraps, and even coffee grounds! The act of recycling these materials is called composting, and it’s a great way to organically improve the quality of your soil.

Compostable organic materials are usually classified as “green” or “brown.” Green materials are exactly what they sound like – typically more fresh and moist (think grass clippings). Green materials are usually higher in nitrogen. Brown materials (such as leaves or twigs) are typically dry, and are higher in carbon.

The balance between carbon and nitrogen in a compost pile is very important. Beneficial microbes live in your compost pile, and carbon provides them with energy, while nitrogen provides them with protein. To create a compost pile that will eventually become a rich soil amendment, you should use the standard ratio of 2:1 carbon to nitrogen.

How do I use my coffee grounds?

Used coffee grounds are considered to be a green compost material, meaning they are high in nitrogen. In addition to providing microbes in a compost pile with protein, nitrogen allows plants to convert sunlight into energy. According to several sources, coffee grounds have been found to contain not only nitrogen, but also trace elements of phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and copper. All of these minerals provide important nutritional benefits for growing plants.

Used coffee grounds can be placed into a compost mixture, though be careful not to include more than 25% of the total compost volume. Coffee grounds are also known to be very attractive to worms, which makes them an ideal addition to vermiposting (worm bins).

If you aren’t composting, don’t despair! Coffee grounds can also be placed directly into your garden. It’s very important to place the grounds only in an area where you have nitrogen-loving plants (such as blueberries, azaleas, or peppers). While nitrogen allows for large growth in plants, it can also inhibit the ability for the plant to flower or set fruit. If you choose to amend your soil with coffee grounds, make sure to incorporate them well into the soil.

That’s not all! There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that used coffee grounds can also aid in repelling garden pests, such as snails and slugs. So go on, brew yourself another cup, save your grounds, and dream about your summer garden.


coffee groundscompostinggardening

Coffee Compost

SERIES 29 | Episode 29

Millie explores a new scheme in Melbourne that collects used coffee grounds from cafes and turns it into compost that can be used on the garden.

Kaitlin Reid is one of the founding creators of Reground, a service that collects used coffee grounds from about 50 cafes around Melbourne and delivers them free of charge to willing gardeners.

Retired research scientist and keen gardener Stuart Rodda is one of the recipients of the coffee grounds. For him, soil biology is a full-time hobby and he’s one of the service’s best customers!

Stuart’s Coffee-Ground Compost

Coffee grounds on their own are too acidic to use straight on the garden so Stuart mixes them with organic waste. He has several ‘trial’ mixes on the go, but his most successful version uses sawdust.

  • 2 shovel loads of coffee grounds
  • 2 shovel loads of sawdust (avoid black walnut and any treated timbers)

Mix together. Stuart uses a cement mixer but you can turn smaller quantities by hand in a wheelbarrow, a large tub or a compost tumbler.

Green sawdust should be left for at least a year to fully rot, otherwise it will rob your soil of nitrogen as it breaks down.

Stuart’s plants have been thriving since he’s been using his coffee compost blend on the garden. He’s never had such large broad beans or snow peas so early in the season before he started using it!


  • Australian cafés produce on average about 80kg of coffee grounds each week. This often ends up in landfill.
  • Coffee grounds are high in potassium and nitrogen. The high carbon content helps feed the soil.
  • Coffee grounds on their own are too acidic to be used straight on the garden but, once mixed with other organic matter such as manures or organic garden waste, they can make a fantastic compost mix for use in the garden.

Garden Myths – Learn the truth about gardening

The common advice for making compost is that you should use the correct ratio of browns and greens. Why is this important? What is the correct ratio? Are dried green grass clippings, a brown or a green? Good questions that will help you understand how to compost.

How to compost – browns and greens

Browns and Greens – What are They?

In the simplest form, the terms are quite descriptive. Browns are any plant material that is brown, and includes fall leaves, dried grass, wood products, paper and straw. Greens are – you guessed it- green. It includes fresh grass clippings, freshly picked weeds, plant clippings and most kitchen scraps.

Calling composting ingredients brown or green is useful because it is simple for people to understand. However the terms are not always correct. It would be better to use the terms high nitrogen ingredient, and low nitrogen ingredient. The greens contain higher levels of nitrogen. For example, fresh green plant material contains high levels of nitrogen.

As the greens age they lose nitrogen and turn brown at the same time. Green leaves have high levels of nitrogen, but as they go brown in fall, the nitrogen levels drop. Wood products and straw have low levels of nitrogen.

So is manure a brown or a green? Based on color it is a brown, but based on nitrogen levels it is a green. As far as composting goes, it’s a green.

Other ingredients are also confusing. Alfalfa hay is ‘brown’ in color, but is considered to be a green since it contains a lot of nitrogen.

The bottom line is that the brown and green rule does not always work. Browns can be green, greens can be brown—it’s getting confusing! Stick with me, there is a simple solution.

How to Compost – the C:N Ratio

Recipes for making compost usually tell you to combine the browns and greens in the correct ratios. The recommendations usually go something like this:

The ideal C:N ratio is 30 parts brown to 1 part green.


Use 6 inches browns to 2 inches of greens

Both of these recipes are simple to understand and simple to follow. Both are wrong.

