Organic matter provides many benefits for optimum plant growth.   Heavy clay soil can be improved by yearly additions of compost which helps loosen the soil to allow for better root penetration.  Organic matter also improves the moisture holding capacity of soil as well as supplying essential nutrients for plants.

Composting is a natural process in which yard wastes break down into a soil-like material.  This may take years or a few months, depending on the method you choose.   “Cold” composting is an easy way to reduce yard wastes which is done by simply creating a pile and letting Mother Nature break it down over the course of a few years.   Many people do not have a large enough area in their yard for this method and thus may want to try “hot” composting.  With this method the pile will generate heat which accelerates the composting process.  I have had much success with this method.  The results yield humus or finished compost which is like a vitamin pill for my plants.

It is best to have an enclosed area for your compost pile.  This is done for a number of reasons.  The area should be at least 3 by 3 feet, but no larger than 5 by 5 feet.  This size allows the pile to heat yet at the same time it is manageable for turning, which speeds the composting process.  Your compost bin should be enclosed with some type of wire fencing which keeps the pile from spreading out.  This fencing also allows for good air movement which is important in breaking down waste materials.

Your compost pile can be in a sunny or shady area, but it does need access to a water source.  The pile will break done faster if the moisture content is like a damp sponge.  In order for the wastes to break down you will need some carbon and nitrogen in the pile.  Fall leaves are a wonderful carbon source. Nitrogen is provided by adding grass clippings and plant wastes.  At no time should you have foul odors coming from the pile which may be an indicator of too much nitrogen.  The carbon to nitrogen ratio is important when combining organic materials for composting.  The ideal ratio is about 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.  The microorganisms in the compost will use the carbon as an energy source and the nitrogen will be used for making protein.

Other carbon sources are chopped cornstalks and corncobs, hay, and straw.  Nitrogen sources include coffee grounds and fruit and vegetable scraps from your kitchen. Watermelon and cantaloupe rinds should be cut into smaller pieces.   It is important to bury your fruit and vegetable scraps about 8 inches into the center of the pile.  This helps discourage animals that may be attracted to these scraps. Meat and dairy wastes should never be added to the pile.  Dried manure from plant eaters is also a good nitrogen source.  Dog and cat wastes should never be added to a compost pile.

Your compost pile will break down faster if materials are chopped or broken down somewhat.  Turn the pile with a pitchfork about once a week.  This will create good aeration which is a necessary component in the composting process.   If you see earwigs, slugs, millipedes or other insects this is good.  These are normal inhabitants of a compost pile and they work to help make finished compost.

The benefits of composting are twofold.  You will be providing your plants with rich organic material to ensure optimum growth as well as helping our environment by recycling yard wastes.  For more information on composting go to

Until next time…happy gardening.

Nina Binkley, UW Extension master gardener volunteer.