Understanding The Browns And Greens Mix For Compost

By: Heather Rhoades

Composting is a great way to add nutrients and organic material to your garden while reducing the amount of garbage we send to the landfills. But many people who are new to composting wonder what is meant by creating a balanced browns and greens mix for compost. What is brown material for compost? What is green material for compost? And why is getting the right mix of these important?

What is Brown Material for Compost?

Brown materials for composting consists of dry or woody plant material. Often, these materials are brown, which is why we call them brown material. Brown materials include:

  • Dry leaves
  • Wood chips
  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Corn stalks
  • Newspaper

Brown materials help to add bulk and help allow air to better get into the compost. Brown materials are also the source of carbon in your compost pile.

What is Green Material for Compost?

Green materials for composting consists mostly of wet or recently growing materials. Green materials are oftentimes green in color, but not always. Some examples of green materials include:

  • Food scraps
  • Grass clippings
  • Coffee grounds
  • Manure
  • Recently pulled weeds

Green materials will supply most of the nutrients that will make your compost good for your garden. Green materials are high in nitrogen.

Why You Need a Good Browns and Greens Mix for Compost

Having a proper mix of green and brown materials will ensure that your compost pile works properly. Without a good mix of brown and green materials, your compost pile may not heat up, may take longer to break down into useable compost, and may even start to smell bad.

A good mix of browns and greens in your compost pile is about 4:1 browns (carbon) to greens (nitrogen). That being said, you may need to adjust your pile somewhat depending on what you put in it. Some green materials are higher in nitrogen than others while some brown materials are higher carbon than others.

If you find that your compost pile is not heating up, than you may need to add more green material to the compost. If you find that your compost pile is starting to smell, you may need to add more browns.

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Read more about Compost Ingredients

You can make almost any type of soil better by adding compost. While you can often buy composted manure and such to add to your garden, the easiest and cheapest way to get good compost for your garden is to simply make it yourself!

The best sources of compost material is your own home & garden. Grass cuttings, annual weeds, prunings, autumn leaves can all be collected and composted. Vegetable waste, dead flowers (cut & potted) and shredded newspapers can all be added to the heap too.

The first requirement is to control your MIX of potential compost material between Green & Brown. The right mix is required for proper composting. Too much green and you'll have a slimy, stinky mess. Too much brown and it will take forever for the scrap pile to actually turn into compost. You need to aim for a mix of materials with about 1/5th being Green and 4/5ths Brown.

Green/ Nitrogen
Grass Cuttings
Kitchen Waste
Farm Manure
Plant trimmings

Dead Leaves
Wood shavings
Wood Ash

Compost 101 - When & Why to Add Compost to Your Garden

Compost can be confusing. We all know it's "good", but good how? And when should we use it? Do we even need to use it? Here is a short good-to-know guide for when and why to add compost to your garden. Compost is an efficient and practical fertilizer. Composed of decayed organic matter, compost is a basic tool for the organic gardener. Brown leaves, compostable materials like cardboard and newspaper, grass clippings, food scraps, twigs and more can all be broken down into compost. Compost is created through the process of thermal decay and then added as humus to the garden. Compost is home to millions of active microorganisms which help to continue breaking down organic matter into bio-available nutrients - food for plants!

Quite simply, compost adds nitrogen to a garden. Nitrogen is what contributes to a plants healthy, green growth. This is an excellent excerpt from an article on the role of nitrogen in the garden.


No two compost heaps, piles or bags are created equal, so the first question to ask about compost is - what condition is it in? Newer compost needs more time to break down, which keeps all those beneficial microorganisms busy decomposing. Essentially, this 'ties up' nitrogen as it's being used by microorganisms to digest high carbon material, as opposed to being readily available for plants.

With older compost - that which has been more thoroughly broken down - the material has more nutrients readily available to plants.

Either way, it's good to note that, once applied, all compost will continue the natural process of breaking down and decaying into rich, nutrient-dense soil. And remember, as microorganisms break down compost, nutrients are released and made into fertilizer available for plants.