The first one, “The ideal C:N ratio is 30 parts brown to 1 part green”, is just wrong. The author does not understand the term C:N ratio. It is not a ratio of browns to greens. It is a ratio of carbon to nitrogen. The carbon to nitrogen ratio in the compost pile should be 30:1, not the ratio of browns to greens.

The second composting recipe could be correct, but it is probably not. It all depends on which browns and greens you use.

Every ingredient has it’s own C:N ratio. For example horse manure is about 25:1. Fall leaves have a ratio of 30-80:1, depending on age of leaves and type of leaves. Reference 1 has a good list of C:N ratios for common composting ingredients.

The composting recipe of 6” green to 2” brown will only be correct if you use the right combination of ingredients – and that is not likely.

Why is the C:N Ratio Important?

Why is this ratio so important for composting? As discussed in Compost – What is Compost?, composting is a process whereby microbes degrade the organic matter added to the compost pile. These microbes have basic requirements for food, just like you and me. It turns out they grow best when there is a ratio of carbon to nitrogen of about 30:1.

The right amount of carbon and nitrogen makes the microbes happy, and they grow fast. Fast growing microbes means that the composting process happens quickly and the pile heats up to desirable temperatures. So for fast compost it is important to feed the microbes the right ratio of carbon:nitrogen.

What Happens if the C:N Ratio is Wrong?

The microbes will not be as happy, and they won’t decompose the organic material as fast. Composting takes longer and takes place at lower temperatures. However, it does happen.

You do not need the right C:N ratio to make compost. You only need the right ratio if you want to make it quickly!

The Reality of Composting

For the average home owner, it is very difficult to have the right ratio of material. Firstly, how can you figure out if your fall leaves have a ratio of 30:1 or 80:1? You can’t. Secondly, you rarely have the right ingredients available.

Most greens are available in summer. Most browns are available in fall. Some sources recommend holding the browns until you get enough greens and then using them. That is certainly an option, but it is a lot more work, and it needs more space. Who has extra space in their gardens these days?

The reality is that if you simply add your ingredients to the compost pile when you get them, and you turn the pile, you will make compost. It might be a slower process, but that is OK.

Don’t make composting complicated.

How to Make Compost Faster

Most home gardeners have more browns than greens, unless they bring in some manure or have a cow in the back yard. Most of the stuff you collect in fall and spring are browns. Based on the above discussions, too much brown results in a slow composting process. There is a simple solution to this problem.

The problem with too much browns is that the there is not enough nitrogen for all of the carbon. A very simple solution is to add some nitrogen fertilizer to the compost pile. Adding a handful of Urea to a pile of leaves will speed up the process. If you want to go 100% organic, use some fresh chicken manure or you can pee on the compost pile. Both are good organic sources of nitrogen.

If your compost pile starts to stink, you added too much nitrogen. It only takes a bit of Urea.

I stopped worrying about green and brown ratios a long time ago. I still ended up with compost.

1) How to Compost – Carbon to Nitrogen Ratios:

2) Photo Source: Peter & Ute Grahlmann

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To ensure a successful compost, a healthy balance of green and brown materials are necessary. While “green” and “brown” materials can be decidedly misleading titles, there’s some truth behind the color-coordination. If you get lost, though, green and brown materials can most easily be explained by their chemical contribution to the process: Nitrogen and Carbon.

Green Materials Are Nitrogen Rich, Colorful, And Wet

This list of green materials, while not all green in color, are splendid nitrogen contributors:

  • Fruit scraps
  • Vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags/leaves
  • Fresh green garden trimmings
  • Grass trimmings

Such items are jam-packed full of nitrogen, providing a hefty offering of both nutrients and moisture. The benefits cannot come from green materials alone, though. There has to be a balance in dry and wet contributions for a compost to develop structurally sound.

Brown Materials Are Dry Carbon Contributors

This list of brown materials is much simpler to identify by color. Many of these items, though, are common household trash that could easily be contributed instead to a kitchen waste compost.

  • Dry, brown leaves
  • Straw and hay
  • Corn cobs and stalks
  • Egg shells (crushed)
  • Paper towels and napkins
  • Brown paper bags (non-glossy)
  • Dryer lint

The benefits of brown materials come in several different ways. Brown materials uphold the structure of your compost, preventing it from becoming too matted and, therefore, slowing the composting process. These dry, carbon materials also contribute energy and absorb excess water.

Balancing Brown and Green Materials Makes for a Quick, Effortless Compost

As you are adding to your compost, be conscious of balancing out your green and brown materials. As both halves function best in fairly equal portions, composting can become as convenient as simply tossing your trimmings in the garbage so long as you remember to contribute both. If you do happen to find yourself lacking in one department, do not fear! Composting will happen either way, it simply boils down to speed and efficiency. An overload of green materials will cause your compost to smell a bit stronger than normal and take a bit longer. An easy way to combat the smell? Add more brown materials.

Mixing Matters

For best results, utilize a rotating composter to work the brown materials into and around the green materials. This will keep smells at bay as well as contribute to a quicker compost by melding the two materials together.

As you can see, identifying green and brown materials can be a tad more complicated than just color coordination. If all else fails, remember the common association of green with Spring, life and growth. Brown’s association is Fall: crunchy, dry leaves, browning corn stalks and paper products which follow suit. And, of course, it’s all about the balance!

7 Secrets to Perfect Compost

1) Get to Know Your Greens and Browns

There are two main ingredients in any successful compost pile: carbon-rich ingredients and nitrogen-rich ingredients. The carbon camp is often referred to as “browns,” because it include things like dried leaves, dried grass clippings, cardboard, and straw. Nitrogen-rich “greens,” on the other hand, include fresh leaves, fresh grass clippings, and vegetable scraps; the name is a bit of a misnomer, however, as manure, a very nitrogen-rich substance, is also included in the green camp. You’re going to need at least one source of each for your pile.

Pro Tip: Always start a new compost pile with a fluffy layer of browns on the bottom (at least 6 to 8 inches deep) to absorb moisture from the pile and keep things well-aerated, thus avoiding cesspool conditions.

2) Striking the Right Carbon-Nitrogen Balance

The magic that is composting rests on the interaction between carbon compounds (browns) and nitrogen compounds (greens). Any pile of organic matter (translation: this means formerly living things, including all compost ingredients) will eventually decompose and feed the soil, but when the ratio of carbon to nitrogen in a compost pile approaches 30 to 1, the decomposition process rapidly accelerates as “thermophilic” bacteria move in and the pile heats up to over 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pro Tip: Check out this handy list of the carbon-nitrogen ratio for various compost ingredients to get a general sense of how much of each to incorporate into your pile.

3) Get the Feel of Your Pile

There is no need to get out your calculator to know whether you’re striking the right balance carbon-nitrogen balance. When the ratio is lower than ideal (too much nitrogen), the pile will be slimy and stinky; simply add carbon. When the ratio is higher than ideal (too much carbon), the pile will be dry and very slow to decompose; simply add nitrogen. In general, carbon-rich materials should form the bulk of the pile. A good rule of thumb is that each time you add a batch of nitrogen-rich ingredients, add roughly 4 times that amount in carbon-rich ingredients (in volume, not weight).

Pro Tip: Always add nitrogen sources (manure, kitchen scraps) in thin layers, not little piles, so that all the material is in contact with carbon-rich browns.

4) Keep the Pile Covered in Carbon

In general, it’s best to err on the side of too much carbon in a compost pile. The worst that can happen is it takes longer to decompose. Extra leaves, straw, and grass clippings, especially when used on the outside of the pile, reduce odor and improve aesthetics. You can think of this almost as a covering, with the composting activity occurring below; pull it back each time you had a new layer of compost materials. Aim for at least 3 to 4 inches thick.

Pro Tip: This outer layer of carbon won’t readily decompose, so just strip it away once the interior part of the pile has turned into dark, crumbly compost and use it as an ingredient in your next pile.

5) Not Too Wet, Not Too Dry

The perfect compost pile is like a rung-out sponge – moist, but not soggy. Many composting websites will tell you to water your pile in dry weather and cover it in wet weather to keep the rain out. But if you maintain a thick outer layer of carbon-rich material, which helps to prevent rain from soaking into the pile and moisture from evaporating out of the pile, conditions inside should stay just right – as long as you have the ratio. This is because the nitrogen-rich materials, which are generally moist, are perfectly balanced with dry carbon-rich materials when combined in the 30 to 1 ratio.

Pro Tip: Always locate compost piles away from the beating sun and areas where rainwater collects,

6) Stick to the Basics and Stay Away from the Gimmicks

Composting success is a matter of getting the feel of your pile and fine-tuning it by adjusting the ratio of greens and browns. You don’t need books, thermometers, fancy compost bins, kelp, microbial inoculants, or master composter classes (yes, this is a thing). You just need a little time to experiment, and the willingness to let the pile tell you what it needs.

As an example, many composting websites urge you to turn the pile with a pitchfork to introduce oxygen, which helps the right bacteria proliferate and prevents stinky anaerobic conditions. However, you can skip this laborious step – which also makes a mess and brings uncomposted kitchen scraps to the surface – by using lots of dry, fluffy leaves or straw ion the pile, which by nature hold lots of space for air.

Pro Tip: Rather than store bought inoculants or “compost starter,” sprinkle a bit of finished compost on at the bottom of the new pile to introduce all the right microbes. They’ll show up anyways if you provide the right conditions, but this gives them a head start.

7) Be Patient

Composting jocks will tell you, as they look condescendingly down their nose, that it’s possible to build a big fat compost pile and transform it into black gold in a few weeks. That is technically possible, though if speed is your goal be prepared to do lots of pile-turning and invest in fancy products. It should be noted, however, even once the pile transforms into a dark crumbly soil-like substance, it takes another six months to a year for it to “mature” – a second, less visible stage of decomposition when other organisms take over and further refine the compost into something truly alchemical for plants.

If you’re not in a hurry (and why would you be?), then relax; stop worrying so much about whether you’re doing it right or not; add more carbon when in doubt; and focus your efforts on enjoying this miracle of nature.

Pro Tip: Now that you’ve got a grasp on what make great compost, check out our guide to compost bins to figure out how to house your pile.

