Karen Panter and Chris Hilgert
Department of Plant Sciences
Revised from original bulletin B-974R
by George F. Vance and Karen L. Panter
Backyard Composting Using Simple, Small-scale Methods
Revised November 2017
Steve Miller, editor, Tana Stith, graphic designer
Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Glen Whipple, director, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.
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Backyard Composting Using Simple, Small-scale Methods
Composting is the process by which organic materials, such as yard and kitchen wastes, are decomposed into a dark-colored, nutrient-rich, soil-building conditioner called humus. In nature, this process occurs slowly when plant and animal materials decompose and their carbon and nutrients are returned to the ecosystem. By establishing a backyard compost pile, this biological process can be accelerated by managing temperature, oxygen, and moisture contents. The result is rich, earthy, sweet-smelling humus that can be mixed into garden beds, added to flower pots, or used as mulch for perennials and woody plants. It is an excellent and inexpensive organic soil amendment.
Advantages of composting
Composting reduces dependency on fertilizers. Many synthetic fertilizers supply major nutrients in quick-release soluble forms, while others are slow-release. Long-term benefits of this method of fertilizing are limited. Plants need more than a few chosen nutrients. Incorporating compost into the soil adds long-term benefits by improving soil structure with organic matter. Dependence on synthetic fertilizers may lead to poor soil structure over time and may need more careful water management to prevent erosion.
The addition of compost alters soil pH. The ideal pH for growing most fruits, vegetables, and flowers is between 6.0 and 7.5. If your soil’s pH is too alkaline (above pH 7), compost can help lower it. If your soil’s pH is too acidic (below pH 7), compost can help raise it.
Composting recycles waste materials generated as kitchen scraps and yard products. By diverting materials from the waste stream, the need for more landfills is reduced.
Composting improves soil structure. Wyoming soils have textures that range from heavy clays to sands. Soil structure and nutrient status can be enhanced when organic matter is incorporated. Aeration is important to maintain soil productivity if soils are clay-like. Transforming minerals into useable forms is vital for nutrient uptake by plants. Organic matter greatly increases moisture-retention capabilities. Increasing the organic content of soils can conserve water. Organic matter added to soils acts like a sponge, soaking up and retaining water. Without organic matter, clay soils become hard and water tends to run off or puddle for long periods of time. On the other hand, sandy soils allow water to drain quickly.
Variables for success
The amount of time necessary to produce compost varies, but if you are determined to be successful, the time is well worth the effort; however, there are several aspects to consider that will reduce the time and effort required to produce compost. These include:
Nutrient requirements and sources
The best ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N ratio) for producing compost quickly and with a minimal amount of effort is between 25 to 30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. A C:N ratio that is too high (too much carbon) tends to slow the decomposition process, while a low C:N ratio (too much nitrogen) can lead to nitrogen loss as indicated by a strong ammonia smell. Try experimenting to find what combination works best for you. An old standby is to alternately layer equal parts of nitrogen, carbon, and soil.
Sources of nitrogen for the compost pile are identified as the “green” materials: green leaves, lawn clippings (with no herbicides applied), green plant wastes from the garden, and kitchen wastes.
Sources of carbon for the compost pile include the “brown” materials: dried matter such as grasses and hays, fallen leaves, sawdust, straw, or almost any other dried organic matter.
Sun, wind, water, appearance, and proximity to the garden are important factors when determining a site for your compost pile.
Methods to use
Composting for city dwellers
Apartment dwellers have even established compost piles on their balconies or in their kitchens. An easy method would be to use a 5-gallon pail with a tight-fitting lid. Use the quick method for best results.
Materials to use and not to use in a compost pile
Some suggested items that can be used for compost materials are garden debris, kitchen wastes (but not from animals), shredded paper, leaves, hay, straw, grass clippings (no herbicides used of course), sod, and sawdust.
Materials that should not be used in the compost pile are: bones, meat scraps, fats, oils, animal manures or feces, human excretions, polyester materials, plastics, synthetics, diseased or insect-infested plants, any plant material treated with herbicides, poisonous plants, large woody plants (chop up first), and weeds.
Potential composting problems
Composting time typically takes longer because of Wyoming’s cold winters. For example, the cold air may not allow the compost pile to heat up adequately, thereby slowing the process. By covering the pile with a sheet of black plastic and adding more nitrogen-rich materials, you can maintain the proper temperature for decomposition (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Making your pile about 1 foot taller and wider (any length) will increase its insulation capacity to maintain a higher internal temperature.
There are several types of containers available on the market or to construct at home. These are not necessary but can be very useful in maintaining a compost pile and confining it to an aesthetically pleasing area. Bins made of plastic are available in a number of sizes. Tumbling composters are also available. These are situated on a frame, and the round bin is tumbled periodically using a hand crank to mix and aerate the composting materials inside.
Materials for composting structures are virtually unlimited. Structures can be made from wood, wire, plastic, concrete blocks, bales of straw or hay, and more. Research the subject and talk with fellow composters to determine what style is right for you.
Earthworms are naturally attracted to compost, which provides them food. Their tunneling is beneficial to aeration and improving soil structure, partially because earthworm castings are rich in nutrients required by plants. One pound of earthworms ingest 1 pound of waste organic matter and produce 1 pound of rich compost on a daily basis! They can significantly reduce the time necessary to produce finished compost. Care must be taken, though, to turn the pile at least weekly as the heat may kill them.
A worm box is recommended for indoor kitchen waste composting. It is best to purchase commercially grown red worms (Lumbricus rubellus or Eisenia foetida) for this project. They are sold as fish bait and are commonly called red hybrids or red wigglers. See the list of suggested readings below for in-depth information on composting with worms.
Barnyards and Backyards -
How to Compost -
Plant and Life Sciences Publishing -
. Accessed 8 July 2015.
Appelhof, M. and M.F. Fenton. Worms Eat My Garbage. Kalamazoo, MI: Flower Press, 2003.
Trautmann, N.M. and M.E. Krasny. Composting in the Classroom. Kendall/Hunt Publ. Comp., 1997.
Campbell, S. Let it Rot: the Gardener’s Guide to Composting. Storey Comm., Inc., 1998.
Biocycles Staff (eds). The Art and Science of Composting. J.G. Press, Inc. Emmaus, PA, 1991.
Ball, L. and J. Anderson. Composting. Workman Publ. Comp. Inc., 1997.
Nancarrow, L. and J.H. Taylor. The Worm Book: The Complete Guide to Gardening and Composting with Worms. Ten Speed Press, 1998.
Rynk, R. (ed). On-Farm Composting Handbook. NRAES-54, Plant and Life Sciences Publ., Ithaca, NY, 1992.
Gershuny, G. (ed). The Rodale Book of Composting. Rodale Press Inc., Emmaus, PA, 1992.
Vincent, W. The Complete Guide to Working with Worms. Atlantic Publ. Group Inc., Ocala, FL 2012.