With homemade, fully decomposed compost, the nutrients are more readily available to plants and can be added onto just-planted garden beds or soon-to-be-planted garden beds. For many urban growers, bagged compost is what is easy and available. If you're using bagged compost, add in layers about 1 to 2 inches thick in early spring. Now (early March) is a great time. Dig in lightly with a bow rake, and leave the compost to rest a week or two before you plant seeds or starts.

When using homemade compost or if compost is thick with green matter and fibrous, add to garden beds in autumn. (You should also allow chicken manure some time to cure and age before seeding or planting directly.) The compost will be mostly decomposed by spring and beds should ready for planting. With backyard compost, get into the practice of adding 2-3 inches of new/fresh compost in the autumn (in lieu of cover crop) so that the compost can decompose over winter and into early spring.


If this is the first time you'll plant in a portion of your yard, take extra time and effort to double dig in compost. Double digging contributes to a lighter, loamy soil and once you do it, you'll never have to do it again. It can be back breaking work if you're in a large space, but for most urban gardens you can get it done. Here is a more in-depth look at double digging from Rodale's.


With crops that have over-wintered, or when applying compost well into the garden season, practice a technique called "side dressing". Apply a layer of compost a few inches away from the plants, protecting delicate plant stems from active microorganisms. In this way, the compost is applied as a mulch and so it reaps multiple rewards It offers nutrients to plants mid-cycle, will discourage weed growth, and it will retain water - a benefit of side dressing in summer. Multi-purpose compost!

Compost Materials

Almost any organic material is suitable for composting. Your composter or compost pile needs a proper ratio of carbon-rich materials, or “browns,” and nitrogen-rich materials, or “greens.” Among the brown materials are dried leaves, straw, and wood chips. Nitrogen materials are fresh or green, such as grass clippings and kitchen scraps.

Mixing certain types of materials or changing the proportions can make a difference in the rate of decomposition. Achieving the best mix is more an art gained through experience than an exact science. The ideal ratio approaches 25 parts browns to 1 part greens. Judge the amounts roughly equal by weight. Too much carbon will cause the pile to break down too slowly, while too much nitrogen can cause odor. The carbon provides energy for the microbes, and the nitrogen provides protein.

Leaves represent a large percentage of total yard waste. If you can grind them in a gas or electric leaf shredder or mow over them, they will reduce in size making them easier to store until you can use them in the pile, and they will decompose faster – an issue with larger leaves. They are loaded with minerals brought up from the tree roots and are a natural source of carbon. A few leaf species such as live oak, southern magnolia, and holly trees are too tough and leathery for easy composting. Avoid all parts of the black walnut tree as they contain a plant poison that survives composting. Eucalyptus leaves can be toxic to other plants. And avoid using poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac.

Pine Needles need to be chopped or shredded, as they decompose slowly. They are covered with a thick, waxy coating. In very large quantities, they can acidify your compost, which would be a good thing if you have alkaline soils.

Grass Clippings break down quickly and contain as much nitrogen as manure. Since fresh grass clippings will clump together, become anerobic, and start to smell, mix them with plenty of brown material. If you have a lot of grass clippings to compost, spread them on the driveway or other surface to bake in the sun for at least a day. Once it begins to turn pale or straw-like, it can be used without danger of souring. Avoid grass clippings that contain pesticide or herbicide residue, unless a steady rain has washed the residue from the grass blades.

Kitchen Refuse includes melon rinds, carrot peelings, tea bags, apple cores, banana peels – almost everything that cycles through your kitchen. The average household produces more than 200 pounds of kitchen waste every year. You can successfully compost all forms of kitchen waste. However, meat, meat products, dairy products, and high-fat foods like salad dressings and peanut butter, can present problems. Meat scraps and the rest will decompose eventually, but will smell bad and attract pests. Egg shells are a wonderful addition, but decompose slowly, so should be crushed. All additions to the compost pile will decompose more quickly if they are chopped up some before adding.

