Composting for the Unwilling

Richard Petrone
Apr 22 · 5 min read
My very imperfect compost (Screenshot by author)

I had always wanted to try composting since I fancied myself something of an amateur gardener. I had read all the stories and guides about how easy it was and how wonderful it is for the environment. Honestly, I wasn’t concerned so much about the environment as I was about getting a good crop of tomatoes.

Whenever I read about it, every article said it was about the carbon to nitrogen ratio and how it had to be just so. This had always put me off from composting as if it were some mathematical formula that only a select few could properly attain. But as with all things in life that appear unattainable, you just have to jump in and try it. I finally did and learned some things about composting.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

If you want to get very scientific about it, there are numerous odes to composting that you can find online that will give you a list of every conceivable organic ingredient you could think of that can be composted along with a carbon to nitrogen ratio listed for each one. Those websites will tell you that the carbon to nitrogen ratio should be somewhere around 30:1. Well, that’s fine if you’re really into it, but I don’t think I should have to get out a calculator to figure out if I should or shouldn’t be adding coffee grinds to my compost pile at this moment.

Know Your Browns and Greens

The truth is, the organic material is going to break down no matter what you do. It’s just that having a good carbon to nitrogen ratio makes it break down a lot faster. So I just boil it down to my simple formula that does not involve any numbers: try to have more browns (carbon) than greens (nitrogen.) Browns are materials that contain carbon like leaves, paper bags, and cardboard. Greens are materials that contain nitrogen like grass clippings and fruit and vegetable scraps.

For my purposes, it’s tough to have enough browns and greens readily available at the same time. The main ingredients for my compost are grass clippings and shredded leaves. (I run my lawnmower over fallen leaves which shreds them nicely.) I have plenty of grass clippings throughout the summer from mowing my lawn, but I don’t get leaves until the fall. So I am always trying to find browns to balance my enormous amount of grass clippings.

Usually, I use shredded paper bags (plenty of those since we don’t use plastic bags anymore) and shredded cardboard (plenty of that thanks to Amazon deliveries) until the leaves start falling. Make sure you shred the paper bags and the cardboard, or, at least, tear them up into smaller pieces. (Wet the cardboard first to make it easier to tear.) In composting, smaller pieces mean faster decomposition times.

My humble composting set-up (Screenshot by author)

Compost Doesn’t Smell Bad…Unless

In fact, it doesn’t smell at all, if you have enough browns mixed in with the greens. If anything, it smells like a walk through the forest on a fall day. Other than that shouldn’t smell anything. Unless your green to brown ratio is too high. Then you will smell something. I’ll give you an example of what happened to me.

I had some fresh grass clippings that I had put into a five-gallon bucket with the intention of adding them to my compost pile a few days later. Somehow, I forgot about the bucket for a few months. When I discovered it again, I groaned knowing what I was in for. The grass clippings, without the balance of any browns in the mix, had turned into a putrid, matted mass of wet decomposed grass. The smell was so pungent, that my kids from across the yard were asking, “Dad, what’s the bad smell?” “Just a little composting gone wrong” was all I could tell them. As I emptied out the bucket, I had to do it in batches timed to the length of time I could hold my breath. I put the batches into a heavy-duty trash bag, doubled it, and hoped that the trash collectors would take it. (They did.)

Your Compost Will Not Look As Good As the Picture

I’ve been composting for five years now and it has never looked like the so-called “black gold” that you see on the gardening websites. I have never gotten it to the perfected soil-like consistency that you see in the photos. However, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I think the best advice I have read on knowing when compost is done is whether or not you can see what you originally put in it. For example, I put plenty of banana peels in my compost, but looking at it now, I can’t find a single one. They, and everything else I put in, has decomposed.

That is not to say, my compost looks perfect. This particular batch, started last year, still has the remnants of leaves in it. They just didn’t fully break down, probably because I put too many in the fall. Either way, I’m going to mix the compost in with the soil for my garden and it will be fine. Actually, another reason I know it will be fine is that there is are a good number of worms swimming around my compost and that’s a good thing. They help break down the compost further as well as help to aerate it.

Next year’s batch (Screenshot by author)

You Can Do It Too

Yes, you can. You just need access to the right organic materials. A good way to start is to keep a small bowl on your countertop and put in unused vegetable scraps that you would normally throw out. At the end of each day, bring the bowl outside and empty it into your compost container. Throw in some shredded paper bags or cardboard and you’ve got your brown to green mix. Congratulations: you’ve just started composting.

Realistically speaking, you should have access to a greater amount of green and brown materials than just vegetable scraps and cardboard. That’s why I use grass clippings and leaves as my main ingredients to help create a compost pile that is at least 3x3x3. Anything smaller and you will not generate the heat necessary to make the decomposition process go faster.

For me, it takes about a year to get the compost to where I want it. That’s why I start now for next year’s batch. (I also have to account for winter’s cold months which slows the process, if not stopping it completely.) If I had a better ratio of browns to greens, the process would go faster. Like I said before, I don’t have a good mix until the fall, so that’s when my pile really starts to heat up. And there is nothing more pleasing than seeing steam coming from your compost pile on a crisp fall day.

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Richard Petrone

Written by

Freelance writer, husband, father, decent cook, average gardener.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Listen to our podcast at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Richard Petrone

Written by

Freelance writer, husband, father, decent cook, average gardener.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Listen to our podcast at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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