How to Make Compost Without Fall Leaves

Q. You often mention that one of the secrets to making successful compost is to include sufficient “brown” material in the mix, specifically shredded fall leaves. But in the fall, I mow all my leaves and use the shredded leaves as mulch for my shrub and flower borders. As a result, I have little left over to use in my compost pile. I’m hoping you have some suggestions for other sources of brown material. Thank you,

—Bonnie in Centreville, Delaware

A. Thank YOU, Bonnie! This is a hugely important question at this time of year, when Earth Day, Springtime, and the lure of gardening often lead well-intentioned folks to try and start composting with only kitchen waste. But, as I’ve frequently pointed out:
&nbsp&nbsp1) Kitchen garbage contributes very little in the form of ‘plant food’ to finished compost;
&nbsp&nbsp2) a composter filled with kitchen waste will, at the end of the season, be…well…a composter full of kitchen waste…that the summer heat has not improved.

That’s why I’m always urging people to recycle their kitchen waste through a worm bin, where the wonderful little wormies will take that otherwise close-to-worthless garbage and turn it into super-wonderful worm castings, which I consider the only thing better than compost for feeding plants and soil.

And for people in the city (or even in the country with lots of roaming critters around), a worm bin is often the only safe and sanitary place to recycle your garbage. Even I, The Compost King, restrict our kitchen waste to my big multi-level worm bin and my sealed composting units, like tumblers, spinners and those big black recycled plastic ones that have locking lids. The only ‘kitchen waste’ that goes into my open piles is coffee grounds, which attract no vermin and, unlike apple cores and lettuce leaves, DO add incredibly valuable nutrients to the finished compost.

But even if you have a worm bin and/or a compost bin with a locking lid, that still leaves a lot of green matter that should be composted, like spent garden plants, the occasional dead houseplant, and pulled weeds (which are perfectly fine to compost if they haven’t yet set seed). And to correctly compost this ‘green’ material you need a larger amount of ‘brown’ material.

The long-term answer is to collect and shred more leaves this fall. Once shredded, you can store 12 to 20 times as many leaves in one bag as when they were whole. There is also the time-honored tradition of trashpicking—impossible to resist when people {gasp!}THROW AWAY their precious fall leaves at the curb. (And the big bags with ‘yard waste’ printed on them make such pickin’ really easy.)

Between your leaves and the unwanted orphans of others, gardeners in the realm of deciduous forests should be able to collect, shred and hoard enough leaves to fuel compost making throughout a full year.

OK—enough preaching. I will now—gasp—directly answer the question. When I was researching my (now best selling!) “Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost” (Sterling publishers; 2006; I’m getting back-end money—who would have thunk it?!), I pondered this exact query to renowned composting expert Dr. Frank Gouin, retired head of Horticulture at the University of Maryland. His answer? ‘You can replace fall leaves with anything that was once green and is now brown’.

Dr. Gouin explained that the browned out tops of the previous year’s perennials—like black eyed susan, Echinacea, ornamental grasses and the like—are perfect substitutes for fall leaves in a compost pile. All their nitrogen has retreated to the roots, he explains—turning what was once a source of nitrogen to carbon (the famous ‘dry brown’ component of compost piles).

The bigger and browner the better—think old cornstalks, the browned out leaves and (especially) stems of last year’s hostas, ornamental grasses and the like. And the browned-out upper parts of those plants should still be there for you to utilize in the Spring—especially the further North you are. The top growth of perennials should always be left standing over winter and only removed the following Spring.

Leaving those tops in place over winter:

  • Increases frost protection for the roots and crown;
  • Avoids the risk of plant loss due to the weak late season growth that Fall pruning can stimulate;
  • Provides food and shelter for birds in the off-season;
  • And gives our landscapes what Martha used to call “winter interest” (before she had to go up the river and make little doilies out of big doilies).

The more dried-out and crunchy, the more usable such materials will be as a ‘dry brown’ component of your pile. Just remember to shred it first—EVERYTHING that goes into your compost pile should be in the smallest pieces possible. This can be a challenge with corn stalks and ornamental grasses, which is why I yell at people to hoard leaves so often—the ease with which fall leaves can be shredded makes them THE low hanging fruit of the composting world.

Yes, straw also works well; but you generally have to pay for straw. And be careful to GET straw and not hay. Don’t believe signage or sellers; if there are visible seed heads in the bale, it ain’t straw. It is hay: animal feed filled with seeds that will make your compost pile a weedy mess.

And for reasons explained in depth in previous Questions of the Week, don’t use paper, sawdust or wood in place of leaves.

A final note: When you pull weeds for composting, keep as much dirt around their roots as possible. Having lots of lively garden soil in the mix can really help move the composting process along. And it allows you to get by with slightly less dry brown material.


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If you’re wanting to improve your compost pile, you need to know about the best brown material for great compost!

Brown can be known as “boring.” And as you look at this list of the best brown material for great compost, you’ll find there’s a lot of “trash” on it.
The green side of composting is much more fun. Keep reading for the green compost list because you need to know the best green items to mix with your browns. The two really needs to be mixed together for best results. Why?
Because good compost needs a good ratio of the nitrogen (green) and the carbon (brown) materials. So, the boring brown materials is really important. I think you’ll actually find brown materials easy to obtain.
In this post, I will:

  • The 8 best brown material for great compost.
  • Proper Composting Mixes.
  • Why a compost brown list is key to successful compost.