To collect your kitchen waste, you can keep a small compost pail in the kitchen to bring to the pile every few days. Keep a lid on the container to discourage insects. When you add kitchen scraps to the compost pile, cover them with about 8″ of brown material to reduce visits by flies or critters.

Wood Ashes from a wood burning stove or fireplace can be added to the compost pile. Ashes are alkaline, so add no more than 2 gallon-sized buckets-full to a pile with 3’x3’x3′ dimensions. They are especially high in potassium. Don’t use coal ashes, as they usually contain large amounts of sulfur and iron that can injure your plants. Used charcoal briquettes don’t decay much at all, so it’s best not to use them.

Garden Refuse should make the trip to the pile. All of the spent plants, thinned seedlings, and deadheaded flowers can be included. Most weeds and weed seeds are killed when the pile reaches an internal temperature above 130 degrees, but some may survive. To avoid problems don’t compost weeds with persistent root systems, and weeds that are going to seed.

Spoiled Hay or Straw makes an excellent carbon base for a compost pile, especially in a place where few leaves are available. Hay contains more nitrogen than straw. They may contain weed seeds, so the pile must have a high interior temperature. The straw’s little tubes will also keep the pile breathing.

Manure is one of the finest materials you can add to any compost pile. It contains large amounts of both nitrogen and beneficial microbes. Manure for composting can come from bats, sheep, ducks, pigs, goats, cows, pigeons, and any other vegetarian animal. As a rule of thumb, you should avoid manure from carnivores, as it can contain dangerous pathogens. Most manures are considered “hot” when fresh, meaning it is so rich in nutrients that it can burn the tender roots of young plants or overheat a compost pile, killing off earthworms and friendly bacteria. If left to age a little, however, these materials are fine to use.

Manure is easier to transport and safer to use if it is rotted, aged, or composted before it’s used. Layer manure with carbon-rich brown materials such as straw or leaves to keep your pile in balance.

Seaweed is an excellent source of nutrient-rich composting material. Use the hose to wash off the salt before sending it to the compost pile.

The list of organic materials which can be added to the compost pile is long. There are industrial and commercial waste products you may have access to in abundance. The following is a partial list: corncobs, cotton waste, restaurant or farmer’s market scraps, grapevine waste, sawdust, greensand, hair, hoof and horn meal, hops, peanut shells, paper and cardboard, rock dust, sawdust, feathers, cottonseed meal, blood meal, bone meal, citrus wastes, coffee, alfalfa, and ground seashells.

For easy composting at home:

  • Pound 4 t poles and anchor firmly into the ground.
  • Use the post made for driving tbars or a rubber mallet.
  • Next wrap hardware cloth around the tpoles. We left the front section open so it was easier to turn the compost pile.
  • Fasten the hardware cloth to the tpoles with zip ties.
  • Secure the front with zip ties or wire until it needs to be open.

Add pallet slats to make the composting bin sturdier.

Build your compost bin out of pallets.

  • Place four pallets end to end and use long enough screws to connect them.
  • Break down the pallet in the front enough so that you can easily reach in to fill and stir your compost pile.

If you want your compost bin to look a little fancier, you can actually break down the pallet slats and rebuild your bin like in the above picture.

However this requires being able to pull the slats up with a pallet jack or sawing through the nails like my husband did.

Find free or cheap pallets through FB marketplace or craiglist! Don’t forget to use caution when meeting up with strangers!

In conclusion you can easily make your own compost bin! However, you may want to buy your own if you don’t have a handy hubby or tools like I do.

How Much Do You Need?

To fill a 4-by-8-foot, 10-inch-tall raised bed, you need 1 cubic yard of soil mix. A cubic yard equals 27 cubic feet. To put the amount in perspective, one 30-gallon garbage can holds 4 to 5 cubic feet, so you need approximately two garbage cans each of garden soil, compost and sand to fill your raised bed. While that seems like a lot of soil, by building your own 3-foot-tall compost pile inside the raised bed in the fall using manure, grass clippings, dried leaves and kitchen scraps, your raised bed will be ready for planting in spring.

Watch the video: Brown materials for composting

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