Backyard composting

full composting bin



Compost is a rich soil amendment that you can make from yard and kitchen wastes in a matter of weeks or months. It’s fun and it makes use of wastes that would otherwise go into the landfill. When added to the garden, compost conditions our heavy North
Carolina clay soil so that plants grow better and faster.

Compost is made up of a mixture of ‘green’ or nitrogen containing material and ‘brown’ or carbon containing material. The key to a healthy compost pile is to keep a balanced mixture of the two. It is best to start with a 3:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, but watch your pile closely and make any needed adjustments to this ratio. Your compost should turn a rich, dark brown and have an earthy smell.

Much of your kitchen waste can be composted. Although all food waste can technically be composted, it is recommended that some kitchen waste not be added to your pile because it breaks down very slowly and attracts vermin and maggots. Pet feces and kitty litter should not be added because it may transmit disease. A compost pile should be a mix of green and brown material. Green material consists of grass clippings and kitchen scraps. Brown Material consists of leaves, wood chips and shredded paper.

Notice: Feed the Landscape, Not the Landfill


How to compost


You can compost in a variety of ways. Just make sure you select a convenient and well-drained location to compost. Consider each of the following options and choose the one that works best for you.


Composting Pile

Plan on making your pile 4 feet high, wide and long. Start with a base of brown material, and alternate layers of green and brown material as you add to the pile. The smaller the particles in the compost heap, the faster the particles will decompose. Chopping or shredding the wastes you put into the compost heap will also help speed the process. Water each layer of the pile until it is the consistency of a wrung out sponge. Within three or four days, the center of the pile should become hot to the touch. Turn the pile every four days to provide even heating and ventilation.


Composting Tumbler

Tumblers are barrels or containers mounted on a frame that can be turned by hand. These speed up the composting process and make turning a pile very easy. However, the amount of compost produced is limited by the container. Start with brown material,
and add alternating layers of green and brown material. Turn the pile frequently; the more often it is turned, the quicker the material will decompose.


Holding Unit

This type of composter is the ‘typical’ backyard composter, one that holds materials until composting is complete. Start by adding brown material and alternate layers of green and brown material as you add to the pile. Turn the pile frequently to speed the decomposition process, and keep the pile moist by watering each layer as you go. This is the slowest composting method listed.



It is easy to make your own compost unit from inexpensive materials such as wooden pallets, stakes and chicken wire. To find out how to make your own composter, visit the NC Cooperative Extension’s website.



Compost items

Do compost  – green and brown materials

Do not compost

breads (green) butter
coffee groups and tea leaves (green) bones
 fruit and vegetable wastes (green) cheese and sour cream
egg shells (green) fish scraps and meats
grass clippings (green) lard
leaves (brown) oils
sawdust, wood ash and wood chips (brown) mayonnaise
sod (brown) peanut butter
straw (brown) pet wastes
shredded paper or cardboard (brown) salad dressing


Using compost


Compost improves your soil and helps retain water. Use it in flower and vegetable gardens, around trees and shrubs, and on house plants and lawns. Mix finished compost into soil when preparing for planting. Compost can be applied in a layer on top of the soil and worked in as a soil amendment, or can be put directly in planting holes or mixed with potting soil.

There are common problems and solutions with compost, here’s a list of troubleshooting ideas.

  • Compost has a bad odor – It could be there is not enough air or it is too wet. Turn the pile and add more brown material.
  • Compost is damp and warm in the middle, but nowhere else – It could be that the pile is too small. Collect more material and mix the old ingredients into a new pile.
  • The heap is damp and sweet smelling, but still will not heat up – There could be a lack of nitrogen. Mix in more green material.


More Information


Visit the North Carolina Environmental Quality website to learn about Environmental Assistance and Customer Service.


Updated 12/05/2019