Best Brown Material for Great Compost: Leaves

If you have deciduous leafy shade trees on your property, you’ll going to have leaf drop in the Fall. That’s a no-brainer.
But then, you’ll have to pick up all those leaves. This can be a huge chore! Why not turn this chore into a valuable item on your compost brown list?
The compost bin is a great place for those leaves to go. They are one of the best brown material for great compost and very easy to obtain. Don’t have trees? No problem! Offer to pick up your neighbor’s or friend’s leaves from their yard.
Leaves are everywhere. You just have to know where to look.


Old straw makes great compost. And if you’ve used the straw for bedding, you’ve got the manure (green) mixed in already!
New straw can make really good compost as well. If you don’t live in wheat country like I do, you may not have access to straw of any sort. That’s ok! There’s other items on this compost brown list that are more accessible. Like paper.


Chances are, you have old paper sitting around that you don’t know what to do with. Paper is a great addition to proper composting mixes!
One thing I recommend is to shred the paper or tear it into small pieces. This will help the paper break down better throughout it’s life in the compost.

Shredded Tree Parts

Old dead trees are best. Or if you’ve been pruning your trees, cut them up into smaller pieces and throw them in.
It’s going to take a little bit longer for these tree parts to actually break down. However, tree parts have a great amount of carbon for proper composting mixes so it’s well worth the wait to let it break down.
The next item on the list will break down a lot faster.

Saw Dust

More tree parts! Saw dust is going to break down even better, making it one of the best brown materials for great compost.
It’s less accessible if you don’t have a saw mill nearby. If you do have a saw mill near by, you should be able to walk in and ask for some saw dust.
And if you’re interested in doing any woodworking, this is a great opportunity to not only invest in a hobby but obtain some great brown material for your compost bin.
If you’re just starting out, you can purchase a simple table saw with bags to catch your saw dust.

Pine Needles

Pines will lose their needles. You can rake them up and throw them into your compost. Easy Peasy.
They will break down super easily in the bin.

Nut Shells

Even though the best part of the nut is gone, the shells are still usable. They make great brown compost material.
In a nut shell, any nut will do. Acorns, black walnuts, peanuts etc are all very accessible trees that produce plenty of nuts.
And if you don’t have access to these nuts, contact a factory to see if they would give you the shells. It never hurts to ask.

Dryer Lint

Who knew? Instead of throwing this away, throw it into the compost bin. This is a really good way to reuse the lint from your dryers that you would normally throw out.

Best Brown Material for Great Compost: Mix with Green Compost for Best Results!

Again, the brown may be boring stuff. But your compost needs both to thrive! You need to have the right mix of browns and greens in order to make the right balance of organic material. A ratio of 2:1 Nitrogen to Carbon is a really good mix for a usable compost.
Because ultimately, your compost will become soil. It’s the first step to building up your garden for plentiful and bountiful fertility in the long run.

~ Much Love ~

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Whenever you get into a conversation with anyone about making compost you will hear the term ’browns’. This will be referred to in conjunction with the term ‘greens’ with equal enthusiasm. You will also hear about getting the right balance between nitrates (from nitrogen) and carbon.

So, what is brown material in compost? Examples of brown material would be shredded paper, cardboard, leaves or sawdust. All of these have an abundance of available carbon which is required when making compost. In the general ecology there is a natural carbon cycle. A significant part of this cycle is played out during the making of compost.

When making compost it’s important to aim for a balance of inputs to get a quality result. The nitrate input will be from any green vegetable waste from the kitchen for example lettuce and cabbage leaves. In general, anything that you add to the compost bin from the kitchen that has the potential to turn into a soggy mess will be high in nitrates. This will be the ‘greens’.

Putting brown material in compost

This has to be balanced with enough carbon based material. This will be the browns. For carbon think cardboard and anything else like it. This would include newspaper dead leaves or sawdust if you can get it. If you you are lucky enough to get hold of dead leaves you will find that they work best if they are shredded. When dead leaves become damp in compost they tend to stick together in lumps. Shredding will avoid this.

Dead leaves can make some of the best compost that you will ever make. They have a very high carbon level having been fixed through photosynthesis. We have a post explaining how dead leaves can produce a natural, truly organic fertilizer. You can see it at ‘How to make organic fertilizer from leaves’.

What is green and brown material in compost?

The ‘green’ material is what we discussed earlier, that is anything that is actually green. This would include discarded leaves of any kind, vegetable trimmings and peel. When you peel a potato or carrot the peelings are considered to be ‘green’ and ideal for making compost. The ‘green’ portion can only successfully convert to a passable compost if it is balanced with an adequate inclusion of, what are known as, browns. This usually refers to cardboard or newspaper but don’t forget dead leaves when they are available and sawdust.

About brown material in compost

Compost Brown to green ratio

There is a recommended ratio of 1 unit of ‘green’ material to 20 units of brown material. In practice, however, it’s possible to monitor and assess this as you are going along. If the compost is looking wet and soggy then you need to add more brown material. It’s usually the browns that will be in deficit but this isn’t a problem because if extra is clearly needed you can add it at any stage and it will begin to improve the composting process from then on wards.

If you haven’t got the ratio mix anywhere near to where it should be, there will be a number of tell-tale signs. You will probably notice a sour smell and flies turning up from maggots that may have hatched from the compost. You can enhance your composting by simply adding hydrated lime. This will lower the acidity and encourage aerobic digestion which is what composting is all about.

