When you’re starting a new compost pile, it’s important that you have all of the right ingredients at your disposal. Too much of one type of material can create all sorts of problems. The challenge is to find the perfect ratio to decompose waste in a timely manner.
So, do you want to know what compost brown and green ratio to use? Using 30 parts of brown waste to 1 part of green waste (30:1), you can create a top-notch combination of nitrogen and carbon. Bacteria will thrive, and the compost will break down into rich, thriving soil.
Throughout this article, you’ll learn the following:
- The best browns and greens to use
- Why you need to use both
- How to calculate the perfect ratio
- Common mistakes
- How long it takes for compost to break down
- Additional helpful tips and advice
The Best Brown to Green Waste Ratio for Compost Bins
As mentioned above, the best ratio is 30:1. Brown waste is incredibly important to use in your compost piles because it’s rich in carbon. When plants die, they produce loads of carbon, creating a healthy environment for bacteria to bloom. This process turns compost into reusable material, but it’s not all that you need.
Even though it only makes up a fraction of a compost pile, green debris is very important. Nitrogen is released by living plants, combining with carbon to make the ultimate composting bin. Too much nitrogen, however, can lead to foul odors.
Keep in mind that the 30:1 ratio doesn’t apply to the specific color of the waste that you’re throwing into the pile. It applies to carbon: nitrogen. For example, some types of waste have a little bit of both. Before you go measuring 30 dead leaves for every one blade of grass, try to research the chemical components in each of the plants around your town (or at least the ones that you’ll use in the bin).
It’s far too often that people either throw everything in at once or over-analyze the situation. Since carbon and nitrogen are both essential to a healthy composting process, you should worry about the chemicals more than the colors of everything going into the pile. In fact, some brown items are considered green and vice versa.
Small microbes feast on the materials found in your bin. Each of these microbes has a specific set of nutritional needs, which is where the carbon and nitrogen ratio was created. It’s not a magical number that conveniently works; It’s a research-backed formula based on the compounds desired by the microbes.
You should also keep in mind that this ratio is necessary if you want a quick composting process. You don’t need to be so precise if you don’t care about how long it takes. As long as carbon and nitrogen are both found in the pile, the microbes will feast and break down everything in a matter of time.
Try to do your best to stick to the ratio, but it’s unreasonable to believe that we can all match it spot-on. After all, nobody has time to measure everything. On top of that, it’s nearly impossible that you’ll have everything at your disposal to produce perfect ratio results every day throughout the year.
Which Brown Debris Should You Use?
The reason that brown debris has the name that it does is because of the fact that most of the components that fall into the category are brown or dead. However, there are plenty of materials that are white, green, tan, and black that are also considered brown debris.
On top of that, some debris that’s brown isn’t in the category. Are you confused yet? Don’t worry, everything is explained below in detail.
Here are the best types of debris to use as brown (carbon-rich) composting material:
- Fallen tree debris, i.e., dead leaves, pinecones, pine needles, bark, branches, twigs, etc.
- Organic cotton, dryer lint, and other natural plant fibers.
- Paper, including books, newspapers, comics, and anything else without colored ink or wax.
- Sawdust, hay, and wheat.
- Plants from your garden, including most flowers and non-invasive weeds.
- Grass (dead or alive).
Unfortunately, you can’t use everything that’s rich in carbon. Some debris is toxic, while others come with too many additives that can be harmful or dangerous to the microbes living in the compost bin’s ecosystem.
Here’s a short list of the brown debris that you can’t use in a compost bin:
- Chemically-treated plants (the toxins can kill or prevent microbes from growing).
- Invasive weeds (seeds drop and replant as they decompose).
- Anything with wax or colored dye, including certain types of cardboard, colored picture books, comics with colored pictures, and newspapers with dyed ads.
As you can see, there are quite a few types of brown waste that you should steer clear of. A safe rule to follow is not to compost anything that has man-made or chemically-enhanced additives. Microbes are natural, meaning that they can’t ingest and grow from toxins and overloaded products.
Which Green Debris Should You Use?
Just as with brown debris, not all green waste is green. There are brown, green, white, yellow, red, and all sorts of other colors that fall into the spectrum. When you use flowers that are still alive (because they fell naturally), the color of the flower has nothing to do with the type of debris; It’ll always be considered green.
Remember, everything that falls into the green category is rich in nitrogen, an essential part of the composting process. You’d be surprised to learn that more than half of the nitrogen-rich waste on the list that you’re about to read isn’t green.
Without further ado, here are the best types of green debris to use in your compost bin:
- Grass clippings, plants that are still living if they fell, and weeds without seeds.
- Coffee grounds, loose tea, and teabags.
- Table scraps from fruits and vegetables.
- Trimmings from living plants, such as bushes, trees, and flowers.
- Eggshells (make sure you wash them to remove hormones and chemicals).
- Manure from a wide variety of animals, including horses, cows, chickens, and other animals with vegetarian diets.
Seaweed and many other plants derived from underwater environments.
Perhaps the most surprising waste of all is manure. People often think that since it’s brown, manure must fall into the brown carbon category. Instead, manure produces a high amount of nitrogen, which is why it’s considered a green material when it comes to composting.
Just as with brown debris, there are certain types of green, nitrogen-rich materials that shouldn’t be composted, such as:
- Meat, fish, oil, and fat. They all attract scavengers and have the potential to harbor parasites.
- Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and cheese. Again, they attract pests.
- Breaded items are up for debate since they attract scavengers, but they’re a perfect environment for microbes.
- Manure from carnivorous animals, including dogs, cats, humans, and some birds.
There’s no doubt that there are a few limitations to the types of waste that you can use in a compost bin. However, all of the options above give you plenty of use for your table scraps, trimmings, and other common materials that most of us tend to throw away in the trash instead.
Why Do You Need Both?
Without having both carbon and nitrogen, microbes are slowed down to a complete stop. They won’t be able to eat, breakdown, or grow on the compost. Although the ratio can be manipulated and changed based on the environment around you and the food that you throw away, that fact remains true.
The good news is that some items, such as manure from horses and cows, have both components. It’s not as complicated as having to pick out items after you’ve studied each and every one of them. Thankfully, nature has a way of recycling itself by providing the necessary chemicals.
There are parts of the world that recreate entire fields by using nothing but orange peels. The nitrogen and carbon in oranges compost into a thriving habitat for microbes to grow and break down all of the debris to create high-quality soil. After months of this process, the fields were blooming with grass from end to end.
Another example involves volcanic eruptions. When a volcano explodes and shoots ash through the air, burning trees and other local plant life, it has carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The combination of these two components is why you’ll see an incredibly diverse and vibrant array of regrowth from the ashes.
Finally, forest fires and grass fires burn the nitrogen and carbon out of plants, manure, and everything in the area. While the effects are undoubtedly devastating to the ecosystem, it makes a place for microbes to start doing the work. Months later, the same results occur as with the volcano example.
In short, carbon (brown) and nitrogen (green) are needed in a compost bin because they’re both necessary for microbes to live and grow. Without microbes, you’ll end up with a pile of smelly, hot trash. Figuring out a good ratio (as mentioned above) will help you to make a place where microbes can breakdown everything without releasing foul odors.
How Long Does It Take to Compost?
The amount of time that it takes for composting bins to start breaking down is one of the main reasons that so many people quit or don’t even try at all. Unfortunately, without the correct ratio, you won’t be able to see any results very quickly. Follow the previous tips to make it a few months rather than years.
The average time that it takes for composting piles to break down organic material is three months to two years. It depends on three factors, which you might be familiar with. These components are as follows:
- Nitrogen and carbon ratio
- Oxygen and aeration
If you have a pile that has all of the correct ingredients, moisture, and temperature, you could still see a problem that takes countless months to correct itself. Without enough oxygen, your compost bin becomes a trash can.
In order to thoroughly aerate your compost pile, you could use a rake, a shovel, or even a stick. All you have to do is mix it around and fluff the light materials to get proper airflow. This process also opens gaps in the pile to promote oxygenation from top to bottom.
Another problem could be the control of moisture. Some people use a garden hose to add water when there’s already enough humidity in the air. You could end up overhydrating the compost pile, which ends up causing bad smells and lowering the temperature.
By providing all of the necessary components for your compost pile, there’s no reason that you couldn’t see results within a year. The proper ratio of nitrogen to carbon is the final essential factor. Still, it’s difficult to be precise when you can’t learn the exact chemicals in everything that you throw away.
Rest assured, composting isn’t too challenging once you get the hang of it. As long as you stick to the rules of what can and can’t be used, you’ll be able to gauge a timeframe that works for you. Nobody ever said that composting was a race, so stick to the process, and you’ll see positive results soon enough.
Whether it’s your first time starting a compost bin, or you’ve done it for years now, there are quite a few common mistakes that we’ve all done. For example, it’s not always a good idea to start a pile directly on the ground. Certain plants drop seeds, which grow into weeds before you have time to get rid of them.
Here are the five most frequent mistakes that people make with composting:
- Throwing away plastic is a huge problem that far too many people do. It’s easy to start thinking about a compost bin as another trash can, but you have to remember that it’s a living ecosystem that can’t be contaminated.
- Forgetting any of the essential components (temperature, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, moisture) is also not uncommon. Composting is an active process that requires rotations, removing debris that doesn’t decompose, and adding moisture or air to the pile.
- Spreading the pile too thin will cause problems as well. It’s hard to find the perfect dimensions for a composting pile if you’re not using a bin. The general rule of thumb is to have six to eight inches of dense brown debris (carbon) topped with one to two inches of loose, lightweight green debris (nitrogen). Make sure that you mix the layers a bit to create a combination.
- Perhaps the most common issue of all is when people don’t work on the pile. It needs to be stirred, added to, and moisturized often. If you let the pile sit in one spot, it starts to lose balance down below, creating strong odors and dead microbes.
- Quitting too early seems to be the bane of many composting projects. In a world where manure and store-bought fertilizer are readily available, it’s understandable why many of us become impatient with a seemingly simple process. If you give it enough time, nature will run its course.
Additional Helpful Tips
Although there are all sorts of things to remember about composting, it’s actually not as difficult as it sounds. As mentioned several times throughout the article, nature does everything for you. Your only job is to set up a space with the proper tools for the job.
If you’re still having problems, or you’re not sure if composting is for you, check out the list of tips and suggestions below to help you out.
- Try to start your composting pile in a bin or a closed-off planter box. Being able to contain the environment allows you to control all of the variables much easier.
- Compost works quicker in the sun than it does in the shade. That being said, if you live in a dry climate, make sure that you add plenty of moisture to prevent the pile from drying out.
- If you don’t want to get too dirty or messy from adding air to the composting pile, buy a compost aerator. This small tool mixes the pile to introduce oxygen from top to bottom.
There’s always something new to learn about composting. The key is not to get overwhelmed. If you follow the tips in this article, you’ll be able to make a compost bin to produce some of the best fertilizer around. You don’t need tons of money, nor do you have to use stinky manure! Compost is a win-win for you and the environment.
Some of the benefits of composting include enriched soil, boosted hydration in the landscape, healthier fruits, vegetables, and other plants, and healthy oxygen in the area. It also feels fantastic to know that you’re recycling waste, rather than adding it to the landfill.
Now that you know the perfect ratio of green to brown and nitrogen to carbon, it’s time to get out there and start composting!