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How to Compost Greens and Browns

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The Perfect Balance of Greens and Browns in Composting

All aboard the composting boat! By now, you may have been exposed to the world of Bokashi and Vermicomposting, or simply sealing the deal by having your own compost bin at home. Maybe some baby steps here and there, which are great achievements on their own. We all have to start somewhere, right?

Today, we’ll give you more tips to up your composting game, and introduce some concepts that may help you improve your set-up. When it comes to composting, it is also important to note that your pile needs a healthy ratio of carbon-rich content (or “browns”) and nitrogen-rich content (or “greens”).

compost greens and browns

In combination with food, air, and moisture, your workforce of macro and micro-organisms are able to process the scraps more efficiently if special care is taken to include these components properly. It is a must to keep these things in balance, so your compost would flourish.

 

What is the color-coding for, exactly?

To start, it’s good to define some important terms first (you know, for educational purposes).

When we say “browns”, we mean carbon sources that provide energy to the whole system1. Think of them as the starter unit, or the catalyst for change that should make up the majority of your compost bin.  The “browns” are considered as dry, porous wastes which promote airflow inside (these usually make up most of your yard waste), and may include the following:

    • Dry, woody plant material
      • Dried leaves, pine needles
      • Twigs, branches, pieces of bark
      • Corn silk and stalks
    • Hay, straw
    • Shredded paper, newspapers
    • Sawdust, wood clippings

“Green” materials, on the other hand, maintain balance to the carbon component since they are rich in nitrogen. They mostly consist of wet, colorful scraps that provide nutrients and moisture to the whole system. Sometimes, they come from materials that have recently grown, although this may not always be the case. Here are some examples:

    • Wet, fresh plant material
      • Grass clippings
      • Pulled weeds, or ones that haven’t set seed
      • Garden trimmings
      • Seaweed
      • Vegetables and fruit scraps
    • Eggshells
    • Coffee grounds, tea leaves (include the bag if it’s compostable)
    • Rotted animal wastes (cow, horse, chicken), except dog or cat manure

 

The Golden Compost Ratio (It’s all in the numbers)

After you gather all of your compostable materials, it’s time to position them properly inside the bin, and maintain a perfect ratio of “browns” to “greens”.

Lots of sources indicate different mixtures, but ideally, they must approach thirty parts carbon in one part nitrogen (30:1) in overall elemental composition. Note that a “part” indicates the overall quantity of the element it contains, and not specifically the weight or number of buckets that are filled.

To simplify this, use the 4-to-1 ratio of browns to greens2 which will jumpstart your pile and provide it with enough nutrients for good microbes to thrive. Start with a good ol’ layer of dense “browns” which will create dense bedding, and make your compost system sturdier.

Add a second layer of browns while making a “well” or shallow hole in the middle. Make sure that you layer all of the components properly, taking the time to spread them evenly while you secure the base (don’t dig too deep beyond the bedding). Place an adequate amount of “green” scraps and wet waste in the middle, making sure that they don’t go beyond the edges. Cover this layer with the same generous amount of dry material, ensuring that there are no visible layers. Repeat the process, continuously topping-up as desired, until you reach a few comfortable inches below the bin.

Make sure that you add a final layer of “browns” on the topmost part of the heap, as this would prevent attracting animal pests from getting inside and minimize odors. Creating a “seal” between the “browns” and “greens” is very important, and must not be skipped.

 

Other Important Points to Consider

Before you start composting, you may want to keep some important things in mind:

You can achieve a passive compost system, which doesn’t need that much effort and labor on your part. But these systems might take a while to produce significant results. If you want to speed up the composting, you may want to mix up and turn your pile once in a while. Get a rake or shovel for this process, which will help break-up the material into more manageable pieces.

If you notice that your pile isn’t heating up as much as you’d like, add more “greens” to the mix. This will help kickstart the composting process.

If the heap begins to smell funky (or attract flies and other pests), try to add more “browns”. Cover up bare patches as needed,  keeping in mind that balance must be achieved. If you can transfer it to another area that is more conducive for it to thrive, then do so.

If you can, try to stockpile on materials beforehand, instead of going the normal route and putting-in scraps as you go. By planning ahead and adding remarkable quantities of each component, your system is more likely to heat up and thrive. Just make sure to store your “browns” and “greens” separately, in secure holding bins or other sturdy containers with lids.

Try not to overstuff your pile, especially if you don’t see progress after a few months. It’s best to start small, figure out a ratio that works for you and get the hang of the process before you decide to commit to a bigger project.

 

Summary

And there you have it! Always remember that setting-up your own compost system is a true feat, and may take some time to master. Don’t be disheartened when some of the logistics fail, or when your pile doesn’t heat up as much. Suggested ratios aren’t always precise, and every system is unique. Also, don’t be scared to make some adjustments as you see fit. With a bit of effort, research, and mini-experiments, your bin will eventually be filled with nutrient-rich compost, and that’s a guarantee!

 

Sources and Other Links

1. Cornell Waste Management Institute | “Composting: Balancing Your Greens and Browns”

2. GardeningKnowHow.com | Understanding the Browns and Greens Mix For Compost

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