Compost green brown list

There are two categories of waste that go together to make successful compost. These are the ‘greens’ and the browns. A basic identification list can be presented as follows:

For the ‘greens’ include lettuce leaves, cabbage leaves, potato peelings, carrot peelings, trimmings from any other fruit or vegetable that you can mention. Fruit or vegetables that are showing signs of ‘going off’, that is starting to go mouldy. You will often see fruit-flies around when this happens. The ‘greens’ category will also include left-over food which will include scrapings from plates after meals. In general any products that are food to us and, therefore, has the potential to go mouldy and rot, can be placed in the ‘greens’ category.

For the browns list, this is much more simple. If you have a regular supply of newspaper or cardboard then that’s all you need. Shredding the paper and ripping up the cardboard into small pieces will help with the mixing and general conversion into compost.

You can also add to this category dead-leaves which, ideally, should be chopped and sawdust if there is any going.

Remember that the process involves getting a balance between these ‘greens’ and browns. The rule-of-thumb is that you need to aim for 1 unit of ‘greens’ to 20 units of browns. As a general rule to make good compost always be ready to add extra from the browns list.

Is cardboard good for compost?

Cardboard is an ideal example of brown material. Rip it into small pieces and mix it into the forming compost. This is easy in a tumbler type composter. For a static bin you can either mix in cardboard pieces with each delivery of fresh waste or it may be more convenient to make thin layers. This will then gradually become incorporated with the rest of the compost over time.

Cardboard is one of the best sources of the, much needed, carbon that will balance the nitrates in the kitchen waste portion that we want to convert into compost. So when an empty cardboard box turns up, don’t throw it away to landfill. Just flatten it out and store it somewhere dry to be ripped up and used later.

What items can and cannot be composted and why?

Only items that are food to us and have the potential to go mouldy can be turned into compost. Microbial bacteria will feed on all foods, whether we want them to or not. This is why it’s a constant battle to preserve food items for us to eat rather than the, ever-attacking, range of moulds and mildews that would get it first if they could.

It is, however, highly convenient that there are these moulds, mildews and microbial bacteria around in the environment when it comes to making compost. They are everywhere, we will never get rid of them, the have always been a part of the planets natural ecosystem so we may as well make use of them.

There are some things that just won’t rot. If you put plastic wrappers into compost it will just sit there and do nothing. If there are worms in the compost they will make a good job of licking it ‘clean’ but they can’t consume it because the microbial bacteria can’t break it down and make it ready for them. Focusing on plastic, it’s worth noting that conventional plastics are, in the main, made from oil.

Whatever you may think about oil as a pollutant or not, we must be mindful that it is actually naturally occurring. It is also in the category of being organic, that is in the true unadulterated sense of the word. The definition of organic being carbon based and once living. This means that in the fullness of time plastics will break down but they won’t do so in the short time frame of making compost.

There are some modern plastics that are made from corn starch. These are being used, with considerable success, for making compostable plastic bags which line kitchen waste bins. This means that the bag with all the messy contents can be put in the compost bin without having to empty it. The bag and contents will rot down together.

It’s no good putting tin cans in compost, these are not compostable items. That is unless you want to allow 10 to 20 years for your compost to be made. Tin cans will rust and, in the acidic environment of forming-compost, they will rust quite quickly. It is possible for most steel based metals to rust completely away over time but this is not practical for an average 12 month time-frame for making compost from kitchen scraps.

Tea bags don’t appear to break down in compost, just the tea inside the bag. If you analyse compost when it’s ready to use you may have noticed empty tea bags. This, I have to say, came as a surprise to me because I always thought that tea bags are made of paper. The fact that they come out of a lengthy composting process very much intact suggests that they are made of something more durable. I suspect that there is a plastic element in there somewhere.

We have a post that looks at how to make compost from tea bags. See it at ‘Composting tea bags’.

What are some examples of composting?

Compost heap

There are three basic ways of making compost. The most basic of all is to make either a wire framed box or wooden box in the corner of the yard or garden. You then load it with waste from the kitchen until it’s full. Then just leave it to rot down over time. For this you will need at least two containers so that when one is full you can start filling the second and then, perhaps, a third. This is the long way of doing it and will suit some people.

Compost bin

Another way is to load the kitchen waste into a ready-made compost bin. These are uncomplicated plastic containers which have no base. You just put them down somewhere out of the way and start filling. The have an outlet door at the bottom of the bin. You won’t open this until the bin is almost full by which time the compost at the door should be fully formed. The idea of this is that as you remove compost through the door, the material above will drop down making more room for fresh waste to go in. This is an in-the-top and out-at-the-bottom system. If you have a lot of waste to dispose of it may be necessary to have more than one bin.

Compost tumbler

Then we have the compost tumblers. These will deliver a finished sample of compost much more quickly. The action of turning the barrel upside down opens up the compost and allows air into the mix. Composting is an aerobic digestion process. The microbial bacteria need all the oxygen that they can get. This process is not so suitable for worms because they don’t like being disturbed by the trauma of having their world turned over and over. So, what you can do is to empty out the tumbler barrel and load it into a static compost bin where the worms can get to work without being disturbed.

