Composting: The 5 Rules of Rot

“Composting is a giant step toward recycling wastes, conserving precious energy reserves, and regaining control of our food supplies.” -The Rodale Book of Composting

Composting is the biological reduction of organic waste (anything that has been alive) to humus, which is the organic component of soil. A more familiar definition of composting requires human participation: replicating and expediting the natural decomposition cycle and channeling it to help us grow plants. Compost is a soil amendment, which means it is something added to soil to improve its quality. It improves the texture of the soil and adds valuable nutrients so your backyard garden can flourish and your flowers can thrive. Composting has entered the cultural zeitgeist recently, but civilizations dating as far back as ancient Mesopotamia have documented the practice of fertilizing organically. Read on if you’re interested in learning how to use the five “Rules of Rot” to get started recycling your organic waste.


1.  Mass

The minimum ideal size for a compost pile is 1 cubic yard. Bigger piles are self-insulating, they stay hotter, and the pile decomposes quicker. However, composting can still be done on a smaller scale by following the next four rules.


2.  Air

Just like humans, a compost pile needs to breathe. Without enough air, a compost pile gets quite stinky. A compost bin with open sides or an open top can help make sure that there’s enough oxygen available. Another way to make sure your pile is getting enough oxygen is to turn your pile by taking a shovel or a pitchfork and inverting your cooking compost. There are also compost tumblers that are created to frequently toss your materials; these are a great alternative if you only need small amounts of compost. 


3.  Moisture

Good compost will be about as damp as a moist sponge. If you squeeze a handful of compost, no water should drip out. Without enough moisture, a compost pile is unable to heat up to the right temperature to start the decomposition process. The microorganisms that help with the decomposition of your dinner scraps love a steamy environment. Think of it like a compost sauna! A good time to check your pile’s moisture content is when you’re turning it. If it’s too wet, add more absorbent materials such as leaves or dried grass. If it’s too dry, sprinkle in some water.


4.  Time

How well you manipulate the mass, moisture content, oxygen content, and materials in your pile determine the amount of time it takes to create your compost. Passive composting is when you make a pile and leave it alone until it decomposes. This may take a year, possibly more. Active composting is when you speed up that process by turning your compost pile. You can have finished compost in as little as three weeks with some careful management of your pile.


5.  Material

This is the most important (and most confusing) part of composting—what goes into your pile! There are two types of materials in the composting world—carbonaceous and nitrogenous. You can think of these as “brown” materials or “green” materials. Brown materials are carbon-heavy such as dried grass, dried leaves, straw, and wood. Green materials are nitrogen heavy such as living grass, plants, or food waste. The correct mixture of carbonaceous materials to nitrogenous materials (your C:N ratio) can make or break your compost pile.

The perfect C:N ratio hovers somewhere around 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Each item you throw in your pile will have a different C:N ratio, and the key is finding the right mixture of ingredients. For example, 10 lbs of leaves with a 40:1 ratio and 10 lbs of grass at a 20:1 ratio would create a 30:1 ratio and we’re in business! It sounds more complicated than it is, though. Through trial and error, you’ll find what materials work for you. In general, a high carbon pile will decompose slowly, and a high nitrogen pile will be stinky. Both of those are indicators that you need to adjust what’s going into your compost bin.

Any organic material can be composted, although there are some important materials to stay away from unless you’re composting commercially. Avoid putting dairy, meat, or oils in your compost pile. And, despite what you might have heard about the benefits of manure in compost, transporting cat or dog manure from your yard to your compost bin exposes you to risks of toxoplasmosis and parasite infection that just aren’t worth it!


Composting is not just a way for you to get rid of the spinach you forgot about when you decided you were going to be healthy last week. With the population growing and the average person producing more waste than ever before, our waste is crowding us out. Landfills are filling up with organic material that could be recycled into compost to nourish our soils, grow healthier plants, and feed healthier communities. 

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