June 19, 2008


One 4 foot x 4 foot x four foot container
Watering can or hose


2-3 wheelbarrow loads of green stuff such as grass clippings, weeds, kitchen plant material
2-3 wheelbarrow loads of brown stuff, such as fall leaves, corn stalks, dead plants, chopped grasses

Lay crisscrossed branches, cornstalks or woody wastes in the container
Add a six-inch layer of green stuff (large items should be chopped)
Add a six-inch layer of brown stuff
Mix layers, from the outside in, with a garden fork or compost turning tool and moisten dry materials
Repeat steps 2 to 4 until the container is full

Monitor the heat in the container. When it begins to cool after about a week, turn it, burying the dry stuff from the sides in the middle of the pile. Moisten if needed.

Regularly turn the mixture, about once weekly, adding water to moisten the dry materials. 

Let cure for two weeks before using, or let mature for 60-90 days.

“Yummy!” my garden and house plants proclaim by their bountiful production—or, since this is the first year I’ve ever used prepared compost, I think they will say. At least at this point, the garden is producing quite well—perhaps due to the rain and sun combo added to the compost.

“The soil is the placenta of life…” (author unknown) is a quote on the cover of the PA CleanWays Guide to Home Composting. It is the source of all our plant-based food, contrary to the belief of many city dwellers, many of who believe green beans and other vegetables grow in cans on the grocer’s shelf.

I attended a Pa CleanWays workshop on composting with my daughter recently. For the $5 fee we received a morning lecture and demonstration, and a composting bin. It sits at the edge of our woods, being filled with brown and green stuff. Unfortunately, we are not as vigilant as necessary, so the composting process may be delayed by our inattentiveness. As I was writing this, I hustled outside to add “brown stuff” to the compost heap, then pulled enough green weeds to satisfy the green requirement. Since the brown stuff was pretty moist, I didn’t add water immediately.

Michelle Keenan is the Westmoreland County (PA) designated recycling coordinator, and Rich Conte was the master gardener who presented the composting program.

The word “compost” is both a noun (a heap of rotting organic matter) or a verb (steps taken to make a heap and make it rot).

Composting has a two-fold benefit. First, it is great for plants. It improves the soil texture, making it more workable; it loosens compacted soil, enabling roots to spread easier; it increases the water-holding capacity of the soil; it provides trace elements deficient in many soils; it enables plant roots to more readily absorb minerals that are bound in the soil; it attracts beneficial soil microbes to poor soil, and, used as a mulch, reduces the soils need for water and fertilizer. Although compost is not a fertilizer, it supplies all the nutrients needed by plants, releasing htem slowly.

Second, composting eases landfill demands, since 18% of trash is yard waste, while another 8% is kitchen waste.
Now you may turn up your nose at the soil’s need for bacteria. We are taught in hygiene classes, through advertisements and by many other sources that bacteria are BAD! However, bacteria, like humans, come in two forms—good and bad. The good ones needed for the soil are the acrobes. If you create a compost pile, they will appear—100 million bacteria and 800 feet of fungal threads.

Aerobic bacteria decomposers produce heat in the compost pile, warming it to between 90 and 160 degrees, or higher. It can get so hot it will burn you, so you don’t want your compost pile near plants. And when it gets hotter, it needs turning so as not to kill the beneficial bacteria. However, the high temperatures will kill the seeds and pathogenic bacterial

Active composting occurs best at between 55 and 155 degrees. When the pile reaches 70 degrees, mesophilic bacteria arrive; at 110 degrees thermophilic bacteria come, and at 113 degrees thermophilic bacteria dominate the heap.

When the composting process is complete, the heap cools.

A four-foot pile of compost yields about one to one and a half feet of compost.

Surprising things that can be included in the compost heap include hair and washed, crushed, egg shells. Use only plant waste. Mine you, NEVER add animal—meat or dairy—products unless you want to increase the population of varmints, and thus enrage your neighbors while enriching the pockets of exterminators. Also avoid the seed/root parts of hard to kill weeds, diseased or insect-ridden plants. Also avoid adding pet waste that might carry parasites. Dog and cat manure is out. It is permissible to add a little horse or cow manure.

You do not need to add lime or wood ash.

If the compost is not “working” properly, there will be evidence. Compost heaps that smell terrible are not getting sufficient air (turn the pile); are too wet (add dry material); have too much green material (mix in brown material) or are made with the wrong materials.

If the center is dry, add water as you turn the pile; if the pile is damp and warm only in the middle, it is too small—add more material; if it is cool to the touch, it is too dry (add water), has insufficient air (mix and add air channels) or has insufficient nitrogen (add green material). Damp, sweet smelling piles that don’t heat up need nitrogen, which is supplied by adding green material.

If insects are attracted to the pile, this is normal. Kitchen waste should be buried in the middle of the pile, and a lid could be added. Insects could indicate that the wrong material is being used—make certain only appropriate plant material is added.

Completed compost will be dark brown, crumbly, and have an earthy smell. Its carbon to nitrogen ratio will be 15:1. To test its completeness, put some in a bag and seal it. Open the bag the next day—if it has an odor, or is hot, it needs more time.

Once the compost completes its “cooking,” it will begin to release its nutrients. Before using it, screen it. Using hardware cloth with ¼” to ½” squares.

Mature compost can be incorporated into the top layer of soil, making its nutrients quickly accessible to plant roots. If used as potting soil, it should NOT be sterilized, a process that will kill the beneficial bacterial It should be mixed with the ratio of 30%
compost, 50% peat and 20% perlite is best.

Compost is not recommended for starting seeds since it will “damp off” seedlings and add excessive soluble salts.

Immature compost of one-inch particle size, unscreened, used as mulch, will continue to decompose.

For more information on composting in Westmoreland County, PA, contact PA CleanWays,, or check the agricultural agencies in your community.

Material for this piece is taken from the PA CleanWays Guide to Home Composting and notes from the workshop I attended.


For additional reading:



DAVID Part 4 of a 10 Part Romance Story

RIVER (Specifically, the Youghiogheny River)










Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

What is your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: