Composting is a great way to turn your yard and garden debris into what we often call "black gold." This segments shows how to make the black gold by adding "greens" and "browns" to your compost pile, watering, and frequent turning.

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Composting - Making Black Gold

Composting is a great way to turn your yard and garden debris into what we often call “black gold.” It’s the finished product of composting that can be used on our lawns and in our gardens.

In building a compost pile, the number question is, “what should I put in my compost pile?” The easiest way to remember is to think of it in terms of greens and browns. The greens provide the nitrogen and some of the moisture needed, and the browns provide the carbon source that the microorganisms need to feed on, and break down.

When you’re building a compost pile, don’t think about what you’re putting in the pile as being dead. Think about the compost pile as being alive, and full of all kinds of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, and other things that are just waiting to devour the items that you put into the compost pile.

When it comes to greens, the most common sources you have are grass clippings, fresh from the lawn, or kitchen scraps such as apple peels, celery, banana peels, and other fruits and vegetables all make great greens. Coffee grounds are also another great green.

When it comes to the browns in our garden, the most common thing we have are shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, and prunings from small branches. It’s this mix of greens and browns that makes the compost pile. Normally we need two to three times of the browns, or dry items, as opposed to those with moisture.

We want to start by layering the browns and the greens. The other key to success to building a compost pile is to make sure that there’s plenty of moisture. So, as I’m building this pile, you’ll need to have a hose or sprinkler handy, so that you can wet down the leaves. In a properly functioning compost pile, it should almost have the moisture of a wet sponge. One of the problems with compost piles that don’t work is that it’s too dry, and the microorganisms can’t feed.

Oftentimes, homeowners don’t have a lot of greens. They may have just leaves and dry grass clippings. Garden fertilizer makes a great addition to the compost pile which can substitute for the nitrogen.

One thing that you don’t want to compost is a lot of woody material because it takes so long to break down. It’s best to chip, shred and use in other places, or send for disposal. Another thing that you don’t want to put into your compost pile are going to be scraps from the kitchen table. If it has cholesterol, fat, or oil on it, it should go into the trash. But, if you’re preparing your celery and lettuce for a salad, chop it up and the waste can go into the compost bin. But, once you put salad dressing on it, it’s not suitable for backyard composting.

Other things that you’ll want to avoid from putting into the compost pile are mainly pet waste, such as dog and cat waste. There are potential diseases that can be transmitted through those pet manures that you don’t want to put into a compost pile. However, if you have sources to get sheep, chicken, beef, and other farm animal manure waste, then those can be added to the compost pile for greens.

So, in building a successful compost pile, it’s all about the science. You have to get the right mix of browns and greens in the bin, adding sufficient moisture, and then set back and wait. If you build the compost pile properly, in about two weeks you can use a thermometer to see if it’s getting warm in the pile. That means that the compost pile is working. From there, it’s just a matter of turning it, keeping it moist, and waiting for all your garden debris to be turned into “black gold” for the garden.

This feature story prepared with Dennis Patton, Kansas State University Research and Extension Horticulture Agent, Johnson County. For more information, visit your local county extension office or visit our website at

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