The main thing that you need to remember about compost tumblers is that there will come a time when you won’t be able to load in any more waste because it’s full. So, what do you do? You have two choices. Either get an extra tumbler and start loading it and carry on rotating the first tumbler until the composting process is complete or empty out the tumbler into a static bin and just leave it there to fully convert to compost in its own time.

Conventional compost tumblers can only manage one batch at a time. At the point of being full there will be a mix of waste that is fully converted to compost, fresh waste that hasn’t started to convert and every stage in between. This makes it awkward because the old material will be mixed with the new.

We have a post that compares static compost bins with compost tumblers. You can see it at ‘Tumbler composter vs bin’.

There is an alternative system of compost tumbler that completely removes this problem, it’s called the Rolypig. See more bellow.

The Rolypig needs brown material

The Rolypig composter is like no other tumbler style composter. It does not operate as a batch process. It’s an in-one-end and out-the-other system.

Feeding the Rolypig is easy to do but you still need to make an effort to get the balance right. If you just feed in ‘green’ waste and nothing else you will see all the signs of the acidic stagnation that this will lead to. There will be a foul smell and, in the summer months, there will be flies.

Adding brown material will balance this out. Ripped up pieces of cardboard and shredded paper will absorb a significant amount of surplus moisture. Removing the moisture will help to dry out the mass allowing air into the mix which will promote the composting process.

The Rolypig composter is a composting barrel that sits on the ground. The rotation is achieved by rolling it over. This only needs to happen when you feed waste. Rolling it over makes more room at the mouth-end as it moves towards the rear. Find out more about the Rolypig at Leaves are categorized as browns, see: how long does it take to compost leaves?

Tell your friends about the Rolypig composter

Image sources:


Tell your friends about the Rolypig composter

Almost any organic material is suitable for composting. Your composter or compost pile needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or “browns,” and nitrogen-rich materials, or “greens.” Among the brown materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.

Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Achieving the best mix is more an art gained through experience than an exact science. The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odor. The carbon provides energy for the microbes, and the nitrogen provides protein.

Leaves represent a large percentage of total yard waste. If you can grind them in a gas or electric leaf shredder or mow over them, they will reduce in size making them easier to store until you can use them in the pile, and they will decompose faster – an issue with larger leaves. They are loaded with minerals brought up from the tree roots and are a natural source of carbon. A few leaf species such as live oak, southern magnolia, and holly trees are too tough and leathery for easy composting. Avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they contain a plant poison that survives composting. Eucalyptus leaves can be toxic to other plants. And avoid using poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac.

Pine Needles need to be chopped or shredded, as they decompose slowly. They are covered with a thick, waxy coating. In very large quantities, they can acidify your compost, which would be a good thing if you have alkaline soils.

Grass Clippings break down quickly and contain as much nitrogen as manure. Since fresh grass clippings will clump together, become anerobic, and start to smell, mix them with plenty of brown material. If you have a lot of grass clippings to compost, spread them on the driveway or other surface to bake in the sun for at least a day. Once it begins to turn pale or straw-like, it can be used without danger of souring. Avoid grass clippings that contain pesticide or herbicide residue, unless a steady rain has washed the residue from the grass blades.

Kitchen Refuse includes melon rinds, carrot peelings, tea bags, apple cores, banana peels – almost everything that cycles through your kitchen. The average household produces more than 200 pounds of kitchen waste every year. You can successfully compost all forms of kitchen waste. However, meat, meat products, dairy products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter, can present problems. Meat scraps and the rest will decompose eventually, but will smell bad and attract pests. Egg shells are a wonderful addition, but decompose slowly, so should be crushed. All additions to the compost pile will decompose more quickly if they are chopped up some before adding.

To collect your kitchen waste, you can keep a small compost pail in the kitchen to bring to the pile every few days. Keep a lid on the container to discourage insects. When you add kitchen scraps to the compost pile, cover them with about 8″ of brown material to reduce visits by flies or critters.

Wood Ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace can be added to the compost pile. Ashes are alkaline, so add no more than 2 gallon-sized buckets-full to a pile with 3’x3’x3′ dimensions. They are especially high in potassium. Don’t use coal ashes, as they usually contain large amounts of sulfur and iron that can injure your plants. Used charcoal briquettes don’t decay much at all, so it’s best not to use them.

Garden Refuse should make the trip to the pile. All of the spent plants, thinned seedlings, and deadheaded flowers can be included. Most weeds and weed seeds are killed when the pile reaches an internal temperature above 130 degrees, but some may survive. To avoid problems don’t compost weeds with persistent root systems, and weeds that are going to seed.

Spoiled Hay or Straw makes an excellent carbon base for a compost pile, especially in a place where few leaves are available. Hay contains more nitrogen than straw. They may contain weed seeds, so the pile must have a high interior temperature. The straw’s little tubes will also keep the pile breathing.

Manure is one of the finest materials you can add to any compost pile. It contains large amounts of both nitrogen and beneficial microbes. Manure for composting can come from bats, sheep, ducks, pigs, goats, cows, pigeons, and any other vegetarian animal. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid manure from carnivores, as it can contain dangerous pathogens. Most manures are considered “hot” when fresh, meaning it is so rich in nutrients that it can burn the tender roots of young plants or overheat a compost pile, killing off earthworms and friendly bacteria. If left to age a little, however, these materials are fine to use.

Manure is easier to transport and safer to use if it is rotted, aged, or composted before it’s used. Layer manure with carbon-rich brown materials such as straw or leaves to keep your pile in balance.

Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrient-rich composting material. Use the hose to wash off the salt before sending it to the compost pile.

The list of organic materials which can be added to the compost pile is long. There are industrial and commercial waste products you may have access to in abundance. The following is a partial list: corncobs, cotton waste, restaurant or farmer’s market scraps, grapevine waste, sawdust, greensand, hair, hoof and horn meal, hops, peanut shells, paper and cardboard, rock dust, sawdust, feathers, cottonseed meal, blood meal, bone meal, citrus wastes, coffee, alfalfa, and ground seashells.

Photo: Penny Woodward

The first week of May (2nd-8th) is International Composting Awareness week. So I thought I’d give you my recipe for compost and explain why compost is important.

The purpose of composting is to break down garden and kitchen ‘waste’ into humus which can then be added to the garden to supply nutrients in a form that plants can readily use. When compost is added to soil the population of bacteria, fungi and other microbes increases; they are essential parts of the soil food web. These microbes feed on the compost and excrete nutrients in a form that can be used by plants. They also produce sticky secretions that bind soil particles together so improving soil structure. The organic matter also helps to hold moisture and nutrients in the soil so they are not washed away by the first shower.

Just as the success of a meal depends on the quality of the ingredients, so too does the success of a compost heap. If you add only kitchen scraps you’re likely to end up with a slimy, black mess, and if it’s all leaves and twigs then the chances are that is what will still be there months later. The fine detail of a compost recipe varies depending on the expert you are consulting, but all compost systems require free drainage, adequate moisture and a mixture of strawy, open material and green plant tissue. They also need a balance of high nitrogen ingredients to high carbon ingredients, at about a ratio of about 1:25

Ingredients are added in layers in much the same way as you would make a lasagne.

Basic compost ingredients are shredded paper, straw, dried leaves (carbon) and kitchen scraps, manure (chook, cow, horse) and green waste from the garden (nitrogen). The green waste can be made up of grass cuttings, leaves, weeds and leafy prunings. Sticks and branches are also fine as long as they are cut or mulched into small pieces. These ingredients are added in layers in much the same way as you would make a lasagne, but instead of pasta, meat (or veg) and cheese sauce your layers would consist of kitchen scraps, manure, garden waste and straw or shredded paper.

Compost heaps and bins range from small piles in the corner of the garden, through heavy recycled-plastic bins with lids to sturdy timber or brick constructions with two or three sections. There are people who swear by compost made in plastic bags and other gardeners with state of the art rotating bins. What you use should be dictated by the cost, the space available and the amount of ‘waste’ your house and garden generates.

Place your compost in a sunny position so that it stays warm even during cold weather, but it’s best if it gets afternoon shade during the hottest times of year. Also, the compost needs to be damp enough so that when you squeeze a handful a little moisture drips out. If you are adding dry material like straw, then wet it after you have put it in. If the weather is very hot, water the compost when you water the garden. If there has been a lot of rain, cover your compost to stop it from getting too wet and the nutrients from leaching.

Diseased plants, or weeds such couch, oxalis and onion weed, should never be added to compost but there are some plants, including some weeds, that will actually contribute specific nutrients and even help the compost to break down more quickly. My compost recipe requires regular additions of annual and perennial chamomile (Matricaria recutita and Chamaemelum nobile), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis), nettles (Urtica dioica), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Regular handfuls of chamomile, dandelion and yarrow leaves and flowers will all hasten decomposition of the compost with yarrow being the most effective. Yarrow also adds copper, nitrates, phosphates and potash while chamomile adds calcium and ‘sweetens’ the mixture. Dandelions contribute copper, iron and potash.

Nettles are problem weeds but they actually improve the quality of the soil in which they grow, and when added to the compost contribute iron and nitrogen. Tansy adds potassium, which is very important for plant growth, while valerian increases the phosphorous content so essential for good flowers and fruits. Probably the most useful compost plant is comfrey. It is rich in potassium, nitrogen, calcium and phosphates. I keep a clump growing next to the compost and add a handful of leaves whenever I throw in kitchen scraps. I also find that an occasional water with seaweed fertiliser is beneficial to the compost.

Once the compost bin is full leave it to mature. This should take between 1 and 3 months in warm weather and a little longer in cold weather. If you turn the heap every two weeks it will rot down much more quickly. When the compost is finished the volume will be much less and it should be made up of coarse pieces of organic material that are no longer recognisable as the original constituents. The longer the compost is left, the finer these particles will become. Compost can be spread on the surface of the soil where rain will leach the nutrients into the soil and worms and other mini-beasts will gradually pull the organic pieces into the soil. Alternatively, dig it into the soil where the plants can more quickly access the nutrients but remember that digging physically breaks the soil’s structure, releasing nutrients, in the short term but causing the soil to become more quickly depleted in the long term.

If you want to learn more, as part of International Composting Awareness Week (ICAW) there are workshops on compost in many states go to the ICAW website for more information.

By: Penny Woodward

First published: April 2016

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